The politics of fear: A Canadian tradition

In June 1919, the Canadian government, under Robert Borden, passed the fastest piece of legislation in Canadian history. This new law was intended to give authorities the ability to deport aliens suspected of directing and contributing to the Winnipeg General Strike.
An unidentified woman wears a niqab outside an Ontario court house in Toronto on Tuesday April 23, 2013. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

In June 1919, the Canadian government under Robert Borden passed the fastest piece of legislation in Canadian history. This new law was intended to give authorities the ability to deport aliens suspected of directing and contributing to the Winnipeg General Strike.

The irony of the whole affair was that the strike organizers were mostly of British descent.

The catalyst for this legislation was fear — fear of the other, fear of a loss of power and fear of the unknown. As Canadians, we have witnessed many examples of this type of behaviour and decision making: The Indian Act of 1876 and other similar incarnations, Chinese exclusion, Ukrainian internment, Japanese internment, the War Measures Act of 1970 and the efforts at the Toronto G20 summit in 2010.

Governments, whether Conservative or Liberal, have been quick to pull the trigger on obliterating civil liberties in the name of peace, order and good government.

Often poor decisions are made out of fear and divisiveness that are not based on evidence or sound logic. An example of this can be seen by the Japanese exclusion legislation signed in 1942 by Louis St. Laurent, then justice minister and future prime minister.

Now in 2015, we are once again subjected to the politics of fear. Consider the comments of Larry Miller, a Conservative Party of Canada member of Parliament, who suggested that those who are offended by Harper’s proclamation to appeal the Federal Court’s decision as to the right of women to wear the niqab in citizenship ceremonies should, “stay where the hell [they] came from.”

Miller also professed to speak on behalf of all Canadians. When an outcry greeted his remarks, he issued an apology and retracted his statement.
Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound MP Larry Miller, seen here with Public Works Minister Diane Finley during a tour in his riding last summer, has apologized for suggesting Muslim women who want to wear a niqab during citizenship ceremonies should 'stay the hell where [they] came from.' (Adam Carter/CBC)

The rhetoric in Canada, at least among Harper and Trudeau, has become one layered in hyperbole and polarization. Meanwhile, the government of Canada has not released a budget, thousands of Canadians are dealing with boil water advisories, thousands are living in abject poverty and we face the greatest threat our country has ever had to deal with: the destruction of the biosphere.

And yet, we are subjected to debate over whether a handful of newcomers should be able to wear a veil at a citizenship ceremony. This is what is dividing Canadians? This issue is driving a wedge between us?

The antidote for this kind of politics — one of fear and mistrust; one devoid of evidence-based policy development — is knowledge. It is incumbent on Canadians to really think about what the larger issue is in this debate (is it really about wearing a niqab?) and to enter into calm, open, inquisitive and evidence-entrenched dialogue with our fellow citizens.

Curiosity of the other, integrity, and the ability to have your own assumptions transformed are hallmarks of progressive and productive decision making and policy development.

Matt Henderson, St. John’s-Ravenscourt School teacher (Katie Chalmers-Brooks/University of Manitoba)
If we fail to push aside our fears, we are destined to make regrettable decisions — decisions high school students will respond to by exclaiming: “How could anyone think that way?” Do we want a prime minister in several decades to stand up in the House of Commons and apologize for our fear and shortsightedness?

I would argue that although history might not remember the day Canadians ignored the Harper government’s appeal to our insecurities, that it is far better being just and unremarkable than boisterous, reckless and ignorant.

Matt Henderson is a teacher at St. John's-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg and CBC Manitoba Future 40 finalist.