Lately, because I don’t know what’s good for me, I’ve been sharing political articles on my Facebook wall. I get an interesting response from American friends. They seem a little let-down to hear that we have dirty political fights, and politicians who call on our worst prejudices to score votes. “I thought Canada was better than that,” they say.
A lot of Americans seem to cling to the idea that Canada is a kinder, gentler country that their own — and, to be honest, a lot of us Canadians think that of ourselves, too. We’re good people, aren’t we? We’re supposed to be the world’s good guys, with our peacekeepers and our multiculturalism and all the things that make us so, well, Canadian. The very reason so many of us are anxious to see the end of the Harper administration is because we believe that under the leadership of this particular Conservative government, we’re becoming less and less the country we’d like to think we are.
The sad truth is, we’re better than that — and worse than that. Canadians are not inherently different from anyone else. Like all human beings, we are made in the image of God and yet we are dogged by original sin. Or else, if you’d like a less Christian analogy: we are like both The Force and duct tape: we have a light side and a dark side. And both have been on display in this election campaign.
To me, the two photos above encapsulate something important about what’s happening in Canada during this election: about the two visions of who we might be as a country, which are really about two ways of viewing The Other, the outsider. the immigrant.
The photo on the left is one of a series showing Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach (I chose not to include the more iconic one showing the boy’s face, since some people find it offensive as an invasion of privacy, but you can see it many places online). The photo became an iconic image around the world when it was published on September 3 at the height of public awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe. It took on particular resonance here in Canada with the knowledge that the Kurdi family, who lost three members tragically trying to cross from Turkey to Greece, had a relative here in Canada. Despite the subsequent lack of clarity over whether the family had, in fact, applied for asylum in this country, the photographs, in the days after they flashed around the world, struck a chord. Here we are, they seemed to say, in this safe and wonderful country, and across the world toddlers who look like our children, whose parents love them like we love our children, are dying in an attempt to reach that kind of safety. Can’t we do more?
It was a bad moment for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, who were already having a string of bad moments on the campaign trail — the Mike Duffy trainwreck of a trial, the candidate caught on video peeing in a client’s mug, disappointing economic numbers. The wave of empathy for Syrian refugees, the demands that Canada take in more immigrants from that war-torn part of the world — none of this was helping the Harper campaign.
In the two weeks that followed, two things happened that changed the game.
On September 11, Harper hired Lynton Crosby, notorious for running negative (and successful) political campaigns in the US and Australia, to save his faltering bid for re-election. And on September 15, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the right of Zunera Ishaq, a Toronto woman who emigrated to this country from Pakistan, to wear a niqab (a facial covering that reveals only the eyes) when taking the oath of citizenship, despite a federal government policy forbidding women from doing so.
The Harper government moved quickly to ask for a further appeal of the case, which would prohibit Ishaq from becoming a Canadian citizen. (The court upheld their decision and Ishaq has since taken the citizenship oath wearing her niqab; the Conservatives say that if re-elected they will pursue a ban on the niqab). And the Harper campaign very deliberately dragged the issue into the election spotlight, despite the fact that only two immigrant women have asked for the right to wear a niqab since the government brought in the 2011 ban on face-coverings in the citizenship ceremony. Hardly a pressing issue in a country of 30 million people worried about jobs, the economy, the environment, and all the things we should be talking about during an election campaign.
It’s hard to imagine these two incidents — the hiring of Lynton Crosby and the decision to appeal the Zunera Ishaq decision and make it an election issue — were not connected. And it’s not hard to see the lines drawn from the famous photo of little Alan Kurdi on the beach, to the photo of Zunera Ishaq wearing her niqab. The two photos are about two visions of Canada: the kind of country we want to be.
The photos of Alan Kurdi touched hearts because we can empathize. We can relate. Every one of us who’s ever had a three-year-old, or cared for or loved a three-year-old, can look at the picture of that little boy in his jeans and red T-shirt and little Velcro sneakers, and imagine their own child in that situation — even Stephen Harper could do that. We look at that picture and it slaps us in the face with the realization that these immigrants trying to get out of Syria and into countries they perceive as safer are JUST LIKE US. They love their kids; they want better homes and jobs and lives. They want to be safe and free and happy, like we do. We’re not so different, and that realization makes us want to reach out, to welcome, to include.
That’s a dangerous sentiment, and a dangerous view of Canada, to have running rampant while a Prime Minister who builds his platform on a foundation of fear is seeking re-election. Much of the Harper government’s policy — including the notorious “anti-terrorism” Bill C-51 — is based on making us fear the terrorist, fear the stranger, fear the outsider. Or rather, playing on fears that already exist. Because we are both, light and dark, welcoming and fearful, and our politicians know this. So do the puppet-masters in the shadows, the Lynton Crosbys of the world who decide what becomes an issue and what doesn’t.
When we look at the photo of Zunera Ishaq in her niqab, we see the opposite of what we see in the photo of Alan Kurdi. We see someone who looks different. Foreign; strange; alien. The wave of support for Syrian refugees was quickly followed by government reminders: yes, we want to help refugees, BUT. They are Muslims, they come from ISIS-controlled territory; rather than trying to escape terrorism, they might be terrorists themselves. Sneaking into our country, hiding behind their face coverings. Muslims are not people just like us after all — they are the purveyors of barbaric cultural practices, and we will set up a hotline so you can report on those of your neighbours whose practices are strange and different enough to scare you.
Who do we choose to be? Are we going to be a Canada that looks at the outside world and sees it full of terrifying strangers, or a Canada that looks at the world with eyes of welcome and a willingness to help?
Is it really that simple? Of course not. ISIS is real; terrorism, both at home and abroad, is real; taking thousands of new immigrants into a country, even if every one of them is hard-working and sincere, creates challenges. Adapting to a more multicultural, multi-religious society, in which people can be free to worship as they please but can’t be allowed to violate the rights of others, is a complex problem.
But we don’t like complex problems during election campaigns. Politicians and their strategists like to imagine issues in simple terms. And in simple terms, this election can be imagined as a choice between two reactions to those two photos. What do we see when we look outwards? When we look at immigrants, at “foreigners,” at The Other? Are they just like us, and can our Canada be broad enough to include many different ways of being Canadian?
Which kind of country do we choose?