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Where were the 'good Conservatives,' prepared to speak against their party's race-baiting tactics?

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The single most disheartening thing about this long 2015 federal election campaign has been the silence among influential Conservatives about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's deplorable strategy of race baiting to create a wedge issue.

The prime minister rarely did this himself, of course, although his "old stock Canadians" crack came dog-whistle close. But no one with an ounce of sense can deny that the whole niqab brouhaha -- self-evidently cynically generated by the Conservative Party's foreign consultants and domestic backroom boys -- was designed to do this.

And it is entirely proper, by the way, to use the term racism to describe this strategy, even though, technically, the targets were members of a religion that includes people of all races. Nevertheless, just as "old stock Canadians" was meant to communicate the idea of white Canadians, since the majority of the Islamic religion's adherents in Canada are members of visible minorities, it fair to describe niqab uproar as racist in intent and application.

It should not need to be said that such tactics deserve contempt and public disapprobation from all across the political spectrum. And yet, on the right, there has been very little said, and among Conservatives, almost nothing. This silence is unnerving.

Surely many of the fine, intelligent Conservatives I have known over many years know in their hearts their silence condemns them and their party. And I have known many such Conservatives, something I am sure almost all progressive readers of this blog can say as well -- people with whom we disagree profoundly on economic or social policies, but who are consistent, honourable and thoughtful in their conservative principles.

So where are they, these "good Conservatives" with whom we can usually find some common ground? Or, rather, now that the election campaign is all but over, where were they?

Surely one or two Canadians who still have influence in the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper would have had the courage to speak up about this hateful strategy!

But apparently not. At least, I can say I have heard virtually nothing from the many former Conservative provincial and federal office holders in my community. And I haven't heard anything to suggest the situation is different anywhere else. We can only hope they have forcefully spoken up, at least, in the private chambers of their party.

I can think of six former elected representatives at all levels of government whom I know personally in my own community, and whom I have always thought of as fine people despite our different views of the world. But not one has spoken out to condemn this. Can we really see the world that differently?

Indeed, one of them wrote a letter to the local paper this week denying the prime minister had anything to do with trying to turn the niqab, a veil worn for religious reasons by a tiny minority of Muslim women, into a public issue.

"Our sitting prime minister has consistently tried to steer the election discourse to other important topics," wrote Mary O'Neill, former MLA for St. Albert, in Saturday's edition of the Gazette. "It is incorrect to think he is the one who has made this an election issue. … To a great extent, the other parties and the reporting media -- and, I might add, the niqab-wearing women along with their lawyers -- are the ones who have either made it or described it as an election issue."

Are we seriously being asked to blame the victims, and a couple of lawyers? Remember, the prime minister himself promised to introduce a ban on niqabs in public service offices -- a practice for which there is now and ever shall be precisely zero demand!

Influential Canadian Conservatives may not recognize this campaign for what it is, but the rest of the world sure seems to. Even The Economist, the intellectual voice of globalized conservatism, called the prime minister's campaign "Muslim bashing."

A headline in The Guardian, meanwhile, a more liberal British newspaper, said Canadian Conservatives "use Islamophobia to make gains in polls." Britain's Independent newspaper characterized the Conservative campaign as one of "dark, racist overtones and anti-Muslim rhetoric." The Broadbent Instituteis Press Progress online publication has compiled a longer list, from which these examples are drawn, of how the world sees the Conservatives' campaign tactics.

Of course, there is one other former elected Conservative in this community who has spoken up about this, but that is our former Conservative Member of Parliament, Brent Rathgeber, who is now running for re-election, probably quixotically, as an independent.

In a blog post last spring, Rathgeber accused the prime minister of "playing a dangerous game by attempting to capitalize on the politics of fear." The "entire niqab issue," he wrote, "is only being brought in as part of a larger, unhelpful campaign of fear and divisiveness between different groups of Canadians." (I have added the italics in this passage.)

Rathgeber condemned this divisive strategy again at a recent all-candidates' meeting when the Conservative candidate in the St. Albert-Edmonton Riding, Michael Cooper, tried unsuccessfully to scare the bejeepers out of the crowd with suggestions jihadists are lurking everywhere.

In this, Rathgeber echoes the words of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi -- not a Conservative, but hardly a radical leftist either -- when he called Harper's campaign "disgusting" and "unbelievably dangerous stuff." For courageously speaking this obvious truth, Mayor Nenshi was accused by Defence Minister Jason Kenney, in typical Conservative fashion, of being the one who was politicizing the issue.

As for the many silent Conservatives, it says something about the hold Harper now has over that once-great Canadian political party that so many of its loyal supporters, even some who have hung on from the days when it truly was a conservative party and not the extremist market fundamentalist ideological front it has become, would exhibit such cowardice. And, sorry, if you know better and still say nothing, there’s just no other word for it but cowardice.

Well, the election is all but over. Perhaps some of good Conservatives will speak up now. They still need to. This is a problem within the Conservative Party that's not going to go away just because we've had an election, whatever the outcome. It's become bigger than just Harper, and only Conservatives can get their own house in order.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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Image: Flickr/mostlyconservative

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