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Canadians Head To The Polls To Decide Tight Race

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, to our north, it is already Election Day. Canadians are casting votes for Parliament after an 11-week campaign. Now, that might strike Americans as rather brief, but it is actually the longest in Canada's modern history, also one of the most contentious. And let's hear more now from Toronto and CBC reporter John Northcott. John, good morning.

JOHN NORTHCOTT: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So the incumbent is Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is trying for a fourth term as prime minister. What are his chances looking like?

NORTHCOTT: Well, it's been interesting. When this started, he appeared to be far in the lead - 10 years in power, stable government, Canada coming out of the 2008 economic Great Recession around the world doing better than most of the G8 countries, that's for sure. But as this has moved forward throughout the campaign, it has been at many times neck and neck.

GREENE: John, Stephen Harper, as we say, I mean, he's from the conservative party. He's been the prime minister for some time now. He's in a tighter-than-expected race. A lot of people have pointed to what some have said was an anti-Muslim campaign that he's been running. Can you tell us exactly what's going on?

NORTHCOTT: The issue of wearing the niqab, the Muslim face covering, has come up. There was a court case fought by the federal government saying that a woman could not wear a niqab for the swearing-in ceremony to become a Canadian citizen. Two Muslim women had said, we want to be able to do this. They went to the courts, and they won in the courts. The leader, Stephen Harper, is saying, for the conservatives, that this should not be allowed to happen. In fact, he has even raised the possibility of whether women should be allowed to wear the niqab working in the federal civil service. And then it goes beyond that. Would you be forbidden from wearing the Jewish skullcap? Would you be forbidden from wearing other signs of religion, like for example a crucifix around your neck? That has gotten a lot of people stirred up. And it has become very contentious in the last few days of this election.

GREENE: And Stephen Harper making this an issue, is that one reason that he's now in a closer fight than he expected?

NORTHCOTT: Well, some would say that that is it. Others are saying that he is the sort of man who has the sort of values that they share. So in arguably a very un-Canadian way, this has got people exorcised heading to the polls.

GREENE: (Laughter) Why do you say it's un-Canadian? Canadians are not used to getting all worked up about something?

NORTHCOTT: Well, we watch what you guys - and we listen to what you guys say down there, especially some of your satirical, late-night talk show hosts, and we know we have a reputation for fairness and apologies.

GREENE: (Laughter) OK. That's the CBC's John Northcott speaking to us from Toronto, where Canada is holding national parliamentary elections today.

John, thanks a lot.

NORTHCOTT: Thank you, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.