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bruce anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

I grew up in a little town called Valleyfield, Que., where I went to a Catholic primary school. There were nuns around, teaching, nursing, helping people in the community – but the Church had decided that they couldn't be priests.

Some could look at this unequal treatment and see an anti-woman bias. Obviously others, including presumably many nuns, saw the same facts but had different conclusions.

I love living in a country where people are free to make their own choices about faith. And within a faith, people can advocate for change, accept teachings completely, or interpret guidance in their own way. Personal choices. Not matters for politicians.

For as long as I've followed politics, most politicians knew their place on faith and personal choice. But now I'm wondering if this will be the latest boundary to be compromised as the infection of ruthlessness in politics spreads.

It's hard not to wonder when it occurred to the Prime Minister that one of the things going wrong in Canada was that some people were taking their citizenship oath with their faces covered.

Between negotiating trade deals, balancing the budget, creating jobs, and settling on a role for Canada in the fight against the Islamic State, it's remarkable that he found time to reflect on this matter, let alone invest political capital to "fix" it.

And now, never having sought a mandate to do so, the Prime Minister is assuming the role of national tutor on what is an acceptable way to express our identity, including guidance on what we should wear.

Stephen Harper says covering your face is concealing, not expressing, a "Canadian" identity. He didn't argue that it was a security threat. He was saying that if this is how you express your personal values, it's not Canadian enough for his tastes.

Initially his comments were focused on the citizenship ceremony. But he has since wandered further, hazardously afield.

The problem, he says, is that the practice of wearing a niqab is rooted in a culture that is "anti-women." He appeared to be generalizing about the Muslim faith. His reference was not specific to the Taliban or the Islamic State, or any radical faction.

His point was that those who cover their faces are not making a choice of their own free will – but are victims of subjugation.

You don't have to be a Muslim to wonder if this line of commentary from a Prime Minister is a healthy development in our democracy.

You can dislike the niqab and still think it's not the Prime Minister's place to comment in this way on individual behavior, and to imagine that he knows the reasons why people make the choices they do.

I asked my 22-year-old daughter, who attends a large urban university, to talk with me about how her generation and gender experience with these choices. Her thoughts were crisp, clear and eloquent (better in her words than mine):

"In a country where women have no choice but to wear the niqab, then of course they are being oppressed – but in Canada where many women have the choice to wear the veil, no one has the right to speculate on why she made that choice or to assign a value judgment to it. It's an infringement on that person's privacy and personal freedom.

"While not wanting to discredit issues of sexism or to simplify a very nuanced issue… I have met numerous Muslim women who opt to wear the veil some days and not to wear it other days, and while of course I know this isn't always the case, many women I know who wear a hijab or niqab see it as a form of cultural expression. It represents something that their mothers and grandmothers do; something that they associate with pride or beauty, not something their fathers and/or religious leaders forced them to do. To portray Muslim women in a monolithic way and to assume that they all have no agency within Canada is generalizing and dehumanizing."

In the curious way of politics, some suspect that what the Prime Minister is doing is all clever calculation. Mr. Harper has won several elections, ergo it must be a master-stroke.

But people in politics make mistakes. And sometimes make them worse, by refusing to step back.

This government was preparing to campaign for a fourth win based on job creation, growth in trade with the world, balancing the budget, and steady (not flashy, radical or risky) leadership. The fall's terror attacks created a legitimate opportunity to add "willing to do the tough work to protect us" to their ballot proposition.

All in all, a competitive platform.

On the website of the new Ambassador for Religious Freedom, the government says it "will speak out against the discrimination of those who simply wish to practice their faith in safety and security." In 2013, Jason Kenney said "a child is no less Canadian because she or he wears a kippa, turban, cross or hijab to school." What was so wrong with this positioning?

For many Conservative candidates running this year, candidates trying to win in suburban, diverse ridings, the new, updated tone is far from helpful. Around the Prime Minister's Office or Cabinet tables – cooler heads should argue that their party risks turning their solid ground on fighting terror into a quagmire.

Mr. Harper as a "judgy" critic of a faith not his own wasn't part of any Conservative re-election plan for 2015. It was a bad idea, miserably executed.

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