Coalition of the Winning: Neoconservative Multiculturalism in Canada

CP Images

CP Images

By John Carlaw

After the 2011 federal election, former Conservative Party campaign organizer Tom Flanagan described immigrants and “ethnic” Canadians as a new “third pillar” of support. In this, he argued, they joined Western populists and traditional Tories from Central and Eastern Canada to permit the party to achieve a majority government. Consistent with this recognized increase in support, a Toronto Star headline in 2013 described former Immigration and continued Multiculturalism (and Defence) Minister Jason Kenney’s outreach efforts and his “Bieber-like following in ethnic communities.”

Since the late 1990s, neoconservatives politicking at the federal level have sought to appeal to new and “ethnic” Canadians. They scrubbed their platforms of their most controversial statements and policies, and proposed modest initiatives to appeal to immigrants.

The longest federal election campaign since early Confederation is entering its final weeks, and many urban and suburban ridings are being intensely contested. As many of these ridings feature a battle for the immigrant and “ethnic vote,” it is a good time to devote some attention to the Conservatives’ record in the fields of citizenship and immigration. Their approach is one of neoconservative multiculturalism. 

Photograph by Flickr/PMStephenHarper

Photograph by Flickr/PMStephenHarper

Like Justin Bieber, they provide popular and superficial messages that appeal to particular constituencies. Like Mr. Bieber, however, they also exhibit troubling behaviour, at times leading to legal problems. Unfortunately the consequences of their actions have had far more serious negative consequences, both on those already in Canada and those who do and would seek refuge here.

Fees to become a citizen

One of the Conservatives’ most high-profile promises in the 2006 election campaign was a substantial cut in the right of landing fee, commonly known as the permanent resident fee, and which some called a “modern head tax” when it was implemented in the 1990s. Stating that “immigrants and their families can better use this money to cover the costs of getting life started in Canada,” the Conservative platform promised a cut to the unpopular $975 fee, which had the benefit of highlighting a regressive Liberal policy. Today it stands at $490.

But overall, the Conservatives have significantly increased the barriers to citizenship and family sponsorship. Those who want to fully join Canada’s political community—and attain the right to vote and run for office—must pay significantly more to become a citizen. Fees for a grant of citizenship tripled from $100 to $300 in 2014, and in January 2015 these fees rose again, to $530. Successful applicants must also pay a $100 right of citizenship tax.

Time to become a citizen, inequality of citizenship and public discourse

It takes much longer to become a citizen than it used to. Under the 2014 Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act (apparently “strength” means reducing the ability of immigrants to obtain citizenship), the Conservatives increased how long one must be legally residing and physically present in Canada to qualify: it is now four of the previous six years, rather than three of the last four.

They also eliminated any credit for legal residency in Canada (such as time spent here studying or working) prior to being granted permanent resident status. Now, everyone aged 14 to 64 must be tested on knowledge of Canada and language skills, expanded from those aged 18 to 54.

The government has also rhetorically linked immigration and terrorism. It has implemented tiers of citizenship, by introducing the ability to strip citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorism, treason or espionage. This is a threat that Canadians with a single citizenship—primarily those born in Canada—do not face. It is primarily a tool of political rhetoric  to be used against their political opponents—at times in childish graphics—rather than a measure that would actually prevent incidents of terrorism. Having the first instances of citizenship stripped happen during the campaign has helped turn public debates towards one of the Conservative party's preferred topics, and away from their overall record in office. 

Family Sponsorship

Family sponsorship is also much more difficult. Income requirements have gone up by 30 per cent and the minimum sponsorship period of a family member has doubled from 10 to 20 years. Sponsors must demonstrate their income for three consecutive years rather than one, and only through tax returns. The definition of a family has also shrunk: the age limit for eligible children has been lowered to 18 from 22, and the exception for full-time students has been removed.

The Conservatives have also restricted access to parent and grandparent sponsorship. The government suspended new applications to this sponsorship program for two years in late 2012 while introducing an easier-to-obtain “super-visa” for parents and grandparents. This allows them to stay for up to two years at a time over a 10-year period. However, the visa requires families to purchase private-sector health insurance, putting the cost of family visits beyond the means of many without facilitating permanent sponsorship. Only 5,000 new applications for parents and grandparents were accepted in each of 2014 and 2015, for a total of 20,000 in each of those years (the other 15,000 per year come from a backlog of applications). This marks a large reduction from Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s estimates of 32,290 parents and grandparents admitted as permanent residents in 2013.

Coupled with a more difficult and conservative-leaning citizenship guide, expensive language testing and greater emphasis on militarism in citizenship and citizenship education, the process has become an ideological battleground and Canada a less welcoming place. Those whose membership in Canada’s political community will be delayed or denied are left unable to join any electoral coalition, as discussed below.

Attacks on Refugees, Dog-Whistle Politics and Ethnic Outreach

Tom Flanagan coined the term “minimum winning coalition” to describe the Conservative Party’s goals in achieving a majority government, which offers important insight into its courting racialized voters. While engaging in aggressive outreach the party has been satisfied with attracting just enough new support to achieve majority government, as too large a coalition would mean too much accommodation and compromise with less conservative segments of Canadian society. Within such a calculus conservative politics frequently demonstrate a remarkable and duplicitous degree of flexibility in choosing who is shown compassion or receives support in Canada and abroad.


One consistent negative target of the Conservatives has been refugee claimants. The number accepted each year has declined significantly, in part due to Conservative legislative and regulatory changes. While the Conservatives have reached out to those they deem “hard-working immigrants,” whom they have invited to imagine themselves as part of a Conservative family, they have frequently painted refugees as “bogus” and “queue jumpers” while enacting harsh measures. Government and MP messaging often intentionally mislead Canadians on refugee issues, including in divisive party newsletters and flyers.

This lack of generosity (despite government claims to the contrary) and a preference to double down on militarism in a region where “regime-change refugees” have been produced in large part by Western interventions has had tragic consequences. Many Canadians are just now awakening to this reality as the Syrian refugee crisis gains long overdue attention and the government’s callous response has become an election issue.

Many government changes to refugee policy have been vigorously opposed in civil society, particularly by the legal profession and doctors familiar with the effects of the Conservatives’ measures on their clients and patients. In 2012, the controversial Bill C-31 gave the Immigration Minister the power to label “designated countries of origin” as safe: refugee claimants from such countries were prevented from appealing negative decisions, faced accelerated hearings and other negative treatment. Aspects of the legislation were recently ruled unconstitutional. The courts have also found Conservative cuts to health care benefits for refugees from such countries to be “cruel and unusual,” risking “the very lives of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency.”

The Conservatives and Tamils

To return to the broader theme of ethnic outreach, one stark example of where the Conservatives’ policies meet its actual record can be seen by comparing its rhetoric around human rights in Sri Lanka with the government’s treatment of Tamil refugees.  

In recent years, with an eye on the growing Tamil population in Canada, the Conservatives have vocally criticized the Sri Lankan government for its rights violations, and even boycotted the 2013 Commonwealth Summit.

Yet when hundreds of Tamils made their ways to the shores of British Columbia in 2009 and 2010 aboard the Ocean Lady and Sun Sea vessels looking to claim refugee status they were reflexively greeted by a government-led discourse invoking terrorist threats. Next came ministerial opposition to their claims at refugee hearings, extended periods of detention and intense interrogation, followed by draconian legislation. The risk that many of the ships’ passengers faced has been borne out; since landing, nearly two-thirds of those who applied have been recognized as refugees in need of protection.

All Canadians, including new and “ethnic” Canadians, should be attentive to how the vulnerable are treated when they arrive or attempt to come here, and to the consistency of the government’s treatment of particular communities. When certain ideological or political lines are crossed, or the vulnerable need help, the Conservatives’ instincts are not those of inclusion.

Muslim Canadians

Large segments of Canada’s Muslim population have been considered “unaccessible” to the Conservatives due to “foreign policy issues.” Their domestic treatment would seem to confirm such calculations. The dog-whistle politics of coded language (and occasionally more vocal prejudice) appealing to the worst instincts of Canadians are clear.

Take, for example, the treatment of Zunera Ishaq, a Muslim permanent resident who invoked the principle of religious freedom to wear a niqab while taking the citizenship oath. The Mississauga woman directly challenged government regulations declared by Kenney banning face coverings in ceremonies during his time as Immigration Minister. Ishaq agreed to show her face privately to an immigration official to confirm her identity, but objected to removing her niqab at the public swearing-in. Denied her citizenship by the government, she legally asserted her right to do so in court, and won. Yet the Conservatives continue to wedge the niqab issue into every crack they can. 

Twice this year the courts have ruled against Kenney’s regulations as being against Canada’s citizenship law, which directs those overseeing oaths to allow for the greatest amount of religious freedom possible. The second time, the court made a rare ruling from the bench. It stated there was no need to reconsider the earlier ruling and that it was ruling from the bench so that Ishaq would be able to become a citizen in time to vote in the October 19th election.  However the government is seeking a stay of the decision, pending yet another appeal. Thus the Conservatives’ political strategies on this issue are at the direct expense of Ishaq and other women’s right to vote and participate in Canada’s political system.

In these defeats the Conservatives have seen opportunities to score political points among their core constituency and play to the prejudices of others. Often their rhetoric has been misleading about the facts of the case. They have built a website entitled “Not the way we do things here,” echoing the words of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Parliament. 

In the aftermath of Ishaq’s first successful court case one Conservative MP announced that Muslim women who wish to wear a niqab should “stay the hell where you came from.” Such outbursts are far rarer under Harper’s centralized message control than under their Reform predecessors, but are perhaps emblematic of the attitudes of many in the party’s base and backbenches given their messaging on the issue. Despite the second emphatic court defeat the government has continued to promise new legislation banishing any face covering and employed it as a wedge issue against the NDP and the Liberals.

At times, the Conservatives have apologized to some groups for past injustices in politically and ideologically pragmatic and strategic ways. But rather than advancing inclusive policies and facilitating citizenship, they have supported divisive projects in seeking to construct a more a neoconservative imaginary of Canada. These include a high-profile and controversially placed monument to the “victims of communism,” funding cuts to organizations supporting Arab and Palestinian rights, the invocation of “barbaric cultural practices” in Canada’s citizenship guide, and significant underspending on projects to combat racism in the multiculturalism portfolio.

Overall, the Conservatives engage in a project of neoconservative multiculturalism, a creative ideological project enforcing and advancing a highly regressive form of politics and public policy. Conceding to public opinion in favour of multiculturalism and Canada’s demographics, it includes pragmatic nods to diversity, like greetings in multiple languages and the wearing of diverse clothing, but demands adherence to a disturbing form of nationalism and patriotism that polices and weakens public debate. Substantively, its associated policies have made life more difficult for many immigrants while further closing Canada’s doors to refugees.