Religious intolerance has a long and ignoble history in Canada, reaching back to early efforts to bring pagan “savages,” as indigenous people were known, to Christianity.
Well into the 20th century, Protestants doubted the loyalty and patriotism of Catholics, always suspect given their supposed allegiance to the Pope. Anti-Jewish sentiment was particularly strong in the 1930s, leading to the exclusion of almost all of the desperate Jewish refugees seeking to escape Hitler’s Germany. Jews were considered radical undesirables, not assimilable in a Christian Canada.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has rekindled the tradition of religious intolerance in Canada by focusing attention on the tiny minority of women in Canada who for religious reasons wear the niqab. No other prime minister since the Second World War has encouraged religious prejudices among the public.
In the post-Holocaust world, religious discrimination became less acceptable. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism remained potent forces in English Canadian society of the 1950s and 1960s, but Canadian governments and courts increasingly responded to grassroots mobilization to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, religion and gender.
Federal governments came to see it as their role to downplay religious divisions in the name of social cohesion and national unity. This shift was celebrated by members of religious minority groups that had long felt the sting of intolerance. When a Supreme Court of Canada decision in 1950 invalidated covenants that forbade owners from selling their property to Jews, the president of the Canadian Jewish Congress proclaimed: “There is no place in Canada for racial and religious intolerance.”
Harper’s approach to the niqab issue — donning the mantle of gender equality to justify religious intolerance — harkens back to an earlier and darker Canadian past. In 19th-century Canada, anti-Catholic sentiment was roused with negative images of nuns hidden behind habits and veils and forcibly immured in gloomy convents, while vicious anti-Asian rhetoric was fuelled in part by tales of “heathen” Asian practices that oppressed women.
Such rhetoric fanned the flames of religious hatred and allowed Protestant Canadians, in the period before women even had the vote in this country, to congratulate themselves for their progressive attitude to women’s rights. Harper, who has dramatically cut back much-needed services for women across Canada, and refuses to investigate the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, fits nicely into this particular Canadian tradition.
As feminists, we may find the sight of women wearing niqabs personally uncomfortable. But as historians, we know that earlier feminist efforts to impose their own values on those of different faiths did not lead to anything positive.
Early 20th-century feminists supported the confinement of indigenous children in residential schools in part to convert them from the supposed gender oppression of their “pagan” culture. Feminist support for missionary endeavours to convert “oppressed” Asian women to Christianity further fuelled anti-Asian sentiment.
While it resonates with certain less-than-admirable Canadian historical traditions, Harper’s approach to the niqab is less in tune with current legal realities. As historians of religion, gender and sexuality, we have watched with interest as the Canadian courts have sought to balance Charter rights of freedom of religion with those of sexual and gender equality.
When necessary, the courts have ruled to protect sexual minorities from discrimination by religious employers. In the niqab case, the courts have been absolutely clear that the issue here is about individual religious freedom.
As religious Jewish men have the right to wear the kippot that they believe are required by their faith, and Sikh men the right to wear turbans, the right of Muslim women who believe that their faith requires that they wear the niqab in public is also upheld.
Increased freedom from religious discrimination is an achievement of the past half-century of which Canadians are rightly proud. It is a value that must be safeguarded.
Appealing to the more xenophobic instincts of the electorate deepens social divisions and targets an already vulnerable religious minority. But for Harper, it is apparently fair game in the struggle to maintain political power.
Lynne Marks and Jordan Stanger-Ross teach history at the University of Victoria. Stanger-Ross is also director of the Landscapes of Injustice project.