As a feminist and a historian, I’ve found the current federal election painful to watch. The fact that the Conservative Party has tried to make their 2011 policy banning niqabs at citizenship ceremonies a debate issue in this election is infuriating, considering Canadian courts have determined that it is completely legal to wear niqabs to such ceremonies and the policy has influenced only two women since its inception. As anyone could have predicted, the policy has encouraged racist rhetoric against Canadian Muslims in general and, shamefully, resulted in the recent physical attacks against Muslim women in Toronto and Montreal. This past weekend, the Conservatives announced a tip line to support the Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which allegedly combats forced marriages and polygamy but has been roundly criticized by experts in domestic violence.
The Conservative Government, which closed Status of Women offices and refused to launch an inquest into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls, is attempting to argue that it is standing up for women's rights. They argue that it is Muslim women alone who face misogyny in this country, while “old stock” Canadian women are doing just fine.
This strategy of blaming "the other" for violence against women while allegedly standing up for the rights of women reminds me of what has been termed the “White Slavery Panic” in Canada during the 19th century. Beginning in the 1880s, religious reformers feared that groups of immigrants to Canada – particularly non-white, male immigrants – were forcing “vulnerable” white women into prostitution. Social reformers believed that helpless country girls were moving into Canadian cities to find work in factories or stores and were being “seduced” into prostitution by foreign immigrants. As a result of this panic, the Canadian Parliament adapted the criminal code in 1892 and made it an offence to procure chaste women under the age of 21 for “unlawful carnal connection” within Canada. It also became illegal for women to become prostitutes.
Women's groups were also very concerned about these vulnerable white women. The National Council of Women of Canada established a committee on the White Slave Trade, and the YWCA sent volunteers to meet trains in major cities to give single women lists of safe boarding houses where matrons supervised their behaviour.
According to Reverend Dr. John Shearer, who wrote a book on the supposed white slavery phenomenon at the time, women could be trapped and forced into slavery by answering a “help wanted” advertisement. Male “friends” could drug them at ice cream parlours or coerce them through purchases of hats or gloves. Foreign men, especially Black, Chinese or Jewish men, were the most likely to attack innocent white “old stock” Canadian girls.
The Canadian public was so outraged by the threat to white womanhood that the city of Toronto launched an investigation in 1913. However, the investigation found there was no such thing as organized white slavers in the city and that many of the lurid stories in books and news articles on the topic had been fabricated. The investigation concluded that the primary reason women became prostitutes was because their wages in the cities were too low to support themselves. It was legal to pay women a fraction of the male wage for the same work because of the assumption that women were supplementing the income of their husband or father; thus, women were rarely paid a living wage. Many prostitutes made an informed choice to support themselves via prostitution as opposed to factory work.
Despite the investigation’s findings, the false narrative of the White Slavery Panic was quite effective in controlling women, but ignored the plight of women who were the most vulnerable to exploitation: new immigrant women who had fewer economic choices and social capital than white women. It vilified men of colour as potential sexual predators and made any interactions between them and white women suspect.
As Karen Dubinsky explains in her book Improper Advances: Rape and Heterosexual Conflict in Ontario, 1880-1929, “those institutions most revered as centers of safety and moral authority – the family, the rural household, church picnics and 'respectable' employments such as domestic service – were in fact the sites of the most pervasive instances of sexual abuse.” (8) The White Slavery Panic warned women to stay in the places that they were most vulnerable, and away from the potential freedom found in cities and independence. The government emphasized the nonexistent threat of White Slavery while ignoring the real problems women faced: sexual assault that was not taken seriously by the judicial system, unequal pay, and women of colour who were doubly vulnerable to these issues due to systemic racism.
That exact same sentence applies today. The Conservative Government created a misogynistic boogeyman so that the Canadian electorate would ignore the real problems of a sexual assault epidemic in Canada (which the judicial system is unable to properly address), unequal economic conditions based on gender, and horrific abuses of women of colour that the Government ignored, such as the unsolved cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls. Such unaddressed issues are our real barbaric cultural practices, but the Conservative Government, like White Slavery Activists before them, would prefer we focus on a racist wedge issue rather than address pervading misogyny in today’s Canada.