Canadians often think that they are immune from the nationalist fervour that is sweeping other Western countries. As the world watches Donald Trump instate a Muslim immigration ban in the United States, Canadians take solace in their progressive, feminist Prime Minister, who takes to Twitter to say that “Canadians will welcome… those fleeing persecution, terror and war.” The experience of Donald Trump in the United States, however, should illustrate the potential risk of dismissing political movements that may at first seem only marginal. Consequently, Canadians would do well to remain vigilant against creeping nationalist rhetoric, no matter how disguised it may seem at first.
A “Unified Canadian Identity?”
“Canadians, by and large [are] philosophically predisposed to an openness that others find bewildering, even reckless,” writes Charles Foran of the Guardian, This openness, some argue, comes from the ill-defined notion of what exactly a Canadian “identity” looks like. As far back as 1963, thinkers like Marshall McLuhan have argued that “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.” In Justin Trudeau’s view, it is this lack of a “core identity” that makes Canada the first truly “post-national” state.
Evidently this view is not shared by all Canadians. Kellie Leitch, a current contender for leader of the Conservative Party, has allegedly heard from many Canadians who do “believe in a unified Canadian identity.” Consequently, in her platform, she advocates a process that would screen incoming immigrants for “anti-Canadian” values. Many have drawn comparisons between Leitch’s rhetoric and Trump’s, and portrayed her as an opportunist capitalizing on the US President’s success.
However, this notion of “anti-Canadian” values has much deeper roots that predate the Trump phenomenon. In 2015 Chris Alexander, then-Immigration Minister for the Harper Conservatives, promised to establish an RCMP hotline for reports of “barbaric cultural practices” that were held to be contrary to “Canadian values.” This proposal came during an election campaign in which the Conservative Party suggested banning the Niqab from Canadian citizenship ceremonies. According to a Conservative fundraising email during the election, such attire was simply “not the way we do things here.”
“Well informed criticism”
This perceived opposition between “Canadian” and “non-Canadian” values has been given renewed attention by motion M-103 from Liberal MP Iqra Khalid to study “systemic racism and religious discrimination” in Canada. Opponents of the motion argue that, by specifically singling out “Islamophobia,” it inaccurately represents all criticism of Islam as an “irrational fear,” and precludes “well-informed criticism” about the potentially real clash between Islamic values and Canadian ones.
The debate over the appropriateness of the term “Islamophobia” in the motion has already taken up considerable space in Canadian media coverage as of late, and this article will not rehash it here. It is, however, worth stressing that once one legitimizes the discursive arena that pits “Canadian” values against “non-Canadian” or “barbaric” ones, the tipping point between “well-informed criticism” and nationalist, even hateful, rhetoric, can be a precarious one.
Consider the following quotes:
We need to “fight to protect our Canadian laws and values,” to counter “barbarianism,” and to redress “poor management by governments” of the refugee issue.
“It’s not a question of racism,” but rather, “a question of common sense.”
These are the types of words one may now reasonably expect to hear from several of the current Canadian Conservative candidates. However, they were actually spoken by members of the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee group with alleged ties to neo-Nazism, in a recent documentary by VICE. While the above quotes may seem relatively tame, the documentary follows the group to an “anti-radical-Islam” protest, where a young boy insists that all Islamists be thrown “in the river.” Later, the documentary shows the group coordinating with Atelante, a more militant group that, among other things, advocates a white-supremacist “renaissance of the neo-French in Quebec.”
Are we at risk?
Once again, many will argue that these examples represent nothing more than the hateful views of a fringe minority, misunderstanding what constitutes “well-informed criticism.” However, this “us” and “them” rhetoric can be coupled with other populist tactics that do have wider appeal. It is worth remembering that Trump was not brought to power by hateful, nationalist rhetoric alone. Indeed, many argue that this nationalist message largely rode the coattails of Trump’s broader appeal to a disenfranchised middle class who no longer had faith in American political institutions.
Once again, Canada may not be as insulated from these forces as we think. The recently released “Trust Barometer” from Canadian communications firm Edelman shows that 80 per cent of Canadians think the Canadian elite are “out of touch” with ordinary people. 60 per cent of Canadians believe mainstream politicians won’t solve our problems, and almost a third say they would support a politician who manipulates the truth.
What’s worse, these forces have already seen Canada flirt with Trump-type populism. Toronto, which BBC News alleges is the “most diverse city in the World,” elected Mayor Rob Ford, a man who appealed to the exact same sort of distrust of career politicians.
If one listens only to Justin Trudeau’s “post-national” musings and welcoming tweets, Canada indeed seems far removed from the rising global wave of nationalism. However, if a space for the idea that there are fundamentally anti-Canadian values is allowed, and is conspicuously tied to some loosely defined vision of “Islam,” then the forces that are subsequently unleashed, even if unintentionally, may be hard to control. More importantly, if Canadians find themselves with a politician who can tie this slippery nationalist language to an increasingly popular distrust of Canadian political institutions, then the possibility may not be as far away as we think.