While carbon taxes and pipelines are predicted to top the political agenda, an ugly undercurrent threatens to drag the debate to dangerous places.
In a recent interview with the Hill Times, veteran pollster Nik Nanos sounded an alarm bell over the use of “dogwhistle politics” by all parties on the political spectrum. That’s the term for political messaging that, like a high-pitched sound only audible to canines, goes unheard by most voters, but targets others with a coded message. And the consequences could be frightening.
“We’re seeing an increase in weaponization of racism as a political tool to mobilize voters in Canada,” Nanos said. “If we stick with our analogy, if they weaponize this, like in the old Cold War, basically, it’s mutually-assured destruction, where if either or both of those parties go too far, not only could they destroy their enemy but they could destroy themselves in the process. So, it’s a very dangerous field to play in.”
Nanos’ comments follow the release of a poll by Ekos research which found that 40 per cent of respondents felt that too many visible minorities were immigrating to Canada. This represented an increase from levels in previous years, as well as the first time that the number of Canadians who held this view equalled the percentage of people who believed that immigration levels were generally too high.
Of greater concern, however, was the polarization between voters of different parties. Among Liberal voters, only 15 per cent thought there were too many visible minorities coming to Canada, a decline from 34 per cent in 2013. Among Conservative voters, however, 69 per cent thought there were too many visible minorities coming to Canada, an increase from the 2013 level of 47 per cent.
The survey also looked at education, economic class, and region, and found that the highest percentage of voters who thought there were too many visible minorities were high school educated, working class, and lived in Alberta, while those most likely to say there were not too many visible minorities coming to Canada were upper class, university educated, and lived in Atlantic Canada.
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“What is extremely important is to note that opposition to immigration in general — and visible minority immigration in particular — is not up dramatically,” Ekos said in the April 15 news release. “What is dramatic is the level of ideological and partisan polarization on this issue. … It also increasingly predicts voter preferences and it represents a very different dynamic than what we have seen in the past. The traditional left-right axis has been transformed into a new contest about the future. The desire to restrict immigration and, in particular, immigration of non-whites, is an expression of this authoritarian reflex which has produced increased hostility to outgroups and a vocal desire to curtail immigration, particularly non-white immigration.”
And those hostile voices are multiplying. B’Nai Brith Canada recently put out its annual hate crimes index, which showed anti-Semitic incidents rising for the third year in a row. A record 2,041 incidents of antisemitism were reported in 2018, including assaults, threats, and vandalism, representing a 16.5 per cent increase over 2017 levels.
Hate groups are also becoming more organized, with the internet as their medium of choice. The Globe and Mail on April 27 published an exposé of online alt-right hate groups that used gamer language to avoid detection; their goal is not only to talk to each other, but to influence public debate and political parties.
The alt-right is also piggybacking on protest movements to gain political traction. One of their targets is the pro-pipeline group Yellow Vests Canada, which in February spearheaded a cross-country “United We Roll” rally to protest carbon taxes and environmental assessment changes in Bill 69. The group’s Facebook page, however, was rife with racist and anti-immigrant messaging, and the rally ultimately saw Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier sharing a stage not just with energy advocates, but alt-right agitator Faith Goldy.
Mark Friesen, an administrator for Yellow Vests Canada’s Facebook page, played down criticism of the group. “There are racist elements within the movement. It is reflective of Canada as a whole and has some bad apples.” Those “bad apples”, however, are making it hard for anyone on the right to talk constructively about immigration.
“Every time we try to raise valid criticisms on policy,” says Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel. “Trudeau has chosen to use debate about the immigration system to level thinly veiled accusations of racism. This is a dangerous, cynical, political tactic.”
Perhaps, but self-inflicted wounds don’t help either. Scheer’s failure to call out racist elements at the rally, as well as omitting to use the word “Muslim” when reacting to the terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 49 worshippers and injured another 40 at two mosques in that country, did not go unnoticed. Both incidents were deemed dogwhistles to anti-immigrant voters, who are unfortunately seen by some as a potentially useful base of support — and one that could otherwise find a home in another party, such as the PPC.
Conversely, the Liberals and the NDP both have an interest in calling out the Tory leader on these missteps, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it serves their interests as well. Dogwhistling to the left that conservatives are racist helps solidify the progressive vote — and in an ironic twist, insulates Trudeau when he takes steps to reform immigration, as he did this past April.
After three years of Tory criticism, Trudeau finally took action on the thousands of illegal border crossers at Roxham Road, Quebec. In an “only Nixon could go to China moment,” Trudeau started a renegotiation of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, to close the loophole that allows refugee applicants to make a claim in Canada if they cross at an illegal point of entry. Furthermore, he introduced a legislative change to make anyone who has filed an asylum claim in the United States and several other countries ineligible to do so in Canada — and buried it in an omnibus bill. Had the Conservatives done this, the cries of “racist” would have rebounded from the rooftops. Instead, the Globe and Mail concluded that Trudeau had merely “woken up to reality.”
In other words, the dogwhistles are blowing on both sides of the aisle. If they have any regard for the future of the country, however, all parties must resist this temptation. Canada depends on an orderly, welcoming immigration policy to grow its economy and demography. We cannot afford to descend into xenophobia, or shut down debate with toxic labels. Both paths compromise the crucial goal of building the workforce and society of tomorrow, by attracting the world’s best and brightest today.
Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.