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Dozens of former politicians, academics, artists, religious leaders and human-rights advocates are calling on Canada’s political leaders to improve civility in public discourse and mend divisions that they say are undermining peace and security in this country.

They argue in an open letter published Tuesday that many Canadians are afraid because of their identities or beliefs, as public aggression and overt hatred have increased alongside geopolitical events, such as the Israel-Hamas war, and domestic issues that include the trucker convoy protests that erupted in response to pandemic-related health restrictions. The letter argues the phenomenon is part of a worrisome trend in which Canadians are “unwilling, unable or ill-equipped” to interact with people who have divergent views.

The letter has 51 signatories – a list that includes former Quebec premier Jean Charest, former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, film director Deepa Mehta, former federal finance minister Bill Morneau and screenwriter Karen Walton, as well as groups such as the Ghanaian Canadian Association of Ontario. The letter urges political leaders to put aside their differences to research the cause, scale and impact of various tensions across Canada and take action through law enforcement, education and personal accountability to foster a safer country.

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They propose a number of recommendations, from better enforcing existing laws around hate crimes to updating school curricula and postsecondary programs. They want more research into the root causes of such disunity. And they say politicians need to lead by example by changing their own behaviour.

“Perhaps a growing number of us no longer consider it part of a common Canadian value system to put aside our differences and work alongside those with whom we disagree in the broader interests of Canada. Or perhaps such negative tendencies were always present in Canada and it has taken the increasing ubiquity of social media to reveal them fully,” the letter reads.

“Whatever the reasons for the increasingly belligerent nature of many of the current interactions between Canadians with different perspectives on hostilities in the Middle East or other divisive issues, we believe that no Canadian should ever be fearful because of their identities or their beliefs.”

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Many Jewish and Muslim Canadians have expressed heightened fear since the Oct. 7 surprise attack by Hamas that left about 1,200 Israelis dead and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza that has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians. Police agencies in Canada have reported a steep increase in hate crimes, while the war and questions about how this country should respond have fuelled heated debates in Parliament and revealed divisions within political parties.

The letter also acknowledges divisions whose origins are rooted in Canada, such as the violent dispossession of Indigenous people or racism targeting Black communities.

Barry Campbell, a former Liberal MP, said he began brainstorming ideas for the letter last summer after violent clashes between Eritrean groups at community festivals and the killing of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia that heightened India-Canada tensions. He said the group is not suggesting that people can’t disagree vehemently but rather that citizens should be able to engage in complex and difficult conversations without intimidation, violence or expressions of hatred.

“I think political leaders have to take responsibility for where we find ourselves now as a nation and if, in that examination, they consider that they’ve contributed in some fashion, either knowingly or unknowingly, then it’s time to take stock,” he said.

The open letter makes eight recommendations, principal among them that politicians do everything they can to “address hate at its origins” and speak out about the “values that bind us together as a country.” It implores political leaders to partner with academic and civil society to research the root causes of issue-driven tensions and conflict in Canada, support national and local initiatives to confront hate, and strengthen awareness of what constitutes hate speech under the law.

The group also wants politicians to fund the development of curricula in primary, secondary and postsecondary institutions to “foster greater intercultural competency” and “increase community-level empathy.” They are urging politicians to review whether laws that penalize hate-motivated harassment, threats or intimidation are sufficient, while also ensuring that such laws are consistently enforced and do not obstruct the right to freedom of expression.

Lori Lukinuk, an expert in parliamentary procedure, said decorum in the House of Commons and provincial legislatures has been deteriorating for some time. Elected officials, she said, are more concerned with finger pointing across the aisle and reciting partisan speaking notes than engaging in healthy debates on issues affecting the citizenry.

While federal politicians are supposed to be setting an example, she said, their bad behaviour is filtering into other levels of government and society at large. Ms. Lukinuk said there appears to be an unwillingness, generally, for people to follow proper and respectful avenues to push for change. Instead, people are “yelling and screaming” and picking fights in person and online, even on issues as mundane as the weather.

“We’re always looking for the arguments that support the way we presently think. We’re not looking for those arguments that might be as strong or stronger that might persuade us otherwise,” she said. “That’s a cardinal rule, to have a willingness to be persuaded, and you don’t see that because in politics – those political realms – it’s often toe the party line.”

Art Eggleton, who previously served as a senator, federal cabinet minister and Toronto mayor and is a signatory of the open letter, said the anger, aggression and toxic politics currently on display in Canada are threatening democracy. He said American politics have played a role in Canada’s undoing and hatred is on display in the House of Commons.

“Throughout [my] lengthy career, I have taken considerable pride in Canada being a beacon of civility in the world – a place where people of different origins, faiths, beliefs could come together and live in peace and harmony. I see that as is being threatened,” he said. “We need a call to action.”

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