Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s crude, divisive tactics have put Canada on a worrying political trajectory.
Stephen Harper governs not so much for Canada as for his Conservative party. He used to do it by stealth. Now he does it openly, like the Republicans in Washington who, in fact, are beginning to pull back from their partisan brinkmanship just as he is bulldozing ahead with greater arrogance.
Take his proposed changes to the Elections Act, which would favour the Conservatives — gut the power of the chief elections officer Marc Mayrand (who had taken the Tories to court for breaking election laws) and make it more difficult for voters to cast ballots but easier for political parties to raise money.
Take John Baird’s highly publicized trip to the Ukraine — an unapologetically Conservative mission, not a Canadian one.
Take the government’s boycott of the opposition from the Aga Khan’s speech Friday at Massey Hall. Even the MP for the riding, Liberal Chrystia Freeland, was frozen out.
All this follows Harper’s recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, which was crassly political in more ways than one.
At one event there, Conservative MP for York Centre, Mark Adler, barred the respected Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, who had gone to Israel on his own dime. Harper’s unusually large delegation of 200 did not have a single Canadian Arab but included a representative of the extremist Jewish Defence League, which works with, among others, the right-wing and Islamophobic British group, English Defence League.
Less known has been Harper’s decision to exclude Baruch Frydman-Kohl, the highly respected rabbi of the liberal Beth Tzedec Congregation, one of Toronto’s largest synagogues.
Frydman-Kohl is president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, which in 2012 denounced the Jewish Defence League for hosting American anti-Islamic blogger Pamela Geller. Describing her views as “distasteful,” the board said that “there was no sense in inviting her here to speak before a Jewish audience.”
Fryman-Kohl clearly does not fit Harper’s definition of a good Canadian Jew, nor does Cotler.
These examples, as others before, fit into a well-established pattern — Harper’s “you are with us or against us” approach to governing; his hijacking of Canadian foreign policy to serve Conservative interests; and his divide-and-conquer tactics of pitting one ethnic community against another.
He was right to honour the Aga Khan, making him an honorary citizen in 2009 and having him speak to Parliament on Thursday and in Toronto on Friday. But the prime minister’s motives are clearly suspect. His wooing of the Ismaili community in Canada follows the pattern of Conservative niche marketing to several other minorities.
He has done so not only with the Jewish community — in the recent provincial byelection in Thornhill won by the Conservatives, many Jewish voters let it be known that they had, in fact, “voted for Harper.” He has also made inroads into the Hindu, Sikh, Bahai, Coptic Christian, Pakistani Christian and Pakistani Ahmadiyyah Muslim communities.
Nothing wrong in a government paying attention to minority concerns in their ancestral or spiritual homelands — except when the catering to special interests is so obviously tied to fishing for votes and financial contributions for the Conservative party, or worse, it fans rather than reduces old-country troubles in Canada.
In Harper’s black-and-white world, supporting Israel means opposing Arabs in Canada. He has little or no engagement with Canadian Arabs, up to half of whom are Christian, even though at 780,000 they are more than double the Jewish population of 329,000. Not that numbers should dictate policy but a cavalier disregard for specific communities by their prime minister demeans the office he holds.
Harper also ignores Canada’s Muslims, the fastest growing and the youngest demographic in the country, with a median age of 28.9 years vs. the Canadian average of 40.2 years, according to Statistics Canada. At more than one million, they are now nearly three times the population of Buddhists (368,000), more than twice the population of Hindus (498,000), Lutherans and Pentecostals (478,000 each) and Sikhs (455,000), nearly double that of the Christian Orthodox (550,7000) and half as many as those belonging to the United Church (two million).
He has particularly solicited the smaller minorities that have come to Canada escaping persecution in Muslim lands. Their plight was real enough. But he and the Office of Religious Freedom that he established rarely speak out on behalf of persecuted Muslim minorities in such places as Myanmar.
All such selective, ideological, partisan and vindictive activities sacrifice the common Canadian interest in the service of the ruling party. Worse, they exacerbate our differences by pitting one minority against another or stoking divisions within a community. That’s no way to govern a highly diverse, but still united, nation.
Haroon Siddiqui’s column appears on Thursday and Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org