Prime Minister, this isn’t how we should do things in Canada

In these difficult times, the government’s public messaging has been polarizing.

By Amira Elghawaby
Toronto Star | February 24, 2015

The governing party was quick to issue an email blast this week requesting support for its stand against the imaginary mob of niqab-wearing women clamoring to gain citizenship in Canada.

« This isn’t how we do things here, » reads the Conservatives’ pitch for support, echoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s own public statements about the case. This sentence reflects exactly how many Canadians would feel, bolstering the prime minister’s apparent attempts to divide Canadians in the lead up to the next federal election.

The words of our elected leaders matter as they impact public perceptions and attitudes. In these difficult times, the government’s public messaging has been polarizing. Here’s a selection of the most divisive stances:

1. Fear of the « Other »: From a widely-criticized bill banning « Barbaric Cultural practices, » to suggesting that Canadian mosques are incubators of violent extremism, to suggesting that women who wish to practice their religion freely will destroy Canadian values our government has painted Canadian Muslims as a potential « fifth column » lurking in the shadows. The fact that the prime minister has failed to publicly condemn recent attacks against Canadian Muslims and their institutions speaks volumes.

Mr. Harper and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander are being, at best, careless with their words, or at worst, deliberately fear-mongering to serve a political agenda. For example, Canadian Muslim women who choose to visibly manifest their faith are most often the targets of anti-Muslim hatred. Why promote xenophobia by criticizing the face-covering niqab or even the hijab – the headscarf worn by some Canadian Muslim women?

Our government, which claims to promote equality for women, is the same government that slashed funding to women’s organizations and refused to open an inquiry into the hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

2. Pretend to care about Canadians wrongfully imprisoned abroad but do as little as possible to get them released. We all know about journalist Mohamed Fahmy and the (so far) failed bid to get him back to Canada. Mr. Harper has brilliantly appeared to do both something, and nothing, at the same time. So those who unfairly pillory Fahmy as a Canadian of convenience are likely satisfied with Fahmy’s frustration with Mr. Harper’s handling of his case. And those who are angered by the prime minister’s failure to pick up the phone like Australia’s leader are offered assurances that ours did in fact send some kind of letter.

Then we have other Canadians unjustly detained abroad with barely a whisper of protest from the government. There is Bashir Makhtal who has been detained in an Ethiopian jail cell since 2006 despite repeated assurances to his family and community by government officials. And Huseyin Celil, sentenced to life in prison in China, is consistently forgotten as the federal government does business with China, just as it does business with the Ethiopians and the Egyptians as though nothing is amiss. What’s the hold up? Contrast this with the government spending thousands of dollars in 2008 to repatriate convicted Canadian Brenda Martin from a Mexican jail cell.

3. Act tough on terror: The federal government has seemingly worked hard to show the terrorism threat is under control with their proposed legislation and tough language, so long as critics don’t get in the way with pesky questions about oversight and civil liberties. That Bill C-51 has been met with serious criticisms from eminent Canadians and experts on national security law seems to matter little. The prime minister appears bent on ramming through highly-charged legislation without sufficient debate or sober thought.

Through all the rhetoric, take note of how our government classifies terrorism. It applies only to terror allegedly plotted and committed by Muslims, not « murderous misfits » like those in Halifax who weren’t « culturally » motivated in their St. Valentine’s Day plot to kill scores of people at a shopping mall, according to Justice Minister Peter MacKay.

The government that says it is committed to protect Canadians is the same one that alienates the very communities it needs to empower and work with. Prime Minister, this shouldn’t be how we do things here.

Amira Elghawaby is the human rights coordinator at the National Council of Canadian Muslims.