Hundreds of Canadian university professors are condemning the campaign strategy of Stephen Harper's Conservative Party, which they allege has turned, in the last weeks of the election, to mongering fear and hate in order to win votes.
In an open letter, signed by over 600 academics from a wide array of disciplines and published this morning in the Ottawa Citizen, the scholars state that the Conservative campaign has "flagrantly crossed the line" with its messaging about "barbaric cultural practices" — a term the letter claims is specifically tailored to play on bigotry without sounding bigoted.
"The repeated use of this phrase along with a proposed tip line to root out undesirables are cynically calculated to distract and divide citizens by insinuating that some law abiding and peaceful members of the community are freedom-hating barbarians who threaten Canadian society," states the letter. "By conjuring up a phantom menace to the country and implying that some immigrants and religious minorities are enemies, the Conservatives hope to pit Canadians against one another. Like many sophisticated forms of vicious propaganda, the invocation of barbarism is meant to create fear and anxiety rather than to identify a real problem."
For weeks, the federal election has been marked by controversy over the Conservative government's challenge to a court ruling striking down its ban on women taking the oath of citizenship while wearing a niqab, its initiative to revoke the citizenship of Canadians convicted of terrorism who hold dual-citizenship, and the prime minister's use of the phrase "old-stock Canadians." But one of the letter's authors said that it was Conservative Immigration Minister Chris Alexander's proposal last week for a police tip line where citizens could report "incidents of barbaric cultural practices" that drove him and his co-authors to act.
"That crossed a line that we haven't seen crossed at any point in Canadian politics," Daniel Weinstock, a professor of law at McGill University, told VICE News. Each of the four co-authors initially sent the letter to 20 colleagues, but it quickly gained steam going viral within the Canadian academic community after it was first published on the blog In Due Course. Weinstock said that he was pleasantly surprised by the scale of the support and is still getting emails from people who want to sign, including some academics who he says "in no way shape or form could ever be accused of being left wing."
"We don't think this is a left-right issue," said Weinstock. "I dare say that progressive conservatives of the Brian Mulroney Joe Clark tradition would be horrified by this as well."
Indeed, last week Danny Williams, the former Progressive Conservative premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, told the CBC that Harper's tactics are flirting with racism and said that conservatives who couldn't bring themselves to vote Liberal or NDP would do their country a service by staying home on election day.
Asked for comment about the letter criticizing his party's campaign strategy, Conservative spokesperson Stephen Lecce instead provided a statement decrying "honor" killing, polygamy, female genital mutilation and forced marriage — all of which are illegal in Canada, and were so long before the Harper government passed the "Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act." On Tuesday, Harper doubled down on his stance on the niqab in an interview with CBC host Rosemary Barton, saying that his government is considering barring public employees from wearing the face covering.
Two March public opinion polls showed that roughly two-thirds of Canadians support a ban on the niqab in citizenship ceremonies.
Avigail Eisenberg, a professor of political science at the University of Victoria who co-authored the letter, said in an email that pushing such questions to the center of a campaign distracts voters from the major issues facing Canada. Weinstock said that doing so is dangerous.
"It enables and authorizes people who may have felt that their anti-Islamic views were best repressed," Weinstock said. "In order to achieve this wedge advantage, the government is opening up this area of speech, which had been thought to be off limits, and it isn't a long way from speech to action." Two Muslim women have been publicly attacked in Canada over the last ten days.
Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg