Commentary | X is for xenophobia

Canadian conservative discourse in the 21st century

The world is facing disaster after disaster; ‘barbarians’ and radicals are running rampant. Providentially, the Conservative Party of Canada is calmly guiding the mighty democratic ship of Canada through these stomach-churning waters. Canadian conservatism today is full of ‘clash of civilizations’ rhetoric, but this just serves to conceal blatant xenophobia.

The recent shootings in Paris, notably at a kosher supermarket and at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, bear witness to the violence and disorder that are apparently attempting to lay siege to Western values. “I’m horrified by the barbaric attacks in France. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” wrote Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Twitter, on January 7, the day of the attack.

On its own, Harper’s tweet is quite righteous and reasonable. This said, it is reflective of the Conservative discourse toward peoples who are not part of the mythical ‘Western world.’ Originating in ancient Greek, the word ‘barbaric’ implies foreignness. In modern usage, the term ‘barbarian’ generally implies ‘uncivilized’ in a most radical sense. It is this sort of word that Harper regularly uses to designate non-Western atrocities.

The notion of ‘civilization’ in conflict with barbarians is a powerful tool to encourage xenophobia, and to facilitate violent foreign interventions in the so-called barbaric regions of the world.

The notion of ‘civilization’ in conflict with barbarians is a powerful tool to encourage xenophobia, and to facilitate violent foreign interventions in the so-called barbaric regions of the world.

A more obscene manifestation of this xenophobic behaviour was tabled in the House of Commons on November 3, 2014, hideously baptized the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.” The act would prevent immigrants who are members of polygamous or forced marriages from migrating to Canada. Those immigrants already in the country who are somehow involved in these sorts of marriages, genital mutilations, and/or honour killings would face deportation.

Canada is already legally equipped to deal with the crimes listed above. The act is simply token anti-immigrant babble. This stance is more than surprising for a country like Canada, where colonists decimated the original inhabitants of the country. As the 2011 census reports, the designated ethnic origin “First Nations” corresponds to only about one-thirtieth of the Canadian population. This affords people from this denomination the ninth place in the ethnic composition of Canada, behind “Canadian,” “English,” “French,” “Scottish,” “Irish,” “German,” “Italian,” and “Chinese.”

The importance of immigration is growing. In a report on population growth in Canada from 1851 to 2061, Statistics Canada notes, “As a result [of a decreasing fertility rates, and rising number of deaths], the numbers of births and deaths have converged since the end of the baby boom in Canada, and migratory increase has taken on an increasingly important role in recent Canadian population growth.” With that in mind, one could argue that obviously, Canada has no economic interest in generally isolationist policies.

This Barbaric Cultural Practices Act implies the moral ‘superiority’ of Western culture in contrast with the ‘inferiority’ of immigrants, and the few who have already infiltrated the country. Western culture supposedly claims such moral superiority in, for example, its treatment of less conventional sexual practices. Of course, recent revelations about the systematic problems with sexual assault in Canada, ironically in the very buildings where the act was written, pale in comparison to the immigrants’ ‘barbaric practices.’

That said, the discourse of ‘civilization’ versus ‘the uncivilized’ does not only limit itself to the sphere of violence. It can also be observed in the area of humanitarian aid.

The act is simply token anti-immigrant babble. This stance is more than surprising for a country like Canada, where colonists decimated the original inhabitants of the country.

Ebola. The name itself strikes fear in hearts and minds all over the world. Since March, an outbreak of the decidedly awful disease has killed more than 5,000 people in a small region of Africa. The Conservative government jumped into action: visa applications from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea were suspended.

Travellers, humanitarian workers, and healthcare providers alike travelling from the region will be submitted to stringent evaluations upon their arrival in Canada. Travellers will face mandatory quarantine, while humanitarian workers and healthcare providers will be evaluated by an obscure case-by-case method.

“These measures are not backed by current scientific evidence and serve instead to undermine public health and humanitarian efforts, and stigmatize the countries and individuals most affected,” report Malika Sharma, Ross Upshur, and James Orbinski in a Globe and Mail article titled “Canada’s response to Ebola driven by fear, not evidence.”

These policies are irrational and xenophobic. Indeed, xenophobia appears to have become one of the principles guiding the foreign affairs of the Canadian government.

It would not be cynical to question whether it is really fear driving Ebola policy. Could those stoic ministers in Ottawa be making policies based on their naive irrational reactions to the outbreak of a disease they do not understand?

The fear that is driving policy is the fear of the population, rather than the fear the politicians feel. A Sun News piece by Lorne Gunter was titled “Travel ban our best line of Ebola defence.” It reiterated the irrational position taken by the Canadian government, arguing that, “A ban is so obvious it’s hard to believe anyone with a lick of sense (let alone an advanced degree or two) would hesitate.”

These policies are irrational and xenophobic. Indeed, xenophobia appears to have become one of the principles guiding the foreign affairs of the Canadian government.

An attempt is being made to mislead the population through alarmist media reports and demagoguery, stemming from the Conservative party and its followers. The Conservative party, which is driving Canada, seems more and more attractive as the waters churn with more and more violence – but the government is churning its own waters.

An article by Sam Hersh, published in the McGill International Review, brilliantly resolves the Conservatives’ version of the Ebola crisis:

“Needless to say, the politics of fear are alive and well in Canada. If politicians in the Western world really want to solve the Ebola crisis, the answer is not isolation, fear and ignorance, but the opposite: unity and solutions based on scientific and medical facts. Rather than focusing all resources on travel bans and quarantines which hurt the already impoverished countries, resources should be used to help these underfunded systems. Stopping the disease at its source is the answer.”

Stigmatizing citizens and immigrants from West Africa also serves to further alienate those people who are already residing in Canada, but are originally from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. To be totally incoherent, the government has decided that the Canadian humanitarian workers and healthcare providers, who visit these regions, are apparently responsible, intelligent, and honest enough to avoid automatic quarantine and reintegrate into Canadian society. However, the inhabitants of the affected regions are certainly not! They mustn’t be allowed into Canada.

Sharma, Upshur, and Orbinski are unequivocal in their criticism: “Canada vehemently opposed a travel advisory during the SARS outbreak in 2003, but seems to have a double standard when the tables are turned.”

Canada finds itself governed by people who would like to intervene as little as possible in humanitarian crisis, who would like to put limitations on immigrants with a certain cultural background, but who are happy to unleash the military at the first occasion. Aversion to ‘cultures’ has become a cheap front for racism. Conservative discourse has pitted so-called ‘civilization’ against foreigners. With a federal election on the horizon, will the sagacity of Canadians see through this xenophobic populism?


Gavin Boutroy is a U2 Political Science and Philosophy student. To contact the writer, please email commentary@mcgilldaily.com.


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