‘Old stock’ politics is past its expiry date

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Appealing to Canadians on ethnic or religious grounds is becoming less and less relevant, as cultures and races intermix in Canadian society.

By Sheila Copps

First published in The Hill Times on August 27, 2018.

OTTAWA—Maxime Bernier’s surprise resignation last week will not put an end to a raucous Tory debate on identity politics.

Instead of buying peace in advance of the writ, the Conservative announcement of a Canada-wide immigration tour will serve to magnify internal differences of viewpoint.

As for Bernier’s plan to start a new party, his reach far exceeds his grasp. Former allies will be reluctant to throw their support behind an also-ran who seems to be suffering from an aggravated attack of sour grapes. His claim that he did not change, but the party did, is simply not credible.

On the diversity issue, Bernier is stoking the same flames as former leader Stephen Harper, who supported a snitch line for un-Canadian behaviour in the dying days of the last campaign. Harper thought it was a winning wedge issue, but he turned out to be dead wrong and it was one of the reasons he lost the election.

When it comes to multiculturalism, the Tory party may embrace less diversity. But the country does not. Consider the backlash already facing immigration critic Michelle Rempel for her supportive statements about a white supremacist’s heckle directed at the prime minister.

Rempel sided with a right-wing, anti-immigrant group member who asked Trudeau whether he was tolerant of “vieille souche” (old stock) Quebecers. The meaning of that phrase has evolved over time.

In recent years it has become code for race, but the term is much older. It harkens back to a time when divisions in Quebec were based on battle lines drawn between French and English. The designation of “old stock” was a way of differentiating francophones from anglophones.

Like another Quebec term “pure laine” (pure wool), the definition references those who share unblemished French roots.

Former CBC journalist Normand Lester, who was fired from Radio Canada for publishing a three volume “Black Book on English Canada,” presents a frightening perspective of old-stock thinking in his tomes.

According to Lester, “Since the Conquest, English Canada has been guilty of crimes, of violations of human rights, of exclusionary behaviour toward all those who did not have the happiness to be white, protestant Anglo-Saxons. This overview of the history of Canada reveals injustices, discriminatory practices, racist and hateful utterances, encouragement to commit violence and claims by political men, journalists, and Anglo-Canadian intellectuals against French-Canadians.”

In Lester’s words, I was one of the main perpetrators of lies because as minister of Canadian Heritage, I funded projects that promoted an understanding of our shared history.

Lester had no idea that my own mother’s French roots are traced to the fifty founding Acadian families that settled in Nova Scotia four centuries ago, and fought against the English in the battle of Grand-Pre.

Our prime minister is also the product of a so-called mixed-marriage, as his grandfather was French-Canadian and his grandmother was Scottish. His mother is also an anglophone. The Elliott in his father’s middle name is an homage to that side of the family.

Add race to the mix and you have potential for a real political explosion.

Politics is about identifying and rallying like-minded people and convincing them to support your position, and your party. Increasingly, in the Canadian context, individuals have multiple identifiers.

In the last century, many political battles were based on religion. Catholics fought Protestants, everyone else fought the Jews. But as religions became less dominant in Canadian life, their political importance diminished. Unlike the United States, where churches still play a huge role in politics, the dominance of Canadian secularism supersedes that influence.

Provinces like Quebec and Newfoundland have largely rejected former political fiats from the Catholic Church in their national affairs. In Ontario, the Orange Order can no longer use their clout to ensure the election of Protestants to public office. Those powers have been diluted by religious intermarriage and the convergence of many cultures.

Bernier may decry the notion of “extreme multiculturalism” but he is marching against time. So are those Canadians, mostly Tories, who support him.

So-called visible minorities are actually the majority in Toronto, and identity markers are multiplying at a phenomenal rate.
My own daughter has ancestors from Europe, Latin America and Asia. She is hardly going to respond to an old stock call for support. And neither will most of her generation.

Bernier is playing with fire. That does not matter to a man on his own leadership mission. Burning down the Tory house suits this twisted narrative. Bernier may torch his former rival in the process.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.