Is it racist to be critical of a liberalized immigration and refugee policy?
No, it’s not. People of good faith can disapprove of policies which are aimed at boosting the numbers of immigrants and refugees.
In fact, it’s well known among political veterans that one of the demographics often most hostile to increased numbers of immigrants is immigrants themselves.
As one seasoned campaign pro — a Liberal — once said to me: “Lots of immigrants get here, and then they want to slam the door behind them on other immigrants. Bit of a surprise, isn’t it?”
I’m not so surprised anymore to see desperate campaigns reaching for anti-foreigner wedges. In the U.S., it happens with increasing frequency. In the now-concluded Ontario election campaign, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak surprised many — including his immediate predecessor, John Tory — with a campaign kick-off that included a barrage against so-called “foreign workers.” Hudak’s anger had been stirred, we were told, by a single sentence in the Ontario Liberal platform book. The Grits — of which I was one — had pledged a modest program to help foreign-trained professionals. It was aimed at helping certified accountants, lawyers and so on get the skills they needed to get certified in Canada. The idea would cost a pittance and would assist a few hundred newcomers every year.
Ironically enough, the program was partly modelled on one that Hudak had unveiled just a year before. (Hudak’s program was more generous than the Grit version, however, and was offered to non-citizens). Despite that, Hudak and his team spent the first week or so of the Ontario campaign pushing their slick, aggressive attack on Dalton McGuinty’s idea. Liberals took Hudak’s tactic very seriously. We knew that many voters can be drawn into anti-foreigner wedge campaigns. So we were careful to never call Hudak “racist” — and we devoted considerable effort to explaining a policy that few had expected to cause so much of a fuss.
Back in 1993, when a younger version of me was working on the federal Liberal campaign, we had a similar experience. Then, federal Tories launched attack ads which mocked Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis. Through polling, we Liberals knew that some Canadians harboured misgivings about Chretien because of that. So, when the “face ad” launched, we were careful not to lose our cool and call the Conservatives names. Instead, we sought to create circumstances so voters would decide on their own that the ad was offensive.
“Don’t tell them the ad is disgusting, even if it is,” the late Romeo LeBlanc said to us. “Make it easier for them to decide the ad is disgusting on their own.” So we did. And we went on to win a big majority — and the Tories were reduced to two seats. Likewise, then, Hudak’s wedge politics. We Ontario Liberals endeavoured to remind voters what we were confident they already knew — that an anti-foreigner ploy, in the way Hudak had formulated it, was un-Canadian.
It worked. Hudak’s PCs would go on to be shut out of urban centres where newcomers are mainly found.
The moral of the tale? It’s not racist to be critical of newcomer policies. But if you push the criticism too far — as Hudak did — you will reap what you sow. As Hudak did.