Canada's Trump copycats must be held accountable, says Steven Zhou

If Canadian politicians like Conservaitve leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch hope to appropriate the rhetoric and strategy of right-wing populism they should understand the real life implications of such an approach, says columnist Steven Zhou.

Muslims, immigrants, refugees will bear brunt of Trump-style populist rhetoric in Canada

Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch speaks during a November Conservative leadership debate. Columnist Steven Zhou says politicians like Leitch must be held accountable for the effects of populist rhetoric. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

Canadian politicians like Kellie Leitch who hope to appropriate the rhetoric and strategy of right-wing populism should understand the real life implications of such an approach.

Donald Trump was successful in employing this scheme for his campaign, but at real cost to his country: the FBI reported a 6.7 per cent rise in hate crimes for 2015 over the year earlier, fuelled by a 67 per cent increase in anti-Muslim attacks.

If Leitch and other copycats want to go down that road, they should be held accountable for doing so. 

'Dog-whistle politics'

Michael Chong, one of several contenders running against Leitch for the Conservative Party leadership, was right when he characterized his colleague's new-found obsession with "Canadian values" to be "the worst of dog-whistle politics."

Leitch has been pushing for future immigrants, including those escaping despotism and war, to be "screened" for conformity to "Canadian values." 

A screen capture of the electronic survey in which the Kellie Leitch campaign asked its controversial question. (
In other words, it's not enough to follow the law of the land. One must also be aligned with the opinions of Kellie Leitch on what it means to be a real Canadian.

Such an absurdity raises the question of how Conservative Party members like Michael Chong — or anyone else, for that matter — would fare if the Liberals constructed such a test today.

Anti-establishment populism

Of course, none of this rhetoric is uncalculated. Leitch's campaign manager is Nick Kouvalis, a long-time Conservative strategist who helped both Rob Ford and John Tory become mayor of Toronto.

He's now widely recognized as an effective employer of the "elites-are-out-of-touch" sort of anti-establishment populism.

Stephen Harper's divisive tactics and ideological emphasis on identity-based wedge issues had finally rubbed Canadians the wrong way by the time of last year's election, but the national and international climate has changed since then.

Donald Trump's presidential campaign was an example of exploiting people's worst fears, Steven Zhou says. (Gerry Broome/The Associated Press)
It turns out that there's always room for exploiting people's worst fears, insecurities and paranoia. Certainly U.S. president-elect Donald Trump's victory is the foremost example. He won on a highly nativist platform.

But that was preceded by Great Britain voting to leave the European Union, citing a loss of economic opportunities due to European elitism and unchecked immigration.

Here in Canada, a recent Nanos poll found that 74.9 per cent of Canadians now back plans to screen immigrants who come from the Middle East. A phone survey conducted by the Toronto Star also found that around 67 per cent of Canadians are in favour of screening all immigrants for "anti-Canadian values." 

A political regime that fleshes out these populist sentiments with practical policies will take Canada further down the road of racial and ethnic divisiveness.

Exploiting insecurity

These are already uncertain times for many people who are without full-time work and overall economic security. That opportunistic politicians will seek to exploit this insecurity by providing dangerous outlets through identity and anti-immigration politics is par for the course.

But it's an especially dangerous tactic these days, given the emboldened nature of right-wing factions and groups after the Trump victory.

Trump, Leitch and others may not align themselves explicitly with the outlook and rhetoric of controversial right-wing groups, but their cynical campaign strategies often dovetail with the same policy imperatives that hateful right-wingers have used to recently rebrand themselves (hence this whole resurgence of the so called "alt-right").

And once they see that these politicians can actually achieve victory by emphasizing issues like immigration reform or "lost [insert country name] values," they begin to perceive their own prospects in a more positive light.

And who will bear the brunt of this kind of populism, particularly when the campaigns are over? Certainly not the elite political class to which Kellie Leitch and her cohort remain attached, regardless of how much they deny it.

A flyer posted around McGill University in December. Steven Zhou says minority groups like Muslims, immigrants and refugees will bear the brunt of populist rhetoric. (Andrew Potter/Twitter)
It's going to be the Muslims, the immigrants and the refugees who'll be left to weather the storm created in today's post-9/11 climate.

Leitch often tries to bolster her own image in interviews by saying she's for the ordinary, average guy or gal — but that phrase obviously doesn't apply to everyone.

In other words, they're not "ordinary" or "average" human beings if they come from another country or culture.

And if Leitch ends up succeeding in her bid, these vulnerable groups, many of whom are already in the cross hairs of security agencies who operate with minimal oversight, will become more isolated and antagonized than ever.

Defensive position

Journalists have found Leitch either backtracks or assumes a defensive position when asked to specify the exact groups of people she believes are contravening Canadian values.

See, for example, her combative September interview with Macleans, or an interview with Chatelaine in which she dismissed the interviewer's suggestion her screening proposal targets Muslims as "absolute nonsense."

That's because she doesn't want to own up to the full extent of her rhetoric.

Generic 'values'

Nor can she offer a pithy summation of what these precious values are without veering into the amorphously generic: freedom, equality, hard work, tolerance. That's because she doesn't want to pay any real political price for her tactics.

But regardless of how she walks this rhetorical tightrope, Leitch and those who want to take a similar approach must be held accountable for the way they try to galvanize support. 

Steven Zhou is a Toronto writer who has experience in human rights advocacy. He has worked for Human Rights Watch, OXFAM Canada and other NGOs.

About the Author

Steven Zhou is an investigative journalist and a Senior Writer for CBC News.