Trudeau Says Conservatives Are Prejudiced Against Muslims, But Is Still Cool with C-51

The Liberal leader slammed Harper but defended the government's new security measures.

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Mar 10 2015, 4:27pm

Justin Trudeau. Photo via Flickr user Alex Guibord

While re-affirming his support of the government's contentious anti-terror bill, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is accusing the Conservatives of whipping up fear against Muslims in Canada.

Trudeau told hundreds gathered at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto Monday night that "the same rhetoric that led to a 'none is too many' immigration policy toward Jews in the 30s and 40s is being used to raise fears against Muslims today." The Liberal party leader made specific reference to the Conservative government's ongoing attempts to ban the niqab, a face covering worn by a minority of Muslim women, from citizenship ceremonies.

A press release from the Prime Minister's Office took exception to Trudeau's remarks, underlining Stephen Harper's speeches to the Muslim community, but the release added that "most Canadians would find it offensive that someone would conceal their identity at the very moment they want to join the Canadian family."

Defence Minister Jason Kenney, who is also in charge of the government's outreach to ethnic communities, slammed Trudeau's remarks.

"It is obscene to conflate the essentially public nature of the citizenship oath with an anti-Semitic bar on refugees fleeing the Holocaust," Kenney tweeted, adding that the Conservatives have admitted 300,000 Muslim immigrants in the last decade.

"You can dislike the niqab–you can hold it up as a symbol of oppression," Trudeau told the crowd of McGill alumni. "But those who would use the state's power to restrict women's religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn." A receptive audience at the event, which was organized in part by Trudeau advisor Gerald Butts, gave the Liberal leader a standing ovation as he finished his remarks.

The speech was billed as a defence of Canadian liberty, and Trudeau focused heavily on the importance of women's reproductive rights and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But his remarks during the 40-minute address about what he called a state-sanctioned fear against Muslims served as his most direct attack against Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"It is always a short path to walk from being suspicious of our fellow citizens to taking actions to restrict their liberty," said Trudeau.

At one point late in the speech Trudeau seemed to reference Bill C-51, a controversial set of so-called "anti-terror" measures currently under debate in Parliament. "Our social contract sometimes requires us to moderate our freedoms in order to ensure we maintain them in the long-run," said Trudeau. When asked directly in a question from the audience why he has expressed support for C-51, Trudeau said the legislation contains "concrete measures" that will keep Canadians safe.

After the speech, VICE asked Trudeau if he is concerned about a disproportionate impact of anti-terror legislation on Canada's Muslims. Initially, Trudeau seemed to justify some scrutiny of Muslim communities. "I think one of the most important things we need to do, on top of any security measures, is to make sure we're reaching out to the Muslim community and engaging them, because they are the ones who are closest to the radicalization, and they are best able to help keep us safe from these young people who are getting radicalized for all the wrong reasons."

When I asked again if Trudeau believed Muslims are being targeted through current security measures, he replied, "One of the fears I have is that we have a government that is stoking fears and fomenting anxiety around Muslim Canadians by conflating fears about terrorism with fears about people who look different or sound different. That's the one things I'm really against."

C-51 would give intelligence officials and police broad new powers to investigate and detain Canadians under the suspicion of terrorist activity. It includes government powers to detain citizens on the suspicion that they may be involved in terrorism. The New Democratic Party, the official opposition in Parliament, has raised grave concerns about an apparent lack of government oversight in light of these potential new powers. In recent weeks, constitutional experts and even provincial leaders have joined a chorus sounding the alarm at the bill's potential restrictions on Canadians' freedoms.

After suggesting the government is targeting Muslims in his speech, Trudeau reaffirmed his conditional support for the contentious Bill C-51.

"I don't want to get into a political fight over this," Trudeau said flatly about Bill C-51. He suggested that his party would present its own platform on national security in the fall, and added that Liberals will push for amendments to C-51 to ensure government oversight.

Many groups that advocate for Canada's Muslims have raised concerns about the impact of Bill C-51 and other security measures in their communities. The Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association has argued that C-51 "grants the Canadian government with vague and unnecessary powers that pose a risk to the civil and privacy rights of Canadians."

CMLA has also expressed concern that current national security legislation has excessively targeted Muslims. "Given the disproportionate impact of anti-terrorism legislation in recent years on Canadian Muslims, these new proposals are of particular interest in our community," the group stated in a February press release.

Trudeau did not reveal any of his party's proposals on the issue of national security, but said that governments must "strike the right balance" between individual liberties and collective safety. While Trudeau argued the government has failed to strike that balance, he said Liberals will wait until the 2015 election campaign to offer alternative national security policies.

Follow Desmond Cole on Twitter.