Political Spat over Niqab Comment Ends With Conservative Minister Calling Liberal Party ‘Racist’

We made question period super awkward. Sorry.

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Jun 11 2015, 9:18pm

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander seen in the House. Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The dumpsterfire of rhetoric that is the House of Commons' question period grew even worse on Thursday.

On behalf of myself, I'd like to go ahead and apologize for that.

Last week, I sat down with Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, a generally pleasant person who has faced heat for a litany of controversial decisions made by this government. Those decisions include deporting people from Canada back to war-torn Libya and Yemen and creating a system whereby the government can take people's citizenship away without going before a court.

The whole interview was pretty informative.

But we wanted to know why the government isn't letting women who wear the niqab take the oath of citizenship and become a Canadian.

Alexander said some questionable things in trying to explain the policy. He said that the niqab ban was "uncontroversial" (it wasn't), that the rules weren't new (they are), and that it's a formal requirement under the law (it's not).

The interview that started it all.

But what immediately led to a Twitter meme was his answer when asked—for the third time—why Canada would bother telling women what-and-what-not to wear at the citizenship ceremony.

"The overwhelming majority of Canadians want that rule to continue to apply. We've done a lot in the past year to strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship. People take pride in that. They don't want their co-citizens to be terrorists. They don't want people to become citizens who haven't respected the rules," Alexander said.

Now, were you to be a cynical person, you would immediately point out that Canada's Minister of Immigration just implied that women who wear the niqab are terrorists.

That's certainly what Liberal MP John McCallum thought.

In a press release on Wednesday night (that seemingly only went out on Twitter) McCallum expressed his dismay at the minister's comments.

"I am appalled by the language used by Immigration Minister Chris Alexander in an interview with VICE," McCallum says in the release. "It is unacceptable that this Minister, speaking on behalf of Canadians, would suggest that all women who wear the Niqab during citizenship ceremonies are 'terrorists.'"

Now, putting aside that Alexander didn't really say that, Alexander did manage to turn from talking about a woman wearing the niqab to saying that we have to prevent terrorists from becoming Canadian citizens in the span of two sentences. Much in the same way you don't work Nazis into an answer about the modern German automotive sector, it's a general rule of thumb that you don't segue from an administrative spat between a woman exercising her religious beliefs to banishing someone who wants to blow up a car bomb in downtown Toronto.

So McCallum got up in question period to ask about it Thursday.

"It is the most predictable thing in Canadian politics. Someone says 'Muslim' and a Conservative minister says 'terrorist,'" McCallum started off.

"Yesterday, when asked about rising hate crimes against Muslims, the Minister of Immigration felt obliged to talk about terrorists. We also saw yesterday that the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration assumes all Muslim women who wear the veil are terrorists, unless proven otherwise. This is simply unacceptable, so will he apologize to all Muslim Canadians?"

Alexander, obviously, didn't take kindly to that.

"That is, of course, not what I said and if the honourable member wishes to repeat those remarks outside of this chamber, we will have a reckoning with him on the facts of this matter," Alexander said.

While that might seem like an invitation to take the fight outside, Alexander was referring to the fact that MPs have privilege in the House of Commons, meaning they can't be sued for what they say there. And maybe it was also an invitation for fisticuffs. You decide for yourself.

Alexander went on to talk about how the Liberals would be terrible on managing immigration and fighting terrorism.

McCallum tried again.

"It is obvious from the minister's previous statement that he equates terrorism with niqabs."

Which, OK, he didn't exactly say that.

"When only Muslims face a rise in hate crimes, it is obvious the government's toxic anti-Muslim rhetoric is a part of the problem. As when he talks about terrorists plots in mosques, this is the only prime minister in my lifetime who sinks to attack a whole community for political gain. Will he at least apologize to Muslim Canadians?"

The Liberals and Muslim groups have, indeed, have blamed the Conservatives for an anti-Muslim sentiment they say is increasing in Canada.

So the Immigration minister fired back, saying the Liberals' history was "racist."

"Those are the most outrageous, untruths I have yet to hear in this place. This is the only party in this Parliament that is taking action to protect Muslims and other Canadians from the threat of terrorism. I would invite that member to apologize for decades of racism by his party under Mackenzie King, blocking South Asians from coming to this country, blocking East Asians from coming to this country, blocking Caribbeans from coming to this country. The injustice of backlogs under the Trudeau regime and the Chrétien era, it is that party that has been the racist party in this Parliament over decades."

And, hey, it didn't end there. Alexander took to Twitter to call McCallum's comments defamatory and demand he apologize.

The one sure thing about this whole snafu is that you don't get a lot of nuance in question period.

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