On election day, I greeted people who voted for candidates who might hate people like me

Recent elections provide numerical evidence of the rise of xenophobic politics in the country, writes Zeahaa Rehman.

Elections provide numerical evidence of the rise of xenophobic politics led by some right-wing candidates

Recent elections provide numerical evidence of the rise of xenophobic politics in the country, writes Zeahaa Rehman. (Hailley Furkalo/CBC)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column has been revised to clarify the writer's reaction was to some conservative candidates and their policies, and not broadly, to conservative parties; and to add deeper context. Originally published under the First Person category, this column has been changed to the Opinion category after an editorial review.

This column is an opinion from Zeahaa Rehman who worked for Elections Canada as an information officer. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I've always loved the idea of democracy in action, and have voted in every single election since I turned 18. This September, I worked with Elections Canada as an information officer. On election day, I greeted incoming voters, determined if they were at the correct polling address and helped count votes after the polls closed.

During the first hour of my shift, I greeted a woman and after skimming over her voter identity card, I informed her that, unfortunately, she was at the wrong polling address. The correct address was next door but their parking lot was full, she told me. I apologized to her for the inconvenience; she thanked me profusely for directing her to the right place.

I was buoyed both at her dedication to her civic duty as well as her kind words. However, after she left, I couldn't help but wonder whether — despite our pleasant interaction —she was one of the voters (of which there are many, across all backgrounds) who might hate people like me. Similar thoughts ran through my mind as I greeted others during my shift.

Obviously, I am well aware that it is unhealthy to distrust people when I have no outward reason to do so. But I am a visibly Muslim, South Asian woman, and also well aware of the rising number of police-reported hate crimes throughout Canada — like the mass murder of a Muslim family in London, Ont., this summer. It is incredibly exhausting to be on guard during every interaction with a new person and I can't help but do it out of a desire to protect myself.

While it might be tempting to dismiss these hate crimes as extreme behaviour from a select few, elections, like the recent results of the 2021 Canadian federal election, give us numerical evidence of the rise of xenophobic politics. 

This hateful rhetoric has become mainstream in Canadian politics and media, as sociologist Jasmine Zine pointed out. Just look at some of the key political decisions and security laws, like Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act, that came into effect after the attacks of 9/11, followed by Canada's National Security Act. These acts have enabled Canadian authorities to suspect and surveil Muslim communities, mosques and individuals, in some cases simply because they share the same name as genuine security suspects. Or Quebec's Bill 21, which bans public employees from wearing religious symbols — like the hijab and niqab — at work, which negatively targets Muslim women, who have been the target of a spike in public harassment since the law was introduced. 

When I helped count polls during election night, after having interacted with numerous voters throughout the day, it was jarring to realize that many of the people who had seemingly been nice to me might have voted for candidates who have supported these laws or sought to pursue new legislation that targets people like myself or other minorities.

Take for example, Conservative Party Leader Erin O'Toole, whose leadership campaign slogan "Take Canada Back" is a xenophobic phrase. It's a dog whistle for anyone who has ever said or thought that "immigrants are taking over." The Conservative party also has a history of members making hateful comments such as former Beaches-East York  candidate, Lisa Robinson, who was accused of making Islamophobic comments; and former Mississauga-Streetsville candidate, Ghada Melek, and former candidate for Brampton North, Arpan Khanna, both made homophobic comments. Former Hastings-Lennox and Addington MP, Derek Sloan, also received a donation from a white nationalist.

Though many of these people were ousted from the party, it is alarming that they sought to align themselves with the CPC — and were initially screened and endorsed by the party leadership.

Two NDP candidates were also ousted for anti-semitic comments, so this isn't only a CPC issue. However, support for the NDP pales in comparison to that for the CPC. Almost six million Canadians voted for the Conservative Party this past election and more than six million in the 2019 federal election. Though the Liberal party won more ridings in both elections, the Conservatives received more overall votes both times.

Voters lined up outside First Ontario Centre in Hamilton on Sept. 20, 2021. The PPC received more than 840,000 votes in the 2021 federal election, which Zeahaa Rehman says is a worrying trend for visible minorities like herself. (Daniel Taekema/CBC)

More than 840,000 people across Canada — more than double the number of votes they received in the 2019 federal election — voted for the far-right People's Party of Canada, whose leader, Maxime Bernier, has proposed to end multiculturalism, reduce the number of immigrants and refugees Canada receives, and fosters hate-speech under the guise of free speech as part of his party's platform.

It is highly unlikely that all CPC or PPC voters agree with the overt and covert racism, xenophobia, homophobia and Islamophobia that some of their party members have demonstrated. There are a myriad of reasons why people may vote for these parties, but either they weren't aware of these stances or they've decided that such discriminatory behaviour against minorities is not big enough detraction to withdraw their support.

I know that many people around the world hate me because of my religion, my ethnicity, my immigrant status, or a combination of all three. When I come across this hate online, I can block and report the  sender, scroll past it or switch to another tab if I don't want to engage.

They are real people, some of whom are my neighbours. Some of these people might even belong to my community. After all, immigrants and racialized people make up a sizeable chunk of right-wing voters as well as candidates. This might be due to a combination of their economic interests (e.g. less taxes), conservative cultural values (e.g. anti-abortion or anti-LGBTQ+ policies), support for a specific politician, or their internalized self-hatred or views on colourism, which outweighs any oppression they may face at the hands of other voters or candidates of their party.

I draw strength from small victories — like the recent election of not one, but two South Asian mayors in Alberta, one of whom replaces Canada's first Muslim mayor.

Two separate photos show a smiling woman with short hair on the left, and a man with glasses on the right.
Alberta's two biggest cities have elected new mayors, with Amarjeet Sohi becoming Edmonton's first South Asian mayor and Jyoti Gondek, also of South Asian origin, becoming the first woman to be elected mayor in Calgary. (Barbara Blakey, Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But that strength is often sapped by large blows. The next provincial and municipal elections are a year away and I am already fearful of what their results might reveal. I hope I'm wrong to be fearful. And I hope that my neighbours will get to know me and my community before casting their ballots. 

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  • A previous version of this column said Arpan Khanna was a former MP with the Conservative Party. In fact, Khanna was a candidate for the party but was not elected. The column also incorrectly described Bill 21 as banning "people" from wearing religious symbols at work. This has been updated to specify the Quebec law covers only public employees.
    Nov 01, 2021 11:37 AM ET


Zeahaa (pronounced Zaha) Rehman is a Pakistani-Canadian freelance journalist who likes deconstructing everything from pop culture to politics with an intersectional lens. Her work has been published in The Walrus, Chatelaine, Flare Canada, The RepresentAsian Project, and more.