Saturday, February 21, 2015

Niqabs, Citizenship and Promoting Fear of “the Other”

On February 18, 2015, Chris Alexander, Harper’s Minister of Immigration sent out the following email to Conservative Party faithful:
Subject: Full face covering during the citizenship ceremony?
Our Conservative Government believes that taking the Oath of Citizenship is an important step in affirming one’s commitment to Canadian values and traditions.
At the very moment newcomers are joining the Canadian family, we believe new citizens should recite the oath proudly, loudly and for everyone to see and hear.
That’s why our Conservative government strongly opposes the wearing of a niqab – or any face covering – that would stand in the way of reciting the Oath of Citizenship and pledging allegiance to Canada and our Queen.
Canadian citizenship confers both rights and responsibilities. The rules for obtaining it should apply ‎equally to all.
We believe that when someone becomes a Canadian citizen, they should embrace our culture and everything that makes us proud to be Canadian. That should be done without interference, freely and openly. It’s why we filed a notice to appeal this week’s court decision allowing people to wear the hijab while taking the Oath.
As Prime Minister Harper said in Quebec yesterday: “It is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family.”
Add your name if you agree with our Prime Minister.
Chris Alexander
MP, Ajax — Pickering
PS — Forward this to a few friends to help us spread the news.
What the Minister of Immigration is of course referring to is the case of Zunera Ishaq, an immigrant from Pakistan who passed all the requirements of becoming a Canadian citizen, but was stopped at the final ceremony from taking the oath because she is a Sunni Muslim and wears a niqab. She wanted to take the oath of citizenship while veiled. She sued the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in Federal Court claiming the government’s policy on veils violates its own rules and won in February. The Harper government has decided to appeal.

There are two important things to keep in mind. The first is, there is no law against taking the oath of citizenship while veiled. It was never debated in Parliament or passed into law or regulation. With the arbitrariness of Louis XIV, it was simply something the Immigration Minister told the department he didn’t like. Secondly, it was not about identifying the person taking the oath. Ms. Ishaq had already allowed officials to visually identify her at every step of the way by lifting her veil in private.
The Federal Court agreed, saying there was no valid reason to have a “policy” to require Ms. Ishaq to take the citizenship oath unveiled. That means the government’s motivation is about something else. The best explanation about what that something else is can be found in the Immigration Minister’s email to the Conservative Party faithful above.
Harper Minister Alexander says: “we believe new citizens should recite the oath proudly, loudly and for everyone to see and hear.” This harkens back to “ye olden days” when people were illiterate and oaths were called out before (equally illiterate) witnesses and a watchful, wrathful God when swearing fealty to your lord and master or when justice was a community affair. Usually you put your hand on the Bible and the other up to heaven, which would put your mortal soul in danger if you lied. We still do this in court with witnesses, not that it prevents lying, a wrathful God notwithstanding. We do it because it is expedient and we have perjury laws to punish false statements. I am myself a “Commissioner of Oaths”, "appointed by Royal Authority" and empowered by the province to take statements sworn under oath.
But in a citizenship ceremony the oath is the very last stage in the process. Tests have already been taken, qualifications examined, documents have been signed. Say the words, get your picture taken with a Mountie, and you are a citizen:
“I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.”
In fact, citizenship in Canada can and has been granted without attending a citizenship ceremony, The Minister even has the power in certain circumstances to waive the requirement to take the oath of citizenship, and has done so.

Perhaps in “ye olden days” spies, traitors, fifth columnists and others might avoid the wrath of their god by falsifying an oath. By not saying the magic words (or muttering “not” under your breath or employing the schoolyard trick of crossing your fingers), you were not bound by your oath and could then plot the overthrow of the King of Ruritania with a clear conscience. Perhaps that is why, in the words of the immigration minister, people were made to “recite the oath proudly, loudly and for everyone to see and hear.” No funny stuff. Say it in the public square and no backsies.
Also, no slipping in a double or stooge (usually an equally evil maid or servant) to take the oath for you in the tradition of poorly-written romantic, sword and saddle fiction, leaving you free to assassinate the king later with a clear conscience - “Ha! Take that you scum! I never took the oath – it was my manservant in disguise, and so I am free to betray you and take your kingdom and marry the Queen!”
Lawyers, especially ones concerned with the Charter and Constitution, ask the question “what then?” as in, if Ms. Ishaq somehow tricked the good people of Canada and its trusting Minister of Immigration into not actually taking the oath, what then? Assume she managed a switch and had a veiled body double standing by who took the oath for her. What then? Remember that she had already qualified for citizenship and the oath was the last ceremonial step. It is not like she got someone to write the tests for her (the taking of which she did identify herself for).  

This is the red herring Stephen Harper tossed out to the Conservative base when he said it is “offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family.” If it wasn’t her under the veil at the oath-taking, the person she had switched would not automatically become a Canadian citizen in a case of, as Harper puts it, mistaken identity.

If it was not her under the veil, or if she had not actually said the oath because we couldn’t watch her carefully under the veil to see her lips move “loudly and proudly”, then she doesn’t become a citizen if anyone ever finds out. In other words, the only person she hurts is herself, as she can tell no one that she didn’t really take the oath without losing her citizenship.

In the schoolboy fiction of Harper’s worldview, we are not left with any reasonable reason to require someone who arrives to take the oath and identifies themselves, to not wear religious, cultural or ethnic clothing. There might as well be a ban on lederhosen or wooden shoes.
The Federal Court agreed, saying there is no valid basis for a veil ban. If there is no valid reason, then what is the invalid reason?
There is the mystical reason from the Middle Ages that an enemy cannot be made to say a true oath. They used the same idea on witches, that their tongues would wither or burst into flames on saying the Lord's Prayer or other holy words. There certainly is some of this in the Harper government’s attitudes. The oath is more than just symbolic – it’s magic, literally.
The more sinister connotation is that the Harper government has decided that certain people do not look like Canadians when taking the oath, or as he says “joins our family.” This is xenophobia, pure and simple. Prior to our more open immigration policies, even Canada had an idea of what members of the “Canadian family” looked like. Preferred immigrants looked like “us” – ideally British (including Scots and grudgingly, the Irish), Germans and other northern Europeans. Chinese, other Asians, people of colour, and even Jews, simply would not fit into the Canadian family of Sir John A. Macdonald. Their food, their clothes, their religions, were different, too different, and therefore not to be trusted.
Others have already noted that Immigration Minister Alexander’s email refers to “this week’s court decision allowing people to wear the hijab while taking the Oath.” The Federal Court decision was actually about niqab, which is traditional Muslim dress that covers the full face. Hijab does not (it covers the hair, like a nun’s habit). The use of hijab could just be a mistake made out of ignorance, or more likely a deliberate choice because the Conservative Party base knows what hijab is and is most closely associated with Islam and maybe they'll see how far they can push it.
Niqab or hijab, the Federal Court has said that there is no logical policy or valid legal reason to ban it at citizenship ceremonies. It almost certainly violates the Charter in addition to the reasons given by the Federal Court, and is hard to imagine being saved as a demonstrably reasonable limitation. The Harper Government is appealing the decision, and it will certainly lose.
But winning the case is not the point. The point, as always, is to feed their supporters’ xenophobia against the most visible and convenient current political straw man - Islam – appealing to their emotions and not their reason. “Fear the stranger” has been around and used unscrupulously since biblical times. Many of us have moved past it. The Conservatives have not. More than that, they have embraced it, to our shame if not theirs.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Radio Interview - The One Party State

I'm appearing on an Edmonton-based talk radio show tonight at 9:00 pm (EST) tonight. The subject is: "Harper & The Tools of the One Party State - pushing the boundaries of democracy, the rule of law, and the fear economy."

You can listen online or catch the replay at: 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Shout Out From The Star's Heather Mallick

Very kind of Heather Mallick to mention me in her column today in The Toronto Star as a follow up to the shuttering of the Sun News Network and my article below. Here's the link.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Sun News Network & Me

The persistent rumours were true. The Sun News Network went off the air this morning with little fanfare. As of late last night, many of their 150 or so employees had not been told of the decision to close it down.

It was losing about $7 million a year and never found an audience. It was pitched to a couple of demographics. Clearly there was the right-wing conservative viewership - the kind who are staunchly libertarian, favour small to non-existent government, anti-tax, pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, pro-military muscle, anti-Trudeau (pere et fils), anti-UN, and pro-US (Bush's US, not Obama's). You can tell a lot about a media outlet's audience by their commercials. Sun News was clearly watched (according to what their ad department must have told their clients) by the easily frightened and elderly. Commercials were for walk-in tubs, travel insurance, home monitoring devices and the such. There were also lots of the standard Government of Canada and "we love the environment and drive the economy" oil company ads.

Still not enough of an audience to keep that boat afloat.

They applied for and were denied "mandatory carriage" by the CRTC, meaning they would have to be included on basic channel offerings with a potentially larger viewership. But it didn't happen. Some will say that was the death blow, but I don't believe it. I think their problem was truly their limited appeal because of the ideological ground they had staked out.

I was never a paid on-air guest at Sun News Network. I was contacted because of my political Twitter commentary (@stephenlautens) that was singularly critical of the Harper government. As a producer told me when I came into the studio: "We have trouble getting liberals to come on."

Well no kidding. When you stepped inside you knew you were instantly in the lion's den. As a "liberal" (by the way, I have not been a card-carrying "big-L" Liberal for at least 15 years) I was expected to defend every gaffe, mis-statement and emerging scandal by any Liberal anywhere. I would usually get a call or email at 8:30 am to see if I could appear at 11:00 or noon to comment on the latest Liberal outrage. On arrival I was sometimes treated to a complete change of subject from the one I had been told we'd be talking about (and that I had researched), or by a sound bite or interview clip I had never seen before as it had happened as I was driving to the studio. There were times I felt the "gotcha" factor that was a little unfair. I don't mind sounding stupid, but not when I've been ambushed.

Still, I've never shied away from lively debate. I tried to keep at least one zinger in my back pocket to use while shielding myself from the blows of my fellow panelists who arrived better briefed. I learned to keep my head up (something one of my more odious Twitter trolls said clearly indicated I was ashamed of the Liberals and being their mouthpiece, instead of the reality of glancing down at my notes to make sure my facts and figures were accurate), smile and not be too polite about breaking in and calling out commentators on what was clearly inaccurate.

Some people have said that the Sun News people didn't really believe everything they said - that it was largely political theatre. Sitting in the makeup chair getting presentable for the cameras I listened to their off air chat. I can't speak for all, but I can tell you that the ones I heard believed it - with a passion. They truly hated Justin Trudeau. My last appearance was this past Monday about the Supreme Court ruling on assisted suicide. I argued this wasn't the end of the world but rather a humanitarian and thoughtful response by the SCC to a difficult problem. It has limited application the way the judgment was written and the court invited parliament to write a better law to deal with it. The chat after the show between some of the other Sun presenters was that this meant people would be declared insane by doctors and put to death by family members who wanted to get their hands on their gold teeth. In other words, compassion for the terminally ill inevitably would lead to the gates of Auschwitz. No middle ground.

There were times when I declined to appear on Sun News. I always liked to go on Pat Bolland's mid-day show. Pat is a class act and was always kind to me. If he is an ideologue, he kept it at home. I have much respect for him and his former talent-wranger Susannah. When I had requests to appear from some of the other hosts I declined. Being an ideological circus monkey was not at the top of my list. That being said, I had a couple of chats with Brian Lilley (he had no idea who I was) and Michael Coren once let me in the always locked front door.

Because I defy description - lawyer, writer, part-time columnist, bon vivant gentleman of leisure - my on air title was chosen by them for me: "Liberal Pundit". That clearly marked me as the enemy for their viewers in case there as any doubt. I tried to explain on air that I spoke for no one but myself. I wasn't a Liberal Party member and had no insight into the inner workings of Justin or Wynne's politics. Still, I was criticized from both ends - Conservatives ignored that and took me as a Liberal spokesperson and those actually in the Liberal Party or on the left generally didn't like that I somehow gave Sun News legitimacy and an extra two viewers by appearing on air.

But at the end of the day, not enough Canadians were buying what Sun News was selling. I suppose that bodes well for Canadian political culture as a whole. There will always be a fringe group at either extreme, but its potential for expansion has proven to be small. Its demise also deprives Harper of a platform for some of his most divisive policies going into an election, and a place to safely float some of his more ultra-right wing memes to see if they will fly.

In a funny way I'll miss the thrill of the debate and going into the lion's den knowing I'm the underdog. I always felt like it was missionary work, trying to present a reasonable counterpoint to some of the right wing paranoia and spin. 

My only regret? That I didn't steal one of their coffee mugs the last time I was there.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ghosts, Earls & Downton Abbey

6th Earl of Carnarvon
Someone made me think of my old law office earlier today. It was at 335 Bay Street in a building since demolished to make way for a massive modern office tower.

The building was called "Herbert House" named after its owner's family - Henry Herbert, 6th Earl of Carnarvon. He died in 1987, but I ran into his son, the 7th Earl on an annual visit to inspect the building. Like much of English nobility, he was wearing a fairly disreputable topcoat and I wondered if he was someone's elderly legal aid client until the guy on the desk told me who he was.

His grandfather funded Carter's expedition to Egypt that found the tomb of King Tut and their family home is better known today as the building that serves as the stately home in Downton Abbey.

Before he died in 2001, the 7th Earl was a great friend and racing manager to HM Queen Elizabeth II, known as "Porchy" after his courtesy title, Lord Porchester. He refused to sell Herbert House (even though it was a nondescript "B-class" office building) because his father had named it after him. As soon as he died, the family sold it for development, no doubt to help pay for the upkeep of "Downton Abbey".

Oh yes - and the building was haunted. A man in a bowler hat, white shirt and suspenders was seen often after hours by tenants and security at 335 Bay Street, usually around the basement boiler room, but sometimes in the halls and stairwells. More than one security guard quit after asking him his business and him disappearing into thin air. I wonder where he moved to.

Sometimes I go into the new building and look up into the atrium and can picture my desk floating where the 2nd floor used to be.,_7th_Earl_of_Carnarvon

It's Tentacle Tuesday!

Actually it's Wednesday, but Tentacle Tuesday sounds better.

Every once in a while I have people ask me whether something political I post is real or made up. I know - it's getting harder to tell with the over the top rhetoric and out and out lies.

Here's a real screen capture of Harper's much-unloved video channel with 230 views. In sharing the stage with German Chancellor Merkel he actually said:

"As you are aware, Madame Chancellor, one of the jihadist monster's tentacles reached as far as our own Parliament."

Yep - he actually said that. In front of the German Chancellor. Someone has clearly been watching too much Captain America.

So yes - the screen cap of this excess of tentacle-y goodness is real (except for maybe the actual tentacle in the corner).