On October 1, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became the oldest leader of the three major federal political parties. Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh had just been elected leader of the federal New Democrats, grabbing 53.8 percent of the vote in the first (and only) round of a four-person race. It was a remarkable achievement that was documented by newspapers beyond our borders. Prior to running for the leadership, Singh had built a reputation for himself as a smart criminal defence lawyer, a natty fashion-forward dresser, and the deputy leader of the Ontario NDP. He had risen to power despite lacking the connections to the Ottawa bubble, not to mention the profile of a House of Commons soapbox, which his three opponents had. Yet media coverage gave the distinct impression that the shade of his skin and colour of his turban were his distinguishing characteristics as a politician. Singh was lauded most for having the random fortune of being born to two immigrant parents who came to Canada from the Indian subcontinent, rather than to old-stock Laurentians.
For progressives and no small number of conservatives, Singh’s victory was irrefutable proof that a significant number of Canadians would line up behind a leader from a visible minority background. Some went further, suggesting that Canada was on its way to becoming a post-racial society. Like the white supremacist who has one black “friend,” or the aspiring U.S. senator who has a Jewish lawyer, Canada, in this view, can never again be accused of being racist because we have Jagmeet Singh, the younger, handsomer Jeremy Corbyn. Singh’s victory was sweetly redemptive, three weeks after the event that really catapulted him into the public consciousness: the meet-and-greet in Brampton, Ontario, where he refused to engage with self-described “not a racist” Jennifer Bush as she tried to disrupt his event. She later clarified she likes Hindus. Singh is Sikh.
Compounding the sweetness of Singh’s victory was the decline and fall of Kellie Leitch four months earlier. Leitch is the former Conservative cabinet minister who, along with fellow minister Chris Alexander, infamously gave Canadians the Islamophobic “barbaric cultural practices” hotline during the 2015 federal election campaign. Running a leadership campaign that started, ended, and failed on “Canadian values,” she never really captured the imagination of the Tory rank-and-file. Despite much media bluster, her campaign tapered off in the ninth round having never cracked eight percent of the leadership vote.
Taken together, Leitch’s failure and Singh’s subsequent success certainly made for a moment. A year after significant numbers of Britons and Americans had voted for higher walls, Canadians had taken not one, but two symbolic steps on the right side of history, thus feeding the illusion that Canadians remain somehow exceptional, clever, and savvy enough to reject the allure of populism.
Whether this is in fact so is the subject of Michael Adams’s newest book, Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit. While our closest friends and allies flirt with xenophobia and populism, the question arises of whether we are adequately vaccinated against Trumpism. Or could Canada, too, be infected, as Adams writes, by “that storm of angry, isolationist, and frequently nativist populism that has swept through not only the United States, but also the United Kingdom in the Brexit era, Germany, France, Hungary, Poland and [even] the Netherlands?” Like financial crises and pandemics, populism appears to carry a high risk of contagion. If there, why not here?
Adams’s full answer is yes and no, but mostly no. He hedges on the question of whether Canadians could elect a Trump caricature; it would be foolish to rule out the possibility given that the proto-Trumpian Rob Ford was elected in Toronto just eight years ago. But Adams spends much of his book arguing that if we foster social resilience, reduce inequality, and continue to provide the kind of public services that keep societies functioning, such as health care, public education, and a social safety net, then Canadians will stay less susceptible than our peers. He views incidents such as the Quebec City mosque shooting, Kellie Leitch’s never-was leadership campaign, and the Quebec National Assembly’s Bill 62, the so-called religious neutrality law, as outliers, anomalies that do not reflect a fundamental shift in Canadian social values.
As a well-respected pollster, Adams has tracked the ebb and flow of Canadian social values for decades. In the grand scheme of things, he is relentlessly optimistic, and he may have reason to be. His arguments rely on data from his polling company, Environics, and that data shows that Canadians consistently and increasingly choose equality, diversity, inclusion, and mass immigration. The latter is important because high rates of naturalization from diverse immigrant backgrounds generally acts as a built-in repellent to xenophobic political leaders—electoral suicide by way of demographic inevitability. Where Adams’s analysis is most compelling is in his comparison of social values on both sides of the 49th parallel, a theme he has returned to consistently throughout his career. The myth of convergence between Canada and the United States was the central focus of his 2003 book Fire and Ice.
In one example from Could It Happen Here?, he longitudinally tracks patriarchy as a social value. Environics found that in 2016, 50 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “the father of the family must be master in his own house,” compared to only 23 percent of Canadians. Regional tabulations yielded even more intriguing results. A high of 69 percent in the Republican Deep South and a low of 42 percent in staunchly Democratic-blue New England subscribed to the man-of-the-house view. By comparison, only 18 percent of Atlantic Canadians agreed, with a high of 26 percent in Alberta. All of which means that Canada’s most patriarchal province was 16 percentage points less patriarchal—at least as defined by the above statement—than the United States’ least patriarchal region. Adams notes in the survey results that patriarchy correlates to how we organize and govern ourselves, as well as other values like religiosity, parochialism, xenophobia, and patriotism. Extending his analysis, Adams correlates Canada’s lower rates of support for patriarchy to suggest that Canada is less parochial, xenophobic, and patriotic than our southern friends, and therefore less likely to vote for a Trump copycat.
What is left unsaid is that “it” has already happened here, persistently and repeatedly. Xenophobia and institutional racism are long and once-proud Canadian traditions. The rap sheet is long and all too familiar. One only needs to look at our 100-dollar bill to find a key architect of Canadian xenophobia. Prime Minister Robert Borden’s 1911 federal election campaign ran and won in British Columbia with the slogan “A White Canada,” only four years after the 1907 Anti-Oriental Riots in Vancouver. Fifty years ago, while old-stock Canada descended on Montreal for Expo 67 (where “Man and his World” was probably not intended to be ironic), the federal government was busy scooping up 20,000 Aboriginal children from their families to relocate them in what they deemed more suitable homes; the consequences are still reverberating today for millions of Indigenous residents. Nor is it all ancient history. In 1995, one Quebec premier blamed “money and the ethnic vote” for losing the independence referendum; in 2013, another attempted to enact a Quebec charter of values. Canadians who are inclined toward broadly Trumpist currents have a menu of anti-Islamic groups to choose from; from the German import PEGIDA (the German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) to the homegrown alt-right group La Meute, which appears to have 17,000 Facebook members and more than a dozen chapters. Whatever social values may bind a plurality of Canadians today is layered onto a history of systemic xenophobia that still exists.
Adams points to Naheed Nenshi’s first election win in 2010 as evidence that Canada’s virtuous cycle (more diversity, more immigrant acceptance, less xenophobia) works, enabling Calgary to elect a rookie Ismaili mayor six whole years before London chose Labour’s Sadiq Khan. Adams credits Calgarians for not letting identity politics stand in the way of electing Nenshi. This is a fair point. However, after Adams’s book went to press, Nenshi barely eked out a third term in September 2017 after a campaign that shocked and awed with ghosts of racism past and present. During the 2017 campaign, Nenshi’s team alleged that the sudden appearance of several hundred fake Twitter and Facebook bots inflaming and amplifying Islamophobic rhetoric had a severe impact on the race. There is no reason to believe that other qualified Muslim political candidates would not endure similar automated Islamophobia in the future, to the detriment of our overall political discourse.
The strength of Adams’s book lies in its analysis of how Canadian social values have evolved over time, but his mythologizing of Canadian exceptionalism doesn’t compel the reader to think deeper about the still-pervasive challenges that we face. Every country is entitled to its own creation myths; indeed, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves help societies to cohere. While there are worse things for a country like Canada than perpetuating myths about how tolerant it is—especially if believing the story actually makes us more tolerant—there is a risk, too. If we indulge ourselves in the belief that we are intrinsically more tolerant than our British and American cousins then we do not deserve to be surprised if a Donald Trump imitator gains traction here.
Often the fastest route to debunking exceptionalism is to take a step back and apply some comparative and historical perspective. In The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History, Rita Chin brings in 70 years of recent history to compare how the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, frequently used by Chin as proxies for “Europe,” have rejected multiculturalism in favour of an ideology that can be described as muscular integration. A professor of history at the University of Michigan, Chin begins her book with Angela Merkel’s 2010 declaration that multiculturalism in Germany has been a failure, before embarking on an in-depth exploration of what led Europe’s political leaders to make such a denunciation.
The classic European narrative about multiculturalism holds that before the Second World War, European societies were harmonious and socially cohesive (spoiler: they weren’t), and it was only with the arrival of newcomers after the war—workers from Turkey and former British and French colonies, who were tasked with helping to rebuild Europe—that Europeans were forced to confront the prospect of a heterogeneous society. These so-called temporary migrants morphed into immigrants, permanent residents, and eventually, citizens. Europeans were forced to figure out a process for absorbing and integrating the newcomers, a challenge that still perplexes many Europeans today. The truth, of course, is that pre-Second World War Europe had centuries of experience confronting, accommodating, and eradicating diverse cultures and religions. In the case of Germany, incorporating Danish-speaking Schleswig-Holstein and French-speaking Alsace-Lorraine dates back to the era of the Prussian unification of Germany in 1871. France in 1930 had the highest rate of foreign population growth in the world. And the Netherlands, which offered relative freedom and wealth, was so attractive for immigration that between 1590 and 1800, the foreign-born population was consistently around five percent—lower, but not by orders of magnitude, than 2013’s 12 percent. Chin does not fall for the revisionist interpretation of European homogeneity, but defends her post-1945 focus by saying that the new transitions were perceived by Europeans as being qualitatively different, “a new kind of diversity.” It is not a bad justification, provided we know these are not new issues.
The reason this new kind of diversity was so jarring is because it upended the idea of Europe as being the continent of emigration, the one-way street from which civilizing Christian Europeans departed. The British Empire was inherently multiracial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious, but Britain itself was never supposed to be, an idea that is visible in the ongoing Brexit debate. The empire was where Britons and Irish surplus to requirements could be dispatched (and from which soldiers to fight European wars could be drawn). The postwar reversal of this historical pattern saw migration changing, Chin writes, “from white, native Britons to nonwhite, non-European colonials and former colonials.” The postwar Clement Attlee administration passed the 1948 British Nationality Act, which reaffirmed the right of all members of the British Commonwealth to enter the United Kingdom. Chin points out that it was Europe’s urgent postwar need for labour that pulled in immigrants from around the globe.
By the 1970s, Europe was rebuilt and enduring a series of oil, financial, and economic crises. The pressures imposed by these crises began to manifest as growing resentment against immigrant workers who by then had decided not to migrate back to their countries of origin. The European backlash against multiculturalism reached its high watermark after the publication of British author Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the author. The fatwa, which attempted to curtail Rushdie’s freedom of expression, met with a curious response in Britain: it gave rise to firm re-assertions of British core values and principles. By placing freedom of expression at the essence of Britishness, rather than passionately defending such freedoms as universal, many in the British establishment deemed even those who might reasonably defend their religious traditions to be outside the bounds of acceptable British culture and therefore incompatible with modern Britain.
Chin argues that two outcomes of the Rushdie affair continue to reverberate in contemporary European integration debates. The first is that it oversimplified the transnational, multi-ethnic, multi-denominational Muslim world into a single, monolithic entity: one Islam under God—indivisible, identifiable, and easily targetable. The second is that the Rushdie affair is when Islam “came to be seen as a central threat to ‘liberal values’ ” by Europeans. One might respond that the latter is a reversion to historic form, whereby Europe has always defined itself in juxtaposition to Islam.
European cowardice vis-à-vis multiculturalism has, as Chin writes, “reduced a complicated discussion about how to deal with ethnic and cultural diversity to a simplistic demand that Muslim immigrants adopt liberal values as the crucial precondition for inclusion in European society.” This dismissal of multiculturalism gives Europe’s political leaders permission to redefine the terms of engagement, often in a way that subtly excludes. In time and with growing hindsight, Chin’s book may come to be seen as the history of a seventy-year multicultural aberration for Europe, the interregnum between 19th-century imperial colonialism and 21st-century robust “liberal” integration. Chin herself describes the momentum of the integration debate over the past decade as reflecting “a commitment to protect the shared liberal values that ostensibly define the European way of life.”
But this uneasy endpoint doesn’t actually address the reality that Europe will never be able to return to the perceived ideal of homogeneity, largely because it never really existed in the first place. Islamophobia may make for good short-term politicking, but it prevents a longer-term discussion of what a more inclusive Europe could look like. Shedding multiculturalism in favour of European-style integration doesn’t solve the problem, it only delays answering the awkward questions of who is doing the integrating and into what are they integrating—not to mention presupposing that there is a cohesive integrated whole to integrate into.
Chin offers no simple solutions or reassuring conclusions. She only warns that ignorance impoverishes the ability of politicians, policymakers, thinkers, and activists to create accurate shared understandings of what they mean when they talk about Europe in the 21st century. It is only when the language of diversity, immigration, citizenship, and belonging is reappropriated that we can begin to foster inclusion. This is where Adams’s book may prove most instructive, in its celebration of a post-national entity like Canada grasping the nettle and being simultaneously diverse, cohesive, and inclusive.
Scott Young is the director of Ideas and Insights at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. He can be found on Twitter at: @scottalyoung.