It's a cold, grey morning when I walk into the sterile confines of the Toronto Congress Centre near the airport. It's the long weekend, but hundreds of other local Muslims have also risen early and made the trek out to the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
The halls are filled with women in head scarves, men in prayer caps and... posters of Stockwell Day? Colour me confused -- what does the Canadian Alliance leadership candidate have to do with an Islamic conference?
The Stock smirk lines the walls as I make my way into the cavernous main ballroom for the day's first session, a panel discussion about challenges facing Islam in the 21st century. Hundreds are already seated, eager to hear featured speaker Yusuf Islam, formerly 70s pop icon Cat Stevens.
Ironed presence Preceding him is prolific British author Ruqayyah Maqsood, a tall, jovial-looking woman who elicits laughter with her unusually brash approach. But as entertaining as she is, it's someone else who causes a stir while she's speaking: Stockwell Day has entered the room, his slick, ironed presence sending a murmur through the crowd.
Day is escorted to the dais at the front of the room, where he takes his place with the other speakers and proceeds to pretend to listen to Maqsood's speech. I keep my gaze squarely fixed on Day as he fidgets, clearly impatient for his turn to speak.
The moderator, M.D. Khalid, can't get Maqsood off the podium fast enough. His effusive introduction for Day centres around that morning's front-page Globe and Mail article about his support for religious-school funding. Khalid hastily adds that Day's appearance here doesn't necessarily imply the ISNA's endorsement, but it's clear where this is going. The Globe story quotes Khalid pledging the support of the Muslim community for Day's campaign.
I'm appalled. The right-wing Bible-thumper spouts one promise that the Islamic community favours, and suddenly we're all supposed to jump on the Stock bandwagon and forget everything else the man stands for?
I'm interested to hear from this former director of a Christian school where, according to Senator Ron Ghitter, head of an Alberta education commission, a book proclaiming that "all kinds of Buddhists and Muslims are evil" was part of the program. In his previous incarnation as a Christian school pastor in Alberta, Day supported the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum based on fundamentalist teaching on Scripture, which produced such material.
Day steps up to the microphone and instantly charms the crowd with some easy banter.
"These are things that are important that I would like to bring to the federal level as the leader of the Canadian Alliance party and hopefully as your next prime minister," Day says, getting ahead of himself, considering he hasn't been elected leader of anything yet.
Promotes diversity "In the area of education, it is so important that we truly, those of us who say in this country that we support diversity, to say that we support it, and then to do nothing to actually show that support. And so the very same policies that I endorsed in the province of Alberta -- financial support to education and to a diversity of education, to religious schools. Those wanting to educate their children according to their religious beliefs, I worked hard to see that that financial support was there."
Day gets a good response from the crowd. He sticks around for Yusuf Islam's speech and even chats with the bearded singer before Day's handlers and some ISNA lackeys spirit him out of the room and down the corridor to the front entrance, where his bus awaits. I follow them out.
Day insists he has to catch a plane, but relents and answers a few questions.
Education is an area of provincial and not federal responsibility, Day concedes, but he says Ottawa could offer tax cuts to help parents fund the private religious education of their children. "That is what I would commit to looking at."
Asked why he decided to speak at the conference, Day says he was invited and goes on to add, "I'm a promoter of tolerance and diversity, and when somebody talks about that, I think it's important that they also demonstrate it. All the cost is falling on the parents, and I think it is right to look for some ways to ease that cost and to ease that pressure."
Hold on, let's back up a bit here. A promoter of tolerance and diversity? Those who know Day the provincial politician beg to differ.
A long-time observer of the Alberta political scene in Calgary scoffs, "This is a vote-catching game. Stockwell Day was never associated with any minorities as a minister. He never went to any ethnic functions. Minority members of the legislature used to complain that he didn't have the time of day for them.
Old-style politics "Even Preston Manning went to visit the Sikh community early on in his leadership. They're thinking that we (minorities) still vote as a bloc -- if they canvass one home, they can gather 10 votes in one place. It's old-style politics."
Adds Ghitter on the phone from Calgary, "I suppose it's a political ploy -- it's an astute political manoeuvre to get that strong undercurrent of support from a particular community."