October 26, 2015, Ottawa Citizen
There’s a new narrative at play in post-election Canada. The past was dim, but the future is bright. We were worn down after a decade of authoritarian one-man rule and we voted for sunny change.
We also defied the worst of identity politics, we tell ourselves. We collectively rejected Stephen Harper’s opportunistic attacks on vulnerable Muslim women whose religion requires them to cover their face in the public square. “We’re back!” as Justin Trudeau told us.
I hope so. We’ll know soon enough.
But let’s not gloss over how close we came to the sort of majority-minority hostilities that have disrupted other diverse societies, with dangerous results. When the prime minister himself targeted a minority, creating “us” and “them” distinctions over who was, or was not, “Canadian”; when he reinforced these divisions by calling for a snitch line to report “barbaric cultural practices,” we were immediately catapulted into a new social space. In spite of longstanding legal protections for religious practices and laws that penalize defined criminal acts, more than 80 per cent of Canadians sided with Harper. Within days, a woman wearing a niqab was physically assaulted in Toronto. In Montreal, a pregnant woman was pushed to the ground. Social media exploded with anti-Muslim hatred.
None of this should have come as a surprise. I’ve studied the breakdown of multicultural societies, both past and present, and asked myself whether it is possible to pinpoint the steps along the way. And I’ve concluded that, allowing for small differences, the process is always the same. It starts with propaganda – with language purposely designed to marginalize a minority – and it is usually initiated by a respected leader who’s seeking to enhance his power. The shift from peaceful cohabitation into violence can happen quickly. Fortunately, in our case, the election results nipped the movement in the bud.
People elsewhere have been less lucky. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, the death of Josip Broz Tito in 1980 left a political void, into which stepped an apparatchik named Slobodan Milosevic. His fastest route to popularity was the promotion of Serb ethnic nationalism, coupled with the crude marginalization of non-Serbs. Soon there were civilian armies. Eventually neighbours were killing neighbours. This did not happen because of “ancient hatreds,” as some surmised. It happened because intentionally sowing discord among mixed populations has been a tried and true technique for centuries. As a distraught woman in the Serbian opposition told me in the aftermath of the Bosnian war, “inciting ethnic animosity is as easy as paint-by-numbers.” Just call a minority ugly names and assign repugnant characteristics to the group. Up the ante. It works every time.
We seem to be inherently vulnerable to messages that encourage racial and religious prejudice, whether coded or overt, especially when our leaders steer the conversation. Perhaps we are programed to fear difference and must actively learn to be inclusive. In childhood, our vision of society gradually expands beyond our family to the neighbourhood, school, city, country, and (with enlightened modelling) to the larger globalized world. But inter-ethnic fears and resentments slumber ever so lightly in multicultural societies, ready to be reawakened by the unscrupulous.
It is also no surprise that the strongest response to Stephen Harper’s anti-Muslim propaganda came from Quebec, where for reasons of history, culture and language it has been harder to accommodate multi-ethnicity. With so many of his seats in that province, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair had the most to lose by holding to the values of Canadian religious freedoms during the niqab debate. That he did so, in spite of losing critical support, was admirable.
No immigrant-based country can afford to believe that its leaders will never resort to the oldest, most dangerous, tactic in politics: the devaluation of a national minority. Nor can we Canadians afford to imagine that we will be immune to incitement.
Recent events proved otherwise. We had a close call.