The October 19 federal election is likely to be the most crucial for Muslims in Canada. While no party represents their interests, they have a choice about the least detrimental to their interests.
On September 28 when leaders of the three leading political parties in Canada—Tom Mulcair of the New Democratic Party (NDP), Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party and Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party—arrived at the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, there was a large group of protesters. The debate organized by the Munk Centre was about foreign policy prior to the October 19 federal elections. When Harper (current prime minister) arrived, he was booed loudly. The protesters naturally felt very good by expressing their true feelings towards him.
In the Western world, indeed in most parts of the world, elections are a time when people are given an opportunity to get excited and believe they have a say in who should rule the country. If truth be told, among the leading political contenders for power, there is little substantive difference except in how they package themselves and their message. They all follow the commands of their paymasters and ultimately answer to them rather than the electorate. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labor Party in Britain is an aberration and daggers are already drawn to stab him even from within his own party. The British Tories have their work cut out for them.
According to most polls—and they can be widely off the mark—the three leading Parties—the NDP, Liberal Party and the Conservative Party—are virtually neck and neck for the October 19 vote. If this scenario holds, a minority government would emerge but the ruling Conservative Party would still have an advantage because its opponents have to do a lot better to oust it from power. Further, the vote on the left is split between the Liberals and the NDP. The Green Party although with only one seat in the outgoing parliament still garners nearly a million votes eating away largely into the support of the left of centre parties.
The coming election has generated a great deal of heated debate among the one million Muslims in Canada. They know, as do most other Canadians, that the Conservative Party is staunchly anti-Muslim, that it uses divisive tactics pandering to the worst instincts of racists and bigots. Since Muslims are weak, divided and usually do not vote in significant numbers, political parties do not take them seriously.
At one level, the political parties are not entirely to blame. Politics is a cynical game; no principles are involved even if politicians mouth pious slogans in election campaigns. These are meaningless utterances to fool the people. They tailor their message to whatever the people want to hear or they think what the people want to hear.
Let us look at some facts and figures and the issues that affect Muslims most adversely. In the last federal election in 2011, the Conservative Party garnered a mere 36.4% of the popular vote but got an absolute majority in parliament. This is the first past the post system in which a candidate in any riding with a mere 30% vote can get elected if others get less than that. In the 2011 election, only about 60% of eligible voters cast their ballot. Thus the Conservatives got an absolute majority in parliament by getting less than 22% of the popular vote (60%x36%). Not exactly a popular mandate yet the Conservatives touted their parliamentary majority and rammed through a series of bills that have curtailed the civil and political rights of Canadians and imposed draconian laws turning Canada into a virtual police state.
Among various ethnic and religious communities—Canada is a multicultural and multi-ethnic society—the voting figures reveal an interesting phenomenon. In the last election, turnout among members of the Jewish community was 85%; Sikhs 75%, Hindus 70% and Muslims barely 30%. In some ridings (constituencies), Muslim turnout was even less.
True, Muslims face this constant argument of whether it is appropriate to vote, i.e., whether it is haram or halal to do so. Without getting into this debate, the current election has become extremely crucial for Muslims. If the Conservatives are returned to power, there is little doubt that Canadian Muslims will face a very grim future. Harper has gone out of his way to target Muslims. On January 30, 2015, he spoke in Richmond Hill, ON. When asked by a journalist whether Bill C-51 (the anti-terrorism bill) he was rushing through parliament would prevent the kind of attacks that occurred in October 2014 in Montreal and Ottawa, Harper’s response was revealing. He said he was not sure but he would go after “jihadist terrorists” whether they are radicalized in basements or in mosques.
Such nastiness is unprecedented. Canada’s intelligence agencies have said the country faces its greatest threat from white extremists—Harper’s constituency—not radical Muslims yet Harper does not allow facts to get in the way. Further, the same intelligence agencies have said mosques are not breeding grounds for terrorism. The Internet has far greater influence on young Muslims.
What is, however, revealing is that while Western governments talk about fighting extremists, they do little practically to confront them. If the US had wanted, it could have bombed the takfiri terrorist (aka Daesh, ISIS or ISIL) when they stormed into Ramadi in Iraq in June of 2014. Ramadi is open desert and the takfiris would be like sitting ducks yet they drove for hundreds of miles from Syria through open desert in brand new pick up trucks without any fear of American or allied attacks. Western regimes are also providing them weapons while their regional allies—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, etc—are funding them and providing sanctuaries.
Western intelligence agencies, including Canadian, are deeply involved with these terrorist groups. In June, a terrorism charge against a Swedish citizen was dropped in London because British intelligence was supporting the same terrorist group in Syria that the accused was charged with joining. Last April, Turkish intelligence exposed Canadian intelligence links to a Syrian dentist who had helped smuggle three young British Muslim girls through Turkey into Syria. The list goes on.
Harper’s anti-Muslim crusade is open and blatant. While US President Barack Obama talks about extremists, Harper talks about “Islamist jihadists”, “Islamist terrorists,” etc. And smack in the middle of the election campaign, he announced that several members of the Toronto-18, a group of Muslim youth arrested on terror related charges in June 2006 and sentenced to long prison sentences have been stripped of their citizenship because they have dual nationality. These individuals are already serving long prison terms for the crime they committed. They are still in prison so what was the point of announcing it now except to create fear and pander to the racists in Canada. It must be pointed out that paid RCMP agents had infiltrated the group and misled the youth into committing these crimes.
Harper has also zeroed in on a single niqabi woman who has become the centre of debate over citizenship ceremony. While the woman removed her niqab for identification purposes and put it back on after the formal process was over, Harper insists niqab has no place in citizenship ceremonies. He has framed it as being contrary to Canadian values. What precisely does that mean is not clear and who defines “Canadian values” anyway? The issue is also being framed in religious terms when it is a question of a woman’s right to dress the way she wants. Two courts have rejected Harper’s position but he has vowed to take the matter to the Supreme Court and his government has refused to grant citizenship to the Muslim woman in question. Again, Harper is using this to rally his rightwing base.
Several issues have emerged in this election campaign. Economy tops the list. Harper claims to be a good economic manager but under his watch, Canada has faced two recessions. He keeps arguing that it is only in specific sectors—oil and gas, for instance—but he had built his economic policy on oil prices remaining high, hardly the hallmark of a good economic manager. The Canadian dollar has also nosedived although most commentators think this is good for the economy because Canada is an exporter of raw materials, mostly to the US.
Harper’s ill-mannered approach has upset many of Ottawa’s close allies including the US that is Canada’s biggest trading partner. Trade between the two countries is $500 billion. This is no small potato. And Harper claims to have a good working relationship with Obama. Yet when he visited the White House, Obama did not come to receive him. He did not send his vice president or even the Secretary of State. Instead, Obama sent the deputy chief of protocol at the White House to receive Harper at the White House door. A third world tin pot dictator would get better treatment.
What has riled Obama so much to give Harper the brush off? Harper has been so brazenly pro-Israel, more particularly pro-Benjamin Netanyahu that it has made Obama feel uncomfortable with whom the latter does not have good relations. Harper is the only Western ruler to have openly opposed the Iran-P5+1 nuclear agreement, a position he shares with Netanyahu. Harper is so close to Netanyahu that it has proved embarrassing for many Israeli supporters in Canada and the US. He has also indulged the Gujrati war criminal Narendra Modi who is now prime minister of India. Harper accompanied Modi throughout his three-day visit to Canada last May.
Harper has abandoned the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases and has repudiated all attempts by environmentalists to rein in the multinational corporations. He has also muzzled government scientists from sharing their findings with the media about the melting ice cap in the Arctic. While using the war veterans to build his macho image and “patriotic” credentials by naming Hwy 401 as the ‘Hwy of Heroes’, he has gutted funds to the veterans. There were a number of war veterans protesting Harper’s arrival for the September 28 debate in Toronto.
Harper has indulged in other devious tactics. In mid-September, his government announced that Canada had a surplus of $1.9 billion (Can) in 2014. Kevin Page, the former auditor general, pointed out in an interview with the CBC ‘As it Happens’ program that the ‘surplus’ did not accurately reflect the state of Canadian economy. He said there could be manipulation of figures and it is easy to do so. All it takes the government is to tell various departments not to spend all the money authorized in their budget. That is what happened, according to Page. For Harper, the idea was to show Canadians that he had managed the economy well.
It is, however, his assault on democracy that has riled many Canadians. Parliament has been made largely irrelevant. Since 2006, Harper has prorogued parliament three times to save his skin. Further, during this election campaign, he has muzzled Conservative party candidates from speaking to the media or even their constituents on whose behalf they are supposed to act and who elect them.
Harper seldom appears before the media to answer questions. His ministers are also told not to speak to the media. On the rare occasion, he allows some media questions but these are carefully whetted by his handlers ahead of time and journalists are pre-selected to ensure only friendly questions are asked.
His other tactic has been to make it more difficult for Canadians to vote by stripping Elections Canada of many of its power as well as cut its budget by 8%. Using Orwellian doublespeak, Harper’s gutting of Elections Canada, the independent body that monitors polls, is called the Fair Elections Act. The Act strips the body of its authority to actively encourage citizens to vote. Nor does he want Elections Canada to appoint polling supervisors on Election Day; that task has been handed to incumbent candidates (of whom his party has a majority in the outgoing parliament). Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari would be pleased!
Even the chief electoral officer has been stripped of many of his powers. His role to alert the public to problems during an election and to raise awareness of the electoral process has been curtailed. He/she can no longer assist “persons and groups most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights” as previously outlined in the Elections Act.
Who are these people that Harper does not want helped? These are groups that include the indigenous peoples, the disabled, students living away from home and transients. They are not traditional Harper supporters, so he wants to make it as difficult for them to vote as possible. This hardly sounds like promoting democracy, stymied as it already is by vested interest groups.
Another plank of his strategy is to make it more difficult to investigate vote fraud and amendments, including cutting off Elections Canada’s investigations arm. In 2011, reports emerged that a number of voters were misled through robocalls (automatic calls to voters) sending them to the wrong address on Election Day to cast ballot. This resulted in many Canadians not being able to exercise their right. While not all 9.3 million Canadians who did not vote in the last election did so as a result of robocalls, there was significant voter suppression especially in ridings where the Conservatives were in a close fight with other party candidates.
When the scandal broke out and the public protested with rallies and in radio interviews, there were tepid efforts to punish a few black sheep. A Conservative political consulting firm and party staffer were found guilty of making thousands of misleading, automated phone calls directing non-Conservative voters to the wrong polling stations.
The Harper Conservatives have been mired in scandals on a number of fronts even though he came to power in 2006 vowing to put and end to such scandals. This was in the wake of the financial scandals the Liberals were involved in Quebec. Harper has had his own scandals of which the biggest and best known is the Mike Duffy scandal. Appointed senator by Harper, Duffy has been a star fund-raiser for the Conservative Party. Another Harper appointee, Senator Pamela Wallen has also been smeared in such scandal. Instead of addressing this issue, Harper has tried to raise the bogey of “jihadist terrorism.”
The Toronto Star editorially castigated Harper for announcing in August that he would crack down on “terror tourism,” a reference to terror hotspots that might attract some misguided Canadian youth. The Star wrote: “Stephen Harper’s vow to crack down on “terror tourism” is little more than a cynical bid to change the channel away from the faltering economy and Tory ethics scandals.” (August 11, 2015).
The ethics scandal was a reference to Mike Duffy, the piggish looking man appointed senator by Harper and mired in claiming travel charges from the senate. When the scandal broke out and it could not be brushed under the carper, Harper’s then chief of staff Nigel Wright wrote a personal cheque for $90,000 for Duffy to pay back what he had claimed as travel expense when he was not entitled to it. Harper, a well-known control freak claimed he did not know of Wright’s payout. Few believed him.
“Instead of taking ownership of the nation’s real problems, Harper wants to distract the electorate with a ‘fix’ to a problem that keeps few of us awake at night,” wrote the Star about “terror tourism”.
The Conservatives’ laundry list of policies is aimed at creating fear among people using Muslims as a soft target. This is what makes Muslim participation in this election crucial. If they sit out this election, they might end up with Harper again. The other parties are not a great deal better but they are lesser of the three evils. And among them, the NDP offers the best option since its entire caucus voted against Bill C-51 while the Liberals voted for it. The NDP had also voted against Bill C-36 in the immediate aftermath of 911 that the Liberals had introduced. The NDP has vowed to scrap Bill C-51 if elected to office while the Liberals have said they will amend parts of it.
In less than three weeks Muslims and other Canadians will find out what is in store for them for the next four years. To get rid of Harper will require much greater effort than has hitherto been shown simply because he has his rightwing supporters squarely under his belt. All he has to do is pick up a few seats here and there—and he has successfully done that in the past by throwing a bone to some minorities—to get into parliament. All polls, however, currently point to no party getting a clear majority.
A week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson the late British prime minister once famously said. Three weeks may be a lifetime and anything can happen during these three weeks.