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As Canada’s federal election fades from the headlines, temperatures drop, and the hockey season shifts into full swing, Maxime Bernier’s first campaign as head of the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) might begin to fade from memory. After all, the PPC’s results were forgettable. Bernier lost in his own riding, and PPC candidates tallied only 1.6 per cent of the national vote.

Yet progressive Canadians dismiss the PPC at our peril.

In the party’s first campaign, Bernier managed to find candidates for 94 per cent of Canada’s federal ridings.

These candidates delivered the PPC message at doorsteps, schools, and town halls from coast to coast.

The party received almost 300,000 votes in its inaugural run, a foundation on which it might well build.

Its ideology of exclusionary, anti-immigrant nationalism is eerily similar to political movements across Europe. The PPC derides the United Nations as “ridiculous” and “dysfunctional,” worrying that participation may “dilute” our “national sovereignty.”

It sees no moral justification for international aid.

It contends that immigrants threaten “to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of our country” and that we should build physical barriers to stop refugees.

Bernier urges that the Multiculturalism Act be repealed to “ensure social cohesion.”

This mashup of anti-globalism, hostility to immigrants, and cultural nationalism draws from an international populist right that, in most cases, was not taken seriously at first.

Not long ago, in countries such as Hungary and Poland, anti-immigrant nationalist parties were considered alien to a liberal, post-Communist political culture. Now they have swept to power.

The Lega in Italy was once frowned upon as a fringe regionalist party. It recently morphed into a nationalist-populist voice that, according to current polls, would win a plurality of seats if Italians voted today.

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Italian senator and former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini attends an election campaign rally for the Lega candidate in Castelfranco Emilia, Italy, in June. (Elisabetta Baracchi/ANSA via AP)

These movements distort national histories to buttress their exclusive visions of national community.

In Europe, right-wing nationalists replace the painful lessons of the 20th century with glorified national histories, and assert the cultural superiority of their own national community. According to the Alternative for Germany Party, Hitler and the Nazi regime were just a “petty mistake.” In Poland, the governing Law and Justice Party has introduced a law banning anyone from blaming Poland for crimes committed during the Holocaust.

The PPC likewise hearkens to an imagined past in decrying the supposed decay of the present.

In a speech at a July rally in Mississauga, Bernier claimed that immigration to Canada was once uncontroversial: “immigrants who came to Canada gradually integrated into our society . . . They became Canadian, but with a distinct flavour.”

It is only over the “past decades,” the Party’s platform explains, that immigration has become problematic — a period in which, not coincidentally, immigrants have been more globally diverse than ever before.

In reality, Canada has a difficult history of xenophobia.

In the early 1900s, when the government recruited southern and eastern Europeans to farm the prairies, alarmists decried diversity. “Assimilation,” ranted one leading parliamentarian, “means the intermarriage of your sons or daughters with those who are of an alien race.” His prejudice was written into an exclusionary new immigration law in 1910.

In the 1920s, Canada changed immigration policy to virtually ban arrivals from China.

In the 1930s, Canadians prevented the arrival of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, and in the following decade officials interned 22,000 innocent Japanese Canadians.

After the Second World War, Canadians fretted over the suitability of newcomers from Communist countries and delayed signing the United Nations convention on refugees.

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A billboard featuring the portrait of People’s Party of Canada (PPC) leader Maxime Bernier and its message ‘Say NO to Mass Immigration’ is seen in Toronto on Aug. 26 in the run-up to the October election. (Moe Doiron/Reuters)

It is also worth remembering that Canadian history has seen cross-burning, segregated neighbourhoods, race riots, and looting. Our recent turn away from race as the basis of national identity and immigrant recruitment has been a step toward social cohesion and justice, not the opposite.

Canada has struggled to become a more just, inclusive nation. What progress has been made on that front is by no means set in stone.

Government action is warranted to address the unease exploited by populism. Canada needs to bring its immigration and multicultural policies into the 21st Century:

  • In the economic hubs where we need immigrants, we have allowed housing to become unaffordable.
  • Annually, we accept thousands of workers on pathways to citizenship, but our laws prevent their families from joining them.
  • Accessing the labour market is a major challenge for many newcomers.
  • Our education and health systems need help to support the social, linguistic, and cultural needs of global migrants.

The list could easily be continued.

The European liberal political mainstream, like that in the United States, laughed at right-wing populism before awaking to falsified histories and an unrecognizable political landscape. Canadians should not make the same mistake.

The ideology of the PPC, and not recent immigration, constitutes a threat to the social cohesion and unity of Canada. Who we think we have been in the past will shape our answers to these challenges.

Canada has always struggled to integrate immigrants with decency, pragmatism, and justice. To achieve a more just Canada and safeguard against the politics of hate, we must preserve an authentic and critical memory of our past and build boldly for our future.


  • This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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