It was all decorum and politeness at an election forum Sunday sponsored by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and SUCCESS, the United Chinese Community Enrichment Services Society.
The comparative decorousness of the event – although interrupted at one point by an impassioned outburst related to the mistreatment of indigenous peoples – will likely be an anomaly as the neck-and-neck campaign proceeds. Desperate measures will likely be employed as Liberals and Conservatives battle for a majority – and as New Democrats and Greens spar in what seems destined to be a down-ticket race of its own.
And all of this is playing out against the potentially upending news that the People’s Party of Canada’s Maxime Bernier has been admitted to the national debates on Oct. 7 and 10 organized by the official Leaders’ Debate Commission.
The new party – started by the breakaway former Conservative from Quebec – has attracted a range of malcontents, including extremists of various sorts being involved in or peripheral to his party. While the four “mainstream” parties have all tread relatively lightly around super-charged racial issues, Bernier – and perhaps less predictably, his fellow 337 candidates across the country – seems prone to exploit and exacerbate racial divisions.
On this and many other issues that will form the meat and potatoes of the rest of the campaign, Canadians will now hear the perspective of Canada’s answer to the populism that has taken root in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. The degree to which these ideas and Bernier’s rhetoric catches on will tell us much about our country and ourselves. Canadians have liked to imagine that we are immune to the phenomenon of xenophobia that seems to be gaining ground globally. But, then, we haven’t had, in recent history, a chance to vote for a party that represents such ideas.
One of the things that has been notable during the aftermath of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recently revealed repeated donning of deeply problematic costumes, including blackface/brownface, is what seems like a divergence between the official voices and the unofficial voices.
Elected officials utter pieties about respect for diversity. Representatives of multicultural and anti-racism organizations speak of challenges and opportunities. Yet, in radio call-in programs and online comments – those voices of “ordinary” people – the responses seem quite different. Many complain that the blackface controversy is all a sideshow that diminishes focus on issues like the economy and the environment. Others suggest a tempest in a teapot or political correctness run amok.
In a few days, Canadians will get our first look at all the party leaders side by side, including Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh, who remain somewhat unknown quantities, and Bernier, who will bring some genuinely outside-the-establishment perspectives to the debate. How far Bernier pushes the envelope – and how Canadians respond to his ideas – will tell us just how accurate our self-perception as an open, tolerant society really is.