Anti-Muslim rhetoric dominates election campaign in Canada

Published October 10, 2015
Justin Trudeau (left) & Stephen Harper. —File
Justin Trudeau (left) & Stephen Harper. —File

Faithful ally of Britain in two world wars, peacekeeper to the world, Nato member but neutral across the globe, it’s difficult to believe that Canada’s democracy might have come adrift.

But the last weeks of election campaigning by Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative party – with its dark, racist overtones and anti-Muslim rhetoric – suggest that something has gone profoundly wrong with the nation which Winston Churchill once called “the linchpin of the English-speaking peoples”.

The Canadian prime minister’s avowedly anti-Muslim, pro-Israel statements and his immigration minister’s insistence that Canadians should “keep an eye” on their neighbours has prompted voters to question what sort of country their children will inherit after the Oct 19 election.

Opinion polls – as fickle in Canada as they are in Europe – appear to favour a Harper victory over Thomas Mulcair’s New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals of Justin – son of Prime Minister Pierre – Trudeau, although the Conservatives may end up leading a minority government whose right-wing ambitions could be blunted by the opposition.

Yet, observing the election campaign in Canada over the past two weeks, it is impossible not to be struck by the near insanity of the debate which will define the country for the next four years.

Instead of ensuring Canada’s place in the world, its long-standing traditions of UN peacekeeping and its multicultural, democratic inheritance, Harper’s mob has spent the past four years abandoning Canada’s partnership in nuclear disarmament negotiations and development links to Africa, has lost a traditional Canadian seat on the UN Security Council and ignored the debate over climate change.

In their place, the prime minister has brought in new laws to limit personal freedom, to prevent Canadian expatriates from voting after five years abroad; he has divided his countrymen and women into “old-stock Canadians” and new citizens, demonised as anti-Semitic anyone who criticised his approval of Israeli policies and launched a legal campaign against one of only two women in four years who sought to wear a niqab during her citizenship ceremony.

While joining Washington’s fruitless bombing campaign against the self-styled Islamic State (IS), Harper signed off on a £10 billion arms contract to supply armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a country from which massive funding has found its way to Islamist groups in both Syria and Iraq which Harper regards as enemies.

Condemned by Amnesty International, Harper defended the deal – with General Dynamics Land Systems Canada – by claiming it was the greatest contract of its kind in Canadian history, that 3,000 jobs depended on the sale and that, while repeatedly “condemning the government of Saudi Arabia for its treatment of the rights of man”, he would not “punish” Canadian workers.

“It’s normal for our country to condemn the practices of Saudi Arabia,” he said, “but at the same time, we have to create employment for our workers here – you have to do both.”

More jobs, more houses, lower taxes have always been Tory campaign promises in Canada, and Harper has outwitted Mulcair and Trudeau. The latter wants to tax the rich to broaden the middle class while Mulcair would prefer higher taxes for all to increase welfare spending, especially on the poor – but both advance centre-left policies, the Liberals promising to run a deficit for a few years, the NDP a balanced budget, even increasing defence spending. The two thus spent much of their time in tripartite pre-election broadcasts attacking each other – while Harper watched them, largely silent, with a shark-like smile.

Desperate to prove his liberal credentials, Mulcair questioned the Saudi arms deal and angered Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union. Both he and Trudeau supported Zunera Ishaq’s right to wear the niqab at her citizenship swearing-in – only to find that a majority of Quebecois and a lot of Anglophone Canadians were stirred by Tory claims she was deviating from Canadian “values”.

CAPITALISING ON FEARS: Conservatives, with a big “C”, have always known how to capitalise on the fears of conservatives with a small “c”.

“The niqab is a distraction – a culture war fabricated to take voters’ minds off the real issues in this election,” the centre-right Toronto Globe and Mail said in an editorial.

“Don’t fall for it. Wearing a veil is one thing – wearing a blindfold is another altogether.”

But Canadians may indeed be falling for it.

Critics have claimed that Harper’s almost obsessive support for Israel – he uttered not a word of condemnation during last year’s bloodbath in Gaza – is an attempt to harvest the Jewish vote in Canada. The former foreign minister John Manley told me that Harper “says what he does from the heart”.

Yet this is itself disturbing. If Harper was not speaking for a Jewish minority in Canada when he pledged his country’s unconditional support for Israel, then he was representing Canada’s foreign policy based solely on his personal convictions.

This same bias appears to lie behind the Conservatives’ constant desire to accept Christian rather than Muslim refugees from Syria – and to warn of the danger that “terrorists” may be among those fleeing Syria. There is even a new law on the books that would have Canadians arrested for travelling to “terrorist-controlled” territories unless they can prove they are journalists or working for NGOs.

What, then, is to happen to the thousands of Syrian-Canadians visiting families in the Middle East who live in IS-controlled lands?

The Toronto Star’s Haroon Siddiqui, perhaps the most scathing of Harper’s critics, has recalled how Harper refused temporary visas last year for 100 injured and traumatised children from Gaza to be treated in Canada, the idea of a physician who had lost three daughters and a niece to Israeli bombing in 2009.

“Harper has used his foreign policy and its cousin, the war on terror, as cudgels to divide Canadians along religious and ideological lines,” Siddiqui wrote. His television colleague Neil Macdonald has noted that in the election, “instead of economic issues and the timeless election slogan of jobs, jobs, jobs, the drumbeat today seems to be Muslims, Muslims, Muslims”.

No one during this election campaign has chosen to recall that one of Harper’s predecessors, the Conservative Prime Minister William Mackenzie King – a friend of Churchill, whose diaries reveal him to have been deeply anti-Semitic – turned away more than 900 Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany when their ship arrived in Canada before the Second World War.

At least a quarter of them were later murdered in Nazi extermination camps.

By special arrangement with The Independent

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2015

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