Many of the reactions to Stephen Harper’s loss are treating his reign as Prime Minister as the great exception in Canadian history. Some variation on how Harper does not represent “Canadian Values” was a staple of social media. The restoration of the Liberal Party, under the banner of a Trudeau no less, is being treated as a return to the natural order of the nation. Order has been restored, peace and good government to follow.
Yet in spite of his many transgressions over the past decade, more than 5.5 million Canadians came out to vote for Harper in this recent election. Another 800 thousand more voted for the Bloc Quebecois, which aped Harper’s Islamophobia. It is remarkable that nearly twenty per cent of Canadians appear to be so un-Canadian in their values that they were willing to not just voice support but actually cast a ballot for such parties. Are the values of more than six million Canadians, un-Canadian values? What does that make them then?
It is reassuring to see the end of the Harper era as a return to normalcy, but for many who voted for the Conservatives over the last ten years, his ascendancy was about Canadian values too. They also sighed with relief that they were getting their country back. If Stephen Harper’s xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, demagoguery and other charming qualities had really come completely out of left field, he never would have gained any traction. It is precisely because he was exploiting deeply ingrained trends in Canadian culture that he was able to do so much damage. His downfall may be held up as a great repudiation of racist dog-whistle campaigning, yet millions still turned out to vote for him and the rest of the Conservative party. Much of the Canadian media establishment was willing to turn a blind eye to these facts – or in the case of the Globe and Mail contort itself like a circus performer to pretend Harper’s re-election would somehow be a rebuke.
Once we get into the rhetoric of “taking the country back,” it is a good idea to look at what the country has actually been to see if it was indeed stolen. While it is possible to cobble together an unblemished history of Canada, it requires a rather radical edit. Canada’s vaunted openness to immigrantion and refugees can be matched by its long history of racist border controls: the Chinese Exclusion Act, measures to prevent African Americans from coming north and Indians from immigrating by sea are all also part of our heritage. When we take our country back from a party that denies entry to Syrian refugees escaping war, is it to return to the country that said “none is too many” to Jews fleeing the Nazis? Our old “true values” of defending Anglo-Saxon Canada against the swarthy hordes are still within living memory.
The terrifying powers granted by Bill C-51 and Bill C-24 are hardly the first time Canada has chosen to throttle civil liberties in the name of national security. While we venerate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we carefully sweep the Red Scare, the Padlock Laws and the War Measures Act under the carpet. When we trumpet Canada’s decision not to take part in the invasion of Iraq, we omit how during the very same Liberal government, Maher Arar, was handed over to be tortured by the US and Syria. And of course the new Prime Minister voted in lockstep with the Tories to pass this latest round of anti-terror hysteria.
While the Harper government has rightly been criticized for its attacks on free speech and its disregard for structural racism, one of the star candidates for the Liberal Party in this election is former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair. As head of that force, Blair did little to hold his troops accountable for the violations of freedom of speech that occurred at the G-20 Summit in 2010. The longstanding policy of carding that unduly targets Toronto’s minority communities is also supported by Blair. Perhaps we are returning to the golden age of public political engagement in the 1990s where protesters were dealt with by pepper spray or a good Prime Ministerial choking.
On the matter of Aboriginal rights, Harper’s enthusiasm for termination, refusal to acknowledge cultural genocide and general aversion to recognition of aboriginal rights is not exceptional for past Liberal Canadian governments. The hundreds of Aboriginal women missing and murdered did not begin under Harper’s watch. If it is un-Canadian to ignore the plight of the first nations, then we have had few if any governments that represent our national values.
Canada did not suddenly one day become “Canadian” in the mythic sense and erase all of this history. There was no glorious revolution where the country as a whole shed the ideas, interests, and, yes, the values that shaped these events. These were, and in some cases are, state policies created through our democratic system. One group of Canadians fought for them, often in the face of stiff resistance from other Canadians. By turning positive achievements of our country into the natural outcome of our culture, we erase the political struggle that achieved it.
The political center has for a long time nurtured the myth that it represents universal Canadian values and that, in its natural state, our country is a technocratic utopia that inherently generates equality and justice. Our brand of Canadian exceptionalism is to believe that we can live in a democracy without the need for democratic politics, without inherent conflicts over economic interests, and without the burden of prejudice and demagoguery.
Canadian culture has produced both the left-wing feminism of Margaret Atwood and the toxic machismo of Don Cherry. Our political landscape has never been a monolith with figures as diverse as Tommy Douglas, Pauline Marois, Preston Manning, and Olivia Chow all finding their own niche. It is dangerous to try to write off the Harper years as radically exceptional and his supporters as un-Canadian. In the afterglow of the election the Canada of the pre-Harper years is being romanticized as a liberal, feminist, multi-cultural utopia that many perhaps aspired towards, but rarely reached.
Creating a society that actually lives up to the ideals values that have been cited so much in recent days is the real challenge and it will take more than an election to make it happen. Throughout this country’s history, the inherently “Canadian values” of tolerance, multiculturalism, and human rights have more often been honoured in the breach than in the observance, and “Harperism” is as much a part of Canada as its opponents.