Kellie Leitch could usher in a Trump-esque political movement in Canada

Rhetoric behind anti-Canadian values and barbaric cultural practices is a threat to our politics

Graphic by Kelly Campbell.

Kellie Leitch is a name that seemed to be nowhere and then everywhere in Canadian politics all at once. Leitch, one of Canada’s current Conservative leadership candidates, has had a lot to say in the last month or so.

If you don’t know already, here are some basic facts about the woman in question.

Leitch declared her candidacy for the Conservative leadership in April of this year. She’s a pediatric surgeon who was born in Winnipeg. Leitch has called the late Margaret Thatcher a political role model. She’s also called Donald Trump’s presidential victory an “exciting message that needs to be delivered in Canada,” and based on her statements and political positioning, she plans to be the one to deliver it.

It’s easy to compare her recent prominence to Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. Both have done a lot of talking about how they represent the everyman and claim to have “called out” the wealthy elites. While Leitch praised Trump for “throwing out the elites,” just this past Monday, she hosted a $500-a-plate fundraiser in Toronto, organized by Stanley Hartt, who was once the chief of staff to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

What would Leitch consider to be an elite, if not Hartt? Who are the elites, if they are not people paying $500 for a seat at Leitch’s table?

Also, for the record, Trump’s anti-elite persona is (at least) equally exaggerated. Political allies have confirmed that the silver spoon inheriting, billionaire real estate developer is considering former Goldman Sachs partner Steven Mnuchin for treasury secretary.

Even with her faux anti-elitism considered, Leitch’s most controversial statements have centered around immigration. In an email survey sent out to her supporters, her team asked recipients if they would support additional screening of potential immigrants and refugees that would seek out “anti-Canadian” values. Even among prominent Conservatives, the move has been referred to as dog-whistle politics. Beyond the obvious Trump comparison, Leitch’s campaign’s anti-Canadian question also speak to her desperate need for attention.

In late 2015, Leitch championed the Conservative’s election campaign promise around what was called a “barbaric cultural practices” tip line. Leitch, through the Harper government, was promoting unease and flat-out Islamophobia.

That rhetoric has real-world consequences. We need only look to the United States or Britain where following the success of two political campaigns fueled by xenophobia (Donad Trump’s presidential bid and Brexit) reported incidents of hate crimes rose dramatically. Earlier this year, and right after announcing her bid for the Tory leadership, Leitch was on TV adamantly expressing her regret over announcing the tip line. Her regret, however, means nothing; the damage has already been done.

Even after her much published show of regret, Leitch is still stoking anti-immigrant sentiments with her questions about anti-Canadian values. While what, exactly, Leitch and her team believe to constitute anti-Canadian values is still unclear, one has to wonder.

As the child of a Middle Eastern Muslim immigrant, I find myself wondering if my mother, with her thick accent and the fabric-coated Qur’an she keeps on her always, would pass Leitch’s test. Would my aunts? Would my elders? Would my friends? What is a Canadian value? Islamophobic hate crimes have doubled in Canada between 2012 and 2014. Does that not qualify as barbaric? While I would never use my family or my peers to define all Muslim immigrants – I’ll leave that kind of broad-brush painting to the people who tried to create an anonymous tip line for reporting on “barbaric cultural practices” – the fact that the definition of anti-Canadian values was not explained in the email suggests that it could essentially mean anything.

Leitch, in what I can only assume is a scramble for damage control, has been tweeting graphics claiming that positive values like equality are “Canadian values” and that intolerance is an “anti-Canadian value.” That’s all well and good, but Leitch’s actions don’t correspond with these claims. Her strongest campaign points – shaking up Canada’s elite, and altering our country’s approach to immigration – are based on headline-hunting half-truths. Is hypocrisy a Canadian value?

Leitch, despite claiming to not support Trump, has values in common with the American president-elect, and her staying power is Trumpian in method. Her modus operandi is what Trump’s was: seizing media attention by any means possible.

Perhaps in a more idyllic, alternate universe, presidential candidates would be cut from major news coverage and their shot at the presidency after facing rape allegations or, say, openly mocking a disabled reporter. However, the opposite happened. For nearly two years, Donald Trump was everywhere. News sources eagerly reported every one of his fumbles under the guise of journalistic integrity while the ratings (and ad revenues) rose, thus turning one of the most important campaigns in American history into a reality television format that Trump flourished under. While it wouldn’t be fair to place the blame for Trump’s newfound power entirely on the media, it was undeniably a factor.

What comes next for Leitch is as much up to us as it is up to her. There will always be fearful, paranoid, and flat-out racist Canadians for Leitch to feed phrases like “anti-Canadian” and “barbaric cultural practices” to. For every news story about Canadian citizens welcoming and supporting Syrian refugees, there is one where those same Syrian refugees are subject to threats and harassment by Canadian citizens.

If Leitch’s track record remains the same, one can only assume she will continue to spout overtly controversial statements, get the news machine rolling, and eventually slightly backtrack.

Even now, Leitch has gotten more media attention than the other Conservative candidates combined. When we give phrases like “barbaric cultural practices” the media’s attention, it insinuates regressive values and a certain culture are inherently entwined and makes nascent racism a valid stance for a politician to take. By giving attention to these fallacious claims, we give those statements power. We should learn from what just happened in the United States. For Canadians to shrug off her statements as just politics is foolish – it’s dangerous. To allow Canadian politics to devolve into the same reality-television dystopia that the United States’ election became would be the worst mistake we could make.

We can only wait and see what “anti-Canadian values” Kellie Leitch will condone next. If she continues to utilize the news media and creates the same divides Trump did, we could be looking at a frightening Conservative leadership come May 2017.