Trudeau accuses Harper of stoking prejudice against Muslims

'Fear is a dangerous thing,' Trudeau says. 'Once stoked … there is no way to predict where it will end'

(Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

(Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau is accusing the Harper government of deliberately stoking fear and prejudice against Muslim Canadians — employing the same kind of rhetoric that led to some of Canada’s most shameful displays of racism in the past.

The Liberal leader drew a parallel Monday between the current government’s rhetoric about Muslims and other “dark episodes” in Canada’s history: the internment of Ukrainian, Japanese and Italian Canadians during the two world wars, the turning away boatloads of Jewish and Punjabi refugees and the imposition of residential schools for aboriginal children.

Since two Canadian soldiers were murdered by men with radical Islamist sympathies last October, Trudeau said the government has been blurring the line between the genuine threat terrorism posed to national security and “simple prejudice.”

“I believe they have done it deliberately and I believe what they have done is deeply wrong,” Trudeau said in the text of a speech delivered in Toronto to the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

“We all know what is going on here,” he added.

“It is nothing less than an attempt to play on people’s fears and foster prejudice, directly toward the Muslim faith. This is not the spirit of Canadian liberty, my friends. It is the spirit of the Komagata Maru. Of the St. Louis. Of ‘none is too many.'”

The Komagata Maru was a ship carrying Muslim, Hindu and Sikh passengers, who were denied entry into Canada in 1914.

The St. Louis was a German ocean liner whose Jewish passengers were denied entry in 1939 under the “none is too many” policy of the Canadian government of the day.

“We should all shudder to hear the same rhetoric that led to a ‘none is too many’ immigration policy toward Jews in the 1930s and 40s, being used to raise fears against Muslims today,” Trudeau said.

During the past several weeks, Trudeau said the governing Conservatives’ rhetoric has escalated as they promote new anti-terrorism legislation and decry a court ruling that struck down a law that banned a Muslim woman from wearing a face-covering niqab while taking the oath of citizenship.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he finds it “offensive” for someone to cover their face during the citizenship ceremony and has vowed to appeal the ruling.

The Conservative party has used Harper’s comments in fundraising missives that trumpet the prime minister’s contention that wearing a niqab while taking the citizenship oath is “not the way we do things here.”

The party has also promoted the anti-terrorism legislation by posting online images of a menacing Islamist terrorist and quotations from a recent threat to attack the West Edmonton Mall.

The government has been criticized, meanwhile, for doing little to reassure Muslim Canadians after last fall’s violence or, more recently, after a Quebec judge refused to hear a Muslim woman because she was wearing a hijab to cover her head.

Trudeau scoffed at the Conservatives’ contention that the ban on face-coverings during citizenship ceremonies was intended to promote gender equality.

“It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear.”

And he warned that Harper and his fellow Tories are going down a dangerous path in a country that is home to over 1 million Muslims.

“Fear is a dangerous thing. Once stoked, whether by a judge from the bench or a prime minister with a dog whistle, there is no way to predict where it will end,” Trudeau said.

“Across Canada, and especially in my home province (of Quebec), Canadians are being encouraged by their government to be fearful of one another. For me, this is both unconscionable and a real threat to Canadian liberty.”

A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office defended the government’s actions, in part by quoting weekend comments by Defence Minister Jason Kenney in which the minister said “We stand in defence of the vast majority of Muslims who reject this cult of violence. Canadians are in solidarity with them.”

Stephen Lecce also defended the government’s anti-terror legislation.

“Under Prime Minister Harper, this Government will continue to take action to protect our freedoms by denying the international jihadist movement the opportunity to inflict terror on our citizens and interests,” Lecce said in an email. “Through the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015, we are taking decisive action to thwart efforts to use Canada as a recruiting ground, prevent terrorism travel and attacks on our soil.”

Earlier Monday at an event in Ottawa, Marjory LeBreton, a senior Conservative senator, acknowledged that the government’s messaging may be making Muslims feel unwelcome. She was responding to a question from Sheema Khan, who told LeBreton that Muslim Canadians are feeling “a little bit excluded, somewhat under suspicion.”