Canadians are so desperate to turf the long-governing Liberals that they’re willing to envision in Stephen Harper’s new hairdo a completely changed man. We have become immune to the regurgitated quotes of yore that reveal his many and significant bigotries, preferring to believe he instructed the barber to trim those along with his top and sides. We’ve heard how much more “prime ministerial” Harper has appeared in this election campaign. But as much as the phrase Scary Stephen now rings desperate and hollow, I ask you to consider behaviour and attitudes that surely most Canadians would find deeply regrettable in a prime minister.
You’ll be relieved to know, I hope, that I won’t dig up the distant past; instead, I’ll use but one example of words and deeds, expressed and committed by the man himself, not merely once but repeatedly, and all within the past year. Fair enough?
Last year, Harper made a broad appeal to new Canadians of various faith backgrounds. Specifically, he tried to scare them into seeing gay rights as a threat to their freedom to practise their own religions.
He proselytized in the House Of Commons, in comments to reporters and directly when meeting with new Canadians. Of same-sex marriage legislation, he said, “New Canadians know that their cultural values are likely to come under attack if this law is passed.”
In February, Harper took his crusade to a Toronto gathering of Sikhs, where he instructed the crowd to view gay marriage as a menace to their faith, their culture and their place in Canada. “This is a threat to any Canadian who supports multiculturalism,” he told them. “It is a threat to a genuinely multicultural country.”
Historically a foe of official multiculturalism, Harper reveals in this Crusade Of Many Colours the beginnings of his own discrete multi-cultural policy: Assemble only those aspects of other faiths which agree with fundamentalist Christianity. He would mine the rich diversity of religious intolerance, and make of Canada a mosaic in the many hues of hate.
He appealed far and wide last year, specifically to those who are “Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim. All of these cultural communities, rooted in those faiths, will find their position in society marginalized” if gay couples are allowed civil weddings. He promised that legalizing same-sex marriage would be only the beginning of battles that “will limit and restrict their freedom to honour their faith and their cultural practices.”
Harper is promoting a fundamental breach in the wall that separates church and state. It’s absurd to suggest that one should feel marginalized when one’s religious proscriptions are not enshrined in law. My grandparents were Baptists whose religion forbade dancing and card playing. I don’t believe they ever felt their faith was under attack because these activities were perfectly legal.
What kind of leader reaches out to those newly arrived in our country and seeks to create false expectations about the role of religion in Canadian politics and law? What kind of leader appeals to people newly arrived from places where homosexuality may be misunderstood and condemned, and seeks to demonize gay Canadians by painting us as a threat to their faith?
Stephen Harper is the spiteful kid at school — the mean girl — who goes around talking about you behind your back, petty but determined to turn the other kids against you. He eyes the new kid on the block as an easy convert to your ostracization, an empty vessel to fill with disinformation. Does anyone really want a mean girl for prime minister?
Harper preached that new Canadians “have chosen Canada as a place where they can practise their religion and raise their family in accordance with their beliefs and without interference from the state.” Well, actually, no. The world is rife with cultural and religious practices that no one in their right mind would want to import into Canada. We don’t allow Canadians to perform genital mutilation rituals on their daughters. We don’t allow Canadians to stone adulterers or homosexuals.
Fortunately, new Canadians who come here to escape troubles in their home cultures will be displeased by Harper’s attempts to drag those same troubles into Canada. Last fall, an Innovative Research Group poll found that 63 percent of Canadians were concerned about ethnic groups bringing problems to Canada from their home countries. Before you write this off as xenophobia, consider that concern was highest, at 70 percent, among first-generation Canadians, those born here to immigrant parents.
Harper, too, knows we don’t blindly welcome any and all cultural practices. We don’t allow polygamy and, if Harper has his way, we won’t allow married gay couples from Belgium or the Netherlands or Spain to import their cultures here, either.
On the other hand, lots of things we do allow in Canada — gay sex, adultery — unite the world’s major creeds in offence. Do these debauches also threaten to destroy multiculturalism? The Globe And Mail, in endorsing Harper for PM last weekend, claimed Harper “has shown himself to be an intelligent man.” Somehow, I’m not seeing that here. If he does possess intelligence, perhaps he sacrifices it too readily to dogma and political expediency.
Harper’s attempts to incite new Canadians are especially troubling when considered in an international context. In recent years, tragic events have exposed the failings of the integration policies of other Western countries. In London, we learned that outwardly well-integrated first-generation British Muslims secretly plotted last summer’s subway bombings. In Paris late last year, marginalized Muslims rioted for weeks.
Other tragedies, less well-known, occur when a resistance to liberal values includes a refusal to accept homosexuality. Muslim boys and men threw rocks at Copenhagen Pride celebrants a few years ago and Dutch immigrants from North African cultures have made gaybashings routine occurrences in Amsterdam.
Many Canadians believe we’re immune to such events. We suspect that the more established populations of countries like England and France harbour racist notions of nationalism. We believe that the Old World is a closed shop to immigrants and that the former European empires still view newcomers with an air of colonial condescension. Couldn’t happen in Canada, we conclude smugly about their problems.
It’s true that Canada has enjoyed extraordinary success accommodating people from all over the world in relative peace. But why is that? Some point to the widespread popularity of public education, others to our immigrant settlement programs. Certainly, many immigrants — including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered — come to Canada specifically in search of a more open society.
Much integration happens organically: many immigrants settle in our larger cities, where they learn to live and work alongside gay Canadians. Even those who will never condone homo-sexuality on religious grounds may come to accept a basic truth: the gender of the partners with whom one has sex or sets up a household has no bearing whatsoever on whether one is a good spouse, a good parent, a good neighbour or a good citizen.
But would we remain so peaceful with a prime minister hell-bent on sowing the seeds of religious dissent?
Harper seems to have rejected the core values of Canadian social harmony — understanding, tolerance and mutual respect — in favour of importing a hodgepodge of the world’s more regressive religious prejudices. He preaches contempt for Western pluralism in the manner of an extreme Islamist, coaching the faithful to feel mocked and maligned by Canadian social permissiveness and decadence.
Canada’s gay communities have rarely known political leaders to be our champions. But I can’t recall another leader who so actively tried to turn religious people against their gay fellow citizens.
It’s one thing for Stephen Harper, the nutty rightwing opposition leader, to conduct himself thus. But imagine Stephen Harper, freshly trimmed and beturtlenecked, as our prime minister: goading the faithful, exploiting misunderstandings, fomenting bigotry, shredding the social fabric. It’s shameful, reprehensible and menacing.