The Wildrose Opposition's "democracy and accountability" critic spoke at an anti-carbon-tax rally in Red Deer Saturday where Canadianized versions of the Confederate battle flag -- universally used, recognized and loathed as a symbol of overt racism -- were freely flapping in wind.
Jason Nixon -- who is also the Wildrose Legislative Caucus’s whip, responsible for party discipline -- told the media the flag flappers were, in the words of the Canadian Press reporter who covered the story, "apart from the main crowd," and that he spoke with the flag wavers and condemned their "racist imagery."
Well, sorry, but that dog won't hunt.
If the MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre wanted to make a point about racist imagery, he could have sent the flag wavers packing from the steps of Red Deer City Hall, where he addressed the entire tiny group of carbon-tax opponents. Instead, he says, he spoke to the flag wavers for a few moments afterward.
According to the CBC, he then issued a statement saying, "I am sure that they would not have been welcome had they attempted to join the rally."
Oh, please! Even if there's no one standing behind the tree shown in the Twitter photo, the flag wavers are no more than a dozen steps from the rest of the protesters.
As Brian Mulroney famously said to John Turner: "You had an option, sir!" Nixon could have walked away and said why. He could have manned up and condemned the racist-flag wavers from the bully pulpit being an MLA provides. Instead, he bloviated un-memorably about the NDP's carbon tax to handful of people the demonstration managed to attract.
My guess is that if the protest hadn't happened on a weekend when the Progressive Conservatives were having a meeting in Red Deer, and a few PC members unhappy about the idea of a forced merger with the Wildrose Party hadn't wandered by with camera-equipped smart-phones, none of us would know anything about this.
Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer, who was not there, issued a statement expressing her dismay about the images.
Joe Anglin, Nixon's predecessor as Wildrose Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA, told me yesterday that no public figure can just ignore a racist symbol like the Confederate Battle Flag at a rally and pretend it has nothing to do with them.
"It's an ugly reminder of a dark time in American history," the U.S.-born Anglin observed. "People of integrity don't just disavow its presence. They remove themselves completely from participation in the event."
And have no doubt about it, he added, "once the Confederate flag was unfurled, the event became a racist event. It is no defence … to say he spoke with the flag wavers to condemn the behaviour after the damage was done.”
Anglin, defeated at a Wildrose nomination meeting in July 2014 by Nixon, who had worked behind the scenes as the constituency secretary to unseat him, said he believes Wildrose ranks are far from free of racism and homophobia. "This association I regret."
The fact is, we've got a broader problem with racism in Alberta and politicians who stand by in situations like this as Nixon did are tacitly contributing to it.
Sometimes not so tacitly, either. As Edmonton writer Todd Babiak noted in a blog commentary yesterday on today's U.S. election, no Albertan should be surprised by the Donald Trump phenomenon south of the 49th Parallel because the attitudes associated with his supporters are shared by many in this jurisdiction.
There's no shortage of Alberta politicians on the right prepared to exploit such attitudes for political gain, either.
Consider then-Calgary-MP Jason Kenney's bizarre stream of pro-Brexit Tweets last June. We all knew perfectly well what Kenney had in mind when he Tweeted, "I respect the decision of the British people who will be unencumbered to pursue more global free trade & non-EU migration." (Emphasis added.)
A lot of Albertans, sad to say, doubtless approved. Some of those people, I imagine, were standing with Nixon at the rally in Red Deer on Saturday.
The term of art for this behaviour is dog-whistling -- messages sent by demagogues like Trump between their spoken lines to stoke their supporters' fury and hatred. Done properly, every dog-whistle is totally deniable -- and perfectly understood by just the right segment of the electorate.
Pretending you can't see a group of people waving an overt racist symbol while you ramble on about the carbon tax sends a dog-whistle message of its own -- one certainly not appropriate for the caucus disciplinarian of the official Opposition! The message it sends, no matter what Nixon thinks, is that this kind of imagery is just fine with the Wildrose Opposition.
What Alberta's conservative parties are doing is very much like what the U.S. Republican party did when its dog-whistlers opened the way for an open racist like Trump to contest the presidency as their flag-bearer.
As the New York Times' Paul Krugman pointed out in a recent column, Republican political strategy has exploited the American racial divide for half a century. "So it's amazing to see the party's elite utterly astonished by the success of a candidate who is just saying outright what they have consistently tried to convey with dog whistles."
Conservative parties in Alberta and Canada are not so different. Just look at the disgusting xenophobic displays by such candidates for the leadership of the federal Conservatives as Kellie Leitch, Chris Alexander and Steven Blaney. Kenney, for his part, is busy campaigning to unite the Alberta right, complete with busloads of supporters clad in Trumpish camo hats.
It's probably only a matter of time before we have an openly racist political campaign in Alberta too. And racist campaigns, as a majority of Canadians profoundly hope Trump's won’t demonstrate tonight, can take us down a dark road indeed.
If they truly disapprove of racist imagery, Nixon, his Wildrose caucus mates and the people who want to merge them into the Progressive Conservative Party are going to have to work a lot harder to prove it.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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