Does truth still matter in Canada? You’d never know it based on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s run for re-election. Mr. Harper’s use of the phrase ‘old-stock Canadians’ is right out of the Québec separatists’ manual. In the months before the 1995 Quebec referendum, local French radio stations began to use the phrase ‘les Québécois de souche’ in their newscasts. Quebeckers were no longer referred to as Quebeckers, they were Québécois de souche, or old-stock Quebeckers. Strangely, these newscasts never mentioned newcomers, immigrants or even English-speaking Quebeckers who have been in the province for several generations.
As an international consultant, I travel to Africa, Asia and Latin America to teach journalists how to report clearly and independently, creating a public dialogue to promote democracy. Over the years, I have taught about the need to use words clearly, to avoid ambiguity, and to include everyone as a citizen rather than return to tribal instincts and eventual violence. I always felt quietly proud to come from Canada, a country with a reputation for peace, and for helping people. However, 16 years after the 1995 referendum, and the phrase ‘Québécois de souche’ had faded into history, I was in Mali when I suddenly stopped in mid-sentence during a presentation. I was looking for an example of what not to do in the media and the first thing that came to mind was how political leaders back home were once again beating the drums of division. This time, the then-governing, pro-Quebec independence Parti Québécois was using words against Muslim women and their veils, and here I was in a Muslim country being invaded by Muslim extremists, talking to a class that was still traumatised by the violence that they had seen. Although the irresponsible speech reported in the Canadian media these days doesn’t match what happens in many of the countries where I work, it still stirs up resentment, which pushed to its logical conclusion can only result in violence.
When a phrase such as Québécois de souche is used in the media, it gains an air of authority and people start to use it in everyday speech. For a quiet Canadian hearing ‘les Québécois de souche’ on the radio day after day was not a comfortable experience. So Harper’s use of a divisive phrase for partisan ends did not go down well. After all these years, I’d hoped never to hear such a phrase again.
However, my dismay increased considerably when Mr. Harper spoke of the Niqab and how his government opposed a court ruling that allows Muslim women to veil their faces while taking the oath of citizenship. Public opinion polls support Mr. Harper’s finely-parsed phrases even though veils are few in Canada. Harper knows that the Muslim women becoming citizens have been in Canada for at least five years, have attended citizenship classes, have presented their documentation and showed their faces to Canadian authorities prior to the final two minutes of the citizenship ceremony. Mr. Harper knowingly withholds such information. His desire for power is stronger than his respect for anyone different, or for the law. When a sitting prime minister challenges the law that upholds individual rights for all, it is a sign the country is sailing into dangerous waters. When Harper used the phrase ‘old-stock Canadians’, I was surprised that he would stoop so low. But that’s nothing compared to the dangerous game he’s playing now.