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Racism in the Canadian election: Suppressing our better angels

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Syrian refugees cross from Hungary into Austria on their way to Germany in Septe

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The main issue in the Canadian election was supposed to be who could best manage the economy. Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims that it's he, and warns that other political parties will run deficits and raise taxes. Of course, Harper ran six deficits in a row. Apparently, he runs good deficits, but it would be irresponsible for others to do the same.

The Conservatives, however, have also introduced a much darker anti-Muslim dimension into the campaign. For them, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees in Europe this summer and fall was opportune. While many Canadians were meeting in city halls and churches to discuss how to assist in the humanitarian crisis, the Conservatives used the same crisis to spread fear.

Simply put, Harper played on fears about terrorism, claiming that other political parties would airlift refugees to Canada from camps in a volatile zone. Among those people, he warned, there could well be terrorists who want to harm Canada. This was a straw man monologue because no other political leaders suggested an air lift of undocumented people. They were asking, however, why it takes years for the Canadian government to process refugees lingering in the camps when there are Canadian sponsoring groups who want to receive them.

Harper also indicated that Canada will select its refugees from among persecuted minorities. That's code language that means Canada will accept Christians — and perhaps some Yazidis — but not Muslims. Tragically, it's true that Christians are being persecuted in the region, but the vast majority of victims and refugees continue to be Muslims.

In addition, the Conservatives have deliberately stirred up controversy over a Federal Court ruling that said it is against the law for the government to ban women from wearing the niqab, which is a facial scarf, at citizenship ceremonies. The prime minister and former Immigration Minister Jason Kenney are rarely accused of being feminists but in this case, they argue that women who wear the niqab are oppressed.

Then there's the recent news conference featuring ministers Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch. The two promised that if re-elected, the Conservatives will set up a telephone snitch line so that people can report to the RCMP any "barbaric cultural practices" that they might notice, including polygamy, forcing children into arranged marriages and honour killings. Without question, this is a neighbourhood watch with an Iron Curtain feel to it. CBC reporter Neil Macdonald writes that the Conservatives are attempting to implant in the public mind the harshest interpretations of fundamentalist Islam.

More recently, Harper has moved even farther into inciting division, saying that his government would also consider banning public servants from wearing the niqab, even though virtually none of them do!

Earlier generations of parliamentarians stoked fears against South Asians, slapped a head tax on Chinese immigrants, interned Japanese and Ukrainian Canadians, and fueled prejudice against Indigenous peoples. It was left to politicians in succeeding generations to apologize for the bigoted actions of their predecessors.     

In 1861, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln expressed the fond hope that Americans would be led by the "better angels of [our] nature." That's also a fitting hope for Canada's election campaign in 2015.

This piece was published by the United Church Observer on October 8, 2015.  

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