In the Sept. 17 Globe and Mail leaders’ debate, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made reference to “old-stock Canadians” in defending his government’s policy on health care for refugees and immigrants, saying it had only denied care to bogus claimants.
“We do not offer them a better health-care plan than the ordinary Canadian can receive,” Harper said. “I think that’s something that both new and existing and old-stock Canadians can agree with.”
Critics pounced, calling it either a lapse that showed Harper’s true racist colours or a deliberate, coded dog whistle to his intolerant party core.
But if you watched the debate, it was clear Harper was searching for a way to express how both new and old Canadians might agree with his policy. By the next day, he clarified that the phrase referred to “Canadians who have been the descendants of immigrants for one or more generations.”
Under that definition, with four European-born grandparents, I and many other Jews qualify. As such, Walrus editor Jonathan Kay was right to say the comment was no big deal.
“Yes, ‘old-stock’ is a fusty phrase, offensive to some. But it’s idiotic the way the media is acting like Harper used the n-word or something,” Kay tweeted Sept. 20. “In fact: is there an example of a right-wing [political] party, in any country, so decisively opening itself up to immigrant groups as Harper’s?”
At worst, the prime minister was guilty of using an inelegant expression that’s more prevalent in nationalist discourse – similar phrases are common in Quebec – than everyday political parlance.
Speaking of criticizing Harper, on Sept. 21, York Centre MP Mark Adler issued a statement decrying “anti-Semitic” graffiti spray-painted on a street in a Jewish area of his Toronto riding. They were: “Stop Harrper” (sic), “Death = Harper,” and an image of a swastika beside the words “= Harper.”
“I am deeply disturbed by the appalling anti-Semitic graffiti in the Bathurst Manor area, which trivializes the Holocaust, denigrates the memory of Holocaust victims, and is highly offensive to the ethnically and religiously diverse members of the Conservative party,” wrote Adler, who is, famously, the son of a Shoah survivor.
“Moreover, the timing of this odious graffiti is deplorable as Jews across Canada prepare for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and holiest day in the Jewish calendar.”
Anti-Semitic graffiti in a Jewish neighbourhood is indeed reprehensible, especially when it appears around an important Jewish holiday. The only problem is that the crude scrawlings were more anti-Harper than anti-Jewish.
Harper has been a vocal supporter of Israel and a friend to Jews for reasons that seem to transcend electoral considerations, but he’s not actually Jewish. So while using swastikas in political debate is rhetorically juvenile – unless you’re criticizing actual Nazis, and Harper isn’t one at all – it’s not anti-Semitic to make the comparison. It’s just dumb.
Finally, over Yom Kippur came news that Alex Johnstone, the NDP candidate in Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas – and, disturbingly, current vice-chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board – apologized for making a penis joke about Auschwitz on a friend’s Facebook page in 2008. She then admitted that up until the controversy erupted, she didn’t know what Auschwitz was.
“Ahhh, the infamous Pollish [sic], phallic, hydro posts… of course you took pictures of this! It expresses… how the curve is normal, natural and healthy right!” she wrote about a picture of curved electrified fence posts around the death camp in a comment unearthed by a satirical website.
Johnstone, who is in her early 30s, seemed sincere when she told the Hamilton Spectator there was “no malice intended” in the remark. The bigger issue, however, is that although she said she’d “heard about concentration camps,” it’s disconcerting that a school trustee who wants to be an MP was ignorant about the most notorious killing ground in human history.
In 2011, Johnstone tweeted that it was “great to hear” Peel students were learning about the Holocaust, and in 2013, she tweeted about a Hamilton teacher who won an award for Holocaust education.
Perhaps she should do more than just tweet about the Shoah.
This wRant was originally published as a Campaign Notebook column in the Oct. 1 edition of The Canadian Jewish News.