The niqab debate: hitting the colonialist nerve in Canada’s identity

by Eric Wright

One of the central issues in Election 42 has been what should be a non-issue: the wearing of a niqab at a citizenship ceremony by a small segment of the population. The Conservative Party has made a significant portion of public discourse in this election about a small piece of fabric some women wear during an important ceremony, which is a matter of personal individual choice that the state has no right to interfere in. Of course for many women, the niqab is much more than this: it might have deep religious or familial meaning which is knowable only to the wearer, it might be about identity, it might be about the pretty floral pattern, it might just be a practical garment in a cold climate. It might be a personally re-contextualized symbol of feminism that comes out of a legacy of patriarchy. It might have no particular meaning at all to the wearer. It might be some combination of these. But who am I to say? I have no right to say as someone who is not party to that inside knowledge that is personal to the self.

What becomes clear out of all the furor, all of the incessant social media firestorm (including my own motivation for this blog post!) is that a collective nerve has been touched. As Andrew Coyne hinted in a recent National Post column, the niqab issue in this election is more complex than a simple exploitation of xenophobic sentiments. Rather, xenophobia is couched in the language of “liberation” and “anti-patriarchy” in such a way that the essential xenophobic content and always-the-same consequences of this xenophobia are entirely obscured by apparently noble principles. If we look back in Canadian history, we realize that this is an old pattern and one that clearly still bedevils the country today.

In the late 19th century, legislators and many progressive social reformers of the day agreed that in order for Aboriginal people to survive, they had to be relieved of their ‘oppressive’ and ‘backward’ customs. In 1885, ceremonial and spiritual customs, including the potlatch and its regalia and religious symbols, were made illegal by the government. Lawmakers and missionaries fixated particularly on the visible elements of material culture as those in need of stamping out: drums were evidence of barbarism and therefore banned. Canada’s potlatch ban made specific reference to the need to outlaw “Tamanawis,” a Chinook Jargon word that translates roughly as Spirit Power, which is/was Indigenous medical knowledge and cultural practice in the Pacific Northwest. A few native people who were out and proud about their culture and hosted a potlatch were sent to jail. Many found alternate symbols and channels, such as the Indian Shaker Church in British Columbia and Washington State, as ways to practice their spiritual beliefs within the acceptable discourse of the colonizer, which was a remarkable creative act of cultural resilience. At the same time, colonial officials wrongly interpreted these re-contextualized Indigenous spiritualities as evidence that assimilation was working.

In conjunction with legal prohibitions on cultural practice, the Residential School system was set up by church and state to further “help” Indigenous people relieve themselves of their culture. The schools, which have now been recognized as an institution of cultural genocide, were framed as a noble endeavour: saving people from their supposed inevitable extinction. It is a continually humbling pattern in history that the most noble goals often obscure the most oppressive of actions. The Residential School is a clear example of this phenomenon in Canadian History.

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This 1922 photograph shows masks seized from dancers and other participants after a raid on a potlatch ceremony in British Columbia. (Royal British Columbia Museum)

A paternalistic concern for the other that presents itself as “liberating” or “saving” people, which has the consequence (stripped of all ideology) of imposing the majority’s will upon the minority is a part of Canadian History. This same pattern is emerging once again in Election 42 with the Conservative Party’s insistence on the removal of the Niqab during Citizenship Ceremonies, dressed up in the language of anti-patriarchy and a women’s right to choose.

These ideas harm people by creating additional minority stress, one contributing factor to higher rates of mental illness amongst non-majority social groups (the subject of another blog post!). Yet, political strategists exploit their continual existence for electoral gain. It goes like this: the majority (with not a lot of understanding or interest in the minority) simplistically interprets a superficial element of someone else’s culture as evidence of “oppression,” and “backwardness.” Certain of their monolithic one size fits all interpretation, the majority then proceeds to make laws and/or create institutions that prohibit the minority from expressing some element of their culture, all in the aim of “saving them from their own traditions.” The result is the majority imposing its will upon the minority and abrogating their right to free expression. At the same time, the end goal of xenophobia (and there is only ever one end goal to xenophobia) is achieved — to make the other more like us. Effectively, (or literally), to remove the other.

The goal of reconciliation in Canada is not just about righting years of injustice between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. It is also about getting at the root of the colonialist perspectives that are current in this country, of which a paternalistic concern for the other rooted in the highest principles of liberalism, is an ongoing pattern. These ideas continue to harm our civic life and hold Canada back from its potential to be a truly globalist and cosmopolitan country. In this election, these ideas have allowed for the stigmatization of minority identities under the guise of the most lofty of human ideals. The easy hanging together of this hypocrisy, from a historical perspective, is a troubling situation yet at the same time an opportunity to have a discussion that can move the debate forward in the country.