'Extreme multiculturalism and cult of diversity': Maxime Bernier sets a divisive tone for the next election
'This year's debate on immigration, diversity and refugees is not the same debate we saw in 2015'
After more than 10 days of dominating the news cycle, MP Maxime Bernier announced this week that he was quitting the Conservative Party of Canada.
It all started with a series of tweets calling out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's "extreme multiculturalism and cult of diversity." That was quickly followed by a storm of controversy and debate.
But Mr. Bernier also left behind an often messy and prickly debate about immigration and Canadian identity that could shape the next federal election.
Susan Delacourt, a veteran political writer with the Toronto Star, and Jeremy Klaszus, founder and editor of The Sprawl, joined Day 6 guest host Gill Deacon to help us understand what's happening and how it might shape the 2019 election campaign.
Gill Deacon: So thanks to Maxime Bernier, here we are. Both Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer are having an open debate about immigration and diversity. Susan, is this where either of them really wants to be right now?
Susan Delacourt: No. Well, I would imagine both of them thought that some of this got settled in the 2015 election. So for either of them it's not ideal, but I think what we should bear in mind is that the world has changed a lot since 2015. And this year's debate on immigration, diversity and refugees is not the same debate we saw in 2015.
GD: And Jeremy, do you think that what we're seeing here these last 10 days or so is sort of a harbinger of the next election campaign and the months that lead up to it?
Jeremy Klaszus: I mean, I hope it's not. Because the way we're seeing this unfold is reminiscent of what's happening south of the border in so many ways. Including the rhetoric that's being used to demonize the press on these issues.
Bernier this week, when he did his news conference, he said he'll fight anyone who brings fake news. So we're seeing this American-style discourse become normalized in talking about this stuff. And from my vantage point that's very worrying.
GD: It's interesting because Susan, you referenced the 2015 election, which in some way was fought on these issues — the barabaric cultural practices, the Niqab ban. Many people, former Conservative minister Chris Alexander among them, think that the Conservatives lost the 2015 election on those issues. Are things different enough in light of what's happening in the United States and so on, that this would turn out differently this time around?
SD: Well, you know who else thinks that the Conservatives lost the election on that one is Justin Trudeau. And I think you've seen them wanting to whip up the rhetoric about this. I think this is a terrain that Justin Trudeau feels very comfortable on. However, it's been three years since then and there are Canadians who are getting a little nervous about the constant refrain, the constant holier-than-thou preaching to people, 'we're better than you.' The term has become virtue-signalling, in other words this government trying to show that it thinks that it's better than everybody else. And I've heard even liberals saying they're getting tired of that too.
But I think there is a good portion of people out there who would like to have a conversation about openness, multiculturalism, diversity, immigration and whether we're handling it properly.
JK: Sorry I just want to jump in, because last year Michelle Rempel, who's the Conservative immigration critic and a Calgary MP, gave a very interesting speech where she reflected on the 2015 election. She basically said that all parties had used the Syrian refugee crisis for political gain and that that was wrong.
So she kind of alluded to the barbaric cultural practices hotline and that sort of thing, but also on the Liberal side was saying, 'You know, this is not just a photo-op thing.' And she called for everybody to be better on the subject, to look at it in a more nuanced way. And so it will be very interesting to see if she holds to that, because I would argue she hasn't held to that.
GD: Yeah you've been writing about the way she handled this issue so far and even she's getting into this sort of fake news accusations and so on.
JK: Exactly, and it's disturbing because it's directly influenced by what's happening south of the border. And the more that this stuff gets thrown around carelessly the more it's normalized. And I said carelessly, but you know what, I don't think it's careless. I think this stuff is calculated because it works, and we've seen that in the States.
SD: I should say I'm nodding emphatically. And there has been a real tone change and part of it does include Bernier — who is now the head of his own new party, Mad Max party — and Michelle Rempel. There have been a series of tweets, not just on this one issue but on other issues as well, saying, 'Don't believe what the media is saying' essentially, or, 'Question what the media is saying.'
And there is a guy down south of the 49th parallel who's been doing the same thing to great effect. What I liked about Jeremy's column, and I think what other readers liked about it, is [it says] 'Let's stop this before it gets out of control here too.'
GD: What do you think the balancing act has to look like for Andrew Scheer? I mean, Michelle Rempel is his party's critic on this file. To your points about how she's been handling things so far, there's a balancing act, is there not, for him to sort of keep people with the Conservatives and not following Bernier out the door? Tell me what it's going to take for Andrew Scheer to make this a winning issue for the Conservatives?
SD: This is such a hard one. You can be accused of getting too clever on this and then dog-whistle politics is the result. You know, just as you can signal virtue, you can also signal intolerance. And you can also say, 'We're going to have a debate about immigration,' and that will make some people who want to have a legitimate discussion quite happy.
It will also appeal to those who think we have too many immigrants in the country, or people who don't like immigrants just because they're new. So I think, fortunately, Andrew Scheer doesn't have to balance Maxime Bernier and Michelle Rempel anymore.
Stephen Harper used to boast that his Conservative Party was unlike other conservative movements in the world in that it was not only open to immigrants, but welcoming and cultivating and recruiting people from the so-called cultural communities. And Andrew Scheer has to recreate that in Canada if he wants to win power. You can't win power on xenophobia in Canada, or at least I hope you can't.
GD: Jeremy, when Maxime Bernier sent out those initial tweets about more diversity being bad for Canada and so on, who do you think his intended target was? Was it Trudeau or was it Scheer?
JK: Yeah, it seems to be a bit of both. And, I don't know, it really bothers me, the theatrics. You know, there's a reason that Trump prefers Twitter as his megaphone, and we're seeing that happen here.
That series of tweets was so obviously created to just kind of stir things up and provoke a conversation. And if you look on social media the way that that conversation goes, it's just the lowest form of discourse. And so, it's very deeply disconcerting.
GD: Let me ask both of you, do you think that this is the issue over which people want to choose their next government?
SD: That's a tough one. One of the things that I'm really reflecting on is that there is only one major political party in Canada right now that has a visible minority leader: Jagmeet Singh of the NDP. And it's interesting how he's been kind of sidelined in this.
This conversation seems to be happening among, you know, sort of the traditional white Canadians. This is a very white discussion. I think if we are going to have this discussion let's have it full-out with diverse voices in it as well.
And let's talk about some of the underlying issues: the fear and economic insecurity that is driving some of the worst rhetoric. I would love for us to be debating economic inequality in Canada rather than identity inequality. But I'm not sure we're headed that way.
JK: And I would add if we're going to talk about identity and who is Canadian, who belongs here, all those sorts of questions, white Canada has not even begun to contend with reconciliation in a meaningful way beyond, you know, we now all politely use land acknowledgements before all our events and stuff like that.
But those are the conversations that we need to be having as a country. And so hopefully we don't go down this dark and narrow path of who's in and who's out.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Susan Delacourt and Jeremy Klaszus, download our podcast or click listen above.