When Pierre Poilievre pitches the Conservative party to Muslim Canadians, he talks about “faith, family and freedom.”
For months he has been pointing out what he sees as their overlapping values during visits to mosques, at community celebrations, with businesses and in conversations with ethnic media outlets.
It’s part of an effort to grow the party’s presence, particularly in larger cities that are home to many racialized Canadians whose support for the Conservatives plummeted during the final months of Stephen Harper’s government and his divisive 2015 campaign.
Poilievre has also fine-tuned his message to appeal to growing concerns from some parents, echoed by several prominent Muslim organizations, about what their children are learning about LGBTQ+ issues in schools.
He is gaining some traction with his acknowledgment of such worries, but whether he will take action through party policy remains unclear.
Some also wonder what he would do to address the Islamophobia that many feel his party exacerbated the last time it was in power. “This is where we have that sort of cautious optimism,” said Nawaz Tahir, a lawyer who chairs Hikma, an advocacy group for Muslims in southwestern Ontario. Tahir met Poilievre with other community leaders this summer.
“While it might be resonating in the short term, there are long-term questions about whether or not people will continue to listen, or latch on, in the absence of some concrete policy proposals.”
Poilievre has chosen to walk a careful path on the issue of “parental rights.” The term, which speaks to the desire by parents to make decisions regarding their children, has been popularized by people with wide-ranging concerns about efforts to make schools more inclusive for LGBTQ+ students, such as by raising Pride flags or including discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the curriculum.
New Brunswick and Saskatchewan now require parental permission for transgender and nonbinary students to use different names or pronouns at school. Court challenges have ensued, with teachers’ unions and provincial child advocates saying the policies put vulnerable students at risk.
The Conservative leader has said that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should “butt out” of the issue and “let parents raise kids,” but otherwise Poilievre has stayed mum on how he might respond.
At last month’s policy convention in Quebec City, Conservative party members voted overwhelmingly in favour of a policy change to prohibit minors experiencing gender dysphoria from receiving “life-altering” pharmaceutical or surgical treatment.
A video posted online shows that Poilievre said during a Punjabi media event in Surrey, B.C., several days later that he was “taking some time to study that policy to come to the right solution.”
He said the party would have to consider “jurisdictions,” in the sense of “which level of government is responsible for it” — but ultimately, “I will be making my position clear.”
Poilievre’s office did not respond to a question about whether he has come to any conclusions.
His office was also silent in July when a photo circulated online that showed Conservative finance critic and Calgary MP Jasraj Singh Hallan with two men who wore T-shirts that read “leave our kids alone.” The shirts featured an image of stylized figures beneath an umbrella shielding them from the rainbow of colours associated with LGBTQ+ Pride flags.
One of the men in the photo, Mahmoud Mourra, a Muslim father of five, has for months been protesting school policies and activities that acknowledge students’ sexual orientation and gender identity.
As he and thousands of others took to the streets in recent countrywide demonstrations against “gender ideology” in schools on Sept. 20, Trudeau posted on X, the platform previously known as Twitter, that “transphobia, homophobia, and biphobia have no place in this country.”
Poilievre’s office, meanwhile, instructed MPs to keep quiet.
Two days later, Poilievre also posted on X, accusing Trudeau of “demonizing concerned parents” with his statement about the protests.
The Muslim Association of Canada also condemned Trudeau’s remarks, saying Muslim parents who participated in protests showed up “to be heard, not to sow division.” The organization said it feared Muslim kids would face “increased bullying and harassment” at school —a statement Poilievre and many of his MPs shared online.
Dalia Mohamed, who leads public affairs at the Canadian chapter of the Islamic Society of North America, said her organization has heard from parents who worry their children face pushback when opting out of certain lessons or activities related to LGBTQ+ issues.
“What they’re seeing more and more is that their kids are facing repercussions,” she said.
An audio recording surfaced online in June alleged to be an Edmonton school teacher chastising a Muslim student about missing class to avoid Pride events. The unidentified teacher says respect for differences “goes two ways,” adding that if the student thinks same-sex marriage should not be legal, then he “can’t be Canadian” and does not “belong here.”
The National Council of Canadian Muslims called it “deeply Islamophobic, inappropriate and harassing behaviour.” The school board said it was dealing with the issue.
Tahir, with Hikma, said it comes down to respecting religious freedom, adding that it is “not part of our faith teaching” to hate the LGBTQ+ community. “We condemn that,” he said.
Tahir said he and other community leaders told Poilievre the Conservatives have an opportunity to regain the support of Muslim Canadians.
He argued that the “vast majority” of Muslims voted for Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives in the 1980s and early ’90s.
“There was a lot of alignment on a number of issues. And that seems to have gone by the wayside,” he said.
Still, while there is frustration that the governing Liberals have failed to take enough action against Islamophobia,including within its own government agencies, Poilievre faces an uphill battle against long memories.
“He was around the table during the Harper years when there were some things that happened that were not well received by the Muslim community,” said Tahir.
In 2011, then-immigration minister Jason Kenney brought in a rule requiring Muslim women to remove face coverings, such as niqabs, when swearing the oath during citizenship ceremonies. During the 2015 federal election campaign, the Conservatives asked the Supreme Court to hear a request to appeal a court decision to overturn that policy, and Harper mused about extending it to all public servants. The Conservatives also promised to create a tip line to enforce a law against “barbaric cultural practices,” which they said at the time included forced marriages.
Eight years later, Conservatives are still apologizing.
“Mistakes were made. No doubt about that,” Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said in August of the 2015 campaign at a Greater Toronto Area breakfast meeting with members of the Pakistani community.
“There’s rebuilding of trust,” he said in a video shared online. “And I understand people saying, ‘Well, we’re not sure yet because of some of the things that happened in the past.’”
He described a “deep fundamental connection” between the Conservative party and the wider Muslim community. He said a “renaissance” of that relationship is underway.
“We’re trying to reach out to the community and tell them, ‘It’s a new party, that was eight years ago,’” Conservative Sen. Salma Ataullahjan said at the same event. Her office did not respond to a request for comment.
In a written statement, Genuis said the party’s message around lower prices, affordable housing and safer communities is “resonating with Canadians of all walks of life.
So is its defence of “faith, family and freedom,” he added.
Poilievre addressed the criticism of the Conservatives’ unsuccessful 2015 campaign during last year’s leadership race. Rival candidate Patrick Brown, who at the time was counting on heavy support from Muslim communities, accused Poilievre of having never “publicly stood against” the divisive policies, such as a “niqab ban.” Poilievre pushed back by noting the policy was limited to swearing the citizenship oath.
Since winning the leadership, Poilievre has travelled extensively to meet with immigrant and racialized communities that Conservatives had long ago credited with delivering them a majority victory in 2011.
Historically, the party has believed that many in these groups tend to be more religiously conservative, that they will prioritize public safety and that they are looking for policies, such as lower taxes, that can help them gain an economic foothold in Canada.
Tahir said Poilievre was told during his meeting this summer that if he comes back with concrete plans to address Islamophobia, there would be “a strong willingness” from the community to vote Conservative.
In 2017, Poilievre voted alongside other Conservative MPs against a motion from a Liberal MP to condemn Islamophobia, citing concerns it could infringe on free speech.
During Ramadan this spring, Poilievre said in an interview with Canada One TV that he believes the country must “combat bad speech with good speech, not with censorship, but with good speech.”
He also spoke of bolstering a security fund for mosques and talked about combating Islamophobia through a stronger criminal justice response, part of a broader push by the Conservatives for tough-on-crime policies.
Earlier this year, Poilievre addressed long-standing allegations that the Canada Revenue Agency is discriminating against Muslim charities.
The agency “has been abusing our Muslim charities and the immigration system has been discriminating against our Muslim immigrants,” he said in a video shared by the Muslim Association of Canada.
The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency announced in March it would be investigating allegations of bias and Islamophobia at the CRA.
Saleha Khan said she believes Poilievre is using the debate around LGBTQ+ issues in schools to his advantage. She also worries the surrounding rhetoric could ultimately bring more harm to the community.
The London, Ont., woman and nearly 700 other people, many of whom are members of the Muslim Canadian community,have asked in an open letter that their leaders “help separate fact from fiction” by speaking out about misinformation they see fuelling a lot of the discourse, placing both Muslim and LGBTQ+ students at risk, as well as those who identify as both.
She said the debate is “gut-wrenching” and risks making life even more dangerous for average Muslim families and their children, who already experience Islamophobia and live their life under high alert.
“We will become the poster children for transphobia and homophobia when we are not the poster children for homophobia and transphobia.”
In the Ramadan interview with Canada One TV, Poilievre acknowledged that his party has done a lousy job of fostering better ties.
He pledged to be different.
“I’m coming here with my hand extended in a spirit of friendship,” he said. “It’s not the duty of the Muslim community to come to us. It’s our duty to come to you.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2023.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press