Stephen Harper has vowed to appeal a court decision overruling the ban on wearing a niqab during citizenship ceremonies. Conservative fortunes are rising in Quebec. There's a link.
It appears the Tories are becoming increasingly attractive to nativist Quebec voters who oppose multiculturalism in that province.
If so, then the Mr. Harper is playing a high-stakes and highly dangerous game, for he risks making the Conservative Party appear anti-immigrant, which would be fatal to its prospects.
But if he can win over pure laine voters in Quebec while reassuring suburban immigrant voters in Greater Toronto that he is not anti-immigrant, only anti-Muslim extremist, and that the Conservative stance actually promotes multiculturalism, then the party could grow its seat count in Quebec while retaining its base in the so-called 905, named after the area code outside Toronto.
Get the messaging right, and this is the path to a second majority government. Get it wrong, and the Conservatives will lose the October election.
Quebec takes in more Muslim immigrants than other parts of the country, because it recruits French-speaking immigrants, many of whom come from Morocco, Algeria and other Muslim countries in northern Africa and the Middle East.
This has stoked anti-Muslim feeling among some native-born Quebeckers. These are the voters who supported the Parti Quebecois' late and (for this writer) unlamented Values Charter.
Such voters normally incline to the Bloc Quebecois at the federal level. But the Bloc is in disarray, and when these voters hear Mr. Harper speaking out against the niqab (the face covering worn by a small minority of Muslim women) or warning that Islamist extremists have declared war on Canada, they nod their heads in concurrence.
Polls show support among Quebeckers for the mission in Iraq is remarkably high – they usually oppose sending Canadian troops overseas – as is support for the Conservatives' new anti-terrorism legislation. And polls are also showing gains – modest, but real – in Conservative support in Quebec.
But the Conservative Party is a coalition of Western voters and voters in both rural and suburban Ontario. Many of those suburban voters are immigrants. If they see the Tories' anti-niqab, anti-Muslim extremism message as an anti-immigrant, anti-multiculturalism message, then that coalition will shatter and the Conservatives will sit for many years on the opposition benches before they are forgiven.
Most immigrants living in Ontario and the West come from China, the Philippines, the Hindu or Sikh regions of India and other non-Muslim countries or regions, which is why only 3 per cent of the Canadian population is Muslim.
Canadian refugee policy emphasizes protecting persecuted religious and sexual minorities in places like the Middle East. Such groups are unlikely to harbour Muslim extremists.
If Mr. Harper can convince immigrant voters, including Muslim voters, that he is actually protecting Canada's robust immigration and multiculturalism policies by isolating and combatting Muslim extremism, then he could grow his support in Quebec without losing it in suburban Ontario.
But there has always been an anti-immigrant fringe of voters who think Canada is losing its Judeo-Christian and European heritage, and that it's only a matter of time before we're all subject to sharia law.
If immigrant voters believe that these know-nothings (as they used to be called in the United States) are on the ascendant within the Conservative Party, then they will flee the party. And Mr. Harper will no longer be prime minister.
So yes, high stakes, high risk. But the strategy has the advantage of aligning with Mr. Harper's actual beliefs. He is strongly pro-immigration and always has been; he wrote a memo back in 1989 urging Reform's then-leader Preston Manning to take a more strongly pro-immigrant stance.
But he also despises Muslim fundamentalism, if for no other reason than that it threatens Israel.
A woman who refuses to show her face in public – or the husband who forbids her to – is not Mr. Harper's kind of Canadian. And he believes most Canadians, including most immigrant Canadians, including most Muslim immigrant Canadians, are with him.
He's betting the election on it.