Authorities are still deciding how to characterize the attack in London, Ont., earlier this week that killed four members of the same Muslim family. But for thousands of other Muslim Canadians, there’s only one word that comes to mind: terrorism. And while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested that “Islamophobia has no place in any of our communities,” the unfortunate reality is that there are many communities in Canada where anti-Muslim bigotry is already firmly rooted.
Those roots seem particularly deep within Canada’s conservative movement. When the federal government tabled a motion to condemn Islamophobia in 2017 in the wake of the horrific Quebec City mosque shooting that killed six people and injured 19 others, all but one participant in the Conservative leadership race (Michael Chong) at the time voted against it. Future leaders Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole openly criticized the motion, while former ministers Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander appeared at a rally organized by Rebel Media and described by the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt as a “hateful free-for-all against ‘political correctness.’”
That rally took place at Canada Christian College, the institution run by Charles McVety, who just happens to be a political ally of Ontario Premier Doug Ford. McVety makes no secret of his disdain for Islam and those who practice it, and he’s reportedly argued that “we know that Christians and Jews and Hindus don’t have the same mandate for a hostile takeover.”
Derek Sloan, who helped play kingmaker for Erin O’Toole in the CPC’s most recent leadership race, has made a litany of racist and bigoted statements — and was only kicked out of the Conservative caucus for what O’Toole described as “a pattern of destructive behaviour involving multiple incidents and disrespect towards the Conservative team.” Maxime Bernier, who nearly won the previous Conservative leadership race, has a history of making Islamophobic remarks, including a baseless claim during the 2019 federal election that “Islamist extremists” had infiltrated Canadian politics.
Yes, Conservative MPs have (mostly) stopped appearing on Rebel News, and they’ve (mostly) stopped repeating the most egregiously anti-Muslim theories and language. But they have yet to truly step forward and denounce those they flirted with so recently, from their furious reaction to the federal government’s $10.5-million settlement with former child soldier (and Guantanamo Bay detainee) Omar Khadr to the proposed “barbaric cultural practices” hotline floated by Stephen Harper in the 2015 campaign.
Neither have the columnists and writers in the conservative media ecosystem who have repeatedly dumped rhetorical gasoline on the fires of intolerance and anti-Muslim bigotry. On Tuesday, for example, the National Post published an op-ed from Rex Murphy on the apparent problem of anti-white racism, which is a perfect example of where his priorities really lie. He’s hardly alone there, either. As Haroon Siddiqui noted in a 2016 speech at the Aga Khan museum, “hardly a week goes by without these publications finding something or other wrong with Muslims and Islam. These publications are forever looking for terrorists under every Canadian minaret.”
The fruits of this poisonous tree were on full display in the Twitter replies and Facebook comments of high-profile Conservatives this week, where their carefully crafted statements preaching tolerance and understanding in the wake of the London massacre were greeted with a torrent of anti-Muslim bigotry and whataboutism. Generally speaking, you should never read the comments, but it’s time for Canada’s conservative leaders to read the ones they get on this issue.
There are some conservatives who understand the damage their party and movement has done here. Jeff Bennett, the former Ontario Progressive Conservative candidate in London West (the riding where Monday’s attack happened), posted a statement on Facebook apologizing for his own willingness to overlook the uglier elements and attitudes within his political family. “I’ve come face to face with Anti Muslim attitudes in London Ontario and said ‘thank you for your support,’” Bennett wrote. “I’m so very sorry. I promise to do better.”
Some of those attitudes came from his own campaign volunteers, who apparently had issues with the previous candidate, a lawyer and second-generation Canadian from the Middle East named Ali Chahbar. “I should have asked them to leave,” Bennett wrote. “I did not.”
Chahbar, for his part, posted his own thoughts on Twitter. “I think about campaigns I was involved in where I was expected to dignify questions about advancing hidden agendas of shariah law while simultaneously being asked to affirm my Canadian credentials despite being born & raised in this country,” he wrote.
Canada needs more conservatives like Jeff Bennett, Ali Chahbar and Michael Chong, and it needs them right now. It doesn’t need people who continue to flirt with fringe elements in their party or wink at their racism and bigotry in order to win elections. As Monday’s attack should make clear, the cost of that is already far too high.