Don’t act so smug about Trump, Canada – Islamophobia is a serious problem here too

Image: Zunera Ishaq wearing a colorful patterned niqab. Ishaq’s battle to wear her niqab while she took her oath of citizenship became a central focus in the recent election, just one example of widespread anti-Muslim racism in Canadian politics. (Image credit: CP/Patrick Doyle)

Yesterday, as the first few hundred Syrian refugees since the election began to arrive in Canada, the Toronto Star printed a front-page editorial saying, in English and Arabic, “Welcome to Canada,” telling refugees that they’re “with family now.”

The short piece, which leaned heavily on well-worn and outdated Canadian stereotypes (and a totally gratuitous plug for Tim Hortons), played up the notion that Canadians are, as a group, a welcoming and tolerant people.

There was an almost self-congratulatory tone to the whole thing – an entirely implicit one, of course. But in a week which featured a call from a leading candidate for the American presidency to ban all Muslims from entry into the “land of the free”, the very act of publicly welcoming Syrian refugees takes on a secondary dimension of subtly proclaiming that we are a much more open and accepting nation.

As for Trump himself, his anti-Muslim remarks this week set off a flurry of condemnation from Canadian politicians. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair called for banning Trump and others who “spout hatred” from entering Canada, and Toronto and Vancouver city councillors are working on proposals to remove Trump’s name from high-profile skyscrapers in the two cities. Toronto councillor Josh Matlow went so far as to call Trump a “fascist” on Twitter.

And for many, the contrast between Canada and the United States was crystal clear:

Unfortunately, things aren’t quite that simple.

Somebody stepping off a spaceship – or off an airplane from a refugee camp in Lebanon, for that matter – would have no idea, after reading the Star’s editorial or Matlow’s and Mulcair’s comments, just how ferociously contentious the issues of refugee resettlement and Islamophobia have been in this country over the past several months.

Because let’s be real here – being less blatantly and obnoxiously racist than Donald friggin’ Trump and his passionate followers does not make Canada’s politicians or people deserving of praise or medals or cookies. That’s a pretty goddamn low bar to jump over.

And when it comes to blatantly and obnoxiously racist proposals, our politicians may not be quite on Trump’s level, but they’re no slackers.

The 2015 election wasn’t that long ago, after all, although it’s entirely understandable if you’re actively at work on repressing the memory of the whole despicable affair. But at risk of reopening recently closed wounds, let’s take a little walk down memory lane and revisit some of the more ugly moments of the campaign. I dug into The Alfalfafield’s archives and even I was surprised with how many examples turned up:

• Early on in the campaign, Harper did his best to dodge awkward questions about the Duffy trial by proposing a ban on travel to “terrorist hotspots”. Farah Aw-Osman, executive director of Canadian Friends of Somalians, worried about what the consequences of such a legally dubious ban would be for Muslim-Canadians: “Not only us, but so many Muslim communities are very concerned and we want to find out more.”

• In response to the drowning of Alan Kurdi and the subsequent international uproar, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair both proposed increasing the number of refugees Canada accepts from Syria. But Stephen Harper doubled down on his already-behind-schedule policy of bringing in a mere ten thousand over three years and only bringing in those most at risk of religious persecution (i.e. not Muslims!), and insisted that the only way out of this mess was more war.

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander then blamed the media for the government’s slow response to the refugee crisis (see this HuffPo summary). Harper later blatantly lied about Trudeau and Mulcair’s proposals during the Globe and Mail debate in order to further his refugee fear-mongering, saying, “These guys would have had, in the last two weeks, us throwing open our borders and literally hundreds of thousands of people coming without any kind of security check or documentation.”

• Struggling in the polls mid-campaign, the Conservatives decided to bring in Lynton Crosby: “With the arrival of arch-racist international electoral wizard Lynton Crosby (described by the Globe and Mail as the Master of  Dark Arts), who will bring his special brand of dog-whistling and just-barely-(and-inexplicably-)publicly-acceptable immigrant bashing to the table, people can expect to be barraged with fear-mongering and intimidation in the closing half of this campaign.” Though Crosby later tried to disavow his involvement with the CPC , their campaign closely followed his game plan of stoking fears of immigrants, terrorists, and minorities.

• For weeks we had to endure a never-ending logic-free hate-fuelled debate about the niqab – what should have been a non-issue was somehow transmuted into a viciously nasty argument that was purportedly about “Canadian values” but was in all actuality just a pretence for Harper & Co. to say mean things about Muslims and get their base riled up and use all kinds of hateful rhetoric.

And this fear- and hate-mongering has been a key component of the Conservative campaign to date. Between the way-overhyped “menace” posed by the “barbaric, fanatic, radically violent bunch of jihadist terrorist murderers” that is ISIS, according to the PM, and the danger posed by desperate Syrian refugees who, after all, are coming from a “terrorist war zone“, Islamophobia is a key ingredient in the Conservative message…

Apparently, the Conservative think they can squeeze their way to victory by mobilizing their base with inflammatory fear-and-hate-based rhetoric – and, Frith save us all, they may be right.

• Commentators and politicians started calling out the Conservatives’ hate-on for the niqab what it was – overt and opportunistic racism. Pushing back against this, loyal Harper attack dog Jason Kenney said some pretty vile things about one particularly potent critic, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi:

“If anything’s dangerous, it would be legitimizing a medieval tribal custom that treats women as property rather than people. It seems to me that it’s the mayor and people like him who are politicizing it. I don’t think this should be an issue of contention.”

As I said at the time, this was dog-whistle racism at its most effective – hatefully evocative and just barely on the side of plausible deniability.

• In the dying weeks of the campaign, with the economy in tatters and the CPC’s poll numbers refusing to budge, Harper doubled down on his fear-based campaigning, announcing that he was revoking the citizenships of a handful of (coincidentally Muslim) convicted terrorists, making a big flag-waving deal out of the RCMP’s laying terrorism charges on a probably dead Canadian man in relation to two-year-old-evidence, and keeping the niqab issue alive by announcing he was contemplating banning its use by members of the civil service. Seriously, click through to see the odious hyper-nationalistic rhetoric employed by Harper and his ever-present henchman Kenney.

• Even in defeat, the fear-mongering continued. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, touted by some as a possible contender for the CPC leadership, urged the Trudeau government to back away from its refugee resettlement plan in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, which he said “are a grim reminder of the death and destruction even a small number of malevolent individuals can inflict upon a peaceful country and its citizens.” He was able to say this with a straight face despite the fact that this line of argument is completely devoid of actual facts and has been thoroughly debunked.

So while Harper didn’t actively call for a total ban on Muslims entering Canada, and while Brad Wall didn’t go full Trump and call Syrian refugees a potential terrorist Trojan horse, and while Jason Kenney didn’t go so far as to suggest that the government establish a database of all Muslims living in Canada, it’s impossible to deny that we’ve seen some horrifically ugly racism coming from leading Canadian politicians in the past few months.

Again, these are not fringe figures – the CPC finished in a respectable second place, commanding the support of nearly a third of voters.

And none of this even beings to examine Canada’s profoundly racist and genocide-denying approach to relations with First Nations peoples, or the fact that anti-black racism is so acceptable that Canada’s largest city has tolerated a police program of random questioning which grossly violates the rights and freedoms of black youth for well over a decade. Nor does it scratch the surface of the hate-fueled violence that affected Muslims across Canada during the election campaign and again in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

The bottom line is, it’s easy to feel racially tolerant (and a little bit smug and superior) in the face of the extreme hateful rhetoric being spewed by the Trump campaign down in the States, rhetoric which is being embraced by millions of bigots. But the fact of the matter is that racism is a major problem here in Canada. It’s so widely acceptable to treat Muslims like second-class citizens that we almost reelected one of the most loathed and divisive Prime Ministers of the last century on the strength of a campaign that talked about not much besides the threat of Islam.

So enough with the mythmaking, enough with the fantasy of Canada as a progressive and tolerant and culturally open nation. As long as white Canadians keep soothing ourselves with these illusory reassurances, we will continue delaying the hard and necessary work of coming to grips with our nation’s long record of hateful racist violence and rhetoric, a record that continues unbroken up to the present moment.

Fallacy Friday is a weekly discussion of logical inconsistencies, definitional ambiguities, and other unreasonableness in news coverage. You can reach me at or leave a comment below.

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