On one issue, Canadians are a lot less tolerant than Americans - Macleans.ca

On one issue, Canadians are a lot less tolerant than Americans

A new survey shows Canadians are more likely than Americans to favour banning Muslim women from wearing head scarfs in public

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Demonstrators hold signs as they protest against Quebec's proposed Charter of Values in Montreal, September 14, 2013. Thousands took to the streets to denounce the province's proposed bill to ban the wearing of any overt religious garb by government paid employees. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Demonstrators hold signs as they protest against Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values in Montreal, September 14, 2013. Thousands took to the streets to denounce the province’s proposed bill to ban the wearing of any overt religious garb by government paid employees. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Many Canadians pride themselves on being more multicultural and less suspicious of minorities than Americans, but new public opinion research being aired today in Montréal at a McGill Institute for the Study of Canada conference finds that Canadians are more likely than Americans to favour banning Muslim women from wearing their head scarfs in public places.

Université du Québec à Montréal political science professor Allison Harell presented a raft of results from a recent online survey of 1,600 Canadians and 1,800 Americans that tried to probe views related to the upswing of populism in the U.S., including attitudes towards the powers of government and the rights of minorities.

Perhaps not surprisingly, she found the familiar national traits of Canadian deference to public institutions and American suspicion of them borne out overall. “In general Americans are a little bit more fearful of government surveillance, they are a little bit more supportive of free-speech rights, regardless of the group, than Canadians are,” Harell said in an interview.

For instance, she found that 73 per cent of Canadians agree that “it should be illegal to say hateful things publicly about racial, ethnic and religious groups,” whereas only 55 per cent of Americans accepted limiting free speech when it turns hateful. Canadians are more inclined to accept the notion that career politicians, rather than “the people,” should make important policy decisions.

When it comes to issues around personal privacy and government surveillance, Harell’s research found that by far the majority of both Canadians and Americans don’t like the ideas of property being searched or telephone calls tapped without a warrant. But interestingly, and perhaps troublingly for a lot of Canadians, differences arise when it comes to opinion on policies directed at Muslims.

Among Canadians, 47 per cent would ban Muslim head scarfs in public, compared with just 30 per cent of Americans. As well, 51 per cent of Canadians like the idea of monitoring what happens in mosques, compared with 46 per cent of Americans.

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Harell said she found the apparent contrast between Canadian and U.S. opinion on Muslims so striking that she dug into her data further to try to find the source of the differences. A key factor is sentiment in Quebec, where the so-called Charter of Values proposed by the Parti Quebecois would have forced provincial public servants to remove religious symbols like hijabs during work hours, had the PQ’s polarizing proposal not died when they lost the 2014 election to the Liberals.

According to Harell’s research, fully 66 per cent of Quebecers would ban head scarfs, compared with 38 per cent in the rest of Canada, while 67 per cent of Quebecers approve of monitoring mosques, far more than the 44 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec who share that opinion. Still, even with the Quebec respondents taken out of the mix, more Canadians than Americans would ban Muslim head scarfs in public places.

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Canadians looking south at the U.S. debate over President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries might assume that sort of idea would be inconceivable in Canada. And perhaps the political dynamic in Ottawa wouldn’t allow such a move to get any traction, but the public opinion climate, as Harell’s research suggests, might be more receptive than progressive Canadians like to imagine.