Archive for the 'Canadian Politics' Category

23
Jul

Ontario Liberal Victory

The old saying that the only real poll is on Election Day was never more true than in the Ontario provincial elections of June 12, 2014. The Liberal Party emerged victorious with a majority government. The results were not a complete surprise, as polls taken before the elections suggested that either the Liberals or Conservatives would win, albeit with a minority government. However, in the end the Liberals got 58 seats, the Conservatives 28, and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) 21.

I personally voted Liberal in this election, as I did in the two previous ones at the provincial level. My general voting pattern is Liberal for the province, Conservative for the country as a whole, although there have been some exceptions and although I did not vote at all in the last two federal elections. As well, I chose the Liberals partly because I liked the representative in my area, Member of Provincial Parliament Dr. Eric Hoskins. He is a physician and, together with his wife (also a doctor), founded an organization to help children in war zones.

This is not to say I had no reservations about the Liberals. The gas plant cancellations in the cities of Oakville and Mississauga, for example, which cost Ontario taxpayers millions of dollars, remain a thorn in the Liberals’ side, in my view, and it would be a relief to see the problem addressed once and for all.

Nonetheless, most Ontarians, like me, appeared to have concluded that the Liberals were the best choice in the existing circumstances or, at worst, the least of three or more evils (the three being the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP and the others being minor parties like the Greens and Libertarians). For one, neither NDP leader Andrea Horwath nor Conservative head Tim Hudak managed to convince voters to back them in great numbers. Even traditional Conservative supporters seemed puzzled by the mathematical logistics of Hudak’s plan to create a million jobs while at the same time cutting 100,000 civil service positions. In a similar vein, Andrea Horwath baffled many when she failed to endorse the Liberals’ latest budget, which had been described as the Liberals’ most ‘socialist,’ and thus NDP-friendly, budget in a long time. She was also accused of alienating some NDP stalwarts by embracing what many saw as a right-wing agenda.

One thing that did not become a matter of great concern during the election was Premier Kathleen Wynne’s sexuality. Wynne is a lesbian, in a relationship with another woman. The fact that Wynne’s lesbianism never emerged as a hot issue may be a testament to Canadians’ – and Ontarians’ in particular – openness; it might also be due to the reality that, in an apparent reversal of the usual sexual double standard, lesbians have been subject to less persecution than gay men. For instance, in some countries, male homosexuality is a criminal offence while sexual relations between women are not. (This of course does not mean that lesbians have not or do not experience discrimination.)

One Toronto Spanish-language newspaper said that Wynne’s election will bring ‘four years of stable government.’ Let us hope so and hope that Ontario’s most pressing issues will be resolved.

15
May

Jim Flaherty

On April 10, 2014, Canada’s former finance minister Jim Flaherty died. His death was in some ways not particularly surprising. He was 64, which is perhaps not old but not young either, and he was suffering from a chronic skin condition, even though he had said that the disease was not life-threatening and that it did not play any role in his resignation as minister a month earlier. My suspicion is that Flaherty had more serious health problems that he was willing to let on and that he preferred to keep his private life private.

Jim Flaherty’s legacy as federal finance minister both in the Stephen Harper government and previously at the Ontario provincial level under Premiers Mike Harris and, later, Ernie Eves was controversial. As Ontario Finance Minister, Flaherty raised hackles when he said that it should be illegal for people to sleep on the streets and that those who did should be directed either to a shelter, hospital, crisis intervention centre, or, if the individual were deemed to have engaged in illegal conduct, prison. Advocates for the homeless and even socially conservative (but in some respects politically liberal) columnist Michael Coren pounced on Flaherty, accusing him of ‘wanting to jail the homeless.’ My own take is that homelessness is a complex problem with no ‘one size fits all’ solution and that any solution to the issue has to take into account the high rate of mental illness among people living on the streets. I am not sure that sending constables to force the homeless off the streets, as Flaherty suggested, is a realistic solution – but perhaps nor is the idea among some liberals of building a ‘tent city’ for them.

Flaherty’s approach to other social issues similarly gave rise to many debates. For example, in the early 2000s when he was in the Conservative provincial government, Flaherty declared himself to be pro-life, or anti-abortion. He ran afoul of the pro-life movement later as federal finance minister, though, when he was perceived as being too ‘gay-friendly’ after hiring an openly gay chief of staff, Derek Vanstone, and praising Conservative strategist Jaime Watt, who had won an award from a gay rights organization. (I have to admit to a certain perplexity at much of the pro-life movement’s obsession with homosexuality: being non-procreative, homosexual intercourse obviously doesn’t contribute to any abortions.) It is not that Flaherty was particularly pro-gay: in 2006, for instance, he voted in support of a motion to reopen the national debate on same-sex marriage, a bill that, if it had passed, would have put the future of gay marriage in danger. Yet his supposed ‘gay-friendliness’ and, in 2012, vote against a bill by Tory backbencher Stephen Woodworth to re-examine the question of when life began (under Canadian law now, at birth) basically alienated him from the organized anti-abortion movement.

Jim Flaherty’s most memorable performance had to do not with abortion or homelessness but with the Canadian economy. Flaherty was credited in large part for getting Canada through the recession relatively unscathed – or at least less unscathed than many other countries. Nonetheless, many of his financial moves came under criticism. Journalist Thomas Walkom in the left-wing Toronto Star said that by condoning funding cuts to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), Jim Flaherty was ‘part of a government determined to smash or cripple much of what makes Canada a liveable country.’ On the other hand, disability rights advocates, who are generally seen as part of a ‘progressive’ cause, lauded Flaherty – one of whose children is disabled – for his financial measures in favour of people with disabilities and efforts to include them in mainstream society.

Jim Flaherty was perhaps a Conservative at the crossroads – a Conservative who must decide whether to be fiscally but not necessarily socially conservative or whether to embrace social conservatism as well. This appears to have been a dilemma not only for Flaherty but for the entire Conservative Party and even Prime Minister Stephen Harper as well. I think Flaherty ultimately chose the former course (to be fiscally but not socially conservative) and, for the most part, succeeded at it.

26
Sep

It’s happening in Canada: The Charter of Quebec Values

It seems that when something happens in Canada, to paraphrase the title of the old book It Happened in Canada, it usually happens in the province of Quebec. Such is the case right now with Premier Pauline Marois’ new legislation known as the Charter of Quebec Values. If it passes, this charter, which has just been introduced in Quebec’s National Assembly, would prohibit employees of public institutions in the province from wearing conspicuous religious symbols on the job. Such symbols would include Sikh turbans, Muslim hijabs (headscarves) and burkas, Jewish kippas (skullcaps), and large crucifixes; small crosses and Star of David rings would not be forbidden. Among the venues affected by the new law would be hospitals, schools, and public daycare centres.

The Charter of Quebec Values has given rise to a huge amount of controversy not only in Quebec and Canada but around the world. While they might not agree on much else, Canada’s three major federal parties – the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives – have been unanimous in condemning Marois’ proposal. Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney even showed a picture of himself on his Twitter account wearing a Sikh headscarf to show solidarity with the Sikh community, to whom the bill would deny the right to wear turbans in the workplace. In addition, thousands of people gathered in Montreal for a march to protest the Charter.

On the other hand, Marois’ legislation has its supporters. A Leger Marketing poll last month, for example, found 57% of the province’s residents to be in favour of the Charter of Quebec Values, with a higher percentage among Francophones (the majority of Quebec’s population) than Anglophones. In the Globe and Mail, David Rand, president of the group Atheist Freethinkers,* wrote a piece titled ‘Why a secular charter is good for Quebec,’ explaining that the charter will ‘establish a line of demarcation between… the freedom of religion of those who would display openly their allegiance to a particular religious community and… the freedom of conscience of others who should not be forced to be exposed to such displays from the state and its representatives.’

I personally lack strong feelings either way on the issue, perhaps because I do not live in Quebec and because my religion (Lutheran Christianity) does not obligate me to wear any specific symbols. In general, I tend to lean against the Charter. In my view, an employee of an institution does not represent the institution as a whole. The man with a (large) Star of David around his neck who sold me my prescription medication at Toronto General Hospital, for instance, does not mean that Toronto General is a Jewish hospital. Similarly, the teacher at my daughter’s school who wears a small cross necklace – an item that would, incidentally, be permitted under the Charter of Quebec Values – does not teach at a Christian but at a public school. It might be different if the school had a crucifix on the wall or the hospital a Star of David on their front desk, but these items on an individual worker do not challenge the secularism of the institution itself. Also, although I find some of the charges of ‘racism’ and ‘xenophobia’ hurled by the anti-Charter crowd to be overblown, it does seem somewhat suspicious that a large crucifix, a clearly religious symbol, will be kept at the National Assembly in the name of ‘tradition’ while turbans, kippas, and hijabs are banned in public buildings.

One pro-Charter argument is that if one chooses to live in a place – in this case, Quebec – one must abide by that jurisdiction’s legislation. For instance, if I decided to be a public school teacher in France, a country with a Catholic majority population but a longstanding separation of church and state, I would have to accept that I could not bring my large Hawaiian-made crucifix to class – even though when I did wear it in my younger days, it was to emulate my then-idol Madonna rather than express my religious faith. Again, my religion does not require me to wear a cross, but even in cases where a particular item, such as a turban for Sikh men, is a religious duty, the law of the land takes precedence.

A counterargument to this, of course, is that although Quebec is in some ways a separate jurisdiction from the rest of Canada, the province is receiving considerable transfer payments from other parts of the country. As a result, other Canadians – and the leaders of the country as a whole – have a legitimate basis for demanding at least some say in what the government of Quebec does. It is a bit like the question of publicly funded abortion: it is one thing to talk about the right to have an abortion; it is another to expect the taxpayers, some of whom may be vehemently opposed to the procedure, to pick up the tab for it. Therefore I do not see anything wrong with the Canadian federal government’s decision to possibly challenge the Charter in court.

As with many other contentious issues, there is hysteria on both sides of the Charter of Quebec Values debate. One letter writer to the Toronto Star, for example, states that Premier Marois’ proposal ‘reeks of the onset of fascism and Nazism that was born in Europe in the 1920s and quickly led to chaos and the holocaust in the years to follow.’ On the pro-Charter side, one commenter on a pro-secularism website stated that daycare workers who wore crucifixes were trying to convert their students to Christianity, as if wearing a cross around one’s neck were equivalent to telling young children that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (which I would undoubtedly agree with Charter supporters has no place in a publicly funded childcare centre; a private religious one is another story). As I said before, however, I do not really have much personal stake in the charter. The outcome of the proposed legislation thus remains to be seen.

*It should be noted that many of those who took part in the Montreal march against the Charter claimed to have no religious affiliation, so not all non-religious people share Rand’s opinions.

28
Feb

Safe or unsafe: Designated Countries of Origin

“It don’t really matter to me, baby,
Everybody’s had to fight to be free.
You see you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
No, you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
Now you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)

This song, by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, always struck a chord with me (pardon the pun). Petty’s work isn’t the type of music I tend to listen to: give me bouncy British Invasion tunes like Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’ or the Rolling Stones’ ‘Get off of my cloud’ instead. But somehow, Petty’s ‘Refugee’ has stuck with me.

Perhaps it’s because refugees are, and have always been, a burning issue in Canada. Just last December, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney compiled a list of so-called ‘safe’ countries, or in bureaucratic lingo, Designated Countries of Origin. Citizens from such nations can apply for asylum in Canada, but they will only have between 30 and 45 days to prepare their refugee claims rather than the usual 60. If their claim is rejected, they can appeal the decision to the Federal Court of Canada but not to the Immigration and Refugee Board. Finally, those whose quest to obtain refugee status in Canada ultimately fails will be removed from the country.

The purpose of this list, according to Kenney, is to make Canada’s refugee system fairer and more flexible. People who truly need this country’s protection, he says, will receive it more quickly, while those whose applications are refused will be expelled faster. Unofficially, the DCO list aims to pare down the number of individuals seeking refugee status in this country in the first place. In the two months since the plan was implemented, it appears to have borne fruit: refugee applications to Canada have declined by approximately 70% compared to similar periods in the last six years. Jason Kenney himself has pointed out the dramatic drop in applications from nations that have traditionally had a high number of unfounded claims.

The list originally contained 27 countries: 25 from the European Union plus the United States and Croatia. More recently, it was expanded to include eight more, such as Japan, Australia, Israel (excluding Gaza and the West Bank), and Mexico. There seems to be a certain method in the madness of the government’s designation of countries as secure or not. Practically all nations in the industrialized West fall in the ‘safe’ category, as do two industrialized but not Western countries (Israel and Japan) and a Western but still developing one (Mexico). The second largest group of nations on the safe list consists of the ambiguously Occidental nations of Eastern Europe: in other words, the traditionally Catholic or Protestant countries like Slovenia or Estonia as opposed to the Orthodox and less westernized ones like Russia or Romania. Off the list are the entire continent of Africa, practically all of Asia (save Japan and Israel), and every Latin American nation except one.

In many ways, the list makes sense. It may surprise some people, for instance, that in the last while, the largest source of asylum claims to Canada has not been some poor war-torn nation in Africa but Hungary, which most people associate with goulash, not gunfire. The idea of Hungary as a major refugee generator makes me want to scream out à la Michael Corleone in The Godfather, ‘Don’t insult my intelligence!’ The federal government has also wisely left off the list the Caribbean countries, which may appear tranquil and harmonious to most Canadians but whose citizens in some cases face social discrimination, such as homosexuals (I know; a former lover of mine from one of the islands had a gay male cousin whose life there was hell on account of his sexual orientation). It is clear that Kenney and his minions have put considerable thought into their placement of countries on the safe or unsafe list.

On the other hand, I’m a bit more sceptical about calling Mexico ‘safe.’ That is not to say that there are no bogus refugee claimants from that country, or from other turbulent parts of Latin America like Colombia, for that matter. However, to compare Mexico with my previous example of Hungary, Mexico’s murder rate in 2008 was 11.59 per 100,000 inhabitants as opposed to the latter country’s 1.47. Of course, many of Mexico’s homicide victims may be criminals killed by other criminals, but the data strongly suggest that the Mexican government is failing to provide at least some of its citizens the protection they need. The wisest course of action on Canada’s part, in my view, would be to keep a close eye on Mexicans seeking refugee status but not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and dismiss asylum claimants from that country altogether.

Finally, what will the end results of the DCO list be? One hopes that regardless of what countries are included in it or not, it will achieve Kenney’s stated objective of making our refugee system fairer and more flexible. As a major refugee destination, Canada walks a fine line between on one hand welcoming the world’s oppressed and on the other not allowing ourselves to become the ‘chumps of the world,’ in the words of a conservative friend of mine. Let us hope that our powers-that-be will guide us along that delicate path well.

22
Oct

J. Philippe Rushton: Who Was He Really?

I remember 1988 as the year of the ‘Rushes.’ The first ‘Rush’ was Anglo-Indian author Salman Rushdie. Although known in Britain for some time, in 1988 he burst onto the international scene with his novel The Satanic Verses. His work earned him a ‘fatwa’ from the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed, praise from leftist crowds (this was before criticizing Islam became politically incorrect), and a spoof in the University of Toronto engineering students’ newspaper called ‘The Satiric Verses,’ which featured the Ayatollah offering Mediterranean and Baltic Avenues to anyone who did away with Rushdie.

The second ‘Rush’ (now deceased, as of October 2 this year) was University of Western Ontario psychology professor J. Philippe Rushton. Like Rushdie, Rushton came into the limelight in 1988, not because of a work of fiction but of what he purported to be a work of science: a paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences titled ‘Race differences in behaviour: A review and evolutionary analysis.’ The paper stated that Blacks were less intelligent, less law-abiding, and less stable in terms of family formation and dissolution than Whites were. Whites in turn exhibited less intelligence, more rule-breaking, and less family stability than did East Asians, whom Rushton termed ‘Orientals.’ On the other hand, Blacks were more sexually precocious and active than Whites, who for their part were less sexually restrained than Asians.

Not surprisingly, Rushton’s work generated an uproar. He was immediately denounced as a racist. He was even investigated by the Toronto Police and Ontario Provincial Police following numerous complaints of ‘promoting hatred against an identifiable group.’ Ultimately, no charges were laid against him, with Ontario’s then-Attorney General Ian Scott describing Rushton’s theories as ‘loony but not criminal.’ Rushton also appeared in a TV debate with environmental activist David Suzuki.

Philippe Rushton’s theories were full of holes and unanswered questions. His ‘Law of Three’ left out many ethnic groups like South Asians, Pacific Islanders and American Indians (never mind culturally unified but racially diverse groups such as Hispanics!) who could not be easily slotted into his Black-White-East Asian paradigm. As well, many of Rushton’s statements were patently false. One was his claim that ‘Orientals’ were slower to physically mature than Whites (who were for their part slower to mature than Blacks). Scientific studies, though, show that Asian girls experience their first menstrual periods at the same time or even a bit earlier than White European girls: for instance, Japanese women start menstruating at a younger age than those from Scandinavia.

I will let others debate the scientific merits or non-merits of Rushton’s work. I want to address another question: was J. Philippe Rushton really a racist? In common parlance, racism generally refers to the belief that Whites (or White Christians) are superior to all other people: in other words, to White supremacy. Did Rushton actually subscribe to such a philosophy? In ‘Race differences in behaviour,’ he implied that Asians possessed more of what we might view as ‘virtues’ – intelligence, emotional stability, and obedience to the law – than Whites did. In terms of sexual prowess, however, Blacks came out on top, pardon the pun. Whites, far from being a master race, seemed doomed to perpetual mediocrity in Rushton’s mind. He did not openly state whom or what he considered a superior race, but it did not appear to be his own (Rushton was White, born in Great Britain to an English father and French mother).

By extolling the supposed moral superiority of Asians, Rushton veered from many traditional White Supremacists. It is true that, as one commentator stated, ‘even White Supremacists are saying nice things about Asians now.’ Nonetheless, this is hardly a universal phenomenon among racist Whites. Some of them, for example, latched onto the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007 by a young Korean-American man as well as violent Korean movies as reasons for bringing back the Chinese Exclusion Act to the US. On the other hand, Rushton shared many ideas with the old-fashioned ‘White is right’ crowd, like the denigration of Muslims. He stated at a conference in 2009 in Baltimore that Muslims were not only culturally but genetically inferior: they had an ‘aggressive personality with relatively closed, simple minds and were less amenable to reason.’ The notion of Muslims as a ‘race’ might strike one as ludicrous. Just as there are Black, White, South Asian, East Asian and other Christians, the Muslim faith includes a large number of sub-Saharan Africans, inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia, Middle Eastern peoples as well as the majority of the population in Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

Perhaps J. (the ‘J,’ by the way, standing for either ‘John’ or its French equivalent ‘Jean’) Philippe Rushton should best be remembered as a paradox. Although he stirred fierce debate, he was described by many as a soft-spoken and mild-mannered individual. He was a White man who was beloved by White Supremacists but who, in the words of the website AmIAnnoying, did not ‘put his fellow whites at the top of the hierarchy.’ I will declare straight out that I do not, and never have, adhered to Rushton’s theories. I also found it hard sometimes to determine whether he was an attention-seeker, a lunatic or maybe both. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was Rushton mad or simply pretending to be mad? The answer to that question obviously died with Rushton himself. In the end, Rushton was a man who, like the races he failed to include in his three-pronged system, escaped easy classification.

01
Apr

No Longer Married for the Papers

Just over four years ago, I wrote an article titled ‘Married for the Papers’ about the phenomenon of marriage fraud. Marriage fraud is defined as the act of marrying a Canadian citizen or permanent resident for the sole purpose of immigrating to Canada. The Canadian in question is led to believe mistakenly that their so-called spouse truly loves them. In good faith, the Canadian sponsors the foreign national with the intention of starting a new life with them in Canada. Marriage fraud should be distinguished from marriage of convenience, where both parties agree to get married in order to help the foreign partner come to Canada with no attempt to deceive the Canadian spouse.

When I first wrote the article, marriage fraud was a fairly peripheral issue on the Canadian political front. Since then, much has happened. Most recently, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has introduced legislation that would prohibit a spousal sponsoree from sponsoring a new partner for five years if the marriage with the Canadian spouse failed. Kenney has also proposed withholding permanent resident status from spousal sponsorees unless they remained in the marriage for at least two years. If they did not, their legal status in Canada would be revoked, and they would be deported and perhaps even face criminal charges. Both measures are aimed at discouraging would-be fraudulent spouses.

Kenney says he was motivated to enact these laws after holding consultations on the matter and hearing from people who had been hurt by foreigners pretending to be in love with them but abandoning them soon after getting their immigration papers. What may be even worse, if the sponsoree decided to go on welfare, the Canadian husband or wife would be required to reimburse the state for any expenses their erstwhile spouse incurred. Needless to say, Kenney’s two above-mentioned pieces of legislation (imposing two-year conditional residency on spousal sponsorees and preventing them from bringing a new partner to Canada for five years) have been applauded by groups like Canadians Against Immigration Fraud – which incidentally was founded by a man whose son was left in the lurch, so to speak, by a woman he had sponsored to come to Canada.

On the other hand, Kenney’s proposals have not been without criticism. One letter writer to the British Columbia-based paper Indo Canadian Voice condemned the five-year ban on sponsoring a new spouse as an unwarranted interference in people’s personal lives. Some women’s groups and immigrant advocacy organizations say that the two-year conditional residency rule could trap sponsored wives in abusive relationships if they feared ending the marriage would lead to deportation from Canada. (Kenney has said there will be a special provision for sponsored spouses who have been abused.) Whatever one feels about Kenney’s new laws, however, they are likely to pass given the Conservatives’ majority government.

Personally, I believe that Jason Kenney’s desire to eliminate marriage fraud is a commendable one. As I mentioned in ‘Married for the Papers,’ I could have been a victim of marriage fraud myself. Other people, however, have not been so lucky and have ended up emotionally (and often financially) drained after being deceived and ultimately discarded by a person they thought loved them. For example, I once had a colleague I’ll call ‘David’ who had come to Canada after marrying a woman of Finnish descent. At our place of work, David flirted with literally every woman under 30 in sight (maybe because I had a boyfriend, David never tried to approach me). David eventually got his so-called papers, abandoned his Canadian wife, and moved into a small apartment. His wife, from what I heard, was devastated at the loss of the man she was convinced had loved her. When she cried to him about this, he supposedly told her, ‘Well, you can always make love to me.’ It is situations like this that Minister Kenney wants to prevent.

Nonetheless, whether Kenney’s legislation will actually achieve this goal is still an open question. The five-year ban on spousal sponsorees bringing a new spouse to Canada will most likely deter the majority of individuals who might get the idea of marrying a Canadian, obtaining permanent residence here, and then ditching their spouse and sponsoring their ‘true love.’ Few people – both the sponsoree and the one waiting in the wings in the so-called old country – would be willing to wait five years to reunite in a foreign land. For those without a significant other back home, however, two years might not seem too long to stick it out in a loveless (at least on the sponsoree’s part) marriage before being free to call it quits. Take the example of African-American author Terry McMillan and Jonathan Plummer. At the age of 46, McMillan married Plummer, who was in his early twenties at the time, after meeting him on a vacation to his native Jamaica. Their courtship and marriage formed the basis of McMillan’s book How Stella Got her Groove Back and the film of the same name. The marriage ended six years later when Plummer told McMillan he was gay. So two years, while better than nothing, might not be sufficient to discourage some would-be fraudsters.

Finally, would-be sponsors themselves have a role to lay in curbing marriage fraud. Both Minister Kenney and others in the field, such as Italian-Canadian immigration columnist Vilma Filici, have warned Canadians intending to marry a foreign national to be careful. Filici cites a case of an Indo-Canadian woman who was originally prevented from sponsoring a man she had married in India because Canadian immigration officials suspected he was only after the immigration papers. The wife subsequently launched a legal battle and finally succeeded in getting permission to bring her husband here. Upon arriving at the airport, he allegedly went his own way. The woman might have spared herself a great deal of heartache if she had realized that the immigration officials may have had a point. Love is blind, they say, but the neighbours aren’t. Similarly, perhaps Terry McMillan should have asked herself why a man half her age, gay or straight, from a developing country seemed so interested in her. (Then again, I seriously questioned McMillan’s judgement on hearing of her surprise at Plummer’s ‘betrayal’ by having sex with other men after she had helped him start up his own dog-grooming business)

It might be impossible to completely eradicate marriage fraud. But however imperfect, Kenney’s proposals and move to a fight the phenomenon are a step in the right direction.

14
Jan

Is Canada Islamophobic?

Last week’s headlines were marked by news of an attack on a mosque in the city of Gatineau, Quebec. The mosque was spray-painted and its windows broken, while two cars in the parking lot were almost torched. After a short period of deliberation, the Gatineau police declared the attack a hate crime. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney paid a visit to the mosque, stating that the type of bigotry displayed by the vandals had no place in Canada.

The vandalism, and Kenney’s appearance at the mosque, came at a time when relations between the federal government and Canada’s Muslim community were uneasy at best and hostile at worst. A month earlier, the Minister had decreed that Muslim women had to remove any face veils like burkas or niqabs when taking the oath of citizenship. Some Muslims felt that Kenney was making these women choose between their faith and their citizenship. Higher up on the political hierarchy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper angered many Muslim Canadians in September when he described ‘Islamicism’ as the greatest threat to Canada’s security. Critics accused politicians like Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney of appealing to the mainstream Canadian population’s Islamophobia in order to obtain votes. But are Canada, and its government, really as Islamophobic as some allege?

To a certain extent, allegations of pervasive anti-Islamic hostility in Canada have some basis in fact. A recent survey by the Association for Canadian Studies found that only 43% of Canadians had a ‘very positive’ or ‘somewhat positive’ perception of Muslims. In contrast, 70% of respondents had a positive perception of Catholics and Jews and 60% of atheists. According to a similar poll in 2009 conducted by Angus Reid, a mere 28% of respondents held a favourable attitude toward Islam, compared to 57% and 53% toward Buddhism and Judaism, respectively, and 72% toward Christianity. These results suggest that a considerable portion of Canadian society views Muslims and their religion in a fairly negative light, at least in comparison to other belief systems.

It’s also true that much anti-Islamic feeling in Canada is based on ignorance or plain bigotry. For example, honour killing, a crime in which a woman is murdered by her family members for ‘disgracing’ them by having premarital sex, marrying men not of the family’s liking, or even talking to boys, is often described as a ‘Muslim tradition.’ Even in Canada, however, such crimes have occurred not only among Muslims but among Sikhs and, in at least one instance, Hindus (a Sri Lankan father who tried to run over his daughter because she was seeing a man of another caste). Some so-called Islamophobes seem to be against any non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestant immigration whatsoever. An example is a commentator calling him- (or her-?)self PaxCanadiana who runs a website called the Canadian Immigration Reform Blog. True, he or she rails against Muslim immigrants, but he (she) also deplores the entry of Filipinos, Chinese, and even the White – if not Anglo-Saxon Protestant – Portuguese into Canada.

One might therefore ask whether this apparent Islamophobia extends to the Canadian government, more specifically the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. Much was made of Stephen Harper’s remark about ‘Islamicism’ being the greatest threat to Canada. I am not so sure; it seems that problems like home-grown crime (the bulk of which is NOT committed by Muslims), environmental degradation and child poverty are at least as threatening as Islamicism is in the lives of most Canadians. On the other hand, while ‘Islamicists’ by no means constitute all Muslims, the somewhat uncomfortable truth is that there exists a fanatical element in Islam that has no modern-day counterpart in Christianity or other belief systems. Even ‘arch-atheist’ Richard Dawkins admitted that he knows of no ‘Christian suicide bombers’ or ‘major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death.’ Christianity, he said, might serve as a ‘bulwark against something worse’ (he didn’t spell out what that ‘something’ was). And both Dawkins and Harper are old enough to remember the ‘fatwa’ against writer Salman Rushdie by Muslim leaders for his supposedly blasphemous work The Satanic Verses.

It does not appear that Stephen Harper or his Cabinet have anything against Islam or Muslims per se. They participated in an Eid (major Muslim holiday) celebration on Parliament Hill, for example. Furthermore, both Harper and Jason Kenney spoke out strongly against the vandalism of the mosque in Gatineau, Quebec – whereas neither they nor any other federal official, as far as I’m aware, said anything about the spray-painting of a public nativity scene in St. Catharines. Finally, in 2010 Harper bestowed honorary Canadian citizenship on the Aga Khan, leader of the Ismaili Muslim spiritual community.

So back to my original question – ‘Is Canada Islamophobic?’ – with regard to the Canadian government itself and its main leaders, I would have to say no, at least not based on anything they have expressed or actually done. When it comes to the population at large, my response is more mixed. It’s apparent from polls like the above-mentioned Angus Reid survey that many Canadians are hostile to both Muslims and their religion.

Finally, how can this gap be bridged? Perhaps Muslim Canadians can let it be known that practices like honour killing and female genital mutilation are not Islamic traditions and that not all Muslims embrace capital punishment for apostates, for instance. Non-Muslims for their part should avoid lumping all Muslims together as fanatics or automatically labelling abusive husbands/fathers/brothers from the Middle East or South Asian as ‘Islamofascists’ (a term used to describe, ironically, a Lebanese Christian man named Joseph Hawach who kidnapped his two daughters from his ex-wife and brought them to Lebanon). Good fences may make good neighbours, but talking over these fences might make even better ones. Above all, I’d like to see Muslims and Canadians of other (or no) religions see themselves as fellow citizens of our one country.

28
Aug

Jack Layton: A hero of our time?

On Monday, August 22, 2011, NDP leader Jack Layton died. His death was not completely unexpected: he had earlier been treated for prostate cancer, and he announced just weeks ago that he had developed a new tumour. He had also had a hip replacement, as a result of which he was seen in public using a cane. Surprise or no surprise, though, Layton’s passing was mourned by many, not only by his family but by Canadians of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and even political leanings. He is scheduled to be given a state funeral.

 

Personally, I have never voted for Jack Layton or the NDP for that matter. The times that I have cast a ballot, I’ve fluctuated between the Liberals and Conservatives. I tend to fall in the ‘socially liberal, fiscally conservative’ category, the latter of which does not leave much room for supporting the New Democratic Party. Still, I remember telling a consistently Conservative friend a few months before Layton’s death that regardless of one’s political philosophy, few people could dispute that the NDP leader was a decent and honourable man. My friend agreed.

 

Another thing that could not help but impress the public about Jack Layton was the fact that he managed to do what would have been unthinkable even a year ago: he made the NDP the official Opposition. While the NDP has been elected in various provinces at different times, at the federal level it has basically been relegated to the sidelines. I sometimes wonder whether Bob Rae, once the NDP Premier of Ontario, regrets ‘jumping ship’ to the Liberals now that his former party has more seats than his present one.

 

The NDP’s relative success in the election – I say ‘relative’ because the Conservatives are after all a majority government – was in my view due to several factors. A large number of NDP seats were obtained in Quebec from the Bloc Quebecois. The Quebec separatist movement has always had its highs and lows. The Toronto Spanish-language newspaper El Centroamericano speculates that the movement is losing steam as Francophone Quebecers realize that it might be more difficult for an independent Quebec to be self-sufficient now that its prospective trading partner the United States is currently in the economic doldrums. As a left-wing party, the NDP in a sense filled in the gap for many Quebecers.

 

However, another reason behind the NDP’s newfound success may be its leader himself. Jack Layton certainly came across as a very personable and approachable figure – a reality recognized even by non-NDP supporters like me. In this respect Layton had the edge over his Liberal counterpart Michael Ignatieff, who basically lacked the charisma to win over the people of Canada as a whole. Of course approachability is not the only factor in a candidate’s victory or defeat. If that were the case, the NDP under Layton would have garnered more votes than the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper. Nonetheless, I believe that Layton’s personality played some role in the last election.

 

As well, part of Jack Layton’s appeal lay in the confidence he exuded. This was evident, for example, in his promise even after he was diagnosed with a second cancer that he would ‘be back.’ Unfortunately, he never did ‘come back,’ but for his followers this message still holds. Although I have never been one of Layton’s followers, I join other Canadians in mourning his passing. Canada has lost a great leader. At least we can take some comfort in the fact that he died peacefully at home with his family. Since we all must die one day, the least we can ask is that our death be as tranquil as possible. We shall see who will carry on his legacy.

22
May

Canadian Federal Elections: Why and What

They may not have received as much attention as Osama bin Laden’s death, but the Canadian federal elections have spawned no shortage of commentary. As expected, the Conservatives emerged victorious. However, contrary to some predictions, Stephen Harper won with a majority government this time. Another surprise: the NDP, under Jack Layton, is now the official Opposition. Although the NDP has been elected at the provincial level before – Ontario, for example, had an NDP government from 1990 to 1995 – on the federal scene it has been basically relegated to the sidelines. Other shocker: the once-mighty Liberals have now fallen to third place. Not so unusual, on the other hand, is the mere one seat obtained by the Green Party (by their leader Elizabeth May) and the absence of any seats whatsoever by the various independent candidates and fringe parties, such as the Christian Heritage Party.

 

Perhaps more important than the “what” is the “why” these elections turned out the way they did. First, the Conservative victory. It may be that despite the Bruce Carson and Bev Oda/KAIROS scandals, Canadians felt that the Tories were the best choice available or, from a more negative angle, the least of three or possibly more evils. Under the leadership of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, for instance, Canada managed to weather the economic recession relatively smoothly, at least compared to other nations like Portugal, Ireland or Greece. While the above-mentioned scandals may have dissuaded some Canadians from casting their ballots for Harper, many of these people may have simply abstained from voting altogether, thereby failing to give any advantage to the various non-Conservative parties.

 

I also attribute Stephen Harper’s win partly to the fact that Canadians refused to fall for the scare tactics engineered by the Conservatives’ opponents. One such tactic was the attempt to portray the Tories as reactionary Bible thumpers bent on banning abortion and keeping women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. This effort began well before the recent elections. A few years ago, one left-leaning website featured a picture of Gerri Santoro, an American woman who died from an illegal abortion in 1964, lying dead in a motel room, as if to portray what Canadian women would face if Harper remained at the helm. Leaving aside the fact that the most egregious violations of women’s reproductive rights in recent years took place not in a right-wing God-bothering theocracy but in a left-wing officially atheistic state, Communist Romania, where not only abortion but contraception was banned, Harper himself has stated that he has no plans to re-open the abortion issue. Critics have countered that he did raise the matter by failing to include abortion in a federal package for maternal health care in the Third World. But declining to finance a procedure can’t be equated to legally prohibiting it. As an analogy, no government in Canada would stop me from getting breast implants, but no government would pay for them either other than in the case of a mastectomy. Finally, Harper’s supposed pro-life sympathies are belied by anti-choice groups’ characterization of the Prime Minister as “pro-abortion.”

 

The huge sea change in this election was the Liberals’ descent to third place, behind the Conservatives and NDP. Some would sum up the reason for the Liberals’ seeming downfall in two words: Michael Ignatieff. However great an intellectual/author/broadcaster Ignatieff might be, he simply lacked the charisma to win the Canadian public’s favour as a future Prime Minister. The other side of the Liberals’ defeat was of course the rise of the NDP. Part of the NDP’s newfound success stemmed from the support it received in Quebec, where it managed to supplant the Bloc Quebecois in all but a few ridings. Quebec’s turn to the party of Layton was not especially surprising to me, as Quebecers have long held left-wing views on social and economic matters. I also wonder whether some people who might have otherwise voted for the Liberals chose the NDP out of a belief that the latter party has at least had the courage to stand by their principles (many of which, by the way, I do not personally share) while the Liberals in contrast seem to define themselves solely by their status as non-Conservatives.

 

I have to admit that I did not vote in this election. There was no party with which I felt 100% comfortable casting my ballot for, so I simply abstained. Nonetheless, I’m not necessarily displeased by the results of this election. I suppose that if I were forced to vote for one particular party, it would be the Conservatives. Yet the idea of the NDP as a counterbalance to the Conservatives doesn’t strike me as a bad scenario either. At the very least, the outcome of this election could have been worse.

29
Mar

The Limits of Barbarism: Jason Kenney and Honour Killings

Jason Kenney is no stranger to controversy. As an MP in 2005, he said that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry – to a member of the opposite sex. As Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, in 2009 he imposed a visa requirement on Czechs and Mexicans who wished to visit Canada, a measure that irked immigrant rights advocates as well as tourist operators who worried the measure would hurt their business. Later that same year, he inserted a phrase in the Discover Canada guide for new immigrants which also created a small firestorm. The guide stated that while Canada welcomed immigrants, it did not tolerate “barbaric cultural practices” such as female genital mutilation or honour killings.

 

That statement remains in the recently updated version of Discover Canada. This time, however, the words seem to have caught the eye of Liberal MP Justin Trudeau (son of the late Prime Minister). On a radio talk show, Trudeau took exception to the expression “barbaric” on the grounds that such strong language had no place in a government document and created a barrier between “us” (i.e. mainstream Canadians) and “them” (i.e. immigrants). “Absolutely unacceptable” would have been better, according to Trudeau.

 

Reaction was swift to follow. Kenney’s office said they made no apology for letting immigrant women know their rights. The Minister himself noted that statements like Justin Trudeau’s “undermine public support for multiculturalism” and refused to accept the Liberal MP’s later apology. Conservative MP Shelly Glover demanded that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff remove Trudeau from his post. Interestingly, NDP Immigration Critic Olivia Chow appeared to take Kenney’s side in the matter, declaring that honour killings were indeed barbaric and that the Discover Canada guide had every right to make that clear. Meanwhile, Ignatieff merely opined that “There’s no such thing as an ‘honour’ killing… only killing, and it’s a crime everywhere.”

 

Outside political circles, the controversy continued to rage. Commenting on a Toronto Sun article about the Kenney-Trudeau debate, one reader accused Justin Trudeau of tolerating the murder of women in the name of multiculturalism. On the other side of the ledger, Kenney and his supporters were slapped with the “r” word – racism. Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner described Kenney’s rebuttal to Trudeau as part of the Conservatives’ strategy of “he who is not with me is against me.” There was, in short, a great deal of hysteria, and voices of moderation were drowned out or shouted down.

 

As with all hot-button issues – abortion, military intervention in Afghanistan, and so on and so forth – the “barbaric” brouhaha is another case in which arguments on both sides have grains of truth but a lot of distortions as well. Many of those who objected to Jason Kenney’s use of the term “barbaric” appeared unwilling to face the fact that honour killing (that is, the murder of a woman by relatives for having “dishonoured” the family by anything from having pre- or extramarital sex to wearing make-up or suggestive clothing) has no equivalent in mainstream Canadian society. Traditionally in Canada, the treatment of wayward women by their families has consisted of ostracism or disinheritance – not homicide. But good luck in trying to point this out to some of the so-called multiculturalists. For example, when I remarked on a website accusing Kenney of ignoring the abuse of underage girls in Bountiful, British Columbia that no woman in Bountiful had ever been killed, the moderator informed me that I thought domestic violence was an exclusively Muslim problem. I replied that not only had I not even mentioned the word “Muslim” but that the most sexually, physically and emotionally abusive boyfriend I had ever had was a – drum roll – White Christian. Even so, I was reprimanded for my “prejudices.” I soon gave up on the conversation, as it was like holding a rational discussion with a Creationist convinced that the Earth came into being 6,000 years ago.

 

On the other hand, some (small “c”) conservatives – not Kenney himself – engage in their own half-truths as well. For instance, many insist that honour killing is a “Muslim thing.” This is partially true: a number of honour killings have taken place in countries with an Islamic majority as well as among Muslims in Western nations, including Canada (famous example: Aqsa Parvez). Even here at home, however, such murders, or attempted murders, have also been reported among Sikhs and Hindus, like a Sikh woman in British Columbia who was killed by her father for dating a White man or a Sri Lankan girl in Toronto whose father tried to run her down with his van because she was involved with a man of another caste. Some right-wingers also lump in with “honour killings” acts that would more properly be called crimes of passion. One such crime of passion was the murder of Aasiya Hassan by her husband, a television executive in Buffalo, New York, after she told him she wanted a divorce. Though Muzzamil Hassan’s motives and actions do not seem that dramatically different from, say, those of Windsor, Ontario physician Dr. Marc Daniel, who fatally stabbed his ex-wife at the hospital where they worked, the former man’s Islamic religion immediately caused his deed to be slotted in the honour killing category.

 

Still, I have to admit that the Left’s – with exceptions of course, like Olivia Chow – approach to honour killings bothers me more than that of the right. Some supposedly progressive commentators have even expressed sympathy for “honour killers.” For instance, Toronto Star columnist Jim Coyle said that rather than condemnation, the parents of Aqsa Parvez, the Mississauga teen killed by her father and brother allegedly for refusing to wear the hijab, deserve “all the comfort they can get” in their troubled time. Their only fault, according to Coyle, was “caring too much of what other people thought.” Conservative commentator Ezra Levant immediately shot back and asked whether Coyle would have commiserated with Karla Homolka over the death of her sister Tammy. A better question, in my view: would Coyle have had even a glimmer of sympathy for a white-bread Anglo-Saxon man I knew who disowned his daughter for marrying a Black man? While genuine racism undoubtedly played a role in my acquaintance’s reaction to his daughter’s marriage, he very likely was motivated as well by “What would the neighbours say?” My semi-educated guess is that no, Coyle would not have had any sympathy for this man – even though the man did not, as far as I know, even try to physically assault his daughter.

 

Finally, people like Jim Coyle, or even those who deny the essential truths about honour killing (that it doesn’t occur in mainstream North American society, for example), make me wonder whether the Left is really the friend of women it has always purported to be. At times it seems that their solidarity with women gets short shrift when it clashes with other tenets, like a misguided notion of multiculturalism. I am not even saying this out of self-interest: the victims of honour killing are not White women like me or my family members but some of the “women of colour” that multiculturalists and other leftists claim to defend.

 

Jason Kenney has won the public opinion battle so far, at least for now. But we can be sure more is yet to come.




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