Allan Stratton: Allegations of racism are serious ... or at least they should be
Tarring the entire opposition as racist will backfire.
By: Allan Stratton
In a normal democratic country, people accept that service providers rent space to politicians of all stripes. They understand that this doesn’t imply an endorsement, but is a matter of business; one that recognizes basic rights to freedom of thought, conscience, speech, assembly and association. And they also recognize the benefit of citizens meeting their would-be-leaders, especially candidates for one of their country’s major political parties.
This may no longer be the case in Canada, however, judging by Pierre Poilievre’s April 19th meet and greet at Toronto’s Steam Whistle Brewery. Within hours of the event’s announcement, pressure from social media led the brewery to distribute a letter that ought to have been unnecessary: “Steam Whistle is in no way affiliated with Pierre Poilievre, does not endorse his political views, nor did the brewery sponsor the event.” The letter underlined that the brewery had rented to different parties at all levels of government over its 22-year history, and that it had bookings scheduled for other politicians.
The letter prompted whoops on the left that Poilievre was toxic even to his service provider, but it flopped as damage control: The booking had caused pain and harm; the brewery was no longer a safe space for the marginalized; and the virtuous declared their intent to boycott the brewery anyway pour encourager les autres.
This attack on democratic expectations was serious enough to be noted by political columnists on both the centre left and right. But it disturbed me on a more personal level. I remember a time when landlords openly refused to rent to gay men and other minority groups either from bigotry or fear of reputational damage. Political parties aren’t a protected class, but the principle holds: Vendors provide services to the public, and shouldn’t discriminate against individuals or groups. This should apply to what people think as well as with whom they sleep.
Shaming businesses for doing their job, especially one that provides a public good like citizen engagement, is itself shameful. But the Steam Whistle incident is more significant than the usual garden variety cancel culture (sorry, “consequence” culture). For over two years, the federal Liberal government led by prime minister Justin Trudeau, has demagogued the Conservative party as a redoubt for dangerous far-right, extremists. They have attacked Conservatives as racists across a range of issues and a string of leaders. They have modelled, encouraged, and normalized their dehumanization; the goal, at a guess, to permanently toxify the party and shame and silence its members.
This is the fruit: an online campaign to tar a simple brewery as racist by association for merely renting space to a mainstream political leader.
I should make clear that I am a lifelong Liberal/NDP/Green voter who twice voted for Justin Trudeau and on balance support the government’s policies. I found the Harper years a bleak 10-year trudge through heavy snow, and consider the prospect of a PM Poilievre the equivalent of a four-year root canal. I would much prefer either Jean “Bring Out Your Dead” Charest or Patrick “She Was Actually Nineteen” Brown.
I should also make clear that I think it’s important for political leaders and parties to be tough with each other, both to keep each other honest and to strengthen their arguments through debate. Canada has had fierce political battles, notably over conscription, the repatriation of the Constitution, free trade, and the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. But while individual members have rightly been called out for bigoted remarks, at no time can I recall a previous government that tried to define the official opposition as a whole as racist, a word that takes political name-calling to a whole other level.
This is dangerous. The Trudeau government has every right to fight the Conservative party and its leaders, but it has no right to demonize a duly elected Official Opposition, especially one that received the most votes in the last two elections. For the Trudeau Liberals to attempt to delegitimize the Conservatives with misrepresentations and crude appeals to guilt by association is to attack the basic functioning of parliamentary democracy.
Trudeau has been relentless. In the early days of the pandemic, Andrew Scheer asked why the government wasn’t closing air travel to China and screening returning travellers. As late as March 5, 2020, Trudeau and Liberal cabinet members attacked him for fomenting racism against East Asians — a bizarre charge considering Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam had blocked such travel back in January.
When the Liberals belatedly closed the borders themselves days later, there was no apology. The rank smear was not only left to hang in the air, but resurrected over the following months whenever Conservatives asked why Canada, virtually alone in the West, accepted at face value the word of the Chinese government on community spread, tracing and transmission.
Trudeau likewise worked to brand the Conservatives as anti-Indigenous racists during the rail blockade crisis. Andrew Scheer, speaking in the Commons “in solidarity with the elected councils of the Wet’suwet’en First Nations,” asked that court-ordered injunctions to take down the barricades be enforced. Trudeau called this speech — a call that the law be honoured — “unacceptable” and peremptorily excluded Scheer from a meeting of all-party leaders; a judgement surely best left to the electorate, many of whom supported his position.
Moderate Conservative leader Erin O’Toole received the same treatment. During last fall’s election, Trudeau suddenly claimed that Conservative opposition to vaccine passports was “unacceptable.” This, again, was odd, given that Trudeau himself had opposed the exact same mandates until the night the writ had dropped. The Liberal government, during a global pandemic, chose to drive a wedge through national unity by discrediting the official opposition as unCanadian.
Post-election, it continued to appropriate the right to define “unacceptable views” when the convoy protesting its mandates began its trip to Ottawa. Conservatives supported their constituents’ right to protest perceived government overreach (a position some shared), while differentiating the mass of ordinary protesters from the ragtag extremists nominally in charge.
Yet, on the first weekend, well before the protest turned into an occupation, Trudeau accused them of standing with “people who wave Swastikas.” (There were a few Swastikas at the protest, it ought to be noted: many of them were foolishly drawn on the Canadian flag as if to protest this country’s alleged transformation into a totalitarian state. Meanwhile, protesters themselves claimed to have chased off anyone waving a Swastika to show support for Nazi ideology.)
The government’s presumption that it can decide what topics are beyond the pale has extended to its treatment of interim leader Candice Bergen. Before her ascension, she and her party were condemned once again for encouraging racism against East Asians, this time on a serious matter of national security. Bergen asked why Canada was working with Chinese military scientists at our infectious disease lab in Winnipeg, particularly since two scientists had been fired. Instead of an answer, Trudeau returned to his familiar charge of race baiting: “The rise in anti-Asian racism we have been seeing over the past number of months should be of concern to everyone. I would recommend that the members of the Conservative party, in their zeal to make personal attacks, not start to push too far into intolerance toward Canadians of diverse origins.”
The left has always charged the Conservative party with having retrograde social policies (ignoring its creation of the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, forerunner to the CBC). And Liberals have rightly called out bigoted remarks by Conservative party members. But the Trudeau Liberals have taken this a step further, branding Conservative objections to its policies as unCanadian and tarring its members as racist.
The Liberal drum beat has been taken up by the mainstream press. Currently, instead of focusing on the policies of the leading Conservative leadership candidate, commentators have made inferences based on the demographics of his rallies. Their conventional wisdom is that he can win the party but not the country, which infers the Liberal message: that the party’s members are racist, racist-adjacent, and/or too stupid to know their own interests. (Without considering that perhaps its supporters are voting for the one party that doesn’t insult them.)
Worse, because those rallies were held in mostly white and working-class small towns and rural communities, the smear is now attached to all Canadians who live in similar places, or belong to similar demographics. And what happens when the candidate proves his broader appeal by generating a diverse rally in a diverse city? Why, we get the Steam Whistle affair.
All major parties have a radical fringe. Certainly, the Conservatives have dealt with racists and homophobes over the years, just as the Liberals and NDP have wings that seek to divide Canadians by their group identities and to eliminate sex-based rights. But current government demagoguing is far beyond acceptable norms.
This attack on decency will backfire, especially on the centre left. If I had a dollar for everyone who’s told me, “I’ve always been a Liberal, but — ” I’d have enough money to buy a condo in downtown Vancouver. It’s hard to claim that a Conservative party whose three leading candidates favour abortion rights and equal marriage is irretrievably backward. It’s equally hard to charge racism when each has major supporters across every racial, ethnic and religious intersection, and when its leading candidate proposes to remove the barriers that prevent immigrants from working in their fields, something our prime minister has failed to do.
Moreover, Canadians know that Trudeau of all people has no right to cast stones. They know he still has failed to stand up for the Charter rights of Jews, Muslims and minority language speakers in Quebec. And that he has worn blackface more times than he can remember, a firing offence for any other political leader. More importantly, Canadians know that words like racist are serious. They are not to be cheapened to score rhetorical points, to divert attention and shut down debate about serious issues, or to defame and delegitimize entire political parties and their supporters. In the end, Canadians will not support a government that seeks so transparently to divide it.
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