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culture

The Appearance of Devotion: Babies, Booze, and the LCBO

Recently, the Toronto Sun dressed a 14-year-old in a niqab and sent him to the LCBO. They claimed it taught us something about political correctness and underage drinking, but really all it demonstrated was something ugly about the Sun.

"Children's Amusements. Boy and girl drinking from mugs." City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 1895.

Three days after my 19th birthday, my parents proudly announced that they would be taking me to make my very first alcohol purchase. In their minds, I’d gone beyond a single sip of booze just twice in my life: on my actual birthday, which I’d celebrated in Winnipeg with my terribly Catholic boyfriend, who sulked in the corner while I did sugary shots with his cousins; and in Italy when I was 16, asking the bartenders to pick my drinks for me or choosing bottles from the cooler because I liked the labels.

They insisted we buy a bottle that day, and drove me to the closest LCBO. I asked if we could go to a more distant location, one in a nearby town with a better selection. They refused, as they wanted me to celebrate the occasion near home. I started to sweat.

As we walked through the doors, I scanned the staff: two restocking beer at the back and a young woman working the cash. I relaxed a little—no one I knew, or who had served me before. Summer hires, I guessed. I grabbed a bottle of peach schnapps, kept my head down, and power-walked to the cash.

My parents wanted to talk to everyone. The manager came out to congratulate me and a great ceremony was made over looking at my ID (my passport, still stamped from Italy). The two fives I handed over for the bottle were damp with sweat. I smiled weakly. As soon as we got back to the car, I immediately unscrewed the cap and took a deep, saccharine swig. My dad yelled about open containers; I felt I needed it.

* * * * *

The Toronto Sun recently pulled a stunt wherein the paper clothed a 14-year-old boy in the garments of a devout Islamic woman, including a hijab, which covers the hair, and a niqab, a veil over the face that leaves the eyes exposed. (The Sun incorrectly used the term “burka,” which is a type of garb that covers a woman completely, from the top of the head to the ground, often with a net over the eyes.) The youngster was then able to walk into three separate LCBOs and purchase a bottle of sambuca with cash, and was never once asked for identification.

The Sun made this their cover story on Tuesday, framing the situation to make the clothing seem dangerous, mysterious, and prone to being exploited. They took fire at “political correctness” and explained that the situation they devised “reveals a deeply ingrained reluctance on the part of Canadian institutions to challenge cultural practices, even when they conflict with broader societal goals, such as preventing underage drinking.”

The only thing the article actually revealed was a deeply racist discomfort with a particular culture and set of religious practices, and an almost pitiful attempt to generate web traffic. This is an example of invented news, revealing a “crisis” that does not exist in an attempt to further a specific agenda: in this case, distrust of members of a specific group. There has not been a rash of young boys trying to buy alcohol from the LCBO dressed as Muslim women. There was no specific incident the Sun was following up on. Instead of using that front page to cover something important, something with weight and meaning and teeth and heart, they put a little boy in a costume they found frightening and instructed him to buy booze, hoping to make a few more people in the world more scared of those clothes and what they represent—what the Sun thinks they represent—as well.

* * * * *

I was 14 the first time I bought a bottle of alcohol, too—my parents’ earnest desire to mark my 19th birthday notwithstanding—in the small town in Southern Ontario that recently earned the title of the safest municipality in Canada for the third year in a row. My face was not obscured, I carried no fake identification, and I was not prompted by anyone else, not even a goading friend. I took some of the cash I had earned babysitting, walked in, and walked out with a bottle of malt liquor that I hid in my closet and drank lukewarm. I hated it. I rarely bought alcohol after that, preferring to simply pour myself a surreptitious glass of whatever bottle of wine might be lingering in the fridge after my parents had company. I had no idea what I should buy and my random guesses tended to be disgusting. Every now and again, though, I would stroll in and walk out with a bottle.

On one hand, it is utterly ridiculous that no one asked me for ID. I was 5’2”, my weight had barely hit triple digits, and I had no idea how to dress myself or deal with the hair my parents refused to let me cut. My face was round and almost entirely without angles. I looked like a child.

And yet, I can see now how it happened. I was wrapped in a different kind of disguise: one of respectability and privilege. I wasn’t allowed to buy the clothes most teenagers had, and instead mostly wore hand-me-downs from my mother (a business executive) and older cousins—blazers and pleated pants, ankle-length cotton dresses with modest necklines. My blond hair, never permitted near scissors or peroxide, gleamed with a winsome kind of innocence. As I was attending Catholic high school, I would have worn a cross around my neck. My face would have been free from makeup, and as fair as could be. I would have seemed the very definition of wholesomeness, possessing all the things most people associate with pure intentions and good behaviour. I must have looked like a godly young housewife to the small-town cashier, running an errand for my equally moral husband.

"Children's Amusements. Boy drinking from mug." City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 1893.

In many ways, the boy the Sun sent out was dressed exactly as I was in those days. We were both cast as mature members of our community, not children or stereotypical rowdy teenagers. We were quiet and demure, and displayed cultural signifiers of religious devotion. We seemed the very opposite of suspicious for these reasons, and so both of our costumes worked. The boy’s success says far less about the usefulness of the niqab as a disguise and more about the general belief that religiously devout, quiet women are probably not getting into any trouble.

While most LCBO employees are positively militant when it comes to carding customers who display even the remotest chance of being underage, the Sun happened to find a disguise that worked. Saying that the effectiveness of such a disguise means that the niqab is dangerous is about as ridiculous as saying that children being allowed to wear any clothes typically worn by adults, or by devout members of any religion, is dangerous. It is declaring any outward sign of devotion, be it a crucifix or a kippah or a hijab, suspect, because it carries with it the implication the wearer is pure of spirit and intention—an implication that can be exploited by thirsty teenagers (or Sun editors on a mission) for other ends.

If anything, it reveals that a greater measure of openness, education, and cultural awareness is needed, perhaps for employees of the LCBO and more definitely for members of Sun Media. We’ve become so uncomfortable asking questions about cultural and religious practices we don’t understand that we simply decry their existence as dangerous and scary, or pretend they don’t exist. A curious and polite question from a cashier about an appropriate, respectful way to handle the situation would have completely defused things. Better training on the best way to handle potentially identity-obscuring modest clothing is certainly called for. Framing a religious or cultural practice as dangerous out of fear and bigotry is not only wrong, it is also terrible journalism.

* * * * *

I’m asked for identification more often now, as a woman pushing 30 in Toronto, than I ever was as a scrawny teenager wearing grim clothing and a crucifix. My hair is dramatically cut, I am covered in tattoos, and my clothes are nearly always in questionable taste. Now in the LCBO, instead of serenely choosing a bottle and silently paying, I am most likely laughing with a group of my friends or listening to loud music from a single earbud. I look like I am up to no good, and, as a consequence, I am carded nearly every single time. I look more like myself now. I’m sure to smile sweetly and thank the cashier each time it happens, and to tell her it made my day.

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