This Oct 19, Vote for a Canada that Accepts the Niqab

Every morning, Tsering Dikyi, my mother-in-law, steps out to her back porch and lights up a handful of kindle in a small, beat up iron pan. She covers the incipient flame with juniper leaves, bits of dried fruit, an assortment of Tibetan incense, and tsampa (roasted barley flour). Most days she sets the pan with the smoke wafting outside the porch and finishes her prayers. Sometimes she takes the pan and walks around the house, letting the smoke drift around the corners of the property. In Tibetan, we call this saahng.

To those not familiar with saahng, they might find Tsering’s morning ritual—the sight of a petite, elderly woman walking around the house in the soft light of dawn, murmuring chants and holding a rusty pan billowing with scented smoke—peculiar.

As we head into the final week of Canada’s federal elections, I wonder how some of her less-acquainted neighbours will view this piece of oddity. How will they react to it? Will they ask inquisitively about the meaning behind this ritual? Or will they reach for the telephone and call up the RCMP to report suspicious, smoke-related activity?

This may seem like hyperbole of the most paranoid order, but framed within the fevered discussions of late, I don’t think it is too far-fetched a scenario. The Conservative government crafted and passed the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act (Bill S-7)” to ostensibly protect women and children. They have since pledged to create a tip line to further incriminate “barbaric” actions. The niqab incident gave much needed oxygen to a party that was trailing in polls and running on fumes only a couple of weeks ago.

Zunera Ishaq talks to reporters outside the Federal Court of Appeal after her case was heard on whether she can wear a niqab while taking her citizenship oath, in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

Zunera Ishaq talks to reporters outside the Federal Court of Appeal after her case was heard on whether she can wear a niqab while taking her citizenship oath, in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

It seems odd that a party whose central tenet is limiting government interference in private citizens’ lives is vociferously cheerleading intrusive, meddling acts like these. Or maybe it isn’t so odd after all.

This past summer, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee released their findings on the impact and legacy of the Indian Residential Schools system. The committee members painstakingly collected records and testimonies from survivors, their families, and everyone else that became enmeshed in this atrocity. Even though it remains to be seen how the government post-Oct 19 will act upon the recommendations put forth by the Commission, the overwhelming show of solidarity from Canadians all over the country showed how much grief and healing still remained from this shameful, horrifying part of our history; that it should never be repeated again.

In this whole debate around the niqab and “barbaric” acts, how soon we forget that the residential school system was officially sanctioned by our government. That it was implemented primarily as a means to “civilize the savage”: their languages, their clothing, their dances, their communities, and their sense of identity.

How soon we forget that the last federally operated residential school closed only two decades ago.

There are obvious, huge distinctions between European Canadian settlers instituting a series of policies and programs that destroyed Canadian indigenous families (affecting over 150,000 Aboriginal children, killing at least 4,000), and the matter of wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies. I am by no means conflating the two.

But I do think there are some crucial underpinnings in both instances that would serve us well to examine. Namely: what this boundary between acceptable and unacceptable cultural practices is, and who gets to set this boundary.

The niqab debate is a useful thermometer on the health of our democracy. Whether you agree with it or not, you have the right to express your opinion about it, and also the right to resist anyone enforcing this tradition on you. To marginalize it though, whether by making it illegal or insisting that it is a non-issue, suggests that women who wear the niqab do not matter in the grand dominion of Canada. That their wishes and their rights fall far behind issues related to the economy, environment, equity, etc.

How we define the niqab debate will play a not insignificant role in how we define Canada. Are we a country that recognizes the plurality of the people and the cultures that make up Canada? How do we uphold the secular values of our democracy and government, and at the same time, protect the rights of religious minorities to observe their traditions safely? What does it mean to be a Canadian after all?

These are complicated questions, and they will not all be solved by the time you cast your ballot on Oct 19 (make sure you do it before the first pitch of the ALCS game). I do know this though: as someone who arrived here as a refugee, I will never forget the warm generosity of many different Canadians who helped me and my family settle in Toronto during that cold month of December. I hope that that expansive heart of Canada remains in the lead-up to and after the elections, and becomes only stronger as we forge another chapter in our democracy.

When I asked Tsering why she wakes up so early in the morning, even in the dead of winter, to conduct her saahng, she said this: it is to thank the spirits who dwell on the land, to wish them well, and to ask for their help in removing any obstacles that may be in her family’s, her friends’ and everyone else’s path that day.

If you are familiar with native North American traditions, you will find this act similar to the practice of smudging. A healing ceremony to purify the elements around us and within us.

Follow me on Twitter: @GelekB

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