Politicians seeking reelection have long adapted their stances to fit the political climate and tailored their rhetoric to galvanize their base. In the post-9/11 climate, shot through with hysteria and xenophobia, fear has been the choice propeller for rightists. And aside from that of George W. Bush, no governing administration has more adeptly harnessed fear for its own ends than Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Simultaneously pushing austerity, Harper has used economic uncertainty to make that fear even more potent.
Just a few months ago, Harper’s chances of reelection in next October’s general election looked slim. Currently in his second term, Harper’s Conservative Party has shoved the country’s domestic and foreign policy far to the right. Polling in September showed the party’s support at 31 percent, eclipsed by the seemingly resurgent Liberals.
But in October, two acts of political violence disrupted the status quo. First a man ran over two soldiers in Quebec, killing one; a few days later, another shot up Parliament Hill, slaying an additional soldier along the way. Just like that, the fear of “homegrown terrorism” and “radicalization” were revived in Canada, and it was time for Harper to do what he does best: exploit the moment. The prime minister immediately announced that his party, still possessing a parliamentary majority, would propose new security laws to expand the powers of Canadian spying and law enforcement agencies.
Unlike the Australian government of Tony Abbott, which, however reactionary, actually reached out to the Muslim community after this week’s Sydney café siege, Harper made no such gesture until much later. Isolating one’s opponents, of course, is a common political strategy. But with Harper’s Tories, it’s a modus operandi that hardly bothers veiling its racism. Often coming out of a conservative Christian tradition, many in the Conservative Party didn’t get to where they are today by being nice to Muslims.
The Conservatives have gone after many Muslim and Arab groups that have publicly challenged the party’s hawkish foreign policy stances. These crackdowns have laid the groundwork for further repression and histrionics when the Tories need a boost in the polls.
The Harper’s administration’s new “anti-terror” legislation is coming even after the passage of laws that its own watchdogs deemed excessive. These laws will degrade civil liberties and further antagonize targeted groups. One example is Bill C-44, which expands the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service’s ability to spy on Canadians abroad, thus extending the agency’s largely domestic mandate. Informants and sources who provide secret information to the agency will also enjoy better protection of their identity under the new bill, making it harder for the accused to face their accusers.
What’s more, it’s patently apparent that Tories are hardly concerned with ensuring domestic tranquility. Right after two prominent Muslim groups unveiled a handbook on political violence that they put together with the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Mounties decided to pull its support for the project, citing “rhetoric” that they found troubling. (The prime minister’s office had some influence over this decision as one of the co-producers of the handbook, and the National Council on Canadian Muslims (NCCM), is suing the office for defamation.)
The Harper administration has always been very good at playing into the so-called “jihadi-narrative,” which likes to frame a civilizational showdown between Islam and a Western world hellbent on destroying Muslims’ way of life. The latest video from “Islamic State” member John McGuire, who was a university student from Ottawa, is a good indication of this nearly cyclical dynamic. His rhetoric clearly builds on the assumption that the Harper government, in conjunction with the US and other allies, have violently antagonized Muslims around the world.
But Harper’s cabinet isn’t just good at exploiting fears of homegrown terrorism within Canadian borders. It’s also gone out of its way to show how vigilant the Tories are at policing those borders. One development is the tabling of the hilariously named “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act” by Citizenship Canada’s Chris Alexander, who’s helping his party play the “foreign barbarian” card.
The law bans polygamy, child marriages, and honor killings, as if the Canadian criminal code doesn’t already ban all of these practices. Alexander has said specifically that the target of his law are immigrants — who, as it turns out, don’t have an established tradition of polygamy like the Mormons of Bountiful, British Columbia. The bill is so obviously pandering to bigoted fears that it’s hard to tell if the government is even trying anymore.
If there’s any doubts about whether Harper’s party is really as racist as it seems, their recent handling of the country’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis provides more than enough confirmation. After dragging its heels, Harper’s reply to the United Nations’ appeal to resettle ten thousand refugees in the next two years has been to cherry-pick “persecuted religious minorities” (Christians, Yazidis, etc.) before considering Sunni Muslims, who’ve borne the brunt of their country’s civil war. Of no concern to the Harper administration are the recommendations of the UN High Commission for Refugees about who’s most in need of help. It’s content to go ahead and determine that for itself.
These developments and strategies have been talked about in the Canadian media in an isolated fashion, as if each event has unfolded outside of a historical, economic, and political reality. The truth is that they’re each part of a larger scheme, one that has animated a good portion of Canadian politics for the past decade or so. It is a strategy to galvanize a political base (in a time of austerity and economic uncertainty) through fear, thereby dividing the citizenry along racial and religious lines to create the kind of political playing field most advantageous to the Tories.
Canada is experiencing around seven percent unemployment and wage stagnation, with high joblessness projected in the future. Focusing on immigration and homegrown terrorism is a short cut to jolting their political base into outrage and action. It’s an old story, and should effect an equally collective response from groups who’re most afflicted by it. Though some organizations like NCCM have pushed back, many minority communities in Canada are still building their own capacities, and are too politically nascent to respond in an effective way.
Fear is a powerful tool. It’s why the Bush cabinet (namely John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld) pressured former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to raise the “terror alert levels” before the 2004 US elections. Unfortunately, the Canadian polity is susceptible to the same kinds of manipulations. The onus is now on the broader Canadian left to organize a concerted antiracist response, or state repression will only expand.