National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

Maxime Bernier has launched a race to the bottom on diversity that Conservatives likely can’t escape. Liberals should pause before celebrating. This could be a decisive step toward the Trumpification of Canadian politics, the outcome of which is anything but clear.

Bernier has a huge task ahead of him. Over the next 14 months, he must build a political organization from scratch and recruit a slate of, say, 100 candidates, or face an ignominious end to his political career.

He will need skilled people and lots of money, and for that he needs to demonstrate that he still matters to politics. Diversity is his best hope. It has a chance of getting serious traction quickly. Obviously, Bernier understands this, and he has already signaled his intention to make it a flagship issue.

While his views on diversity aren’t sophisticated or refined that is not a disadvantage. Bernier will be pitching to Canadians’ emotions, not their intellect and vagueness will serve him well. (More on this in a moment.)

So, what makes us think he might fare better on this than Kellie Leitch? In fact, the conditions are more promising this time around for two reasons: Trump and Trudeau.

Donald Trump has defined and legitimized the most belligerent political discourse on immigration in generations. The question now is how much of this, if any, will be attractive to Canadians, which brings us to Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau is not only a champion of diversity, but one that Conservatives love to hate. He provides them with a foil. And he now seems ready and willing to directly engage with those whose views he thinks are intolerant.

That’s an opportunity for Bernier. If he can attract enough attention and interest from Canadians by being provocative on the topic, Trudeau will likely have to take him on. And that’s a win for Bernier.

It’s also a problem for the Conservatives. Whatever traction Bernier gets on diversity will likely be coming from their base. As a result, Andrew Sheer can hardly side with Trudeau; that would leave Bernier’s hand free to pull interested Conservatives into his tent.

Sheer will have to do what he can to keep these people in the Conservative camp; and that will put pressure on him to match Bernier’s rhetoric. But let’s keep in mind, Bernier has nothing to lose by ratcheting it up as high as he can. Sheer, on the other hand, risks alienating more moderate Conservatives.

I don’t know how many Canadians will find Bernier’s views on diversity appealing or how far they’ll be willing to follow him, but I think he will give this a try. So, it’s worth adding a few thoughts on one thing all leaders should be doing to respond: Bernier’s view conflates two different kinds of diversity and disentangling them would weaken his overall pitch.

The courts have ruled that the Equality Rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protect people from discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Bernier often uses “identity politics” to refer to the various ethnic, religious, sexual and other minorities that are protected by the Charter. He even acknowledges that these groups have been “unjustly repressed in the past.” But he also thinks enough progress has been made on equality that governments can now ease off. (Same-sex marriage might be an example of this progress.)

Many conservatives take this even further. They believe our courts and governments have already gone too far in promoting equality and, in the process, have been fostering the growth of these “tribes” and of identity politics. And they want it to end.

Nevertheless, for the most part, opponents of identity politics do not feel threatened by the “tribes,” so much as resentful of their special legal status and the efforts governments make to placate them.

By contrast, when these same people hear about “illegal” immigrants (refugees) flooding into the country, their reaction is very different. They fear that their communities may be overrun, or that their safety, livelihood, and way of life may be at risk.

My point is that the issues around identity politics, on one hand, and refugees, on the other, are as different as apples and oranges, yet Bernier lumps them all together under “diversity.”

This is not just unhelpful, it is deeply confusing. Rather than encouraging people to reflect on how they feel or think about different diversity issues and to do some careful sorting, it blurs these differences and mixes up their emotions. It encourages them to think diversity is somehow one thing – and that can be dangerous.

If the rhetoric around diversity really escalates, these feelings of resentment and fear will be thrown into the same emotional tumbler, impacting and transforming one another as they get jostled about.

The likely result for many people is a visceral aversion to – even a hatred for – “diversity” that neither sees nor cares about the difference between, say, women in the market wearing veils and desperate people trying to get across the border in the middle of the night. All will appear as a danger and a threat.

Trump has shown how effective a leader can be in creating such a sense of crisis and fear. Muddying the waters around the different issues is a critical part of their MO.

By the same token, forcing Bernier to distinguish clearly between these different issues would help make the facts around them more meaningful to people and the demagoguery that much less effective.

Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement and Open Government. He is currently advising The Ottawa Hospital on an engagement plan to develop its new Civic Campus – a $2 billion, 10-year project. He also co-chairs the Open Government Partnership’s Practice Group on Open Dialogue and Deliberation. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@bell.net or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
Click here for more political news headlines