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Opinion Trudeau, Ford and the identity politics at work in Canada

Jamil Jivani is the author of Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity.

Some of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s international travels have attracted criticism, but a recent trip to New York deserves some praise. In his commencement speech to New York University’s Stern School of Business, Mr. Trudeau shared his views on leadership. He explained that tribalism is an easy way for leaders to galvanize people, but leaders should instead strive to unite. Importantly, Mr. Trudeau wisely pointed to identity politics as a problem leaders must confront.

Delivering these remarks in U.S. President Donald Trump’s hometown, Mr. Trudeau may have been speaking directly to Trump-style identity politics that is undeniably tribal in its anti-immigrant sentiments, rhetorical targeting of minority groups and defending of far-right extremists. But Mr. Trudeau’s comments also give Canadians a chance to think about what identity politics means to us right now, too.

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The term identity politics is used widely and in different ways. A helpful definition is offered by Harvard University’s Steven Pinker: “Identity politics is the syndrome in which people’s beliefs and interests are assumed to be determined by their membership in groups, particularly their sex, race, sexual orientation and disability status.”

In some cases, identity politics is rooted in a genuine fight against inequality. For instance, communities organizing around their identities to combat discrimination gave rise to important American civil-rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Anti-Defamation League. Mr. Trudeau has also embraced identity politics as Prime Minister with combating discrimination in mind. Creating a gender-balanced cabinet simply “because it’s [was] 2015” is an example of gender diversity being assumed to mean something for the beliefs and interests represented in government.

There is certainly a downside to identity politics, though. Author Michael Wear, in his discussion of Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal, explains that a fundamental flaw with identity politics is that it “empowers people to speak for others without their consent and therefore works against the basic underpinnings of representative government.” In speaking for others, practitioners of identity politics can easily promote false essentialism and homogeneity as if identity groups have one set of ideas and experiences. Moreover, as Columbia University’s Musa al-Gharbi has noted, for many people, religious or sociopolitical commitments matter more than race, gender or sexuality. In other words, two people who share the same identity can have radically different perspectives on morality and politics. Identity politics leaves little room for such significant differences.

Mr. Trudeau isn’t specific about where he sees identity politics as a problem in Canadian society, but the ongoing Ontario election provides some insights into how it is functioning within our own borders.

Earlier this year, the ousting of former Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leader Patrick Brown presented a moment when white-identity politics threatened to overtake a political party. After Mr. Brown’s team welcomed thousands of new party members from a diversity of backgrounds, speculation began that prejudiced elements in the Conservative movement were unhappy with these new faces. While Mr. Brown was forced to step down over allegations of sexual misconduct, Conservative member of Parliament Alex Nuttall attributed Mr. Brown’s departure to “elites” and suggested these elites also wanted to expel party members on the basis of race, faith, ancestry and ethnicity.

Doug Ford’s election to leader of the Ontario PCs disrupted emerging tribal influences in the party. As party leader since March, Mr. Ford has been propelled by support from diversity-rich parts of Ontario, such as the 905 suburbs of Toronto. Advocates for white-identity politics in Ontario’s Conservative movement were dealt a blow by conservatives committed to diversity, but Mr. Ford’s success additionally proved people who promote a homogeneous political agenda for immigrant and minority communities are equally out of touch. In 2014, when Mr. Ford was running for mayor of Toronto, polling data revealed his approval ratings varied noticeably within different immigrant and minority communities. Polling experts indicate similar dynamics exist in the ongoing provincial election.

People who look similarly to one another think differently about who should lead Ontario next, which counters some of the basic assumptions underlying identity politics. But Ontario hasn’t escaped the potential influence of tribalism entirely. Mr. Ford’s recent comments about immigration, for example, could reopen the door to Trump-style campaigning if he isn’t careful. When asked about bringing more immigrants to Northern Ontario, Mr. Ford remarked, “I’m taking care of our own first.” Whatever you make of Mr. Ford’s answer, it’s important to avoid turning immigration policy into a zero-sum game. Such a game brings out the worst in everyone.

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Mr. Trudeau’s comments warrant further reflection about what can be done to counter tribalism in our own country. Wherever we see identity politics emerge on the political spectrum, we need to call it out and ask if it’s positively facilitating – or tragically sabotaging – a more unified Canada.

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