Notwithstanding U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s stirring Depression-era admonition to Americans that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, fear remains a reliable vote-getter in western democracies. Successful political parties of all stripes stoke fear with whatever’s handy – and it usually pays off at the ballot box. A year out from Canada’s next federal election, campaign planners from all parties have a lot of fear to work with.
For Conservatives, border security in particular and immigration in general seem good bets. Last month Ibrahim Ali was charged with the July killing of Burnaby teen Marrisa Shen. Ali, 28, is a refugee from Syria and the alleged crime occurred 17 months after his arrival. Dozens of protesters gathered outside the courthouse to vent their fear and anger over the immigration and refugee policies of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.
Well before Shen was killed, Trudeau had been taking a lot of heat from the Conservatives on his government’s handling of border security. About 36,000 illegal border crossers have walked into Canada from the U.S. since the prime minister’s January 2017 #WelcomeToCanada Twitter invitation “to those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith”.
At a news conference ostensibly about his mid-summer cabinet shuffle, Trudeau did a little fearmongering of his own when pressed on border security and public safety. The Conservatives and their creepy fellow travellers on the right in other countries, he said, “are playing, not just here in Canada but around the world, a very dangerous game around the politics of fear, the politics of division.”
His comments were consistent with Liberal messaging reaching back to at least September 2017, when he suggested in a speech to the United Nations that Canada’s immigration and refugee system was working just fine, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is stoking fear and bigotry and is likely in bed with scary populists, Trumpists, ultra-nationalists and xenophobes.
Violent crime has been making frightful headlines across Canada this year, especially in the centre of the Canadian (media) universe, Toronto. In July police had barely picked up the shell casings off the playground where a shootout between local gangbangers left two youngsters with gunshot wounds when 29-year-old Faisal Hussain went on his murderous rampage on the Danforth in Greektown, killing two and wounding 13 before killing himself.
Some on the right were quick to assume links to Islamist terrorism, egged on by an ISIS claim that Hussain was one of their own. But police found no proof that the Canadian-born-and-raised son of Pakistani immigrants, with a history of mental problems, was a homegrown jihadi. Whatever his inspiration, on the left the fearful lesson to be drawn from Hussain’s story was that of the always terrifying “anti-Muslim backlash”.
Though often exaggerated, that is a real and genuinely dreadful thing; just ask the survivors of the January 2017 Quebec City mosque slaughter when deranged xenophobe Alexandre Bissonnette killed six and injured 19. A far less real response to Hussain’s bloodbath was Toronto Mayor John Tory’s immediate attempt to redirect public fear of terror and madness to progressives’ most reliable bogeyman – guns. Ban ‘em all, said Tory, with discombobulating conviction for a former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party.
That party is now in the meaty hands of Premier Doug Ford, who scared Tory even more than guns do recently when he threatened to (legally) override a court decision against the province’s bid to cut Toronto City Council in half. After much MSM keening over the end of democracy as we know it, the apocalypse was averted by a stay of the court ruling by some less activist appellate judges.
Right wing populists like Ford scare the bejeezus out of progressives and their media stenographers. To wit; as border services agents and RCMP officers caddy luggage for illegal border-jumpers and the Canada Revenue Agency revokes an Ottawa mosque’s charitable status for importing extremist speakers, what is currently judged the bigger danger to Canadian society among reporters in the Ottawa beltway? Bien sur, former Conservative MP and now People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier and his insistence that immigration numbers are too high and Canada’s diversity meter is at capacity. (Plus, in the imagination of the CBC’s Wendy Mesley, “Mad Max” is a secret agent on the American payroll of the arch-libertarian Atlas Foundation and the filthy rich U.S. Koch brothers – yes, the same Kochs who stopped bankrolling Trump Republicanism because they are pro-immigration.)
Fear of Quebec separatists used to be quite helpful in winning federal elections, mainly for Liberals. But as this week’s provincial election confirmed, francophone nationalism is in hibernation today, so the Liberals have to rely more heavily on their dependable stand-by, fear of Americans. Fortunately, the Americans elected their scariest president yet in Donald Trump, who evinces a particular disdain for Canada, at least compared to North Korea, which suits Liberal narrative scripters just fine.
In the 2015 election the Liberals’ primary bugaboo was the surly overripe incumbent Stephen Harper. It worked almost magically for Trudeau. Next year the Conservatives hope to make turnabout fair play, portraying Trudeau as a frightfully incompetent mismanager of the economy, border security, foreign relations, and anything else they can jam in the reputation shredder. Team Trudeau clearly intends to counter that it’s the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-gay, anti-women, anti-environment, friends-of-Trump fearmongers who should keep us awake at night – while legions of barely-vetted refugee claimants, an economy paralyzed by hyper-regulation and collapsing investment, escalating crime rates, and worsening tensions with First Nations, should not disturb our sleep.
Fear of a ruinous trade war with the U.S. went into remission this week with the signing of the USMCA. Winners and losers are still being sorted out, but a few hundred thousand Canadian auto industry workers are going to rest a little easier while a few thousand dairy farmers sweat a little more. As the focus shifts to ratification of the deal the Liberals will strive mightily to paper over what they gave up, including their progressive objectives on gender, labour and the environment.
Trump appalls millions of Canadians. Polls suggest over 80 percent fear and loathe him. So he will have a starring role as a villain in next year’s election. In a July Tweet Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary and proxy online troll, previewed the battle lines: “If the Conservatives were still in power, the government of Canada would have folded like a cheap tent to Trump by now. Remember this next year.”
Canadian political tacticians have been using variations of this argument since Confederation. This time, with America personified by Trump, it seems a no-brainer that it will work for the Liberals again. But will Liberal and Conservative voters necessarily break directly along Trumpian lines? He was propelled to the Presidency in part by a wave of Democratic crossover voters. Their motivations continue to be fiercely debated, but among the theories is that they felt the Democratic Party had abandoned them – not only on key issues, but culturally.
Could something like that happen in Canada? Regardless how anybody feels about Trump, or trade, everybody wants to live in free and safe communities. Unfortunately, that’s not where the trendlines are pointing. According to a recent Statistics Canada report, “[The] Crime Severity Index (CSI), increased for the third consecutive year in 2017. The national crime rate rose 1 percent, while the police-reported CSI increased 2 percent. This was the third consecutive increase in the CSI following an 11-year downward trend from 2003 to 2014.” Gun crime is continuing to climb, as are reported sexual assaults and property crime. The murder rate has seen sustained increases in the last few years for the first time since it peaked in the late 1960s. In rural areas, fear and fury have grown over a wave of property and drug crime that police seem ill-equipped or uninterested in grappling with – while coming down hard on residents who dare to defend their own property.
Interestingly, government research shows the demographic most resentful of the illegal border-crossers are legal immigrants who dutifully played by the rules and stood in line. The Tories corralled more of those votes than ever before in the 2011 majority win, but many drifted back to the Liberals in 2015. Which way will such voters’ fears push them in the next election?
Though past behaviour would place the odds on staying put, there’s some evidence of discontent with the Liberals. In late July, a protest in Markham against illegal border crossers heated up to the point of fisticuffs as a large group of Chinese-Canadians, holding signs reading, “Markham say no to illegal border crossers”, “Illegal free boat riders are not welcome,” and “Defend our borders,” and chanting, “We are Canadians, we love Canada”, and “Go home, go home, go home,” squared off with pro-migrant activists. Police had to be called to defuse the situation. (Many of the protesters outside the Vancouver courtroom where Ibrahim Ali was arraigned last month were also Chinese-Canadian.)
Maybe more Canadians are more skittish than usual because the U.S. is in such a state of high anxiety. There’s a virtual cottage industry there selling Trumpophobia, including aging Watergate reporter Bob Woodward’s book titled, what else, Fear. Americans at each other’s throats over everything, it seems – not least whether Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is a rapist or a victim – and a lot of that partisan venom is spilling across the border.
The Kavanaugh lynching is certainly frightening for anyone who cares about the rule of law. And it has dramatically escalated the cultural civil war raging in the U.S. But Canadians would do well to remember that for all our domestic travails, we are living in an age of unprecedented affluence, health, longevity, leisure and opportunity, in a country that has among the longest unbroken records of peace and stability in all of history.
So why do we feel so stressed, so dreadful about what’s happening and about to happen? Among the many intriguing insights of the great French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville was his observation that, the more settled and safe a society becomes, and the more of the big questions are resolved, the greater propensity for the broad middle stratas of society to develop a state of “inquietude”.
Or maybe we sense we’re headed down the same extremely divided path as our southern neighbours. Considering some of the issues facing Canada – immigration, gun crime, terrorism, relations with the U.S. – all matters connected to public safety and economic security, Conservatives and Liberals take a markedly different view of each and how to grapple with them, leaving very little middle ground. Combine that with the frequent disintegration of distinctions between reality and construct, between fact-based opinion and attitude – and add in the weakening credibility of the media – and it’s not hard to conclude that the results of next year’s election could be the sum of all fears.