A Canadian election campaign that began amid widespread concern over a faltering economy has turned into a national referendum on the rights of immigrants, with the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, the prime minister, gaining support for its hardline stance against Muslim women who veil their faces in public. The so-called “niqab issue”, inspired by the ruling party’s legal campaign to prevent one Pakistani immigrant from veiling her face during the ceremony held to formalise her new citizenship, remains powerfully divisive as Canadians prepare to elect a new government on 19 October. Although polls show that a substantial majority of Canadians support the government position, opponents have denounced it as a dangerous and even “disgusting” attack on the country’s fragile multicultural harmony. With the latest polls showing Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party gaining ground on the Tories, all attention now turns to the one large bloc of voters who have yet to signal their intentions: the hundreds of thousands of immigrants concentrated in the 100-mile suburban sprawl surrounding Toronto, the country’s largest city.
From the beginning of the campaign, no party doubted the importance of winning these polyglot districts, where more than four out of every 10 citizens – and in some cases more than half of them – were born outside the country. After decades of frantic growth, there are now more seats available here than there are in most Canadian provinces. And with preferences elsewhere solidifying, it is here that the decisive battle of the national election is taking place.
The irony is that a Canadian election campaign dominated by debates over the rights of immigrants is fast becoming a two-way race that will be decided by immigrants – with no accurate information suggesting which way they will swing.
The question is whether the Conservatives’ effort to mobilise their nativist base in the rest of Canada using deliberate expressions of religious intolerance has tarnished their appeal to the immigrant voters about to decide their fate.