Islamophobia + Homophobia + Rob Ford

The Canadian national election is on Monday, and most very recent polls show the Liberal Party–the big loser in the last national election in 2011–now holding a small but significant lead over the governing Conservative Party, in part because the left-leaning New Democratic Party hasn’t recovered from its mid-campaign swoon in support.

Behind the numbers, though, is an interesting and arguably failed experiment by Stephen Harper’s Tories to negotiate the country’s changing demographics by dividing recent immigrant groups. TNR’s Jeet Heer (a Canadian) has the story in considerable detail:

Beginning in 2006, Harper tightly controlled his party and clamped down on xenophobic members who expressed cultural disdain of immigrants. At the same time, led by Minister of Multiculturalism Jason Kenney, the party courted support by emphasizing areas where the party and immigrants align, such as lower taxes and social conservatism….

But ahead of Monday’s national election, the Harper government has endangered its success in minority outreach by openly running a xenophobic campaign, making a special effort to stir up anxiety about Muslim immigrants. Along with the separatist Bloc Quebecois, the CPC has made an issue of the niqab, the face-covering clothing worn by some Muslim women. Going against court rulings on religious freedom, Harper has insisted that women take off the niqab during citizenship oaths. His party has also floated the idea that the niqab not be allowed in the civil service. On the issue of Syrian refugees, Harper has played up fears that some might be terrorists and used his powers as PM to admit Christian refugees while blocking Muslim ones. Finally, Harper promised to create a “barbaric cultural practices hotline” where Canadians could inform on neighbors adhering to supposedly uncivilized cultural traditions.

A contradiction? Not necessarily. Many recent immigrants to Canada, especially Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Middle Eastern Christians, have their own anxieties about Muslims, which the Tories are skillfully exploiting.

Harper is playing a very effective game of divide-and-conquer with immigrant groups, and he’s doubling down on social conservatism aimed specifically at them. In ads running in ethnic community newspapers aimed at Chinese and Punjabi voters, the CPC has argued that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau “supports the sale of marijuana to children, the expansion of safe injection sites and the establishment of neighbourhood brothels.” Punjabi community leaders have complained that these deceptive ads are aimed at them, saying the ads show that the CPC holds them in low regard and doesn’t think they have access to reliable news sources.

This strategy, says Heer, has been taken to the risky extent of Harper’s decision to recruit and deploy former Toronto mayor Rob Ford on the campaign trail. Yes, that Rob Ford:

The CPC’s outreach to immigrant voters has also led to an alliance with Rob Ford, the troubled and controversial former Toronto mayor who gained international renown after being caught on video smoking crack. Ford, known for his opposition to gay rights, remains a popular figure among socially conservative voters, including some immigrants, but a toxic figure to many voters because of his well-documented history of drug abuse, buffoonery, and racism. Ford pointedly snubbed Toronto’s annual Pride parade, which mayors both before and after him attended. Harper himself avoids Pride parades, which all the other major party figures attend. During one of his crack-fueled stupors, Ford referred to Trudeau as a “fag.” Despite this, Harper and his government have recruited Ford to campaign for them.

The idea of appealing to immigrant groups prone to social conservatism and hostile to Muslims, says Heer, has been touted by some as a potential model for Republicans in this country. But only if Harper wins:

The immediate danger for Harper is of falling between two stools. Some polls show that the politics of xenophobia has turned off immigrants living in large urban centers like Vancouver, while the white nationalist right is unhappy with him for his minority outreach and have labelled him a “cuckservative.”

I’d be rooting for the Grits in any event, but it’s nice to know a Tory defeat might help repudiate an “immigrant outreach” strategy based on Islamophobia and homophobia.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.