Yellow Vests in the Wheat City

I was born and raised in Brandon, but for most of the past twenty years I have lived away from the city. When my family and I returned to Brandon two years ago, I was amazed at how the city had grown and changed. I know that Brandon has always been a diverse community, but immigration over the last twenty years has absolutely remade the city into a genuine multicultural mosaic.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that Brandon has its problems, and that among the most pressing of these problems is a nagging skein of bigotry that just won’t go away. However, in recent years, our community has been immeasurably enriched by a diversity of newcomers from countries around the world.

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A local group is planning a so-called “yellow vest” protest for Saturday, January 5 that will apparently involve a truck convoy running from Virden to Brandon, followed by a demonstration to be held at the final destination. The yellow vest protest has become a symbol of an emerging populist resentment that is roiling a number of western countries. In this specific case, the demonstration organizer explains in a Brandon Sun interview (paywall) that his event is all about protesting a perceived lack of governmental support for western Canada’s oil industry.

What the organizer fails to mention in his interview is that this protest also threatens to both draw upon and spread anti-immigrant fear and resentment.

How is it that can I make this claim?

In the top left corner of the group’s poster is an image of the UN logo circled and crossed out by a thick red line. This image alludes to the group’s rejection of the UN Global Compact for Migration. A leaflet that accompanies the poster (entitled “What is Canada’s Yellow Vest Protest About?”) makes this link clear:

We advocate for maintaining the people of Canada’s complete sovereignty over Canada’s borders and lands within, and call for the immediate withdrawal from the UN Global Compact for Migration.

To be clear, nothing in the UN Compact compromises Canadian sovereignty in any way. Indeed, to oppose this entirely harmless international compact is to effectively reject 70 years of successful Canadian foreign policy and diplomacy. More importantly, however, opposition to the UN Compact has been increasingly structured by incendiary and conspiratorial fears of so-called “globalist” forces that are apparently bent on undercutting Canadian sovereignty and opening the door to unfettered immigration. A taste of this overheated rhetoric is found on the Facebook page of “Yellow Vests Canada,” a group that boasts over 97,000 members:

This group is to protest the CARBON TAX and the Treason of our country’s politicians who have the audacity to sell out OUR country’s sovereignty over to the Globalist UN and their Tyrannical policies.

Even more alarming, yellow vest protests across the country have been attracting virulently racist groups to their events. For example, members of the Soldiers of Odin were present at protests in Calgary and Edmonton earlier this month, and La Meute turned up at a protest in Ottawa three weeks ago. On multiple occasions, violence has broken out at these protests (in Edmonton and Ottawa). In short, as this report by Kevin Metcalf makes clear, Canada’s version of the yellow vest movement has been appropriated by far right anti-immigrant groups.

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I don’t deny anyone the right to protest government policy; indeed, the right of protest lies at the very heart of a democratic system. Nor am I claiming that the organizers of the Brandon protest are necessarily racist or anti-immigrant. However, the fraught nature of our current political climate demands that responsible people will temper their rhetoric and deny racists even the smallest of platforms or footholds.

The last twenty years have transformed Brandon into a truly multicultural city, and I benefit from this transformation every day, whether I’m shopping at local businesses, visiting my son’s school, attending community events, working at my job, or dining at local restaurants.

There is no doubt that newcomers have made Brandon a more prosperous, vibrant and welcoming place, and it is imperative that all of us do what we can to protect and nurture this development.

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Barbaric Cultural Practices. Again.

Just this past Saturday, fighting broke out at an anti-immigration protest in Edmonton. Police were compelled to move in to separate pro- and anti-immigration groups to ensure the violence didn’t escalate further. Similar protests the week before in Edmonton and Calgary were marked by the presence of the virulently anti-immigrant and racist group known as the Soldiers of Odin.

A week ago, police arrested nine people after pro- and anti-immigration groups clashed on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Among the groups protesting against immigration was La Meute, a Quebec-based group with a substantial history of racist and Islamophobic rhetoric.

Last year saw a 47% jump in hate crimes across Canada. From 2016 to 2017, hate crimes against Muslims increased by 207% in Ontario and almost tripled in Quebec. And 2017 marked the fifth straight year of steady increases in anti-Semitic incidents across the country.

In the small undergraduate university where I teach, the campus community has recently been confronted with a flurry of white supremacist propaganda from the American Renaissance. And about a year ago, our campus was postered with Neo-Nazi material from the so-called “European Brotherhood.”

Clearly, Canada is no stranger to the forces of xenophobia and racism that are wreaking havoc around the world.

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Enter Andrew Scheer, the leader of Her Royal Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the Conservative Party of Canada. In the context of the social and political ferment that is currently roiling Canadian society, Scheer has recently come out strongly against Canada’s endorsement of the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Here is a brief snippet of his approach to the issue:

We strongly oppose Justin Trudeau’s plan to sign Canada on to the UN Global Compact on Migration. It gives influence over Canada’s immigration system to foreign entities. It attempts to influence how our free and independent media report on immigration issues. And it could open the door to foreign bureaucrats telling Canada how to manage our borders. Canadians, and Canadians alone, should make decisions on who comes into our country and under what circumstances.

The compact does none of these things. However, while the agreement itself is entirely harmless in terms of its legal implications (there are literally none) it has certainly presented some political complications. Right-wing parties in Europe have seized on the compact as a symbol to advance their anti-immigrant agendas. They point to it as a supposedly concrete example of how their governments are beholden to a so-called “globalist” agenda. They use the compact to fuel a hyperbolic, fear-mongering rhetoric that equates migrants to foreign invaders.

Sadly, Scheer seems intent on going down that same path. Both his opposition to the migrant compact and the language he is using to express that opposition are reminiscent of the divisive politics and “anti-globalist” rhetoric of the alt-right.

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Scheer’s approach is fundamentally at odds with Canada’s historical approach to international relations. The country has long been one of the world’s foremost advocates and practitioners of multilateralism. We are isolated on a continent with the most powerful country the world has ever seen, and it behooves us to do whatever we can to contribute to building and strengthening a rules-based international system that is premised on strong international norms, treaties and organizations. This internationalist approach has been unbelievably successful for Canada in terms of managing its external relations and shaping global politics in ways that are conducive to expanding and protecting Canadian interests.

Notwithstanding Canada’s shameful past concerning Indigenous peoples, the underlying logic behind an internationalist approach has also served as a crucial vehicle for constructing a viable multicultural and bilingual country. Canada’s demographic reality is such that it has long required high rates of immigration in order to survive and prosper as an independent political entity. This intentional embrace of immigration has transformed Canadian society into a truly rich and diverse mosaic. And Canada’s diversity has, in turn, demanded a temperate approach to international relations and to questions of multiculturalism and national unity.

So, both internationalism and a respect for ethnic and linguistic difference have long served as core aspects of a Canadian political culture that intentionally cuts across linguistic, cultural and regional cleavages and works to sustain the country’s national interests and national unity. And these twin approaches – a multilateral, internationalist face to the outside and a moderate, inclusive face to the inside – have been supported by every prime minister, Liberal or Conservative, since the Second World War. Except for Stephen Harper. He is the lone exception in this pattern (more on his role as an outlier in a bit.)

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Given the reality of this enduring historical pattern, what possible reason would an ostensible Prime Minister-in-waiting have for decrying an anodyne, non-binding compact that has been signed by 163 other countries and in any other political context wouldn’t have raised even a single eyebrow? At this particular moment of international and domestic tension around questions of immigration and difference, what possible motive could Andrew Scheer have for taking a stance that is at variance with the stance taken by eleven of the twelve prime minsters who served over the past seventy years?

Here’s a possible answer: perhaps Scheer sees an “anti-globalist” rejection of the migrant pact as a way to score points against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and shore up his party’s right flank against Maxime Bernier and his fledgling People’s Party of Canada. If correct, this answer would suggest that Scheer is willing to truck with racists and fan the flames of xenophobia and anti-immigration in this country in order to secure the support of his base, keep his job as party leader and blunt support for a new rival party.

But surely no one with the desire to serve as prime minister would ever take such radical steps? Surely no mainstream party leader in Canada would ever use divisive and loathsome race-tinged tactics to secure power? Well, it was just over three years ago that Andrew Scheer’s party, under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, engaged in a vicious streak of dog whistle politics during the 2015 election campaign. This streak included the circus-like promotion of a new RCMP tip line for reporting crimes associated with so-called “barbaric cultural practices”; Stephen Harper’s use of the term “old stock Canadians” in a televised debate; the strategic provocation of a media frenzy over the government’s dogged refusal to allow Zunera Ishaq to wear a niqab during her citizenship ceremony; and the government prioritizing the intake of Christian refugees over Muslim refugees as part of Canada’s response to the Syrian civil war. The Conservative Party’s tactics during that election campaign were truly reprehensible, and they indicated that the party’s leadership was more than happy to stir up fear, racism and anti-immigrant anxiety in order to cling to power.

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Opinion columnists from Postmedia’s network of tabloid dailies have been breathlessly exhorting Canadians to demand answers from Justin Trudeau about how Canada’s support for the migration compact will “erode our sovereignty, weaken our borders and cost billions” (if you’re interested, there is more here and here).

But these foaming critics have got it backwards. It is up to Scheer (and his supporters) to make the case that the Conservative Party’s recent “anti-globalist” rhetoric is something other than a revival of Harper’s old dog whistle politics. Scheer needs to make the case for the wisdom in backtracking on seventy years of political consensus on Canada’s approach to international relations and domestic cohesion. He needs to convince Canadians that his response to the utter non-issue that is the migrant compact is about something more than craven political opportunism.

It is truly disheartening to see the leader of a federal political party playing such divisive partisan games in this climate of fear and racism. In the absence of a compelling explanation, Andrew Scheer’s position amounts to nothing more than “barbaric cultural practices” redux.

The Amiable Guy with the Portfolio Briefcase

The posters and stickers appeared on the campus of Brandon University seemingly overnight (CBC; Winnipeg Free Press). They are emblazoned with phrases like “European Brotherhood,” “Time to Fight,” and “Join the Resistance.” They are stamped with a version of the “sun cross,” an obvious derivative of the Celtic cross that European and North American white supremacist groups have claimed as their own.

No one has yet come forward to take ownership of this propaganda. No modern-day brownshirts have organized a march or a protest in support of their vile ideology. No fascists have descended upon the university’s main courtyard to denounce the institution’s mission to contribute to a liberal society and a diverse, democratic polity.

In the absence of such concrete actions that go beyond a cowardly poster campaign, how should individuals respond? How should the city respond? How should the university respond?

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I remember working this one Saturday at my mom’s used bookstore back in 1990 or 1991, when a guy with a portfolio briefcase stopped by the store. I didn’t recognize him as a regular customer, but he was quite friendly, and we started chatting. He seemed to get really engaged in the conversation when he found out I was a university student, but when he realized I was studying Political Science, his interest and focus sharpened with laser-like intensity.

At that point in my life, I was still passionate about debating politics, and we got into a discussion about the role of the university in society. At first, the conversation was interesting and engaging, but he soon started talking about how institutions of higher learning were becoming increasingly controlled by people with their own agenda. These were people, he argued, who couldn’t be trusted to act on behalf of everyone, who were also exerting secret control in other areas of society.

At this point, I started to think the fellow was pretty unhinged, and I ended our conversation. He left the store very politely, but not before opening up his portfolio briefcase and leaving me with some “literature” that he felt would explain his concerns in more detail. His pamphlet was, of course, filled with contemptible and bilious anti-Semitism.

This guy never showed his edge the whole time we were talking. He appeared genuinely interested in my opinions, and his demeanor was entirely respectful and engaging. He was feeling me out, trying to gauge how receptive I might be before giving voice to his poisonous beliefs. Had I evinced even the slightest bit of curiosity, I’m certain he would have set about trying actively to groom me.

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The racist poster campaign at Brandon University is the amiable guy with the portfolio briefcase.

It’s designed to feel out the university. It’s a tentative toe dipped into the water of the campus community. In this sense, it’s an invitation to those who harbour the same detestable views to emerge from the shadows and voice their support. Ultimately, it’s an opening move designed to cultivate more followers.

It’s also a trial balloon to test the resolve of the university community. And if our community – students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, donors, neighbours – fails to respond in a unified and unequivocal condemnation of this hate propaganda, then we effectively give license to its further growth. Our silence contributes to the ongoing normalization of xenophobia and racism that has been creeping across Europe and North America. Our silence forsakes the motto that has adorned Brandon University’s coat of arms since 1948: “Aletheuontes de en Agape,” or “Speaking the truth in love.”

Most crucially, our silence betrays our obligation to our students.