Thomas Mulcair took a bold stand on the niqab. It may ruin him.

In the NDP’s power base of Quebec, Thomas Mulcair risked it all in condemning the Tories’ niqab gambit

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair addresses supporters during a campaign stop in Montreal on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair addresses supporters during a campaign stop in Montreal on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

In 2013, a visibly concerned Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney chided the Parti Québécois for its so-called “Quebec values charter,” which would have prohibited Quebec’s public sector workers from wearing “conspicuous” religious accoutrements. Canadians, Kenney said, “have an equal right to participate in the public life of our society.” Kenney took to heart that the majority of Quebec MNAs were against such a thing, and promised that the PQ could expect a federal court challenge, should the charter become law.

Time and political circumstance, a cynic might suggest, have made a hypocrite of Kenney. Once put off by the PQ’s plan, Kenney and the Conservative government have essentially adopted the Parti Québécois strategy of demonizing certain religious symbols for electoral gain. Hence, the Conservatives’ sudden obsession with the niqab.

Kenney has apparently adopted the language of André Drouin, that country-bumpkin town councillor from Hérouxville, Que., who, in 2007, introduced a code of conduct outlawing religious face coverings, genital mutilation and the stoning of women. This code of conduct became a blueprint of sorts for the PQ’s values charter six years later—and its spirit lives on in Jason Kenney’s Twitter feed today.

“A Conservative govt will do more to help women & girls victimized by forced marriages, female genital mutaltation [sic]” Kenney tweeted on the day of last week’s debate. It came after a day of prolific Tweets from the minister, focused almost entirely on the niqab.

Related: The niqab election

For Stephen Harper’s Conservatives of 2015, the inference is practically identical to that of the Parti Québécois circa 2013: Religious types, Muslims especially, are taking over, therefore, their demands and practices must be constrained. And, as with the Parti Québécois, the Conservatives have made the issue of religious accommodation front and centre of their election plank.

Yet for the Conservatives, there is a potentially unhappy ending in how the PQ fared in the 2014 Quebec election. The party lost very badly, in large part because voters were mostly indifferent to the charter’s sound and fury. Given their respective statements during Friday night’s debate, it would seem Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and, especially, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, had this in mind.

“Mr. Harper, there are more anti-choice men in your cabinet than women who wear the niqab in Quebec,” Trudeau said with polished indignation. Mulcair, meanwhile, had the evening’s best reproach of the Prime Minister on the subject:

“The way Mr. Harper says it, it’s like there are people here that are pro-niqab. No one here is pro-niqab. We realize that we live in a society where we must have confidence in the authority of the tribunals, even if the practice is uncomfortable to us. If a journalist says something that is uncomfortable to me, I still support his right to say it. Mr. Harper, you are playing a dangerous game of the kind I’ve never seen in my life, and I never thought I’d see a Prime Minister play it.”

On the issue of the niqab, there is certainly more at stake for Mulcair than Trudeau. The NDP’s power base is in Quebec, where ire against all things religious is at its highest. As well, the NDP won most of its Quebec seats at the expense of the Bloc Québécois in 2011; retaining them in 2015 means placating scads of potential Bloc voters, who are generally more susceptible to the anti-niqab rhetoric. (Indeed, on the issue of the niqab, Harper and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe are in virtual lockstep.)

It’s what made Mulcair’s frank condemnation of Harper’s niqab gambit so surprising.

Related: Is Quebec waving goodbye to the Orange Wave?

In 2013, the NDP leader remained largely silent on the PQ’s values charter. While Trudeau was quick to denounce the PQ—“divisive identity politics,” he called it at the time—and Kenney was threatening legal action, Mulcair proceeded with caution, calling the proposed charter “a trial balloon.” “We don’t want to give ammunition to the separatists,” one of his advisers told me at the time.

Since the outset of the campaign, the NDP leader has been dogged with accusations of political pandering—of changing his message, depending on the audience. Yet, here he was in Quebec, his party’s base, and the province where anti-niqab sentiment is at its highest, saying exactly what much of his electorate doesn’t want to hear. Mulcair is nothing if not calculating, and perhaps he has calculated that the niqab isn’t nearly the electoral millstone some of his opponents hope it to be. That is a hell of a gamble. It is also an honourable one.


Thomas Mulcair took a bold stand on the niqab. It may ruin him.

  1. Can’t Quebec see that the same principles that ensures Mulcair will protect their rights as a minority in Canada will also protect a muslim woman’s right to wear her niqab. You can’t expect the first if you won’t also allow for the second.

    • Perfectly stated. Let this play out. People in general aren’t stupid.

  2. “Time and political circumstance, a cynic might suggest, have made a hypocrite of Kenney. Once put off by the PQ’s plan, Kenney and the Conservative government have essentially adopted the Parti Québécois strategy of demonizing certain religious symbols for electoral gain”

    I was, and am, skeptical of the CPC position on the values charter at the time. I suspect at the time, they chose to play it safe, as opposing the values charter was opposing the separatists, and was presumed to be what their recent support gained in immigrant communities would have wanted. However their opposition to it struck me as being pro forma, and they lacked the data to justify one approach or the other.

    Contrast that with their full-throated attack on niqabs this year, including Kenney’s own Twitter feed making easily verifiable claims that were proven false, and their proposal of a snitch line.

    That all indicates to this observer that in fact the Conservatives are now much more in their comfort zone on this issue, especially since they have conducted surveys that indicate the general public appears to support their proposed measures.

    They may not be racist or discriminatory per se, but they have no compunction in taking advantage of it, demonstrating a degree of cynicism not seen in Canadian politics for quite a long time.

  3. I will bet that pundits and pollsters will find, both Mulcair and Harper underestimated the publics true views on this niqab. With Trudeau taking such a strong and clear view on where he stands on this issue, it’s a chance he may have kneecapped both Harper and Mulcair. The last time there was a discussion on this issue if I can remember, was during the Quebec election, and if I can recall then, the conservatives had to back off, due to public back lash. The Liberals were given a majority because Quebecers, decided they weren’t the racists people that the PQ and Harper portrayed and used them as. Quebecers may be fickle voters, but they aren’t stupid.

    • What makes your comments nonsensical is the fact that Mulcair has also been consistently clear on the niqab – that it is not a women’s rights issue and that the government has no right telling minorities what they can and cannot wear.

      So.. No, Trudeau has not “kneecapped” Mulcair over the issue, as Mulcair has consistently been against banning the niqab.

      Partisan spin is one thing, but partisan misinformation is inexcusable. Tom Mulcair has done the honourable thing, and for the time being, he is being punished. However, the election has two weeks left, and there is still time for the NDP to change the channel to something more relevant.

  4. I could not agree more, since day one of the campaign Mulcair has done the honourable thing. He has stuck to his guns on policy and refused to jump aboard a bandwagon of Islamophobic fear mongering.

    By comparison, Trudeau got away with flip-flopping on deficits (in July he was committed to running balanced budgets), and Duceppe and Harper have so far gotten away with a despicable and divisive campaign aimed at exploiting fear.

    Regardless, it is not too late by any stretch of the imagination. There are two weeks left to go, and in francophone Quebec, the Liberals are still a non-factor.

    The Bloc’s newfound lease on life is based almost entirely upon this non-issue, this election is about change, and if Quebeckers decide that real social issues (affordable childcare spaces, support for First Nations, senior poverty, women’s shelters, reliable healthcare funding and ending the war in Iraq and Syria) matter more than an article of clothing worn by almost nobody, the NDP has every chance of coming back. They still poll first place in Quebec, albeit their lead has reduced, and Tom Mulcair is still the most popular party leader.

    • I would also add that Mulcair was not silent on the so-called “Charter of Values” introduced by the PQ (as claimed in the article). Mulcair refused to condemn it until Quebec’s provincial government released a draft of the legislation, so that the NDP could at least review it.

      After a few weeks, when the Charter was still popular in Quebec, Mulcair condemned it wholeheartedly. Even in 2013, Mulcair took a bigger risk than Trudeau by challenging Islamophobic bigotry in his party’s heartland.

      Still, Quebec came to its senses over the Charter and I think they will in this election too. They are sick of the Conservatives (for good reason), they don’t trust the Liberals (also for good reason), and they came to learn that voting Bloc got them nowhere.

  5. I completely agree that he took the right stand, and he has secured my vote for that reason and for the fact that he’s the only experienced and principled alternative to Harper. Let the big media keep pushing Trudeau, my vote is going to Mulcair and the NDP.

  6. I’m mystified, why upholding people’s rights..as per our Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is the wrong thing to do? Principles, morals, and leadership are what I see here. If that’s wrong..then there is something terribly WRONG with our country…

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