TORONTO (AP) — Canada's Conservative government said Friday it will create a phone line for Canadians to report those engaged in "barbaric cultural practices," ahead of the final debate in Canada's divisive election campaign.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced the police tip line ahead of Friday night's debate and also mentioned a proposed ban on women wearing Muslim face veils at citizenship ceremonies.
Opposition leaders denounced injecting religion into the race. One said Conservatives are "are playing with fire."
The proposed anti-niqab law is popular in the French-speaking province of Quebec and has led to an increase in Conservative support in the tight race. The debate was being held in French and is the last time candidates will square off before the Oct. 19 vote.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's party says polygamy, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation take place in Canada. It says there were over 200 potential cases of forced marriage in Ontario between 2010 and 2012.
"We need to stand up for our values," Alexander said. "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."
Former Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, now the defense minister, took aim at the niqab.
"This practice of face covering reflects a misogynistic view of women which is grounded in medieval tribal culture," Kenney said.
Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto political science professor, called it fear tactics, but an effective election tactic that works in other countries too.
The ramping up of divisive cultural issues has been a hot topic in Quebec and might have spurred more than anti-Islamic rhetoric.
A pair of teenagers tore the headscarf from a pregnant woman in Montreal this week, causing her to fall on the ground. The incidsent prompted the Quebec provincial national assembly to pass a unanimous motion condemning hate speech and violence against all Quebecers. The National Council of Canadian Muslims said the assault on the Montreal woman should be investigated as a hate crime.
Gerald Butts, opposition Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's closest adviser, tweeted the Harper Conservatives are "are playing with fire. And people are going to get hurt."
Canada's leaders got into a heated discussion on the niqab during the debate. "The real issue is replacing this man who is not worthy of being prime minister," Trudeau said.
Opposition New Democrat leader Tom Mulcair also said Harper is using the niqab as a major distraction and said he's never seen a prime ministers act this way. Harper argued banning the niqab during the citizenship ceremony is a matter of fundamental values and brought it up again in his closing statement in a bid to win support in Quebec.
Polls say the Oct. 19 election is turning into a two-way race after being deadlocked three ways for a month. According to the CTV/Globe and Mail/Nanos Nightly Tracking Poll, the Liberals are at 33.5 percent, closely followed by the Conservatives at 31.9 percent. The New Democrats, whose base of support has tumbled in Quebec where the niqab issue is a hot topic, are at 25.9. percent. The margin of error for the survey of 1,200 respondents is 2.8 percentage points.
Since coming to power in 2006, Harper has managed to pull a traditionally center-left country to the right. He has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes, avoided climate change legislation, supported the oil industry against the environmental lobby and backed Israel's right-wing government.
Former Harper colleagues say his long-term goals are to kill the once widely entrenched notion that the Liberals — the party of long-time leaders Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien — are the natural party of government in Canada, and to redefine what it means to be Canadian.