Let's not forget the dark side of our 'sunny ways'

It's nice to think all the bad angels of our nature were banished by Justin Trudeau's victory last week, Michelle Gagnon writes. But is it really true? Think back to the niqab debate and how long it went on for. That, too, says something about who we are.

It's nice to think the bad angels were banished by Justin Trudeau's victory, but is it true?

Sunny days are here again? Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau poses for a selfie with a supporter as he takes part in a welcome rally in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A week ago today, everything old was made new again. Wilfrid Laurier's "sunny ways" returned as a 21st-century mantra, and sighs of relief were reportedly released from coast to coast to coast.

With a Trudeau back in office, we are ostensibly re-united in our diversity, once again made strong by our differences.

The day after his victory, Justin Trudeau declared, "On behalf of 35 million Canadians, we're back."

The "we" here, of course, is the once-strong and still popular idea of Canadians as a compassionate, peacekeeping and peacefully multicultural people.

It is a comforting and comfortable identity, and a laudable goal, but is it really who we are?

Certainly, much of the international media was quick to confirm the bias.

From op-ed pages to the style file, from Camelot Comes to Canada to Eyebro: Justin Trudeau gives good brow (and here's how), Trudeau trended for days as Canada's young, yummy PM, the unexpected, bare-chested victor whose positive politics defeated the forces of cynicism.

Almost overnight, the perception shifted from the bellicose, stand-your-ground Canada of Stephen Harper back to the polite and apologetic people with an unexpectedly cool and tattooed new leader.

Indeed, with good feeling to spare, it was a good day for the country, a good few days in fact.

But what of the cynicism? What of the divisive politics and the fear mongering that marked weeks of the 78-day campaign? What about all the noise around the niqab, an issue that had been brewing for some time?

The afterglow

In the afterglow, a rush has been on to say the politics of bowing to our worst angels was all defeated, that it had no play.

"Never mind the niqab," wrote Martin Regg Cohn in the Toronto Star.

"I don't think the niqab issue was the issue that caused the fall in support for the NDP in Quebec," said Liberal Party communications director Kate Purchase.

And most passionately, Maclean's Martin Patriquin tweeted "So: scapegoating Muslims didn't work for @partiquebecois, @CPC_HQ or @BlocQuebecois. Please stop trying, FFS. #Elxn42"

Certainly, a majority of Canadians voted for the Liberals and the NDP and against the anti-Muslim impulse set in motion by the Conservatives and the BQ.

Zunera Ishaq (left) embraces her friend Nusrat Wahid after the Federal Court of Appeal overturned a ban on the wearing niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

But if indeed it was anathema to all, and so essentially un-Canadian, why was this debate not shut down faster? And how do you explain the Conservative seat gains and NDP losses to the Conservatives and BQ in Quebec?

After all, the niqab and its derivatives churned through the campaign for more than three weeks, after statistics showed that a huge majority of Canadians supported Harper's proposed ban, and after a near media frenzy declared this to be "The Niqab Election."

Today's sudden denial that it factored in seems, in hindsight, wishful, or worse: a willful denial of what makes us ugly at times.

Too comforting

Surely, all the dark forces unleashed these past many weeks can't exclusively be laid at Stephen Harper's door.

If wedge politics work, even if only for a while, they do so because a good chunk of the population is onside, or at the very least conflicted.

What's more, far from being a mere distraction, as so many of those caught up in it contended, the niqab debate is probably better seen as part of the bumpy back road to the discussion about equality and the limits of inclusion in Canada.

To turn away from what the niqab debate and all its corollaries say about us is to refuse to think critically about ourselves. To take Trudeau's election as proof that we're "better than that" is just too easy and comforting.

Stephen Harper restates that if re-elected he will examine legislation about wearing the niqab in the federal public service

7 years ago
Duration 0:58
Harper spoke about the wearing of niqabs in the federal public service during an interview with Rosemary Barton on Power and Politics on Tuesday

In the abundance of election post-mortems, a few skeptics dared squeak that today's fuzzy feelings will fade.

Among them, Buzzfeed writer Scaachi Koul who laid out her doubts about this new-found faith in ourselves and our government.

She received as many props as she did criticism. She also heard from one Twitter follower who refused to even read her ode to cynicism. "No time for negativity, sorry," her non-reader signed off, apologetic.

Sure, this is one voice on social media. And, yes, it's standard fare these digital days to allow ourselves to delete the unattractive or ugly snapshot.

But that response is also what underpins the downside of sunny ways — the notion that there can be no dissent from positivity, and that we are only what our better angels want us to be.

Our incoming prime minister would clearly like us to feel this way, but even he seems to recognize its limitations.

In a pre-election speech back in March, setting out his vision of the country, Trudeau said: "I want to argue that Canadian liberty is all about inclusion.

"We have had deeply regrettable moments. But the history of this country is one in which we are constantly challenging ourselves and each other to extend our personal definitions of who is a Canadian… I want to make the important point that none of this happened by accident, and it won't continue without effort."

In other words, we might want to hold on to those ugly snapshots of ourselves because we won't know who we are if we don't. 


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.


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