When Donald Trump won the U.S. election in November, Canada became the last major western democracy to still believe in multiculturalism, Toronto author Stephen Marche said, calling Canada the “last cheerful nation” and suggesting that, for the first time in history, the national political identity is unique in the world.
In a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca, Marche explained why he thinks Canada has avoided the surge of xenophobic anti-immigration attitudes and the rise of far-right political movements evident elsewhere, and what that means for the future.
Marche identified fear of “otherness” as a contributing factor to increased support for nationalistic movements in Europe and the U.S.
“I think there is a kind of feeling when you encounter otherness, when you encounter other people, people from other cultures, that the reaction which we had assumed would be cosmopolitism is actually not that at all,” Marche said. “It’s actually kind of revulsion.”
Marche cited the refugee crisis in Europe as one of the major reasons why countries such as Germany, France or Britain have seen a recent backlash against immigrants. More than a million refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa sought refuge in European nations last year alone, fuelling tension between locals and newcomers. Marche said the backlash is evident in the U.K.’s Brexit vote, the murder of British Labour Party MP Jo Cox, the support for nationalistic groups such as the Front National in France and the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S.
“I don’t think you should underrate the sheer power of the identity politics at play, which is the return of people to a kind of ethnic identity that defines them,” Marche said.
Despite the apparent rise of ethnic nationalism, however, it’s worth noting that Austrians rejected far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer in their recent presidential election.
Marche said that identity politics also came into play during the U.S. election, when then-presidential candidate Trump declared he would deport millions of illegal immigrants and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Since becoming the U.S. president-elect, Trump has been vague about the feasibility of building the aforementioned wall. He has also provided few details on how he would follow through on his plan to deport all of those illegal immigrants.
Howard Anglin, a former chief of staff to Jason Kenney when he was immigration minister and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s deputy chief of staff, told CTVNews.ca that developments in Europe and the U.S. are about more than identity politics.
“It’s perceived as anti-immigrant sentiment, but I think it’s really about uncontrolled mass migration,” Anglin said, suggesting the backlash is a reaction to loss of control over borders.
The Canadian exception
So, how is Canada different from these other major Western democracies?
Marche says Canada’s disciplined immigration policies and clear Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets it apart. And, because Canada has long been allowing highly vetted immigrants and refugees into the country in an organized, systemic manner, Canadians don’t fear other cultures the way they do in other places.
Nevertheless, Anglin said that Canadians haven’t always been so welcoming, referring to the negative reaction when asylum-seeking Sri Lankan Tamils arrived off the coast of B.C. aboard the MV Ocean Lady in 2009 and the MV Sun Sea in 2010.
Marche also argues that Canada’s comfort with multiculturalism is rooted in the fact that Canada confronted the issue of ethnic nationalism during the lead-up to the divisive Quebec referendum on sovereignty in 1995.
Canadians’ rejection of the Conservative Party’s unsuccessful attempt at “racial wedge politics” during the last federal election campaign bolsters his argument, Marche said, recalling how voters rejected their proposal to screen refugees based on their ideals, establish a hotline for “barbaric practices” and enact a ban on the niqab during citizenship ceremonies.
Of course, that kind of rhetoric hasn’t disappeared altogether, as CPC leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch campaigns on a proposed “Canadian values” screening test for immigrants and heaps praise on Donald Trump’s U.S. election win.
Anglin said that Leitch’s Canadian values pitch shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as negative, since he believes it’s healthy for a country to grapple with such issues.
“Not all discussion about national values is negative. It’s not all divisive. It’s not all whistle politics,” Anglin said.
Canada’s new position
For Marche, Canada’s rejection of ethnic nationalism and embrace of multiculturalism has left the country in a unique position in an increasingly closed-off world. For the first time, Canada’s political identity is distinctively its own and not a reflection of another government, such as Britain or the U.S.
Marche said that Canada doesn’t really have any power on the international stage and must therefore lead by example.
But, as the Canadian government bids for a non-permanent member seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) for the 2021-2022 term, it suggests the country may be looking to expand its role. A spokesperson for Canada’s foreign affairs department, Chantal Gagnon, said a UNSC seat would be an opportunity to advance Canadian priorities.
“As a UNSC member, Canada can make an important contribution in addressing key global challenges, including the prevention of violent extremism, conflict resolution, and responding to challenging humanitarian situations,” Gagnon wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca on Nov. 28.
Anglin, however, said he’s not sure if a UNSC seat would make that much of a difference for Canada’s international influence. Focusing on the economy, world trade and participating in military missions would have a much greater impact on Canada’s reputation and power on the world stage, he said.
Although Marche said there’s less risk of far-right movements emerging in Canada, he said it’s not impossible, and that’s why it’s crucial that Canadians strive to protect multiculturalism and demonstrate to the rest of the world that “otherness” can be a good thing.