Elections and Canadian values

Reasserting guiding principles in the wake of Conservative defeat

Graphic by Kelly Campbell

Stephen Harper is no longer the driving force of Canadian politics. Though I’m less than happy with the results of the federal election, it is a relief to be able to say that.

While most Canadians seem glad to see the back of him, the usual gadflies have predictably emerged to salvage what they can of Harper’s reputation in an effort to construe him as some kind of noble, tragic hero. This simply cannot be allowed.


Electoral moneyball

Under Harper, the Conservative Party of Canada developed a relentless election-winning machine. I would liken the Conservative strategy to the concept of “moneyball,” well-known from the book and Oscar-nominated movie of the same title.

The moneyball strategy is to find underappreciated player statistics that are good proxies for games won, and throw as much money at purchasing players with these statistics as possible. In this way, you can build a game-winning machine out of seemingly uninspiring players who were overlooked by other teams.

The Conservative strategy is to target their base and hit it hard, and to effectively ignore anyone else. They seem uniquely uninterested in changing the minds of people who disagree with them or in bridging ideological gaps (the Liberals, on the other hand, were largely voted in by people who disagree with them). Hence the dodging of debates, the failure to respond to the media, and the dubious electability of many of their candidates in the last election.

The reductio ad absurdum of moneyball is that if you do it too well, you break the game. If you can trade on the athletic stock market with enough efficiency, then actually playing baseball becomes somewhat redundant. The outdoor theatre in which spectacles of success, failure, grace, and meanness play out for the public becomes a kind of ridiculous and antiquated ritual.

Likewise, moneyball in politics diminishes the extent to which the electorate is treated as intelligent human beings rather than objects that tend to behave in a certain way. It emphasizes the voices of the least excellent people in our country – whose votes are as good as anyone else’s – and speaks to the least excellent impulses of the human soul. It leads to treating almost anything that works as a valid electoral tactic.

This last is where I must draw the line. Harper’s defenders like to suggest that people object more to the way he did things than the things he did. Putting aside the issue of whether or not that’s true, it’s important to remember that methods matter.

Some methods run afoul of Canadian values. Some methods are simply out of court for anyone who wishes to be considered a serious person.

To take one example, let’s look at the absurd non-issue cum electoral wedge that was the debate over whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear the niqab, a traditional face-covering veil, during citizenship ceremonies.

When it became clear that their hard-line stance against the niqab was causing them do well in the polls, the Conservatives doubled down. They announced a potential ban on the niqab for anyone providing or receiving public services from the federal government.

They announced a plan for an RCMP tip line to report “barbaric cultural practices,” a term that comes from a bizarre and pandering piece of legislation passed earlier this year concerning honour killings, forced marriages, and polygamy.

Essentially, this was a matter of stoking the base’s enthusiasm by making promises that appeal to the dangerous, xenophobic elements of Canada. The issues per se are unimportant matters of principle involving a small number of people, but they represent something much larger: a flagrant defiance of Canadian values, and an appeal to backwards people and base impulses.


On Canadian values

According to polls, a great many Canadians actually supported Harper’s stances on these issues, especially the niqab. The polls can say what they will; notwithstanding their dubious accuracy, it means nothing. Our politics may be democratic, but culture is not, and values cannot be decided by popular vote.

Canadian values are the assumptions which underpin the life and work of the most excellent Canadians. They are the standards by which we judge ourselves. If many Canadians hold an opinion that is vicious and uncharitable, all this means is that many Canadians are – by our own shared cultural standards – rather poor Canadians.

If I were to define Canadian values, I would locate them in institutions like the open-minded, humble, and welcoming United Church of Canada.

I would point to scholars like Marshall McLuhan, the obscure Catholic mystic who was deeply suspicious of industry and branding and could rarely bring himself to make straightforward arguments; Northrop Frye, who turned literary criticism on its head in a quixotic attempt to recapture an epiphanic vision he had in his school days; and Erving Goffman, the sociologist who envisioned that “it is possible for all of us to become fleetingly for ourselves the worst person we can imagine that others might imagine us to be.”

I would point to musicians like R. Murray Schafer, whose soundscape compositions show an awareness of a majestic natural environment in which we are only temporary visitors. Or perhaps Malcolm Forsyth, who blended eastern Anglo-Canadian culture with the rich indigenous culture of the Prairies and his own South African heritage, and Colin McPhee, who turned composers’ fascination with the Balinese gamelan into something more than vulgar Orientalism.

I would point to writers like Robertson Davies, whose Dunstan Ramsay recounts his transformative life journey at its end, uncertain of many things, making judgments that can never be more than tentative and contingent.

In a country that is arguably founded on the original sin of invasion and genocide, we should never be so certain of ourselves – and our place here – so as to permit the embrace of bluntly moralistic terms like “barbaric.” We do what we can to stop the things we judge to be wrong, but we don’t get up our asses about it – because after all, who the hell are we?

We certainly do not stir up xenophobic rage at an entire vaguely defined ethnic group, whether out of tactics or sheer bile. We certainly do not tell people what they can and can’t wear at citizenship ceremonies or while working for the government – the Canadian thing is to be vaguely uncomfortable telling people to do anything at all.

I was taught as a child that Canadians do not start fights – we end them. I was taught to respect, welcome, and learn from people of other cultures. I was taught to protect nature, to be polite to others, to help the less fortunate, and to always seriously consider the possibility of my own wrongness.

These are Canadian values as I understand them. As far as I’m concerned, anything further is a barbarous innovation that has no place in the country that I love.