Ever since Donald Trump was voted in as U.S. president many Canadians had been busy feeling a little smug, pointing south of the border and exclaiming how something like that could never happen here.
We’re too “multicultural,” too “open to immigrants” for fear mongering, race baiting, and right-wing identity politics to work in this country, we like to claim.
We point to our young, forward-thinking, refugee-welcoming, feminist prime minister who was elected on the promise of “sunny ways” and we say “No way! Not here.”
Then came the shooting in a Quebec City mosque and we all recoiled with horror and disbelief. Quebecers leapt to explain the incident as isolated and an exception, not a sign of an intolerance problem, while many out-of-touch pundits from the rest of Canada conveniently used the incident to point to Quebec as being especially problematic.
The fact is intolerance and Islamophobia are very real, and they most certainly have reared their ugly heads in Quebec. But they are also not exclusive to Quebec. We have a nationwide problem. Canada can be just as susceptible to opportunistic identity politics, and the constant tension between accommodations and assimilation in a country as multicultural as ours remains a contentious issue that politicians easily manipulate in their quest for easy votes.
Despite the friendly and open image we like to project — both to ourselves and to others — we’ve already had more than our share of shameful moments as a young nation.
Do the Chinese head tax, Japanese internment camps, turning away thousands of Jewish refugees, slavery (yes, we were once all for it too!), and residential schools ring a bell?
“But that was in the past,” I hear you saying. “We’ve learned from our mistakes.”
There is a reason why politicians continue to entertain voters with juicy, terrifying, near-apocalyptic visions of what will happen to “Canadian values” (insert “Quebec values” if you live in Quebec) if we don’t “stand up for ourselves.” There’s a reason an “us” vs “them” is cultivated: because it gets people’s backs up against the wall, eager to preserve what wasn’t really threatened to begin with. This rhetoric works with voters because far too many recognize themselves and their fears in that language. And it doesn’t serve us to ignore it.
A recent CBC Marketplace report reveals that Canadians’ use of hateful language online has gone up 600 per cent over the last year. This is a dramatic increase and it shows that many Canadians have become emboldened in using racist, sexist, and Islamophobic language, partially because people like Trump have normalized it.
An Angus Reid Institute survey conducted last year revealed that 68 per cent of Canadians think that “minorities should do more to fit in with mainstream Canadian society,” while only 32 per cent feel “we should encourage cultural diversity, with different groups keeping their customs and languages.” That resentment or belief that minorities aren’t doing more to fit in (even if false) can go a long way towards fueling anti-immigrant sentiment.
Last November, an Ipsos poll found that 76 per cent of Canadians would consider voting for a “Trump-like” candidate, with a platform focused on stricter immigration policy, hostility to trade agreements, a shift of spending from international to domestic priorities, and being tough on crime.
Last September, a poll conducted for the Toronto Star revealed that 68 per cent of Canadians think that immigrants should be screened for “anti-Canadian values.” Ironically, one of those values cited as Canadian was… tolerance.
Nik Nanos, Chair of Nanos Research and pollster for the Globe & Mail, believes that Trump-style politics are a real possibility here. “When citizens feel democracy is failing them, they punish the establishment. We saw it with the Brexit referendum and with the U.S. presidential election,” he stated recently.
It’s not all that surprising then that Conservative Party leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch has latched on to such dog-whistle politics and is pushing the idea of screening immigrants for “anti-Canadian values.”
Trump proved that xenophobic fear mongering, race baiting, and immigrant bashing works, so it’s inevitable that politicians in their quest for power will follow his lead.
American political commentator and activist Van Jones was recently in Canada to give a speech at the Broadbent Institute and warned those in attendance not to be complacent in the face of the strain of racism and xenophobia growing in the U.S. “It found a home in the Trump campaign. And I will tell you, it can find a home in your country too, if you don’t stand up to it,” he said.
Canada cannot afford to be smugly complacent. Blatantly racist acts have increased drastically since Trump was elected — both in the U.S. and right here at home. Certain types of bigots now feel emboldened.
Campaign managers and spin doctors are really good at feeling people’s pulse and using that information to stitch together a platform that speaks to as many voters as possible.
Of course, popularity isn’t always a sign of what is right. In the past the tyranny of the majority often ensured that amoral or populist rallying cries, ones that would hardly be applauded today, gained ground.
One only needs to remember Hitler’s rise to power, or past popular support for slavery and Japanese internment camps, to understand that the moral authority of the majority holds little sway in the long run and history will harshly judge populist decisions that infringe upon human rights.
This is not the time for Canadians to smugly assume we’re better than the Americans who voted in Trump. This is the time to act and ensure that the conditions that allowed such a dangerous populist to enter the White House will never thrive here.