Politics·Analysis

Conservatives crank up values clash by taking aim at 'barbaric cultural practices'

The Conservative campaign is pressing hard on the hot button of identity politics with its promise of a new "tip line" for citizens to report "barbaric cultural practices."

Could 2 more weeks of cultural combat put the Tories over the top? Somebody seems to think so

Kellie Leitch, the Conservative candidate in the Ontario riding of Simcoe-Grey, says a new tip line will allow citizens and victims to call with information about incidents of 'barbaric cultural practices.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

If it wasn't clear already, the culture war is definitely on now — and the pollsters say it's working,

With the polls moving the Conservatives' way and sensing that a majority could yet be in sight, the Tory campaign is pressing hard on the hot button of identity politics, promising a new RCMP "tip line" to enable Canadians to report "barbaric cultural practices" such as sexual slavery or so-called honour killings.

On CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Liberal pundit Amanda Alvaro fumed that this was a "barbaric political practice" by the Conservatives.

A good line, but, hey, could two more weeks of cultural combat put the Conservatives over the top? Somebody seems to think so.

Even as two of his colleagues were promising the new tip line, Calgary Conservative Jason Kenney launched a fresh attack on the wearing of a niqab, or face veil, which he called "medieval" and "tribal." 

While he was at it, Kenney blasted the Liberals and the NDP — again — for opposing the revocation of citizenship for convicted terrorists.

Do we need a tip line?

Of course, Canadians can already call police to report any crime, at any time. It's hard to see how calling a different number will make much difference. Besides that, the urgent need for a special tip line does not seem to have gripped the Conservatives during their 10 years in office — only now, in the final days of an election campaign. 

One thing the tip line does, though, is enable them to keep talking about an issue that seems to be firing up the troops.

The Conservatives' emphasis on the defence of what they call "Canadian values" is credited by pollsters with a significant uptick in their support, particularly in Quebec.

And it's not a risky strategy: a poll done by the Privy Council Office in March of this year, paid for by taxpayers, found 82 per cent of Canadians in support of the Conservatives' bid to ban the wearing of a niqab at citizenship ceremonies. In Quebec, that number was even higher — 93 per cent.

"We need to stand up for our values," said Conservative candidate Chris Alexander, who is in a tight race for re-election in the Ontario riding of Ajax.

"We need to do that in citizenship ceremonies. We need to do that to protect women and girls from forced marriage and other barbaric practices."

Joining him was Kellie Leitch, the Conservative candidate in Simcoe-Grey, who said the tip line would mean that "citizens and victims can call with information about incidents of barbaric cultural practices here in Canada."

She did not say what, if anything, prevents Canadians from doing that now.

However, she did say there would also be a new RCMP task force to enforce the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which received royal assent in June. In addition, she promised a $12-million fund, over four years, to assist overseas aid groups to stop forced marriages of girls and young women in conflict zones.

"The Conservative government is not afraid to defend Canadian values and to be clear that these practices have no place in Canadian society," said Leitch.

Kenney takes on the 'medieval' niqab

Kenney, simultaneously, was in Halifax to tout the Conservatives' naval shipbuilding project. When asked about the niqab, though, he seized the chance — and denied that he was in any way demonizing Muslims.

"I think it's completely wrong-headed to associate the niqab with Islam," Kenney said.

"The niqab reflects a medieval tribal custom that reflects a misogynistic view of women."

Kenney is correct that the vast majority of Muslim women, in Canada and worldwide, do not wear a veil and do not see it as a religious requirement. On the other hand, it just happens that those who wear it tend to be Muslims.

A new passport?

But, details, details. They don't seem likely to interfere with the Conservative strategy. Kenney pressed on, repeating his attacks on those who differ with the cancellation of citizenship for Canadian convicted terrorists.

Kenney referred to the case of Farah Mohamed Shirdon, from Calgary, who was videotaped burning his Canadian passport while fighting with ISIS in June 2014.

"Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair," said Kenney, "think that if that fellow shows up at one of our embassies, we should issue him a new passport and welcome him back to Canada."

Both the Liberal and NDP leaders have said terrorists who are Canadian citizens should be in jail. But Tom Mulcair, well aware of the erosion of his poll numbers in Quebec, seemed to want to change the subject when he appeared for a pre-debate interview on City-TV in Montreal.

Mulcair said he would counter the Conservative tactics "by making sure that we don't let Stephen Harper hide behind the niqab."

When the host asked, "Well, let's talk about the niqab," Mulcair responded, "Well, let's talk about his balance sheet — about what he's done to Canada."

But the Conservatives do want to talk about the niqab. And passports. And barbaric cultural practices. And, if a majority is possible, they're not going to stop.

About the Author

Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.

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