National Column: Echoes of Harper’s dark side show in leadership contest

by Thomas Walkom

When Stephen Harper went down to defeat in the last federal election, it seemed that his Conservative Party would, of necessity, pivot toward a kinder and gentler future.

The party’s hard-edged appeal to identity politics had proven singularly unsuccessful.

A law preventing Muslim women from wearing face coverings during their public citizenship ceremonies was thrown out by the courts.

A pledge during the campaign to set up a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline backfired. It was seen, correctly, as a thinly disguised bid to demonize Muslims.

Harper’s promise to ban the niqab from the federal public service received little traction – even in Quebec, where similar provincial proposals were widely accepted.

With Liberal Justin Trudeau’s sunny ways victory in 2015, some predicted that those darker elements of Harper-style conservatism would be relegated to the dustbin of history.

But if the Conservative leadership contest is any indication, identity politics remains alive and well in the party.

And if the polls are right, there is an appetite for this within the country.

The latest pronouncements from leadership contenders Maxime Bernier and Kevin O’Leary take direct aim at refugee claimants crossing illegally into Canada from the U.S.

Both would use the so-called notwithstanding clause in the Constitution to override a 1985 Supreme Court decision that requires the government to give a proper hearing to any refugee claimant who makes it onto Canadian soil.

Businessman O’Leary and Quebec MP Bernier say that if necessary they would deport illegal border-crossers immediately and without a hearing.

Bernier would also station troops along the Canada-U. S. border to prevent illegal migrants from slipping in.

Using the constitutional override against refugee claimants is not a new idea. Stockwell Day’s Canadian Alliance, a forerunner of the modern Conservative Party, made a similar pitch during the 2000 election campaign.

The Alliance lost that election to Jean ChrÈtien’s Liberals. But among federal Conservatives, the notion of employing the constitutional override persisted.

In this leadership contest, Quebec MP Steven Blaney says he would use the notwithstanding clause to pass a law banning federal public servants from wearing niqabs.

But perhaps nothing is as telling about the state of the post-Harper Conservative Party as its reaction to a non-binding Commons motion decrying Islamophobia.

A similar non-binding motion opposing anti-Semitism passed unanimously in 2015. But this one, which opposed Islamophobia and “all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination,” was for most Conservative MPs, too much to swallow.

Some said it was too narrow. Others said it was too broad. Still others said it limited freedom of speech.

Among the 14 leadership candidates, only Ontario MP Michael Chong supported the anti-Islamophobia motion. At one debate, he was booed for his efforts.

O’Leary said he was against the motion. So did Bernier. So did Ontario MP Lisa Raitt, who is usually presented as a moderate.

The reason why is straightforward. An Angus Reid poll last week estimated that 42 per cent of Canadians oppose the anti-Islamophobia motion while only 29 per cent support it. Among Conservative voters, 68 per cent oppose the motion. The polling figures are similar for other hot-button identity politics issues.

An Ipsos-Reuter poll last week looked at the reaction of Canadians to the recent spate of illegal migrants crossing into Canada from the U.S. Some 48 per cent of those surveyed said such migrants should be sent back to the U.S. Only 36 per cent said they should be allowed to stay and apply for refugee status.

Last month, another Angus Reid poll estimated that 62 per cent of Conservative voters thought Canada was taking in too many refugees.

When maverick Ontario MP Kellie Leitch launched her Conservative leadership campaign last year on a platform that called for immigrants to be tested for Canadian values, she was widely mocked.

To many in the chattering classes, such blatant nativism seemed desperately out of place – in both modern Canada and the modern Conservative Party.

But it seems Leitch was onto something. Now her rivals are trying to catch up.

Copyright 2017 Torstar Syndication Services

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