Using people as props

A rally was recently organized in Winnipeg in response to the Conservatives’ open courtship of what is too comfortably known as the “ethnic vote.” This strategy involves targeting voters in high-density ethnic communities that reside in specific ridings and is part of a Conservative media plan that was leaked in early March.

Josh Brandon, a resident in Winnipeg centre who is a long-time activist on issues of social justice and the environment, organized an all-ethnicity costume party and rally in reaction to the implicit racism in the Conservatives’ effort to capture the ‘ethnic vote.’ He explains that earlier this month, Conservatives sent out an e-mail to various cultural groups including the Canadian Arab Federation asking: “Do you have any cultural groups that would like to participate by having someone at the event in an ethnic costume?” They hoped to have people show up in what they called “national folklore costumes” for a photo-op with Stephen Harper.

Brandon finds this is offensive on several levels: “It treats immigrants and people of colour as props to be used in the election, when Harper’s Conservative government has been one of the most anti-immigrant governments this country has ever had. They cut programs for family reunification. They treat many Canadians as second class citizens undeserving of protection. Omar Khadr, a child soldier, continues to languish in Guantanamo and Canada was the only country in the world that did not seek to repatriate its citizens from that facility. Cuts to housing and settlement programs mean that the present generation of immigrants has a harder time finding its place in Canadian society than any previous one. That e-mail exemplifies the attitude of this government, that people of colour are just props.”

A similar response to the Conservative e-mail took place in Toronto where community organizations and anti-racist groups organized their own “ethnic costume counter-rally” outside of a Harper rally at a Toronto hotel. Participants dressed in “costumes” of all sorts with the message that people are not “props for photo-ops.” Explaining his initial impetus to organize the Winnipeg rally, Brandon wanted to make it clear that not everyone is apathetic towards politics. “More broadly, we hear a lot about how people are disengaged from politics and from this election. I wanted to show that people do care about the issues. Canadians do not want more meaningless photo-ops, they want their politicians to discuss policies.”

Close to a dozen people attended the Winnipeg rally outside of Conservative candidate Bev Pitura’s office, which was also meant to question what an ethnic costume really is. As can be seen from the photo from the rally, some people just wore their regular clothes and others wore costumes. Brandon reports that there was a lot of support from people driving by honking their horns.

“The local candidate, Bev Pitura, was surprised by our presence,” says Brandon. “To her credit, she came out and talked to us. She suggested that we meet Jason Kenney, the Conservative’s point person on immigrant communities. She was congenial and spoke with us for several minutes. However, the point is not whether Bev Pitura and Jason Kenny are nice people. The point is what their policies are and how they affect Canadians across the country. Those questions the Conservatives continue to dodge. Like a lot of Canadians, I am getting fed up of the Conservatives not showing up for debates.”

Brandon is not alone with these sentiments. A group of Canadian lawyers and legal academics have organized with a united anti-Conservative message for voters, especially new-comers to Canada. Citing the Harper government’s misleading statements that suggest that they are improving the immigration system, the 46 lawyers and academics who have endorsed the message are statistically proving that the Harper government has made the immigration system worse since their time in power.

In addition to immigration, Brandon sees other election issues that are not being adequately or accurately addressed. “Poverty is a big one. Over the last five years, the gap between rich and poor is growing. All the parties want to present themselves as supporting the middle class, but for people who are struggling, there is really not enough there. How we, as a society, deal with poverty tells a lot about who we are as a culture.”

The environment is also an election issue that Brandon wants to hear more discussion about. “If we do not deal with issues like global warming, food security and loss of biodiversity today, the world will be a much poorer place 25 or 50 years from now. We could be facing a billion environmental refugees later in this century. We need to start addressing those problems now.”

With the organization of the all-ethnicity costume party and rally as well as the upcoming vote mob that is taking place in Winnipeg, it is clear that accountability from Canada’s leaders is a huge priority.