There are always turning points in political campaigns. They are usually unexpected and unplanned but, sometimes, it is because a political party makes incredible mistakes. Not big mistakes but a series of small mistakes that accumulate. The kind of mistakes that, while small, as they accumulate, reveal aspects of an individual politician or a party that makes people revolted or fearful. The law of unexpected consequences always lies coiled, ready to strike.
One of these was the niqab. It was a dead cat strategy. Get people talking about the niqab and how it was a threat to Canadians. The implications were that the women wearing it were likely to be also wearing a belt of explosives and were going to blow up people at a Blue Jay’s game or on the Toronto or Montreal subway. If that was the real fear, the ban should have been from the shoulders down. The women could vote with a head covering but the rest of them had to be naked or in a bikini. The whole argument was absurd.
In poker, if you think you’ve got a good hand, you ante up. You raise the stakes. That’s what Harper did. He thought he had a winning hand. His base didn’t like the niqab or the people who wore it so he raised the stakes. He made what was probably the most absurd statement of the election. If re-elected, he was going to ban the niqab for anyone working in government. The absurdity was that no one in government has worn one or currently wears one. He might as well said, I’m going to ban people chowing down on raw porcupines. Nobody is. That made it clear that this wasn’t about the niqab, it was an appeal to the prejudices of his so-called base.
Jason Kenny and Chris Alexander, with the blessing or, perhaps, the encouragement or instruction of the PMO, since nothing was done spontaneously and everything was controlled from the PMO’s office, announced that they would set up a snitch line for neighbours to report on neighbours for any barbaric cultural practices. They left barbaric cultural practices to our imaginations. BBQing children at backyard parties, perhaps?
There was going to be a whole new host of crimes, not defined in law, but defined by suspicion, prejudice, racism, envy (envy is a big motivator), greed, paranoia. The new Canadian emotion was going to be fear. Fear of your family, fear of your neighbours, fear of your community.
Pierre Trudeau said that the government had no place in the bedrooms of the community. The barbaric cultural practices snitch line (just think, when we were children, how one of our playmates could frighten us by saying he or she was going to tell mom or a teacher) wouldn’t just give the government and everyone else a place in our bedrooms but would ease us toward what currently exists in North Korea, what existed in Germany under the Nazi party, what existed in the USSR as everyone spied on everyone else.
Our universities have been at the forefront of multi-culturalism. That wasn’t the result of any policy. That was just the reality that people travel the world seeking particular types of education. When I was in graduate school in Iowa, a state that is rural, traditional, prosperous and conservative in terms of history and tradition, I was on the board of the foreign students’ association. There were students from around the world. I met Arabs, Israelis, Africans, Asians, Europeans, South Americans. I discovered that they were like me in what they wanted from life. They were different in traditions and habits. They ate foods I’d never heard of. As we studied amidst the corn fields of Iowa, we were all adapting: to each other, to Iowa, to America, to new knowledge and ideas. And some people fell in love. Back home, inter-racial was Ukrainian and Icelandic, or Icelandic and Aboriginal. That turned heads, caused gossip, and family conflict.
That multi-culturalism came about simply because people can love each other no matter what the colour of their skin or their ethnic or religious background. That reality gradually spread into Canadian society. Or, I should say, is gradually spreading into Canadian society. It is much more accepted in urban centres where people from many different backgrounds work together. It is not so well accepted in rural areas where people are used to being “us” and everyone else is “them.” Someone with a different background is frequently treated with suspicion and resentment. However, gradually, Canada has been becoming more tolerant but that tolerance, spreading out from urban centres also has elicited a back lash of resentment.
To their unending shame, Harper and his campaign team played on that resentment, fear and prejudice. The goal, I assume, was to get their base to vote against this world made up of people who were others. It pitted this type of Canadian against that type of Canadian. Harper’s “old stock” comment underlay all this. There are “old stock”, you know, decent, go to church on Sundays, have a nice house, a cottage, two kids, a car, preferably a higher end one, but that all fell apart because it describes Rob Ford. At that last pathetic rally, I kept waiting for Harper to put his arm around Rob Ford and proudly declare into the microphone, Rob’s Old Stock.
It was ugly. It was mean. It played to bigotry. It was shameful. Watching it, I was embarrassed.
And then, yesterday, when I went on Facebook, I saw a clip of Justin Trudeau at an India-Canadian association of Montreal celebration of Indian Independence Day in 2013. He was wearing traditional Kurta clothes. He was dancing the Bhangra with members of the community to Punjabi music. He was obviously having a good time.
it was just an amateur video clip, probably taken on someone’s cell phone. There were no words. No commentary. There didn’t need to be. The message was clear. I wonder, though, if Harper, Kenny, Alexander, and the rest of the Conservative party are capable of hearing it?