The debate about the niqab issue has missed an important underlying political message. Most of the commentary has hinged on a sense of incredulity that a matter that involves a very small number of Muslim women should attract such attention. Other responses have been both compassionate and finger-wagging ("Where is your tolerance? What harm does it do to you if a woman veils her face?").
The question is whether a woman who covers her face for religious reasons should be required to remove the veil for a public citizenship ceremony. The Conservative government says, Yes, you must show your face. The New Democrats and the Liberals say, No, you don't have to, and federal courts have so far has upheld that view.
Yet, according to a survey conducted for the Privy Council Office last March, and released in September, 82 per cent of Canadians, and 93 per cent of Quebeckers (overwhelming numbers in such matter) agree with the Conservatives. This is costing the out-of-step parties, especially the New Democrats in their necessary bastion of Quebec. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau seem genuinely almost baffled by the fuss.
So what is going on here? The reality is that this is just the latest manifestation of a very old political truth: People are uncomfortable with change. And such discomfort is not a linear matter; it is exponential. Double the rate of change and quadruple (or more) the negative reaction. Characterize the change as a clear-and-present threat to a way of life and a tipping point arrives very quickly.
The niqab itself is nothing but a minor example of change in Canada. The turbulence comes from its symbolism of the passing of an older Canada (and especially Quebec). At whatever age we are, most people are more comfortable living with the order of the past.
But now change is everywhere, and is increasingly rapid, from new technology and new types of jobs, to cultural and demographic changes. Canada's ethnic mix has changed dramatically in just a few generations. In the large Vancouver suburb of Richmond, 49 per cent of the population was ethnic Chinese, according to Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey. And Statscan has predicted that white people could be a "visible minority" in Vancouver and Toronto by 2017.
Adherence to conventional religion has been dropping like a stone. The old-line Christian churches are shadows of themselves and the Catholics survive by virtue of Catholic immigrants. The evangelicals are on the strong rise. Muslims now outnumber Jews 2-to-1 in Canada, and the ratio is rising.
And seniors now outnumber children for the first time in our history. Seniors are far more unsettled by change, for the very good reason that they have less resilience and adaptability. The negative political consequences of change stem significantly from this fact, given that senior citizens' vote.
So what are the lessons for politicians in this election and beyond? The first is short-term electoral. If you can convert something such as the niqab debate (here an unspoken proxy for Islam), into fear about a way of life, as the Conservatives have done with their escalation of a minor issue, you can have a huge impact. It has muted the Orange Wave in Quebec down to a ripple and Mr. Mulcair is trapped; he can't go back on his niqab-tolerant word. The Oct. 19 vote result could be a bye-bye to the NDP, and hello to the Liberals as the Official Opposition, or even government. The cause is a nasty piece of work, but there it is.
Longer term, there are two lessons about change. First, it must not go too far, too fast, or people will push back. We see that in Europe today. A few refugees? Welcome! But open gates? Wait a minute! The second lesson is to try to engineer consent. You can do that by sweet reason or coarse bribery (such as the promised subsidies to our dairy and poultry farmers upset by the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal).
You can also try to change things not by consent but by stealth, as Stephen Harper has done with Canada in just nine years. That is a roll of the dice. Will it work? We shall soon see.