With fifty Muslims dead in Christchurch, New Zealand, attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and California, white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the rise of populist, xenophobic parties across the West, the world seems to be settling into a dark pattern—one in which extremists vie for death-toll glory as political rhetoric grows more poisonous and divisive.
Canada is not immune to this kind of violence. In 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire on a Quebec City mosque; he later pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and said that his act of terrorism was triggered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to welcome more refugees in the wake of Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Bissonnette feared more refugees would pose a threat to him and his family. “I was, like, sure that they were going to come and kill my parents also and my family,” he said during a video interrogation. According to Statistics Canada, police report that hate crimes have increased dramatically in recent years. In 2017, the number rose by 47 percent over the previous year; that increase was attributed to a growth in crimes motivated by religion, race, or ethnicity. More of these crimes are targeting Black, Arab, and West Asian communities: reported hate crimes targeting Muslims grew by 151 percent; targeting Jewish people, 63 percent.
Against this backdrop, many Canadians, especially those who identify as progressive, see cause for alarm, fearing that conservative parties and politicians here are parroting the rhetoric of far-right parties elsewhere.
Maxime Bernier, who was only narrowly defeated by now leader Andrew Scheer at the federal Conservative Party’s leadership convention in 2017, has moved on to found the People’s Party of Canada, which stokes fears about maintaining Canadian culture in the face of Muslim migration. This winter, Scheer spoke at a pro-oil-and-gas rally in Ottawa that included anti-immigration xenophobes; the Conservative Party has also opposed a nonbinding UN agreement on global migration. And, during Alberta’s spring election, now premier Jason Kenney — long considered a potential successor to Stephen Harper as leader of the federal Conservatives—disqualified or accepted the resignation of several United Conservative Party candidates who were found to have made racist comments in public and in private.
It’s a stretch to take this evidence as proof that the Conservative Party in this country is secretly a bastion of racist ideologues. But what some of these incidents do suggest is that this is a movement unwilling to confront xenophobia or risk alienating supporters on the fringe.
In December, federal Conservatives began to openly oppose the UN Global Compact for Migration—a nonbinding agreement that seeks to ensure “safe, orderly, and regular migration.” The Conservatives have suggested it threatens national sovereignty, despite the compact’s explicit recognition that individual countries decide which immigrants to accept. The Conservative stance on the compact mirrors some of the messaging emerging from far-right media and personalities, which have spun dark conspiracy theories about its true aims.
Then, in February, the United We Roll convoy arrived in Ottawa. What the capital received was perceived by many in the public and press to be an entirely different animal from the grassroots protest movement that left earlier in the month from Alberta with the wind at its back. The convoy was intended as a protest of the Liberal government’s oil-and-gas policies. However, it included supporters who have been open about their anti-immigration and anti-Muslim views. After it arrived in Ottawa, Faith Goldy—a former Rebel Media commentator who was fired from that site after appearing on a podcast by the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website—climbed aboard a cherry picker to address the crowd. On the convoy’s main stage that same day, away from Goldy’s spectacle, Scheer also spoke to the assembled protesters, a decision for which he continues to face criticism.
In response, Scheer has offered statements condemning far-right conspiracies and the like. At the recent Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa this spring, he said: “People know that the Conservative Party is open and welcoming. . . . We denounce any elements of society that would promote hate speech.” In the past, Scheer’s statements about hate speech probably would have been enough to put any lingering allegations of racism to rest. But we are in an era in which the political discourse is turning increasingly sour, white-nationalist terrorism is on the rise, and anti-immigrant sentiment rooted in racism, anti-Semitic conspiracies, and Islamophobia is gaining a foothold.
Conservative parties can no longer assume the benefit of the doubt. They need to aggressively and proactively distance themselves from a fringe but ascendant form of conservatism that is both nationalistic and xenophobic. The assumptions, now, are darker. The standard is higher.
To be clear, opposition parties should be able to point out the failures of immigration-and-migration policies without fear of having such criticism automatically labelled racist by those who maintain a partisan interest in diverting attention from their own failures. (It’s particularly hypocritical when such name calling originates from a Liberal government that slipped a provision into the last omnibus budget bill that will make it harder for asylum seekers to get refugee status here. Left-leaning parties have, among other motivations, a vested interest in painting their opponents as racist in order to win support, and have done so.)
However, there has to be a hard line between legitimate discourse about sensitive issues and feeding — or even appearing to feed — into fears about vulnerable populations in order to harvest votes. Conspiracy theories have become unavoidable in online communities devoted to trouncing liberals and social-justice warriors. Many oppose migration and declare themselves committed to preserving Western civilization from the purported evils of mass migration and progressive activism. Fall down a few YouTube holes and it’s easy to find people who believe the world is run by “globalists” who want to destroy the nation state and the “white race” along with it. Conspiracy theories are an intellectual disease that eat away at the collective critical faculties of a group. Denigrating sources of information (including the news media) creates a self-reinforcing loop that makes it harder to separate legitimate criticism from conspiracist fantasy.
There is also an obvious moral component to all of this. The more common catastrophic rhetoric becomes, the more likely it is that extremists will be inspired to engage in mass violence — as, indeed, they have been in recent years.
Under most of Stephen Harper’s tenure, the Conservative Party understood that its future would be built on an alliance with people of many backgrounds who shared some common values: a belief in equality of opportunity, personal responsibility, hard work, and a limited role for government. Whatever gains might be made by appearing to tolerate volatile xenophobic rhetoric will be short lived. Politics is a game of perception. And a party of white grievance risks wandering the electoral wilderness for a generation.
At the moment, the xenophobia that appears to be fuelling far-right populism in much of the Western world is not reflected in Canada’s elected officials. Bernier’s People’s Party is holding at about 3 percent in the polls; it doesn’t appear to be bleeding any significant support from the Conservative Party. For mainstream conservatives, this is a blessing: let Bernier take the xenophobic fringe, even at the risk of splitting a few votes in tight ridings come fall. It’s better to lose an election than a soul.