OTTAWA — Campaigning Conservatives continued to press the hot buttons Friday, highlighting what they call "barbaric cultural practices" and Muslim facial coverings amid evidence the tight, three-way election race may be starting to break loose.
The NDP, which appears to be getting squeezed in national public opinion surveys over the past two weeks, is fighting back with a loud stand against Canada's signature on any new Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement during the current election period.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair delivered a scathing, open letter to International Trade Minister Ed Fast on Friday that says the government has "no mandate" to negotiate the final details of the pact involving 12 Pacific Rim countries.
"Your government forfeited a mandate to conclude negotiations on a major international trade agreement the day the election was called," wrote Mulcair, stating an NDP government will not consider itself bound by anything signed before the Oct. 19 federal vote.
A massive free trade agreement might be seen as a crown jewel in a Conservative re-election bid. Yet it is cultural identity issues that have inflamed the election discourse since mid September, and all evidence pointed to an invigorated Conservative campaign comfortable with cranking up the heat in advance of Friday night's final, French-language leaders debate in Montreal.
The debate, hosted by the TVA network, comes amid recent polls that suggest New Democrat support in Quebec is loosening, giving the other parties an opening.
Chris Alexander, the Conservative immigration minister who's facing a tough Liberal challenge in his Toronto-area riding, held a news conference Friday to remind the electorate of last November's "Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act," and to promise even more government resources if re-elected — including a proposed RCMP tip line where people could report "information about incidents of barbaric cultural practices in Canada."
Alexander directly linked the message to a proposed Conservative ban on women wearing facial coverings at citizenship ceremonies, the so-called niqab debate that targets a tiny subset of Muslims and has roiled Internet comment boards with hate-filled, racist rants.
"We need to stand up for our values," said Alexander. "We need to do that in citizenship ceremonies. We need to do that to protect women and girls from forced marriage and other barbaric practices."
NDP candidate Paul Dewar, the party's foreign affairs critic, called Alexander's reprise of the barbaric cultural practices theme "just another example of Stephen Harper's efforts to inflame tensions and divide Canadians for partisan gain."
"This kind of irresponsible dog-whistle politics has no place in Canada," Dewar said in an email.
In Halifax, Conservative Jason Kenney stoutly defended his party's policy — since rejected by the courts — of banning the wearing of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies.
"Let's be clear," said the former Conservative immigration minister who now holds the defence portfolio. "This practice of face covering reflects a misogynistic view of women which is grounded in medieval tribal culture."
Kenney also defended the government's move to strip convicted terrorists of their citizenship — while saying the punishment will not be extended to other criminal acts.
"We will not be pursuing any other legal or statutory grounds for citizenship revocation, let me be absolutely clear about that," he stressed.
The heated campaign debate over "values" and religious accommodation appears to have spurred more than just anti-Islamic rhetoric in Quebec.
A pair of teens tore the headscarf from a pregnant woman in Montreal this week, causing her to fall on the ground. The incident prompted the Quebec national assembly to pass a unanimous motion Thursday condemning hate speech and violence against all Quebecers.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims said Friday the assault on the Montreal woman should be investigated as a hate crime.
The attack is just the latest this year across the country and "comes at a time when inflammatory rhetoric targeting Muslims has been heightened by a federal election campaign in which Muslim women who wear the niqab have been vilified by politicians," Ihsaan Gardee, the council's executive director, said in a statement.
Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau say women should be able to choose how they dress, which is likely to again draw fire from Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, as it did in the first French-language debate a week ago.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May was not invited to participate.
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