Hungarian Roma family in Toronto

In this fallow period before the next federal budget on March 29, the government’s plan seems to have been to lie low and not initiate too much. The budget would do all the talking, and just about everything else the government did or said until then would be aimed at getting Canadians prepared for something major, and maybe even radical.

In January, for instance, the Prime Minister floated the idea of changing Old Age Security, in a speech in Switzerland.

Since then, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has risen in the House on a number of occasions to defend the need for reform. At the same time, she always assures those nearing retirement age that any changes won’t affect them.

Finley never says exactly what reforms the government is contemplating. We’ll have to wait for the budget for that — as for just about everything else this government has in mind.

From a political perspective, it seemed like a good plan, until robocall came along.

Whatever else was before Parliament, robocall would have inevitably made its way to the top of the agenda.

But the dearth of new government legislation made it easier for this new and unprecedented scandal about democratic participation to suck up nearly all the oxygen in the Commons chamber.

A rare victory for the Opposition in a time of majority

Robocall even created an opening for the NDP to propose positive reforms and, possibly, get them passed. Normally it is difficult for opposition parties that face majorities to get actual meaningful legislation through the House.

The NDP seems to have pulled off that trick with an Opposition Day motion that would give the Chief Electoral Officer the powers he needs to properly investigate robocall and prevent similar abuses.

After opposing those measures in Committee, the government now, it seems, has acquiesced.

And just the other day the Conservatives gave up their appeal in the in-and-out affair and paid their fine.

Both gestures are signs that, whatever published opinion polls might say, the Conservatives are feeling the heat — or, at least, feeling uncomfortably warm!

Robocall has not been good for the Conservatives’ self-esteem. These are not people who are normally happy to admit fault — on anything — and move on.

Kenney sticks to his agenda

There is one minister, however, who has stayed upbeat and active on his own files through all this Sturm und Drang.

That is Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

Kenney has come a long way from his days at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Even before the Conservatives got into power in 2006, Harper had identified Liberal dominance of the so-called ethnic vote as something his party had to change. Kenney was the unlikely person the Conservative leader tapped for the job.

Kenney has made the systematic courting of targeted ethnic voting blocs into an art form.

He has logged many hours at ethnic community events, and visited temples, synagogues, mosques and community centres, all in an effort to convince immigrants and the children and grandchildren of immigrants that the Conservatives care about them.

Two months before the last election, some passengers waiting for their flights at Ottawa’s airport were treated to an unguarded Kenney loudly and openly talking about strategies for the coming vote on his cell phone.

Anyone within earshot that day did not need lip-reading skills to hear Kenney vaunting  favourable Conservative prospects in certain urban ridings because of the “Jewish vote.”

Taking every opportunity to solidify “ethnic” support

Kenney knows that making friends and earning votes with “ethnic groups” is a job that never ends.

Earlier this week, the Minister issued a statement on Israeli Apartheid Week, which says, in part:

“Like many Canadians I am concerned with the rise of anti-Israel activities on campuses across Canada, culminating in the so-called ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ (IAW), which is often promoted in a manner that disregards the rights and safety of Jewish students and professors.”

The statement goes on to condemn Israel’s critics for “singling out the only liberal democracy in the Middle East” while those critics, apparently, say nothing about “Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s brutal slaughter of his own people and the suppression of basic human rights in many countries around the globe.”

Kenney concludes by calling on Canadians to “reject anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, discrimination and intolerance.”

All this is as much designed to keep a few urban seats the Conservatives won last time, especially in Toronto — and maybe win some more next time, such as Montreal’s Mount Royal — as it is to combat racism.

As for the solemn expression of concern about “anti-Semitism and racism” — first of all there is the problem of conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of current Israeli policy.

There are, indeed, some who do cloak good old-fashioned anti-Semitism in the guise of “anti-Zionism.” Look up “ZOG,” or “Zionist Occupation Government,” a favourite epithet of the paranoid American fringe-right.

However, while Israel may be, formally, a liberal democracy, it is not beyond criticism.

Many Jews inside and outside Israel are quite critical of current Israeli government policies. Does that make them anti-Semites?

Too bad for the “gypsies” that their votes can’t swing any ridings!

Second, just a few weeks ago, while introducing tough new measures to discourage refugee claimants from “liberal democracies” such as Hungary, Kenney himself slipped pretty close to broad ethnic generalizations about another group, the Roma (or “gypsies”).

When a Slovak journalist prefaced a question to the Minister by saying, with an obvious sneer: “We know how these Roma can make up stories about being tortured… ” Kenney did not correct her.

Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration did not take the opportunity to say that here in Canada we don’t pre-judge people as a group. Each person who arrives here is treated with respect and dignity and we take their “stories,” in each and every case, seriously. Those stories could quite well be true.

No, Kenney did not say any of that.

Instead, the Minister almost joined in the bashing of this ethnic group. He riffed a bit on the “gypsy” stereotype, speaking darkly about “criminal conspiracies.”

He had been told, the Minister said, that Roma have been arriving in droves at Pearson Airport with identical rehearsed stories, and that their first question invariably is: “Where do I get the welfare cheque?” Kenney didn’t bother to offer any documentation or evidence for any of this.

When pressed, Kenney did recognize that the Roma have been historic victims of prejudice and discrimination, and still have a very difficult time in many parts of Europe.

But, the Minister cautioned, that does not mean the Roma qualify as refugees.

Condemnation of racism is very selective

Some of the Roma who fled to Canada and have become Canadian citizens don’t understand the current government’s apparent double standard.

This government condemns “all forms of racism, discrimination and intolerance.”

There is huge evidence that Roma in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the Balkan countries and other European countries are victims not only of systematic discrimination in housing, education and employment, but of frequent incidents of violence and harassment from extreme-right gangs and thugs.

In addition, the Roma people see themselves as being in a historic situation quite similar to that of Europe’s Jews.

Both groups experienced centuries of racism and discrimination, culminating in the horrific events of the Nazi period. Hitler and his colleagues considered both Jews and Roma to be disposable untermenschen.

Given all that, many Canadian Roma would like an answer to this question:

Why do we have conferences on anti-Semitism and frequent official expressions of great sympathy for the Jewish people — the same people about whom a Canadian official once said “none is too many” — while for the Roma there are deportations and special measures to keep them out?

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...