Conservatives betting on rhetoric of fear
It seems quaint now that in mid-September there was a debate about whether Stephen Harper’s off-hand use of the term “old-stock Canadians” was an example of him blowing a racial “dog whistle.”
Two weeks later, any imperceptibly high-pitched whistles the Conservatives might be using have been drowned out by the cacophony of their constant cranking of the barking dog siren. It’s an ugly sound, an anti-Muslim alarm. And it’s all the uglier because of its apparent effectiveness.
Consider Friday’s announcement of an RCMP tip-line to report “Barbaric Cultural Practices against Women and Girls.” If you think for a moment they are talking about taking action on the many hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada that organizations, including Amnesty International, have been reporting on this year, or perhaps the vulnerability of rural Canadian women to sexual violence highlighted at last month’s Ontario premier’s Roundtable on Violence Against Women, then you haven’t been paying attention.
But if you have been paying attention, it’s obvious enough that when Team Harper refers to “barbaric culture,” it means Islam.
And so this new election initiative is intended to respond to some imagined Canadian epidemic of “child and forced marriage,” “sexual slavery and so-called ‘honour killings’ ” and “female genital mutilation.” These things, of course, are horrific and are already illegal. And while they do not appear to be particularly common here compared to other crimes (even compared to other crimes against women), there is already an established national reporting mechanism for those encountering them: dial 911.
So nothing about this announcement actually makes women any safer. Instead it’s an excuse to talk about Muslims as barbarians at a press conference. It’s a transpar- ently BS announcement to drum up hate and fear for their own sake.
Or, rather, for the sake of getting votes. It’s a strategy the Conservatives have already been employing, with some success, since mid-September.
Harper’s equating of Syrian refugees with terrorists, his government’s illegal and basically pointless ban on wearing the niqab during the citizenship oath, his pledge to revoke the citizenship of dual citizens convicted of terrorism: what they have in common is that they a) immediately apply to and vilify some Muslim Canadians, and b) are almost purely symbolic, with no discernable practical effect on the lives of most Canadians whatsoever.
As they’ve unveiled these items, the Conservatives have gone from third to first in many polls. Is it a coincidence? There’s reason to think not.
A government poll showed 82 per cent of Canadians support the niqab ban, for instance. Moreover, 8 per cent of voters told Leger Marketing that the niqab ban was the main issue determining their vote. Considering that the Conservatives’ recent swing into the lead has been an increase of only about six points in their support in most polls, it’s not crazy to conclude this anti-Islam posturing has made much of the difference for them. This brings us face-to-face with a pretty harsh truth about Canada, a country in which people like me frequently refer to tolerance of diversity, proud pluralism and respect for individual freedom as defining values, and a country in which 93 per cent of people rank the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as the most important national symbol.
We may think those things about ourselves. But we’re also a country where it appears an election may be won by blatantly disregarding the Charter and promoting intolerance for no discernable reason other than to stick our thumbs in the eye of a minority whose cultural and religious practices we find off-putting.
In defence of his policies, Harper often points out that a majority of Canadians agree with him on these issues — as if the Charter didn’t exist specifically to protect against the bigoted whims of the majority, and as if somehow popularity itself is a coherent justification for prejudice.
That the anti-Islamic wedge-driving has been popular to some degree doesn’t make it right. Instead, its success serves as an indictment of Canadian society we might hope had moved on from past racial and religious panics: from the days when one Jew was thought to be too many; when we interned Japanese-Canadians as racially suspect potential traitors; when we banned non-European immigrants; when we endlessly bickered about whether it was an affront to our values for a Mountie to wear a turban. Often we may think we’ve progressed beyond the hurtful retrograde attitudes at the core of those historic debates.
That the Conservatives have bet that they can swing an election on the premise that we haven’t progressed is shameful. That they appear to have a decent chance of winning that bet is absolutely horrifying.