Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad at the opening inauguration of the Baitan Nur Mosque, considered the largest mosque in Canada in 2009. Photo: Itzafineday

When the pro-sovereignty movement narrowly lost the Quebec sovereignty referendum, premier Jacques Parizeau, in his concession speech on October 30, 1995, attributed this outcome to “money” and the “ethnic vote.” This provoked such a strong reaction that he had to resign as premier the following day.

Mainly through Jason Kenney, Stephen Harper has sought to cherry-pick segments of our society — ethnic and religious minorities –and woo them, hoping to achieve that elusive majority government. Parizeau was wrong, both in dividing Canadians into “us” and “them” and in thinking that ethnic and ethno-religious communities vote in single blocks. And so is Harper.

The self-branded “Harper government” has been in continuous pre-election mode. In 2008, while Harper decided to shun other national media because they have “taken the view they are going to be the opposition to the government”, his government placed ads (“public notices” it calls them) worth $1.1 million on 43 ethnic radio stations, in 260 ethnic newspapers, and in Canadian Immigrant Magazine. In the 2011 campaign, Harper is pushing hard to sell his private brand — “Harper government” — especially in ethnic communities, leaving the impression with voters there that governmental services can be acquired only through partisan channels of the Conservative Party.

Then Immigration spokeswoman Danielle Norris said that the “department plans to spend $2 million more to advertise the immigration reforms and other unspecified immigration matters, possibly by the end of June,” adding that $28,000 of that total was earmarked for English and French mainstream media

With more ads, more media support, more resources, the Conservatives steal legitimate representative power from and marginalize duly elected representatives from other political parties. Their fictional universe overshadows those of the other parties. With more financial resources, more “public notices,” more personal attack ads, unsubstantiated statements and roundtables, the Harper Conservatives milk the ethnic vote pushing governmental advantage in egregious narrowly partisan ways so extreme they are unprecedented in Canada’s democratic process.

In spite of Harper’s denial, and his accusations that the Opposition parties forced the election, the poll results must have weighed heavily in the government’s decision not to compromise on the budget, while being found in contempt of Parliament. The fundraising document sent by mistake to NDP Member of Parliament Linda Duncan by Kenney’s office essentially proves that Harper was confident that he could precipitate an election — he thought with a no confidence vote against the budget, not with the contempt of Parliament determination. In fact, this is the second time Harper had forced an election. He did in 2008 after only two years in office, and wasn’t penalized for it.

Once again, the Conservatives are using the ethnic media television outlets for their advertising campaign.

The Conservative outreach strategy was outlined in a PowerPoint presentation “Breaking Through: Building the Conservative Brand” which was attached to the fundraising letter. The presentation spells out the Conservatives’ targets (Chinese, South Asian, Jewish and Ukrainian) and delivers the message that Conservatives understand ethnics’ struggles and share their family values, and ask “Isn’t it time we all voted our values?” Harper’s Conservatives are pinning their narrow social conservative agenda on new Canadians, whom they see only as block vote providers rather than informed individuals representing a diversity of views.

The list of targeted and/or “de-funded” organizations is considered an achievement by Harper’s government without concern on how negatively these “achievements” have impacted the lives of the very new Canadians they seek to convert and their families,

Harper’s party have shed the language of the old Reform/Alliance Parties — as former Reform leader Preston Manning had advised — but the “values” are still those of the party that is home to Vic Toews, Maurice Vellacott, David Sweet and others affiliated with theo-extremist beliefs they seek to impose on Canadians, with the help of Harper’s advisers and others. Except for a few mishaps, Harper has been successful in reining in the religious social conservatives (RelSoCon) in his Caucus and crafting statements that resonate with RelSoCon voters without raising a flag within mainstream society.

In his perspective on the 2006 election, John Ryan states that “the influence of the Christian right can be summed up in a comment on the prospects of the Conservative Party by the Edmonton Journal (Dec. 5, 2003, p. A16): “The [social conservative] bogeymen won’t go away just because they’ll be hidden from public view inside a new Conservative Party. They’ll still be there, under the bed, waiting for a chance to spring up and spout their offensive anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-immigration, pro-gun, pro-death penalty views.” But before they can put forth any legislation on these matters they will have to wait until they get a majority government….”

The discrimination among Christian institutions is also telling: Trinity University, Youth for Christ and Briercrest Bible College got funded, while KAIROS was defunded.

Winnipeg candidate Rod Bruinooge, among others, have the outlawing of abortion as part of their local, religious campaigns. But many are following Preston Manning’s advice: “Drop the God talk, tone down the righteous indignation, take your time. Issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage will not be resolved in a single vote.”

The scandals that have plagued the Canadian political elites, both Liberals and Conservatives, have turned Canadians away from politics. However, the RelSoCons will show up religiously on voting day, in support of Harper, who many others think has brought politics to a new low, where personal attacks, word manipulation, deception, innuendos and insults are the norm.

Some first generation immigrants may espouse social conservative ideas, but they and their children’s interests go well beyond the politicians’ pigeonholing which implies that immigrants, old and new, are separate. Immigrants in “ethnic clothing” are good for a photo-op with the prime minister, but not good enough to include in the list of guests when “he feted the Queen to a state dinner before an almost entirely Caucasian crowd in a ballroom at the Royal York Hotel. (A casual observer would have thought that even the government of Canada would be savvy enough to know that the crowd assembled in no way visibly represented the population of a multicultural Toronto, but whatever…).” In fact, a group of Canadian immigration lawyers, practitioners, and academics issued an open letter listing reasons why ethnic communities should not support Harper’s Conservatives.

Harper’s record in politics, both before and after becoming prime minister is well known, including some controversial statements

Canadians will be voting on what kind of Canada we will wake up to on May 3rd. Will it be a RelSocCon free-market Canada  or will Canadians reclaim the country they love and cherish — one which celebrates what citizens share in common. To be vibrant and whole again, Canadians need to remove the wedges Harper has driven between us based on religion, ethnicity, gender and political persuasion.

Bahija Réghaï is a human rights activist, former president of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations (NCCAR).

Bahija Réghaï

Bahija Réghaï is a human rights activist, former president of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations (NCCAR).