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opinion

A woman wearing a niqab leaves a polling station in Ottawa after voting in the Oct. 19 federal election.PATRICK DOYLE/The Canadian Press

Stephen Larin is a senior researcher at the European Academy of Bolzano, Italy and a visiting researcher at Aarhus University, Denmark.

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One of the most important results of Monday's historic election is its affirmation that most Canadians reject the divisive xenophobia that has become a winning strategy for many European politicians.

Refugees, niqabs and what it means to be a Canadian citizen dominated the second half of the campaign, and the Conservatives' rhetoric on such issues initially seemed to work in their favour. But the vote results proved them wrong.

Anti-migrant rhetoric and policies play better in Europe, where prominent politicians have declared that multiculturalism has failed. Governments have introduced so-called civic integration policies that emphasize liberal-democratic values, but are often meant to exclude some types of migrants more than to encourage integration. Mainstream parties now argue along with right-wing demagogues that certain cultures are inherently incompatible with liberal democracy, and hostility toward migrants has surged.

On Sunday, the far-right Swiss People's Party – which produced the infamous "minaret missile" posters – won a third of the vote in parliamentary elections, 10 per cent more than the second-place party. Austria's Freedom Party has recently made huge gains in state and local elections on the promise to build border fences to keep out migrants. In June, the anti-migrant Danish People's Party won the second-highest number of seats in parliament, making it the most influential supporter of the country's minority government.

The backlash against multiculturalism has been less influential in Canada, but not absent. It is most evident in Quebec, where the debate about "reasonable accommodation" and the Quebec Charter of Values is long-standing – fuelled by a more European conception of secularism inspired by France, and accompanied by a suspicion that multiculturalism has always been a tool to undermine Quebec's distinct status.

Concerns about migration and religious difference are not unique to Quebeckers, however, as an opinion poll commissioned last spring by the Privy Council Office found. A significant majority of people surveyed across the country supported the requirement "that people show their face during Canadian citizenship ceremonies" (though it is not clear if respondents understood that personal identification before the ceremony was already a requirement). Seeing an opportunity, Stephen Harper took up against the niqab, and even said that his government, if re-elected, would consider banning public servants from wearing the facial covering and similar types of clothing.

It didn't work. "Anyone But Harper" had been a rallying cry since 2008, but it took the Conservative government's attack on individual freedoms to give it true urgency. Almost no one likes niqabs, as the other political party leaders made clear, but if a Muslim woman freely chooses to wear one, it is none of our business. Multiculturalism is more than just a demographic fact: It is an approach to social integration that recognizes that sometimes treating people as moral equals means allowing them to be different.

Canada was the first country in the world to institutionalize this principle with its 1971 Multiculturalism Policy, and Canadians should be proud to have defended it as other countries are turning toward fear and exclusion. Let this first step not be the last.

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