Canadian politics is usually unremarkable for outsiders. Canadian elections certainly don’t attract attention like U.S. elections do, and rightly so, because Canada is not a major world power in the way of the United States. But this time people have eyes on the Canadian election — which is drawing scrutiny for all the wrong reasons, thanks to Stephen Harper and his Conservative party.
As a former international student who has spent more than half a decade in Canada as a journalist and activist, I’ve been following the election campaign closely. Listening to people in Pakistan, my home country and current location, and hearing the reactions of some of the people in my community back in Canada, I sense that the landscape has changed. People whom I would expect to be generally indifferent to the elections, such as international students and recent immigrants who were apathetic about politics in their home countries, are agitating for change.
They are angry with the Harper government. They might not be able to vote in Canada, but they are keen on raising awareness as to the importance of the elections and the need to remove Harper from power. They are anxiously waiting for the election results and will, no doubt, celebrate with their fellows if Harper is sent packing.
Anger at being scapegoated by Harper
The reasons for their anger are many. First, Harper’s anti-immigrant and anti-Islam policies do not sit well, especially for immigrants from a Muslim background. International students and recent immigrants do not understand why they are being scapegoated. They do not see themselves as terrorist threats, nor do they see themselves as stealing jobs or causing any harm whatsoever to Canada’s society, culture and economy.
On the contrary, they are keenly aware of their own struggles in Canada, from paying exorbitant visa fees and university tuition, to the general hard work required to settle in Canada, especially in the job and housing markets. They are aware of their potential, their ability to contribute to Canada and their overall desire to make this country their home.
But how much of that is reflected in the election debates? How much of that is reflected in the rhetoric of Mr. Harper? Not a lot, and it is insulting. Instead, they see their struggles belittled and ignored, and their existence and right to be in the country questioned.
Not all religious extremism
Harper is, of course, great friends with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. If election videos are anything to go by, he’s a great fan of Indian dance and music as well. But none of this is to his credit.
Harper, his wife, and his ally Jason Kenney can try to dance to Bollywood beats, sign mega trade deals with India, and give a rockstar welcome to Modi, while conveniently ignoring the religious extremism in India that is surpassing all limits. Harper is very little concerned with Hindu chauvinism in India, embodied by Modi, who was infamously complicit in mass murder. When it comes to business, all moral compunctions are put aside.
While Harper says that he is worried about the religious extremism of people coming from places such as Syria, and has thus refused to welcome refugees in need of a Canadian home, he has no concerns about allowing easier travel for Indian nationals through visas on arrival. This is not to suggest that Indians should be banned or stiffly screened, but to show the hypocrisy at play when it comes to Syrian refugees.
Harper was a supporter of the Iraq war, which was directly responsible for creating the monstrosity that is ISIS. And his present policies in the Middle East are not particularly helpful either. The current Canadian government has also sown seeds of discontent in the region by supporting Israel to an unreasonable extent, and by being extremely hawkish on Iran while more sober-minded governments pursued serious negotiations on the nuclear issue.
More than Islamophobia and racism
Some international students and recent immigrants are also not happy with Harper’s policy as far as the environment is concerned.
I think there are two reasons for their concern. First, people from countries such as Pakistan find that Canada’s more open atmosphere allows them to engage with issues such as climate change. Second, politically conscious people already living in Canada, especially young activists, have been working for a long time to make climate an important issue.
Just as I did, international students easily come into contact with local activists fighting for the environment. They are then recruited to the cause if they are inclined. This point seems particularly important, because climate change is more transcendental than issues of race and Islamophobia. This is not to sideline the problem of racism, but I have always found that discussion of the need to change our economic structure brought me closer to others than talking about race and Islamophobia did.
By engaging with issues alongside their Canadian counterparts, newcomers are becoming a part of Canadian society. International students and recent immigrants will not change the destiny of Canadian politics in the near future, but they can contribute to a vibrant political culture, especially on campuses. Their issues are very much Canadian issues.
I hope that, one day, their dissent and agitation will result in concrete changes. I also hope that they will be able to remain in Canada for a long time to come and take an active part in progressive politics. For this, as much credit will go to them as it will to those who have been present in Canada for longer and have been fighting for a better society.