Conservatives, race and the chicken-and-egg question
Does identity politics come from the base, or are certain candidates whipping it up for personal gain?
Are Conservatives more biased than other Canadian voters? They are, apparently — at least according to a recent Forum research poll on attitudes towards minorities.
The pollster asked 1,300 Canadians whether they had “favourable or unfavourable feelings” about a range of religious and racial groups, including Muslims, Jews, First Nations, South Asians and blacks. Respondents had a choice of three responses: “favourable feelings,” “unfavourable feelings” or “don’t know”. While four in 10 respondents overall expressed unfavourable feelings towards at least one group, that number rose to six in ten Conservative supporters, versus three in ten New Democrat, Liberal or Green voters.
Fifty-five per cent of Bloc Quebecois supporters also expressed these “unfavourable feelings”; 57 per cent of Quebecers did as well.
With regard to Quebec, the numbers are, unfortunately, not a surprise. The province’s long-standing fight to protect French culture from erosion by English and immigrant influences has long been tainted by expressions of xenophobia. In 1995, Premier Jacques Parizeau blamed “money and the ethnic vote” when his party lost its second referendum on separation. In 2007 the town of Hérouxville made international headlines for its “code of conduct”, which discouraged would-be immigrants from smelly cooking and helpfully reminded them that the “stoning of women in public” was unacceptable.
And in 2013, the PQ proposed a Charter of Values which would have banned the wearing of religious symbols by state employees, and which went so far as to include pictograms of verboten items, including kippas, turbans, crosses and headscarves.
When it comes to the expressions of bias by Conservative voters, however, the explanation seems somewhat murkier. Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum research, suggested to the Toronto Star that the poll results might be linked to the party’s “dabbling” in identity politics, such as proposals by candidates Kellie Leitch and Stephen Blaney to screen immigrants for “Canadian values” or prevent them from voting while wearing a veil. “Whether they’re reacting to their base (of supporters) or they’re leading their base, there are those feelings,” Bozinoff said.
And that is the chicken-and-egg question. Are candidates like Leitch reacting to pre-existing opinion within the Conservative base, or fanning the flames to even greater heights? Are they trying to capture a ready base of support, or are they building one by rallying voters through identity politics?
It’s a little of both. The Forum poll echoes sentiments expressed in previous research — such as an Ekos poll published last year which found that 41 per cent of Canadians thought “too many minorities” were immigrating to Canada. Broken down by party, 51 per cent of Conservative supporters held that view against 35 per cent of NDP voters and 32 per cent of Liberal voters holding that view — a clear difference that a candidate for the Conservative leadership might choose to target for political advantage.
And philosophical conservatives, as their name implies, traditionally seek to preserve the established order. Since the days of Edmund Burke, conservatives have been wary of rapid change and ‘progress’ for progress’ sake. So they tend to be more skeptical of immigration, particularly when immigrants come from faiths or ethnicities different from those of the majority population.
But conservatives also believe in liberty, the right to self-determination and freedom from tyranny and overbearing governments — something many immigrants are fleeing when they seek a better life on foreign shores. The challenge for the right is always in reconciling these beliefs while reining in xenophobic tendencies — which, when allowed to run amok in other places, have led to horrors such as the Holocaust, an evil even greater than the many left-wing revolutions conservatives condemn.
Here in multicultural Canada, it’s the responsibility of leaders of all party stripes to encourage cohesion rather than sow division. The 2015 federal election campaign revealed that doing so is also a surer path to government. While there exists a base of Conservative voters who hold anti-immigrant or anti-minority views, there aren’t enough of those voters to win power.
But within the Conservative party itself, there might be enough of those voters to win the party leadership. Which explains what we are seeing in the current Conservative race.
In the case of Leitch, this rhetoric rings particularly hollow for anyone who has followed her career. For decades — since her student politics days, in fact — Leitch was seen as hailing from the Red Tory wing of the then-Progressive Conservative party. People who have known and respected her a long time (this writer included) are mystified by her values pitch and sudden praise for Donald Trump — stuff that the Kellie we remember would never have said. Previous supporters and long-time friends, including former Senator Hugh Segal and head of the IRPP Graham Fox, have even distanced themselves from her campaign over her remarks.
The only way to explain Leitch’s abrupt U-turn into identity politics is that polls — and her campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis — encouraged her to go that route. But targeting anti-immigrant voters also means promoting their attitudes – and that is the truly objectionable part of the equation.
Sensible immigration policy does not mean demonizing differences, nor does it mean talking in code about “values”. It means correlating Canada’s labour needs with immigrants’ skills, ensuring that people who come here are equipped to succeed, not depend on the state, and showing compassion for those fleeing oppression and discrimination.
We already “screen” immigrants for those things. Calling for more is not sound policy. It’s just self-serving politics.
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