At Issue: Harper's pivot to the niqab debate
Conservative's doubling down on niqab issue has stirred backlash online
"Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice of that time that is not transparent, that is not open and that, frankly, is rooted in a culture that is anti-women."
That was the language Prime Minister Stephen Harper used in the House of Commons this week to defend the government's decision to appeal a court ruling allowing a woman to wear a niqab during the oath of citizenship.
It was not the first time the prime minister has weighed in on the divisive issue, but Harper's definitively strong choice of words ignited swift backlash online and has drawn the focus away from issues like the economy and foreign policy in a federal election year.
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The National's At Issue panel concluded it is a perplexing and perhaps politically virulent move on behalf of the incumbents.
Pollster Bruce Anderson of Abacus Data said that while there is a legitimate debate to be had, Harper and the Conservatives have "been a bit reckless" in their approach. They have implied that the root of the problem lies in Islam itself. The effort to shift the conversation away from governing is "only a mistake" in his opinion, Anderson said.
Toronto Star national affairs columnist Chantal Hébert said Harper's voluntary pivot to the debate over the niqab's place in Canadian society echoed of the Parti Québécois's attempt to sell voters on a charter of values. That shifted the focus away from more pressing issues in Quebec and is largely credited with being the downfall of the party's election loss.
Postmedia/National Post columnist Andrew Coyne pointed out that the prime minister made similar "inflammatory" comments at a campaign rally earlier this month. The Conservatives quickly used the issue as a pillar of their fundraising efforts. The problem, Coyne said, is that Harper "upped the stakes" emotionally and forfeited any hopes of a reasoned, informed debate on the niqab and other religious garbs.
Watch the full segment above, and find more stories and features from The National here.