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September-October 2019

10 things every voter should care about this election, 6-10

Mainstream media only shows us a handful of issues, but federal leaders should be held accountable to much more

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk

Image: Valerie Thai

6. Islamophobia

The face of Zunera Ishaq, the niqabwearing woman who resisted Stephen Harper’s attempted niqab ban during the citizenship oath ceremony, consumed front pages during the last federal election.

A shameful amount of effort, media attention, and public resources were funnelled into this thinly veiled Islamophobia-forward campaign. Justin Trudeau condemned Harper’s agenda and promised sunny ways that got him elected with a sweeping majority. As a young, visible Muslim voting in my first federal election, I was frustrated with the focus on such a non-issue.

Since then, there has been a rise in Islamophobic policies and violent attacks, both in Canada and abroad. In January 2017, an armed shooter killed six innocent Muslims at a Quebec City mosque. Just over two years later, a gunman killed 51 Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, citing inspiration from the earlier attack. Each catastrophic incident shaped the lives of Muslims globally, amplifying our burden of grief and fear of existing in public space.

Although the Prime Minister and his ministers have used the word “Islamophobia” to describe such events—which is more than some Conservative leaders can say—none of their policies offered effective anti-Islamophobia measures. The non-binding parliamentary Motion 103, announced shortly after the Quebec mosque shooting, aimed to study anti-Muslim sentiments and violence. It caused uproar among Islamophobic groups, such as Canadian Coalition of Concerned Citizens, who protested in Calgary. The MP behind the motion, Iqra Khalid, received death threats. Despite the misinformed fear, the motion and ensuing study yielded no tangible outcomes. The government did not even do something as superficial as designate January 29 as a day of action against Islamophobia.

In the spring of 2019, Bill 21 became law in Quebec. It bans some civil servants from wearing visible religious signs and disproportionately affects Muslim women who wear hijab and niqab. But none of the federal party leaders addressed this legislation as targeting minority religious groups. They provided watered down objections, presumably afraid of losing their Quebec seats come October. They should know that Muslims, especially Muslim women, were keeping receipts.

So what does this mean for the upcoming election?

No major federal party has presented a solid action plan to deal with Islamophobia and other forms of white supremacist hate. In recent years, members of the Conservative party have been anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. Even as official opposition, they have not addressed anti-Muslim behaviour internal to their party. During a justice committee hearing where Faisal Khan Suri, president of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, was testifying on alt-right hate, MP Michael Cooper read the Christchurch shooter manifesto into the public record. After criticism from activists, he was asked to leave the justice committee but he was not removed from caucus and faced no real penalties for inciting discomfort and distress onto a Muslim witness.

It’s highly unlikely that any one political party can save us  from Islamophobia. But the discourse a governing party adopts shapes public opinion and consciousness. As a visible Muslim woman, I simply cannot risk another Conservative mandate that inflames the political climate in Canada against Muslims.

Like many others, I find myself in a bind: do I vote for the NDP, hoping the underdog party finally wins big with the first racialized leader of a federal party? Or is that a risky move that would leave space for the Conservatives to win a sweeping majority?

Every major party must have a robust plan to deal with online hate, and right wing radicalization and violence. For Islamophobia to be effectively addressed, it must be considered a human rights and safety concern that affects all Canadians across party lines. Canadian politicians watched in horror as the death toll rose in the recent mosque shootings. As they draft their upcoming platforms, it’s time they promise Canadians mosque shootings do not happen again, and start putting their money where their tears are.

Baraa Arar

7. Reproductive health

This past May, we began hearing about the introduction of state legislation to significantly restrict access to—and in some places, criminalize—abortion across the United States. Many of us responded instinctively with feelings of sadness and anger. Personally, I was surprised to feel some relief as well. I moved to Canada from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and have, on many occasions over the course of the last three years, felt lucky to be observing, not experiencing, the far-right rearing
its ugly head south of the border.

That feeling of relief was, of course, fleeting. Right around the same time, between the U.S.’ moves, Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff spoke at the annual March for Life anti-choice rally at Queen’s Park—just blocks from my current apartment—pledging to “fight to make abortion unthinkable in our lifetime.” He was likely emboldened by counterparts in the U.S., and in hopping on the bandwagon, emboldened other anti-choicers across Canada to follow suit. About a week later, an anti-abortion group called Show the Truth was reported showing up to schools in Prince Edward Island wielding graphic posters they claim depicted aborted fetuses. Another cohort of anti-choice protestors showed up at the Confederation Building in St. John’s, Newfoundland, days after that. (Worth noting: they were outnumbered by pro-choice protestors 100 to 10.)

Over the course of a very short amount of time, the anti-choice movement has gained real traction in Canada, posing a threat to the rights of all Canadians with uteruses. But attacks against reproductive rights are not a new thing in this country. Despite abortion being legal federally since 1969 (in cases where the health/life of a woman was threatened; 1988 was when it was legalized at any stage), the first legal abortion performed in P.E.I. in 35 years did not take place until 2017; prior to that, people seeking legal abortions had to travel out of province to receive one, which disadvantages low-income people, those working several jobs, and anyone with mobility issues. (Until 2017 the province would pay for abortions performed off-island.) Up until 2017, patients in Nova Scotia were required to obtain a physician’s referral before receiving a surgical abortion, which slowed down the process for many by months—meanwhile, there’s provincial coverage for the abortion pill in Nova Scotia now, but there are still major barriers to access (e.g. billing issues, lack of supply, etc.). As we near the federal election, it’s time to think deeply about national leadership that stands a chance not only against blatant anti-abortion protests, but that stands to revoke some of these everyday barriers to reproductive care access.

Conservative leaders have remained notably quiet about the abortion issue since Oosterhoff’s rally appearance—though 12 Conservative MPs were present at Ottawa’s March for Life rally. Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Andrew Scheer have both said they have no plans to “re-open the debate” around abortion, but both have evaded questions on the matter, and more notably, failed to reprimand actions of politicians like Oosterhoff. Even more troubling is the fact that Scheer’s campaign has, in the past, used his record of voting in favour of anti-abortion legislation to woo supporters. These supporters are likely to come out in droves come election time.

Even on the other side of the political spectrum, there’s reason to keep an eye on the abortion debate. Elizabeth May, leader of the federal Greens, has been known to waver on the topic; while she says she remains steadfast in her support for the right to choose today, she has a history of voicing opposition to abortion (which she has claimed was misreported). And while Justin Trudeau has condemned movements against abortion in both Canada and the States, he also recently had a “cordial conversation” with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on the topic, who in the same meeting, said he was “proud to be part of a pro-life administration.” Perhaps, cordiality is not worth applauding when it comes to attacks on human rights.

When I think about what the anti-abortion movement looks like in the U.S., I think of the people I was up against the summer I canvassed for Planned Parenthood on the streets of New York City. It was 2015, and even then, I was routinely shouted at by anti-choice passersby. I was often called a “murderer.” I regularly had to explain to unconvinced citizens that, despite abortion being federally legal, countless states were defunding abortion clinics, leaving many with no choice but to travel miles and miles, often out of state, to get the care they needed (an especially difficult task for those lacking the money or ability to take time off work to travel). So when I learned that, four years later, the situation in my country of origin had grown far worse, I felt fortunate to no longer be living there.

It’s easy to watch these attacks play out in the U.S. and assume they would never happen in Canada. But anti-abortion groups across the country are becoming increasingly loud, empowered by political leaders like Oosterhoff, Ford, and Scheer. As the federal election nears, it’s time to think wisely about what a government best suited to squash this movement looks like.

Audrey Carleton

8. MMIWG

A week after the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) released their final report and Calls for Justice, there was a conference, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: An Epidemic Crossing the Medicine Line, at the University of British Columbia, where people convened to talk about MMIWG in Canada and the United States. Chief Commissioner of the National Inquiry, Marion Buller, was a keynote speaker.

She spoke about the inquiry and the report—a culmination of 15 community hearings, over 2,380 testimonies from families and survivors, and almost three years of work.

Throughout her talk, Buller shared many informative, empowering, and often heart-wrenching insights, but one statement I remember her making, in particular, sticks with me. In response to the media backlash the report received upon release, mostly around its firm use of the word genocide, she said, “Canadians cannot unhear the truth.”

It’s a powerful statement. And she’s right. But coming into an election season, the concern these days is not so much that Canadians won’t hear the truth, but that they won’t listen to it. That they won’t insist upon the changes that the
truth demands.

I worry that the implementation of the Calls for Justice will become a partisan issue—that there will be debates on the extent to which they should be implemented; that the necessity and spirit of the report will be compromised so that parties can attempt to secure power and votes. I worry that the winning government will feel little pressure or accountability to care about MMIWG, the report, or the Calls for Justice at all. These are worries I know can all too feasibly become realities, especially when looking at how the current party leaders stand on the implementation and findings of the National Inquiry.

Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May have both stated that they agree with the report’s findings, but Andrew Scheer and Justin Trudeau, whose parties currently have significant leads in the polls, have had more to say.

Representatives from the Conservative Party have said they will commit to a national action plan to implement the Calls to Justice, yet Andrew Scheer has stated that the situation “doesn’t fall into that category of genocide.” Justin Trudeau, promised that his “government will turn the inquiry’s calls for justice into real, meaningful, Indigenous-led action” but has also said that “cultural genocide” was a more appropriate term in his opinion—presumedly as opposed to the actual genocide that the report named and defined.

How does an action plan or commitment hold any meaning if you don’t believe in the reality they are supposed to address? These insufficient and problematic commitments will surely be all the MMIWG report receives come October if Canadians and other non-Indigenous people don’t take up a meaningful stand of solidarity with Indigenous communities leading up to the election, and when casting their votes.

Among the 231 Calls for Justice that the National Inquiry set out, eight are directed specifically to all Canadians. With the federal election in mind, Call 15.8 stands out most. It directs Canadians to “help hold all governments accountable to act on the Calls for Justice, and to implement them according to the important principles we [the National Inquiry] set out.”

Honouring and embodying this call means listening to the voices of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA folks when deciding who to vote for. It means insisting candidates commit to the realization of the Calls for Justice and holding them accountable to that commitment long after the ballots close.

The truth is, Indigenous communities are living through genocide and the governments who are largely responsible for upholding that genocide cannot be allowed to ignore or contradict that. The safety and justice owed to Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA folks are not partisan issues, and further, not issues at all—they are rights that must be ensured, and in many ways, including by their voices and votes, Canadians have a role to play in ensuring them. I hope we can hear that truth, and then act on it.

—Riley Yesno

9. HIV decriminalization

HIV isn’t exactly a hot topic on the campaign trail. On a rare day, a political candidate might be found gesturing to its impact in developing countries, or even mentioning treatment and prevention advances like PrEP or U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable). These are important issues, but it’s time to start pressing candidates on Canada’s grim claim to fame in the field: we are a true world leader in aggressively criminalizing people living with HIV.

In Canada, more than 180 people have been charged with aggravated sexual assault for allegedly not disclosing their HIV status to sexual partners. In many cases, no transmission occurs (or is even possible), and the accused have taken measures to protect their partners. Even so, a conviction results in years of incarceration and a lifetime on the registry of sex offenders.

Such prosecutions rely on a not-so-subtly homophobic logic that sees HIV-positive (poz for short) people as inherent predators. This framework, based primarily on stigma and homophobia, is woefully out of step with global norms and current HIV science. Denmark, Senegal, Australia, and many others have repealed HIV criminalization laws in the last decade or so.

More importantly, the Canadian approach has horrifying effects on people living with HIV. Victims of these laws typically end up in provincial prisons, notorious for their inadequate health care. Afterwards, decent work and housing can be nearly impossible to access due to the sex offender registration.

Even if they haven’t been directly accused, criminalization leaves poz folks in a constant state of fear and surveillance. At any moment, one’s immigration status could be jeopardized by charges, or an abusive partner or family member could use HIV status as fodder for blackmail or violence. The kicker? Criminalization actively discourages Canadians from getting tested and treated, directly undermining public health objectives.

But we may have a chance to change this. For years HIV activists have organized deftly to stop these prosecutions. Politicians have been slow to listen, but there is finally some will towards change. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself hasn’t spoken to the issue, his government is listening. On World AIDS Day 2017, then-federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced that the justice committee would review the issue of nondisclosure cases. In June, current Justice Minister David Lametti delivered the resulting report, which condemned the current approach. The committee recommended replacing current practice with a new offence in the Criminal Code that would apply to non-disclosure cases of any infectious disease, but only when transmission occurs, among other suggestions.

Thus, we find ourselves on the precipice of a big change on this issue. The recommendations are not perfect. Broadening the law to other diseases might result in more people being criminalized for their health conditions. And activists have long demanded that criminal charges should be limited only to those extremely rare cases where somebody has intentionally transmitted HIV, a position echoed by the NDP committee members in their dissent. Meanwhile, Conservatives on the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights said they still believe folks should be charged when there is a “realistic” chance of transmission.

And this is what brings us back to the election ahead. The recommendation shared by Lametti in June is just that—a suggestion. It’s not likely to become law before we vote. Real follow-through will be required if the Liberals want this to mean anything, or if the NDP were to actually narrow the scope further. And of course, if the Conservatives take it, there’s a good chance they will try to throw the report in the trash while we’re not looking.

So now’s the time to ask candidates across the board: what are you going to do about the mandated changes in how the law treats people with HIV?

Jonathan Valelly

10. The North

It has to take a massive amount of dissonance to be proud of Canada being an “Arctic country” that ignores its North. (“We the North” seems fun to chant until it’s time to listen to the North…) As a geographical region it’s 40 percent of the country, but the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Inuit Nunangat (Inuit Regions of Canada) are so distinct from each other; within each is a diverse, mostly-Indigenous, population with varying needs. Nunavut has the highest unemployment rate in the country; Yukon has the lowest. Nunavummiut are concerned with the high suicide rates and high cost of living. The Yukon and NWT are rich for mining; the federal government’s five-year ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic is being reviewed and companies are thirsty.

The common reality heard from Northerners across borders, though, is the North is ignored. Indigenous and territorial governments are left with the burden of making up for the dire lack of infrastructure funding and the high cost of living, which increasingly includes the fallout of the climate crisis. Shouldering the majority of weight of climate change for the entire country—despite being the lowest contributors to climate change (along with P.E.I.)—the North and Northerners are getting stretched thin.

Both Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer and Green Party leader Elizabeth May made their respective rounds to the North in the beginning of July. May gathered a crowd of people in Yellowknife answering to her plans for getting the North off of fossil fuels and promising a ban on all new oil and gas development across Canada. Meanwhile, in June, Scheer gathered his own crowds in Iqaluit, NU and Whitehorse, YT where he promised to honour the funding promises the Liberal government has made to Inuit Nunangat. Trudeau made a visit to Iqaluit, NU in the summer to announce new promises.

If any federal party were serious about investing in the North and empowering Northerners—they would create a cabinet portfolio specifically for the North and any of the three territorial MPs would be appointed. When there’s just one member of parliament representing an entire territory in a sea of about 300 other MPs, that one member wielding that power matters. Sometimes people feel like they can’t really base their vote on the party. The people of each territory have to vote for who they think will represent and advocate for the best interests of their territory.

And Northern MPs don’t often get appointed to cabinet.
The Northwest Territories has never had one appointed and the Yukon has had just one, which was in the 70s. Ethel Dorothy Blondin-Andrew of NWT was a junior cabinet minister; Erik Nielson was an elected minister in 1979 (he was also deputy PM for a time in the 80s). Four-time Liberal Yukon MP Larry Bagnell and two-time Liberal NWT MP Michael McLeod were both passed up for Minister of Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade during a cabinet shuffle in July last year.

On top of decades of neglect and disregard, climate change has reached a breaking point in the North. It’s underbuilt, underdeveloped, and undersupported. The Canadian Arctic is 25 percent of the international circumpolar world but contributes less than two percent to the circumpolar economy.

Politicians need to invest robust funding in robust infrastructure development alongside Indigenous and territorial governments with actual vision that include sustaining the land. The shores of Tuktoyaktuk, NT are eroding before residents’ eyes. Homes are sinking from melting permafrost. Coastal hunters from Alaska to Gjoa Haven, NU report changes in migration and movement patterns in marine animals. Nunavummiut along the Northwest Passage are concerned with the increasing traffic through
the infamous Arctic waterway.

The party leaders are concerned with asserting Arctic sovereignty in the North and the Northwest Passage, but it’s impossible when the region is suffering economically and socially. To assert any sovereignty in the North internationally means asserting Inuit Nunangut’s claim.

Indigenous communities in the North understand what they need best. Northerners are asking governments to invest in infrastructure for sustainable and healthy standards of living. These all need to be addressed with the environment in mind and with what Inuit want and need in their communities, like subsidies for access to country foods and support for hunters. Tap into the pulse of any town and you’ll find for each concern, there are a handful of people with potential solutions and ideas. Ones that might actually work if they’re given a chance.

—Kaila Jefferd-Moore

 

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