Call me a feminist killjoy, but the emerging trend of Canadians turning up at polls wearing clown masks and potato sacks on their heads is… distressing. It’s a trend that’s cropped up in Quebec and Newfoundland, with vastly different motives, but arguably with similar, perplexing results.
In Newfoundland, the trend is intended to be supportive of Muslimahs: according to Jon Keefe, it’s a move that is meant to troll the Harper government and other racists.
In part, Keefe’s movement relies on mummering, a Christmas tradition in Newfoundland where people dress up in costumes, covering their faces with old sheets and challenging neighbours to recognize them, traveling between houses to dance and drink. The tradition is so popular that it even has its own December festival, complete with the obligatory parade.
In an interview with Vice Canada, John Keefe said:
“I realized there’s no obligation to show your face in order to vote, thought it’d be a fun thing to do just to get a rise out of the bigots, then had a sort of lightbulb moment when I realized a mummer’s costume would be the perfect fit.”
“There are lots of different cultures within Canada, each with their own values and traditions, but we’ve managed to coexist so far,” Keefe continues. “You shouldn’t have to show your face to a stranger in order to avail of your basic democratic right to vote – it doesn’t make sense. If even just a handful of people do it, other voters will see that it’s allowed, totally permissible, and the election staff gets hands-on experience with processing covered-face voters. Everybody wins!”
Or maybe not everyone wins? I’m not sure how Muslimahs feels about a sacred garment being harnessed to troll the government, but I’d be willing to bet the reaction would be mixed.
On the one hand, mummering at the polls is part of the grand tradition of light-hearted political dissent in Newfoundland and Labrador, “where flipping off the federal Conservatives is basically a national pastime.”
So its intentions are pure and gentle at heart. But is that good enough?
Not all of these acts of political dissent were created equal and it’s critical to remember that these instances of trolling aren’t just taking place by the Mummer demographic in Newfoundland, but also in Quebec, where 93% of the population support the niqab ban during citizenship ceremonies. In a move that was evidently more derisive political statement than supportive mummering, one detractor turned up at the polls wearing a potato sack on her head.
There just isn’t sufficient context to justify humour in this scenario, particularly at a moment when so many Canadian Muslimahs are already on edge after one assault in Toronto and another on a pregnant woman in Montreal. There isn’t enough evidence about motivations behind some of these dress-up sessions to suggest that we’re all supposed to have a good, collective chuckle.
And frankly, even with loving and supportive motivations, it just looks like some Canadians might be trolling Muslimahs.
And of course, it doesn’t help that mummering and trolling with face coverings casts Muslimahs and the niqab issue firmly – and falsely – in the tiresome role of political “non-issue.”
Because we continue to dismiss the niqab as a marginal electoral issue. While to a certain extent it’s true (read: we can’t focus on the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women because we’re focused on the two women who have wanted to wear the niqab to citizenship ceremonies), it’s also critical to remember that the niqab is fundamentally about a woman’s right to choose and potentially about a woman’s Charter rights.
As columnists Margaret Wente and Chantal Hébert have both argued, the niqab is anything but trivial. Wente writes, “The debate about accommodation and values will last far beyond this election. It will be among the biggest issues of our future.”
So back to the issue at hand: political satire at the polls. I’m unconvinced that turning up to polls dressed as clowns or with hockey masks is actually helpful. To express support and solidarity, consider striking at the source of the problem and writing/calling/tweeting your local candidates and our fearless political leaders to air your grievances and let them know you won’t stand by and watch a woman’s struggle be instrumentalized for political gain. Or better yet, stand behind women like Zunera Ishaq when they make their voices heard.
It isn’t to say that mummering isn’t a spectacularly awesome tradition – it is. But let’s remember context, not just intent.
For now, I think I’ll just be a killjoy and skip trolling Stephen Harper.
What do you think of this trend? Share your thoughts and comments – let’s talk!