Over the last three months, the Canadian general election of 2015 has been defined by the targeting of “enemies within”. Racially charged language has proven that to change the way people think, the place to begin is with the words they use.
Last June, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government passed the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.
It was fortified three weeks ago by a telephone tip line. Citizens can now report instances of forced marriages and honour killings, although, as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has suggested, calling the police might be preferable.
The government has sought to forbid the wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, despite federal courts striking down the ban – three times in the past year.
Defence Minister Jason Kenney insists the government is “uniting Canadians on this issue” and “uniting Muslim Canadians“, and that the battle is far from over. He adds, “If anything’s dangerous, it would be legitimising a medieval tribal custom that treats women as property rather than people”.
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Since 2011, only two people in 680,000 have asked to take the citizenship oath wearing the niqab. However, since catapulting the niqab to centre-stage in their campaign, Harper’s government has risen in the polls by 10 percent and has begun to compete for the lead.
The real oppression
Kenney is correct in that the rights of women are an urgent issue. In March, a United Nations committee concluded that the government, in its failure to address systemic violence against Canada’s First Nations peoples, “has committed a grave violation of the rights of aboriginal women”.
According to an RCMP report released last year, 1,017 aboriginal women and girls were murdered between 1980 and 2012, and 169 have gone missing since 1952 – part of a catastrophic web of violence within – and directed towards – a vulnerable community.
In May, a Canadian commission found that 6,000 aboriginal children died while in the care of Canada’s residential school system, which remained in place until 1996 and whose aim was “aggressive assimilation”.
Current suicide rates for Inuit youth living in the Canadian territory of Nunavut and the Canadian Arctic are among the highest in the world. Yet, as these tragedies make international headlines, the prime minister reiterated his position that a nationwide inquiry into the murdered and missing women “isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest”.
Meanwhile, Bill C-24 became law, allowing the government to strip citizenship from Canadian citizens who hold, or are eligible for, dual citizenship if they are convicted of terrorism, treason or spying – even if convicted in a country without due process.
Indeed, the net C-24 could cast is potentially vast. More than half of Toronto’s residents were born outside the country, and legal experts have warned that there is nothing to prevent the list of applicable crimes from lengthening.
The ease with which commentators, including New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, a Canadian, have accepted a primary illusion – that Canadian values and way of life are under threat – is not unusual.
Hypocrisy is the use of language to claim moral standards to which our words, actions, and deeds do not conform.
He writes that “liberal societies have rules”, failing to note that Zunera Ishaq, the 29-year-old teacher who challenged the niqab ban, was content to reveal herself to authorities, but did not want to be forced to do so in a public ceremony.
A nation of immigrants
Commentators of all political leanings begin with the presupposition that Canada is a force for good, a progressive country doing its best in an age of uncertainty.
Gopnik, like me, came of age at a time when Canada viewed itself as a nation of immigrants, where the power of the majority is held in check by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But the perception of Canada as a benign power is, on examination, far from reality.
In December, Canada declined to become a signatory to the UN Arms Trade Treaty, signed by over 130 countries, including the United States.
Instead, they signed a $15bn arms deal with Saudi Arabia – the largest export deal in Canadian history and, in contravention of Canadian law, refused to seek assurances that these arms would not be used against civilians. Where and how this money shapes Canadian society is a question few want to address.
In the spring, the government halted processing of claims of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees – persons recommended by the UNHCR and approved through Canada’s regular channels – in order to subject each to a security check by the prime minister‘s office.
Despite committing to 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years, the government has so far processed around 1,000. Yet when images of Alan Kurdi shocked the world, the prime minister claimed, “We should be doing everything; we are doing everything.”
Hypocrisy is the use of language to claim moral standards to which our words, actions, and deeds do not conform. Canada has persistently looked away from its troubled history of assimilation and violence – and over time, false assumptions, repeated and internalised, have damaged our ability to assess not only present challenges, but ourselves.
As election day arrives, the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest newspaper, has called the government “rotten”, even while endorsing it for a fourth straight term. Yet, polls indicate that Harper’s government has unwittingly made its own hypocrisy a central issue, and voters are no longer willing to accept the stark differences between Harper’s Canada and their own. How deeply the country is willing to confront its disparities, however, remains to be seen.
Madeleine Thien is a novelist currently living in Singapore. Her latest novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, about the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide, was shortlisted for the 2014 International Literature Prize.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.