‘Old stock Canadian’ defends against coded racism

A response to Harper’s pledge to cut health care for refugees

Graphic by Justin Ladia

There is nothing inherently wrong with the phrase “old stock Canadian” used by federal Conservative leader Stephen Harper in the recent leaders’ debate to defend cuts to health care for refugees.

The families of some people have been in this country longer than the families of others; that’s a fact. If the phrase had been used by anyone other than Harper, I would have assumed they were using it to describe either the First Nations or the Québécois, descendants of the first settlers of New France.

Apparently not.

Quick to distance himself from the potentially racist implications of such a phrase, Harper later said that by “old stock Canadians” he meant: “Canadians who have been the descendants of immigrants for one or more generations.”

Although this might fly for a general dinner table discussion, such a broad definition of “old stock Canadians” cannot be reconciled with Harper’s pointed use of the term. He was ascribing a very specific attitude to his reference of “old stock Canadians” – a kind of rabid distrust of refugees’ motives that apparently exists among his Conservative base, but not, in my experience, with most Canadians.

This is a recurring theme in Harper’s narrative of Canada: one of us versus them, in which the definition of “them” may shift to suit his needs at any given time.

Harper is notably lacking in that most typically Canadian of traits, quiet understatement. He sees enemies at the gates where Canadians are used to seeing people with different viewpoints.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau hit the nail on the head when he said, “Mr. Harper is yet again highlighting that he doesn’t believe that a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, and that there are different categories of Canadian.”

Canada is a diverse place, filled with diverse people. This is our strength and pride. Our provinces are the size of nations and our borders extend “a mari usque ad mare.”

There is plenty of room in Canada for a variety of viewpoints and lifestyles – it would be strange indeed if a country so vast were as uniform in outlook as Harper seems to think it is.

My family was amongst those named Canadiens long before the Dominion of Canada was founded. Every time that Harper invokes “Canadians” (old or new) and “Canadian values,” he is using the primary name by which my family has identified itself for over 400 years. I am frequently brought to the edge of tears, seeing him use this name to justify government oppression, stigmatization of minorities, environmental degradation, and naked mean-spiritedness.

I think that Harper is a racist based on his well-known and documented comments about mosques, head scarves, and refugees, coupled with his lack of willingness to work with First Nations communities as equals.

If racist is too strong a word, xenophobe is not.

I think that Harper is a fear-monger, conjuring up exaggerated threats of terrorism to rule through fear. I also think that Harper is in the pocket of the petroleum industry, as he muzzles environmental scientists and fails to enact national policies that have any real chance of stopping climate change.

Harper’s policies on the environment, the economy, and foreign relations are the absolute antithesis of everything that I, as an “old stock Canadian,” value and hold dear. He does not speak for me.

I am Canadian, and Harper is, too. We’re both entitled to hold and express our (wildly divergent) points of view, as are all Canadians – whether they’ve been here for millennia or a single day.

Harper needs to stop conflating his own views with the views of the Canadian majority. We’re all one big family in Canada, but Harper should wake up to the fact that if he chooses to speak in terms of division and xenophobia, then he’s the black sheep.