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The Future Of Elections Is Fighting Over Who We Can Call Racist

A now-infamous heckler has set the stage for an all-out culture war in 2019.
Images via CP.

Canadian politics get dumber by the day, folks. Not sure how else to even open these columns anymore.

This country is getting ready to have a big, ugly, stupid fight about immigration. This is in fact a proxy for “Canadian identity,” which is the real issue at play during every election since at least the mid 20th century. We are also going to have this proxy-fight through its own proxy-fight, since no one is going to actually “discuss” immigration so much as we’re going to scream at each other over who is or isn’t a racist.


By now, we are all familiar with “the heckle”: Justin Trudeau appears in Quebec for a campaign rally and some middle-aged provocateuse starts shouting questions at him about illegal immigration. He could have taken a moment to try and earnestly explain to this woman why “illegal immigration” is a shibboleth or otherwise engaged in the “dialogue” he insisted they were having, but opted instead to call her intolerant and let the crowd drown her out. (When she later approached the prime minister and asked him directly if he was intolerant against “Quebecois de souche,” ie descendants of Quebec’s first white settlers, Trudeau outright called her racist.)

In this case, it was a pretty open and shut case that the woman involved was genuinely racist. She asked about reverse racism, she was accompanied by a man shouting “this is not Mohawk territory,” and she was literally an anti-immigrant agitator affiliated with “patriotic” protest group Storm Alliance. None of this stopped Conservative leader Andrew Scheer from offering his support to this woman’s right to ask questions. He and many Tories understand the sting of being dismissed as “intolerant” or “racist” for also shouting extremely loaded talking points at Liberals in the form of a question.

The CPC might regret not doing three minutes of Googling before stumping for a far-right sovereigntist, but the party has made it very clear who their fellow-travellers are. Calgary MP Michelle Rempel announced this week that the Conservative’s shiny new immigration policy will be geared around not “setting the number of immigrants allowed into Canada like an auction,” and we are nearly through week two of Maxime Bernier’s sudden heel turn. (For all the flak he’s getting from his caucus colleagues, Bernier’s only real crime was attacking the signifier “diversity” directly instead of couching anti-migrant sentiment in terms of national security, which would grant him plausible deniability against charges of racism. That’s how everyone else is doing it. But libertarians aren’t generally known for their subtlety.)


Whether this is a genuine scandal for Scheer et al. or if they’ve merely offended the genteel Laurentian sensibilities of journo Twitter will be revealed this weekend in Halifax. The CPC is gathering for its final policy convention ahead of the 2019 election. If I had to wager money, I would say the CPC base is probably reasonably comfortable with the party’s rightward tack, and that freaking out the blue-checked squares is part of the appeal.

Consider Bernier’s surprise defence this week from CBC’s Neil Macdonald. Sure, Bernier’s thinking on multiculturalism is roughly on par with what you’d hear in a highschool civics class from someone who hasn’t done the reading, but in principle this dissent from Trudeauvian orthodoxy is a breath of fresh ideological air. Political polarization has destroyed America and dismissing people because of their “problematic” opinions is censorious lefty groupthink, weaponized by the government for cynical ends. Macdonald hints at the existence of a new silent majority: “Trudeau's full embrace of identity politics probably annoys many Canadians of good will.”

It’s been obvious to everyone for a while that Trudeau himself probably has no deeper thoughts about social justice than Maxime Bernier, given that he and his ministers prefer to reach for moralizing platitudes instead of actual explanations whenever anyone asks them what they are doing or why. As I wrote elsewhere a few weeks ago when the country first plunged over this cliff:


“You can thank the Liberals for bringing us down this road. It is arguably one of the structural shortcomings of our new Trudeauvian philosophy. The federal government and its fellow-travellers in media have been behaving as if all our cultural struggles are actually over and settled for all time (‘because it’s 2015’) and tarred everyone who interrogated its empty platitudes with the same bad faith brush. As it turns out, people don’t submit to vacuous moralizing just because their boss keeps telling them ‘you are are better than this.’ Trying to benevolently smother thought out of politics may actually have laid the groundwork for less scrupulous attempts by partisans to end-run democracy by gaming our lizard brains.”

The prime minister has gone out of his way to insist that “the next election will be the most divisive” and the Conservatives are rising to the challenge. Trudeau’s strategy of browbeating opponents into submission with smarm and shame has been met with some thoroughly red-blooded resentment. Trudeau’s argument that “intolerance has no place in Canada” is matched by Rempel’s warning that the PM’s proggy dogmatism about policing “unacceptable” political speech “threatens the sustainability of pluralism in Canada.” It’s nice to know that cooler heads have prevailed through this hellishly hot summer, and that “Canadian pluralism” apparently boils down to either wanting to deport immigrants vs wanting to give them startup grants. Cool. Someone call me when this country’s so-called “left” party is finished hiding in their hole in the ground.


Anyway, this hollow shouting match about how much immigration-related cultural anxiety a person needs to feel before they’re qualified/disqualified as properly “Canadian” is all but guaranteed to be the intellectual horizon of the next election. (Have you ever noticed how all discourse, even in real life, is being reduced to the formal logic of a Twitter exchange? Two showboaters in an intractable, bad faith argument, posturing for the most likes, forever. Maybe the medium is the message after all!)

But I would like to suggest something more: that this is a foretaste of broader trends in 21st century Canadian politics.

The “immigration crisis” is so vastly overblown that it is still astonishing to me that it’s been so effective at driving national politics. There is no unprecedented surge of migrants and any strain on the social system has more to do with domestic neglect than the foreign hordes. But there will come a time—sooner than you think—when migration and asylum claims to Canada will begin to rise; when climate change makes large swathes of the Indian subcontinent physically too hot for human life, say, or people flee the sinking coastlines and the dead oceans that swallow it. The issue will not go away; managing climate refugees and other population displacements in an overheating world will likely become one of the central tasks of the Canadian state over the next half-century.

The precedents we set in the next decade regarding migration and border security will colour the way this country handles the issue in the future. We are all but guaranteed to eventually face a real wave of tired, poor, hungry, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The question then is whether Canada will still be running its experiment in multiculturalism when that time comes, or whether we have decided to return to the “Kingdom of the Northern Races” envisioned by the Fathers of Confederation.

Yeah. Canada’s back, baby. It’s just hard these days to figure out which one.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.

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