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Africadian Métis George Elliott Clarke slams Harper

RACING THE VOTE

Stephen Harper’s anti-niqab gambit reeks of what poet A.M. Klein labelled “the body odour of race”

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OCTOBER 7, 2015 6:57 PM

The only way Stephen Harper’s un-Canadian fake Tories can win the election is to turn voters against each other, which is why we should beware over the next 10 days.

This looming barrage is exactly why the longest election in memory was called back in August: to allow the Cons the opportunity to exploit their advantage in campaign finances. It promises to get ugly. Our feckless Republican-style PM hasn’t finished flashing race cards yet. It’s a perennial Conservative dirty trick.

In the September 17 leaders’ debate, Stephen Harper split Canadians into three camps: “new,” “existing” and “old-stock.” The third term rightly provoked anger because it smells of ethnocentrism, of “pure laine” racialism in Quebec and anglo-based white supremacy elsewhere. It echoes the xenophobic notion of “100 per cent Americanism” that powered Ku Klux Klan influence stateside a century ago.

So what did uneven Stephen intend? After all, only First Nations, Inuit and Métis can truly claim to be old-stock. If it’s supposed to apply to “first settlers,” mainly franco-, anglophone and/or white, it leaves out the descendants of Basque fishermen in Newfoundland and of Japanese fishermen in BC.

And what of old-stock African Canadians descended from Nouvelle-France slaves, Underground Railroad fugitives and earlier black loyalists and War of 1812 refugees (Africadians)? What about the Chinese who built communities from Halifax to Quebec City, from Toronto to Moose Jaw, and from Calgary to Victoria post-1867?

Clearly, one has to put the controversy over old-stock in context. It’s borrowed from the U.S. Republicans’ bag of campaign deceptions, meant to divide the electorate into white mainstream voters versus all others.

A classic example is George H.W. Bush’s campaign tactic in 1988 of using the image of a black male con, Willie Horton, to characterize his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, as soft on hoodlums. Bush’s team played up the fact that Horton went AWOL from a 1987 prison furlough in Dukakis’s Massachusetts to commit new crimes, including pistol-whipping and rape.

By cycling images of Dukakis with mug shots of Horton, Republicans upped white voters’ fears of stereotyped African Americans, thus swinging the election their way.

Our Republican “Tories” have studied the lessons of 1988 American spin-meisters ever since. In 1995, Mike Harris’s campaign attacked an Ontario NDP employment equity law that bade large private firms hire members of visible minorities, aboriginals, women and the physically challenged.

Never mind that employment equity is protected by the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms. Harris’s invective against “reverse discrimination” so succeeded that, say some, an “angry white male” vote got his chainsaw-happy yahoos elected.

After the Common Sense rebs got dug in at Queen’s Park, native activist Dudley George was shot dead at Ipperwash while OPP officers were taped trading racist jokes. Maybe the cops were just echoing Harris’s toxic talk. The Ipperwash Inquiry that followed found that Ontario’s premier had said, “I want the fucking Indians out of the park.”

In 2003, seeking to retain office for the neo-cons (the so-called Tories), Premier Ernie Eves linked immigrants and criminality and demanded that Ontario control immigration so as to bar crooks and terrorists. Eves didn’t name any particular group.

Studying this ugly episode in Racial Profiling In Canada (2006), scholars Carol Tator and Frances Henry read the PC platform lingo about youth, immigrants and refugees, and terrorists as being consistent with a political discourse fusing race and crime.

Donald Trump’s current campaign for the 2016 U.S. Republican presidential nomination is another exercise in right-wing race-baiting, specifically his branding of Mexican migrants as rapists and drug traffickers.

Harper’s cynical deployment of subtle racial codes makes it clear he’s fine with lifting from this Nixon-style playbook. If his old-stock comment is heard as endorsing the settler legacy of two founding peoples or as feeding seniors’ fears of changing demographics, that’s dandy.

No need to protect pensions or retirement-age thresholds or to guarantee high-quality elder care.

Similarly, his inflammatory denunciation of the niqab lets Harper front as a defender of civil liberties and women’s rights. Yet the hypocrisy is that he passed Bill C-51, an assault on all of our civil liberties, and will not launch an inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women. Harper’s “feminism” shadows racialism.

Bluntly, neo-con vitriol over the niqab is a disgraceful attempt to slag Muslim women, a disempowered group, to foment enough anti-Muslim feeling among Duplessis-era Quebecois voters to shunt some NDP seats to, most likely, the Bloc Quebecois. This is true gutter-instinct politics. The Canadian Human Rights Commission should investigate this outrage.

How quickly we forget. Twenty-five years ago, neo-cons were furious about Sikh Mounties preferring their turbans to stetson hats. How did that turn out? Saner minds prevailed. That history makes Harper’s degradation of Muslim women look even more abhorrent.

His government’s move to strip a convicted would-be terrorist – a Canadian born here (but allegedly retroactively possessing dual citizenship) – of his birthright citizenship is another racially coded gambit.

To be consistent, the Harperites should strip the convicted FLQ terrorists of 45 years ago of their citizenship, scoop them up from seniors’ residences and deport them. But where? Cuba? Florida? France? Algeria?

What about, say, an aboriginal environmentalist convicted of terrorism for bombing fracking equipment? How would he or she lose their citizenship?

Make no mistake – this likely unconstitutional policy threatens everyone. McCarthyist arguments for stripping people’s citizenship could shift easily from those supporting terrorism today to people affiliated with an outlawed political party tomorrow to those with taxes in arrears the day after that.

Harper’s gambit – the old-stock reference, anti-niqab rhetoric and citizenship-stripping ploy – reeks of what poet A.M. Klein labelled “the body odour of race.”

Don’t let Republican-style sly racialism erase your wish to erase Harper’s regime.

George Elliott Clarke is the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. An “old-stock” Africadian Métis, he’s the fourth poet laureate of Toronto (until next month). His latest book is Traverse (Exile), an autobiographical poem.

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