Thank God for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I say that not because trade is an inherently Jewish issue, nor because I know for certain the recently negotiated deal will be good for Canada, especially since its details have yet to be released.
Irrespective of its long-term effects, the TPP might be our only hope to reorient electoral discussions toward an issue – the economy – that actually affects the well-being of large numbers of Canadians.
If so, it will offer a change from the debates that have dominated the campaign for the last month or so.
Barely seven weeks ago, news photos of little Alan Kurdi’s dead body provoked a (perhaps overdue) groundswell of concern for the four million refugees created by Syria’s brutal civil war. The sudden surge of interest blindsided the governing Conservatives, whose reaction was seen in many quarters as hard-hearted.
It seemed the issue might sink the Tories, especially in the wake of shaky economic numbers (which have since improved), as well as scandals and polls suggesting an appetite for change.
But they’ve since regained their footing. In addition to standing firm on the refugee file, they’ve connected with large numbers of Canadians on the issues of revoking the naturalized citizenship of convicted terrorists; wearing a niqab at citizenship swearing-in ceremonies and a proposed ban on them in the public service; and a pledge to set up a phone line for people to report “barbaric cultural practices.”
The moves have stabilized, and perhaps even improved, Conservative polling numbers without requiring costly election promises.
To start, they refused to alienate their base by retreating from their cautious – or what some call xenophobic – position on the Syrian crisis. Meanwhile, sympathetic news outlets have suggested that the wave of Syrian refugees has been compromised by Islamist infiltrators intent on bringing sharia law to the West, and that many of the refugees aren’t even Syrian.
Around the same time, they caught a break when the Federal Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling that the government’s 2011 ban on niqabs – full face veils – at citizenship oath ceremonies was “unlawful.” The ban affected a tiny number of women – two since 2011 – who have tried to take the oath with their faces covered (after having their identities confirmed in private), but the ruling gave the party an opening to raise the issue.
Polls say the Conservative position is popular with a large majority of the electorate, especially in Quebec, where it appears to be moving votes from the NDP to the Tories and Bloc Québécois.
Then came word the government wanted to revoke the citizenship of a Canadian-born Muslim man with dual Pakistani citizenship (allegedly through his naturalized, Pakistani-born Canadian parents) who was convicted in a terror plot to bomb targets in southern Ontario.
Finally, last week, the party announced plans for the “barbaric cultural practices” hotline, while Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself pushed the niqab issue further when he proposed the public service ban in a CBC interview.
When the Parti Québécois proposed banning head coverings for civil servants in Quebec in 2013, Jews led opposition to the idea, even though it was a thinly veiled swipe at Muslims.
This time, some Jews are actively supporting a similar idea from the federal Tories, though most are standing idly by. (A grassroots group led by prominent Jews in Toronto is a notable exception.)
As many Muslim commentators have pointed out, the niqab is anti-woman and not mandated by Islamic law. But some Jews might find themselves in the hard-to-defend position of having denounced one proposal, but not the other.
Jews may also find it odd to criticize a woman’s decision – taken “freely” or not – to wear any article of clothing when modesty requirements for observant Jewish women, though perhaps less obtrusive than face veils, are similarly seen as oppressive, sometimes even by fellow Jews.
Harper himself spoke out, albeit mildly, against the PQ’s charter of values, though he now praises a niqab ban for civil servants being proposed by Quebec’s current Liberal government.
As for the hotline, we can only hope that no one calls about the “barbaric” practices of Jewish ritual slaughter and circumcision, or “oppressive” arranged marriages among haredim.
The TPP may ultimately change the channel on this debate, but even if it doesn’t, we’ll soon find out whether the Conservatives have played their hand just right on these cultural issues, or showed their cards too early.
This wRant was originally published as a Campaign Notebook column in the Oct. 15 edition of The Canadian Jewish News.