A poisonous virus spreads
There is an ancient, deadly virus quietly spreading across the land.
It has been mostly latent for decades, but we have endured earlier regional outbreaks. This time is more threatening for two reasons: how it spreads and who is responsible for it.
It goes by the euphemistic name “identity politics.” It is more properly called by its right name: racism.
It is more frightening today due to the power of anonymous social media capable of infecting millions overnight. But also more worrying given its new salesmen, conceivably to be joined by others. Maxime Bernier has made it unabashedly clear that he intends to be the lead trafficker at the national level.
The worrying CAQ leader, François Legault, potentially a premier in a few days’ time, is “identity politics” greatest provincial champion. Legault is a multi-ethnic insulter, who, in his first speech to a partisan crowd, as a 1998 PQ candidate, said “I hate [the English] as much as you do.” It was Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis who used the virus to bait Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses Quebeckers until nearly 1960.
The seductive power of racist messaging tempts political competitors to jump in. George Wallace begat Nixonian race baiting, known by the offensive euphemism, “the Southern strategy.” B.C. Liberals, in the ’20s and ’30s, fighting off anti-Chinese Conservatives, used the same viral language to attack the NDP’s predecessor with newspaper ads declaring, “Don’t Let the CCF Give the Chinaman the Vote! Vote Liberal.”
Social Credit in B.C and Alberta were famous race whisperers with Premier William Aberhart using his radio broadcasts to thunder against “the usurious money-lenders” — no prizes for guessing who that was code for. It will be interesting to see if Alberta’s inheritor of that conservative political heritage today is similarly tempted, this time again targeting Muslim Canadians.
Justin Trudeau might tread a little more lightly on his use of “the politics of fear and division” rhetoric, when attacking mere hecklers, however revolting they are. He might focus on a more effective approach to illegal refugees — the fuse for today’s eruption of racism. His father’s tough and courageous speeches and anti-hate speech legislation might be useful homework to start.
We have worked hard to create and defend a racially, ethnically and religiously safe political space. We are now the sole remaining G7 nation to have — mostly — fought off the virus. But we are fools to believe that Canadians are immune to it. Our history reveals otherwise.
There is one leader who has a unique opportunity, even responsibility, to lead the charge in defence of these new Canadian values. It is, of course, Jagmeet Singh. Singh is in the best position to make clear the essential nature of our “extremely multicultural” community, to fling Mad Max’s own bizarre dog-whistle rhetoric back at him.
If Andrew Scheer is tempted to revive Harper’s Islamaphobic politics, out of anxiety about Bernier and LeGault on his right, Singh can simply say, “Canadians made clear four years ago what they thought of your politics then, and they will do so again next year. Soyez prudent, mon chom…”
To the prime minister, his message can be equally sharp, “Justin, your father’s changes to racist immigration laws made it possible for my parents to come to this country. You need to do more to defend justice for asylum seekers, to better integrate immigrant families, to provide affordable housing and quality education for all. And to take on those politicians — not your hecklers — who flirt with racism. Your father would have, and Canadians today demand it of you.”
Obama was the most successful non-white politician to place social tolerance at the centre of his political message. Not merely as a champion of Black America, but as the defender of everyone — Asians, Hispanics, LGBTQ voters — cut off from the opportunities that must be available to all, in any truly just society.
Jagmeet Singh can lay out the social justice agenda of a traditional social democratic leader, and then also don Obama’s political mantle on race and display it with authenticity and pride. And not, incidentally, probably do his political future a great deal of good.
Robin V. Sears, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, was an NDP strategist for 20 years.