The noxious effects of identity politics have been on full display in Canada since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Jan. 26 nomination of Amira Elghawaby as his government’s Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia.
In Quebec, the reaction to Ms. Elghawaby’s appointment has gone far beyond the boilerplate outrage that usually awaits external critics of the province’s efforts to preserve its language, identity and values. This time, the indignation is real and proportional to the offence Mr. Trudeau committed in promoting someone who has perpetuated stereotypes about Quebeckers as hostile toward “others.”
At its core, the controversy over Ms. Elghawaby’s nomination represents a clash of two forms of identity politics practised in Canada that are equally corrosive. One seeks to validate claims of Canada as a country founded on oppression and racism, with both continuing to permeate our institutions and society to the point of inflicting relentless pain on Indigenous, racial, religious and sexual minorities. Practitioners of this kind of identity politics question whether Canada Day is even worthy of celebration, as Ms. Elghawaby herself has done.
Mr. Trudeau rarely misses an opportunity to give succour to those who hold such views. His very appointment of Ms. Elghawaby is an affirmation of this clenched-fist approach to fighting discrimination, which leaves little room for compromise or dialogue. It takes its cues from the radical American left that infiltrates university campuses and silences free speech. And it is embraced by progressive politicians to mobilize their bases.
Ms. Elghawaby’s brand of identity politics has now entered into direct collision with Quebec nationalism, arguably Canada’s oldest form of identity politics and one based on Quebeckers’ perception of themselves as an endangered (and historically oppressed) cultural minority in North America. They take offence, often far too easily, whenever their survivalist reflexes are criticized by others as inward-looking or worse.
It was this kind of identity politics we witnessed on Tuesday when the National Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution calling for the repeal of Ms. Elghawaby’s nomination. MNAs from the far-left Québec Solidaire, which practises American-style identity politics with a Québécois twist, abstained on the vote.
Exhibit A in the case against Ms. Elghawaby’s appointment is a 2019 Ottawa Citizen op-ed on Quebec’s religious symbols ban, co-authored with her Canadian Anti-Hate Network colleague Bernie Farber, in which the duo wrote: “Unfortunately, the majority of Quebeckers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment.” They went on to refer to a Leger Marketing poll that found that the vast majority of Quebeckers with negative views of Islam supported Bill 21, which prohibits public employees in a position of authority, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.
It is dangerous to rely on a single poll on a subject as emotionally charged and personal as religion to make a sweeping statement about the motivations of Quebeckers for supporting Bill 21. Besides, one can hold negative views of Islam without being anti-Muslim or Islamophobic. Just as one can criticize Papal doctrine on homosexuality, women and contraception without being anti-Catholic.
The op-ed in question was hardly an isolated incident. In her role as a contributing columnist for the Toronto Star and on social media, Ms. Elghawaby has regularly made uncharitable comments about Quebeckers. In a 2013 column, she said philosopher John Ralston Saul “might as well be writing about today’s Quebec” when he referred, in a 2008 book, to the “fear of loss of purity – pure blood, pure race, pure national traits and values and ties” in the Western world.
The cherry on the sundae, if you like, was the tweet (now deleted) that Ms. Elghawaby posted in response to a 2021 Globe and Mail op-ed by University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath, who had argued that “the largest group of people in this country who were victimized by British colonialism, subjugated and incorporated into Confederation by force, are French Canadians.” Ms. Elghawaby’s tweet did not mince words. “I’m going to puke.”
Ms. Elghawaby is, as the saying goes, entitled to her opinions. But one wonders how she can promote understanding of and tolerance toward Muslims among Canadians if she starts out from the defensive crouch she has taken in her writings. Tolerance is a two-way street.
Then again, Ms. Elghawaby’s appointment has little to do with any attempt by Mr. Trudeau to foster meaningful dialogue. Her nomination is meant to delight outspoken interest groups whose support is critical to Liberal political fortunes.
On Wednesday, Ms. Elghawaby, who will be paid between $162,700 and $191,300 a year in her new post, apologized to Quebeckers for “the hurt [she] caused with her words.” And Mr. Trudeau said he understood Quebeckers’ “distrust” toward organized religion, given the Roman Catholic’s Church’s dominance before the Quiet Revolution. But it was mostly all damage control.
By all accounts, Ms. Elghawaby’s job mainly involves preaching to the converted. She has already shown herself to be very good at that.