OTTAWA — Anticipation of the first televised French-language debate loomed large on the campaign trail Wednesday, with the parties jostling for position in advance of the showdown that promises to put NDP Leader Tom Mulcair in the cross hairs.
Mulcair moved to pre-empt one line of attack: his refusal to demand that face coverings be banned during citizenship ceremonies. The NDP leader clarified his position on the niqab and urged Canadians not to give in to the politics of fear, division and exclusion.
Quebec is the NDP’s electoral fortress but it is also the province in which public opinion polls suggest banning the niqab is most popular.
Rival leaders will inevitably be gunning hard for Mulcair in Thursday’s debate, hoping to shake the NDP’s seemingly iron grip on Quebec. And at least two — Conservative Stephen Harper and Bloc Quebecois Gilles Duceppe — have already signalled that the explosive niqab issue will be part of their arsenal.
The Conservatives released a French television ad Tuesday, featuring Harper asserting that his party shares Quebecers’ values, including the belief that new citizens should take the oath with their faces uncovered.
The Bloc, which is trying to steal back seats it lost to the NDP in 2011, last week released a nasty ad warning Quebecers about what’s in store if they vote NDP. It featured a pipeline pumping out black goop that morphs into a niqab.
Some New Democrat candidates and MPs have expressed opposition to the niqab but on Wednesday Mulcair said the party agrees with the current rules, which require would-be citizens to show their faces for identification purposes during the citizenship process but allow them to be veiled during the purely symbolic oath-taking ceremony.
“I understand that many view the niqab as a symbol of oppression of women,” Mulcair told party faithful in Montreal.
“And on that let me be clear: No one has the right to tell a woman what she must — or must not — wear. I am in agreement with the existing rule under which anyone seeking citizenship must uncover their face to identify themselves before swearing the oath, in accordance with their religious beliefs.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Green Leader Elizabeth May have strongly denounced the Harper government’s attempts to ban the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.
May, who spent part of her debate preparation day giving an interview to The Canadian Press, said she was “horrified” by the Bloc ad targeting the NDP.
“We have to renounce politics of fear and division in this country,” she said. “It’s 2015; there are real challenges that face Canada. But a woman being entitled to wear a niqab in a citizenship ceremony is an issue? Excuse me, this is not an issue. This is a cynical manipulation.”
While Trudeau spent Wednesday preparing for the debate, his party opened up another line of attack on Mulcair: his pricey promise to introduce a national, $15-a-day child care program, modelled on Quebec’s universal daycare program.
Mulcair has repeatedly argued that Quebec’s program has proved an economic boon, helping increase women’s participation in the workforce and boosting government revenues. But a video dredged up by the Liberals shows Mulcair, as a Liberal member of Quebec’s National Assembly in 2000, trashing the province’s daycare program for eating up money and touting the benefits of a “free market” approach that would leave more money in parents pockets and let them make their own choices.
Harper was also out of the public eye preparing for the debate. But his party released a statement announcing that a re-elected Conservative government would reinstate the royal military college in St. Jean, Que., as a full degree-granting institution. The college was closed by the previous Liberal government in 1995 and reopened in 2008 by the Harper government as a CEGEP, or junior college.
His erstwhile finance minister, Joe Oliver, meanwhile gave an interview to The Associated Press that could become grist for Thursday’s debate mill. Oliver insisted that Canada was not and is not in a recession, despite the fact that the economy contracted in the first two quarters of this year. The Harper government’s recently passed balanced budget legislation defines recession as two consecutive quarters in which the economy retracted.
With polls suggesting a very real possibility that the Oct. 19 vote will produce a minority government, there was more evidence Wednesday that a Conservative minority would not survive long. Mulcair and May both ruled out any chance their parties would prop up a Harper minority, echoing a stance taken by Trudeau on Tuesday.
“There isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell,” said Mulcair.
The Canadian Press