A terrorist attack in Canada and the politicians who primed it

On Sunday, Islamophobic violence surfaced once again in Canada. It was former PM Stephen Harper who stoked it.

People are seen at a makeshift memorial at the scene where a man driving a pick-up truck jumped the curb and ran over a Muslim family in what police say was a deliberately targeted Islamophobic hate crime, in London, Ontario, Canada June 8, 2021 [Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

Not surprisingly, it took him a while.

Almost two days after a family on an evening walk in London, Ontario was mowed down like a set of bowling pins while waiting at an intersection by a terrorist driving a pick-up truck intent on killing Muslims, Canada’s former prime minister, Stephen Harper, briefly emerged from his agreeable life running a lucrative consultancy business to say something about the “tragedy”.

I suspect Harper’s tardiness in penning his obligatory tweet condemning “cruel acts of racial and faith based hatred” was likely the product, in part, of his vulgar record while prime minister as the accelerant-in-chief of fomenting suspicion and animus towards Muslims he was duty-bound to have, instead, welcomed and celebrated as loyal, devoted Canadians.

Once a rank politician, always a rank politician.

Given his documented history of stoking Islamophobia – with the enthusiastic approval of his many confederates within Canada’s sprawling right-wing-media-industrial complex – Harper likely paused to ponder the public relations risks or rewards of denouncing this nation’s latest heinous act of Islamophobia.

So, true to his calculating nature, Harper waited before sharing his typically soulless, exculpatory tweet with his equally ardent and unrepentant followers.

Indeed, Harper refused to even acknowledge that the massacred four and the critically injured boy were Muslims who followed the teachings of Islam – the premeditated victims of a young, white, assassin who, somewhere, at some time, was radicalised by someone or something.

Harper ended his perfunctory, unconvincing expression of sympathy for the grieving families with the suggestion that the murders were unfathomable.

Clearly, Harper has not only forgotten his noxious past but has been so busy making lots of money crisscrossing the globe leveraging the rarified contacts he made while prime minister to have noticed the epidemic of enmity directed at Canadian Muslims. He also, incredibly, neglected to recall the mass murder of six worshippers during evening prayers at a Quebec City mosque in January 2017 by another young, white, radicalised assassin.

Since Harper has apparently buried his history of pitting “old-stock” Christian-Canadians against Muslim-Canadians and his steadfast admirers in the fourth estate will, no doubt, deem it unbecoming at this “difficult time” to remind audiences of their man’s contemptible, divisive modus operandi, I am going to because decency and the jarring moment demand it.

I will begin with Harper’s studied use of the combustible phrase “old-stock Canadians” at a leaders’ debate during the 2015 election campaign.

Harper, a bureaucrat as spontaneous as Rip Van Winkle, invoked the term allegedly to defend his petty government’s callous decision to deny health care to unsuccessful refugee claimants, insisting the move was supported by new immigrants and “old-stock Canadians” alike.

Despite subsequently denying that the phrase was malicious or insulting, Harper’s cynical, parochial intentions were plain: appeal to his largely white, Christian base while feeding a stubborn, malevolent undercurrent that only “old-stock Canadians” were bonafide Canadians.

Not done stoking ethnic discord, Harper later dispensed with the calibrated code and vowed to ban public servants from wearing hijabs and set up a tip line so presumably “old-stock Canadians” could snitch to the federal police on “new” but not true Canadians for their “barbaric cultural practices,” including, but not limited to, arranged marriages.

The obsequious cabinet ministers tasked by Harper with realising the sinister, blatantly intolerant edicts explained that the proposed hijab ban and Stasi-like snitch line were intended to “protect Canadian values.”

Sure they were.

That a prime minister would sully the office he held and shame the country he led by relying on and exploiting the sectarian tactics and rhetoric usually associated with segregationists in America’s Deep South in a futile bid to keep his job is the foul measure of the man who some Conservatives reportedly want to lead the faltering party again.

But Harper’s profane antipathy towards Canadian Muslims was evident to the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and anyone else even remotely paying attention in 2014.

At the time, the leading non-profit group which has, for decades, advocated on behalf of Canadian Muslims wrote to Harper to chastise him for inviting on an official delegation travelling to Israel a rabbi who had “introduced, defended and praised… two of the most recognised and vitriolic anti-Muslim activists of our time”, Pam Geller and Robert Spencer, at an event in Toronto in late 2013.

Harper’s response was swift and incendiary. The prime minister’s then director of communications called the NCCM, in effect, a hive of Hamas-supporting terrorists.

“We will not take seriously criticism from an organisation with documented ties to a terrorist organisation such as Hamas,” Jason MacDonald said on the now-defunct Conservative Party propaganda network, Sun TV.

After Harper and MacDonald refused to apologise for or retract their calumny, the NCCM sued both for defamation.

In 2017, the NCCM prevailed, winning a resounding and historic legal victory that required the prime minister’s former chief spokesperson to disavow publicly his defamatory remarks against the council and, by extension, all of its patriotic staff and members.

Still, Harper’s de rigueur admonition on Tuesday that “Canada is a place of tolerance and pluralism” must be considered in the indelible context of his government’s ugly, venomous attack on the loyalty of Canadian Muslims and the raw, devastating residue of a family’s destruction possibly by an “old-stock” Canadian who had hatred ingrained in his hollow soul.

In any event, in his waning days as prime minister, Harper appears to have exacted his cheap revenge on the NCCM for their brave decision to confront two powerful bullies in court.

At the eleventh hour, citing its imaginary “adversarial tone,” the Royal Canadian Mounted Police pulled its support for a booklet produced by the NCCM and another Canadian Muslim association aimed at preventing the radicalisation of teenagers into Kalashnikov-wielding or pick-up-truck-driving terrorists.

Well, so much for shielding Canadians from adolescent predators who maim and kill innocents for perverse political or religious motivations.

Harper’s departure from politics in 2015 did not prompt his elected successor as Conservative Party leader, Andrew Scheer, to change toxic course.

Rather, Scheer embraced Harper’s appalling factional instincts and openly solicited the support of avowed bigots and xenophobes who prefer a Canada stocked with “old-stock” Christian Canadians as an intolerant path back to the prime minister’s office.

Perhaps the nadir of Scheer’s Harper-like appeal to and appeasement of the Tory party’s insular, retrograde supporters was leading his diminished caucus in brazenly opposing a non-binding, symbolic motion introduced by a Liberal Member of Parliament in early 2017 to condemn Islamophobia and all religious discrimination in the aftermath of the slaughter of Muslims in Quebec.

Scheer announced in a Facebook post that he would vote against the motion on the grounds that it would stifle “free speech and legitimate criticism” and that “it singles out just one faith”.

It was, of course, a sorry, disingenuous burlesque meant to disguise an embedded strain of Islamophobia that has, for a long time, been tolerated and promoted within the Conservative Party and that represents a growing, not-so-fringe opinion in Canada.

On cue, the right-wing party’s current leader, Erin O’Toole, quickly channelled his predecessors’ penchant for peddling fear, distrust and resentment when he released a video last June asking viewers to “join the fight to take back Canada”.

O’Toole failed to identify the nebulous, nefarious forces he plans to “take back Canada” from, but his loaded language was reminiscent not only of Harper’s “old-stock Canadians” line but Donald Trump’s incoherent-with-rage rants that America had to be rescued from Mexican rapists and immigrants from “shit-hole” countries.

O’Toole, I am sure, would reject the comparison, but truth is in the experienced eye and ear of the beholder. And O’Toole, Scheer and Harper have, by their pernicious words and deeds, helped fuel the Islamophobia they claim to abhor.

The inevitable consequences of such reckless, inflammatory conduct have, once again, been visited on Canadian Muslims by another coward in another Canadian city for an all-too-familiar reason.

It must stop. Now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.