Ealier this month, the Parti Québécois tabled Bill 60, its proposed values charter, in the national assembly following two months of headline-grabbing controversy and public debate, both within and beyond the province. Within hours, federal Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney vowed to challenge the legislation should it prove to violate the right to religious expression as guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This was hardly the minister's first pronouncement on the issue: since Bernard Drainville introduced the charter in early September, Mr. Kenney has consistently expressed the federal government's intention to turn to the courts in the event that it runs afoul of the constitution – and, more colorfully, posted a photograph of himself in a Sikh headdress on Twitter just a few days after the charter came to public attention.
Mr. Kenney's defence of multiculturalism and of minority groups' religious rights is neither surprising, nor is it uncharacteristic of him or his party – we don't bat an eye when Mr. Kenney or Stephen Harper are photographed in turbans or kippas, when they're festooned in garlands for Diwali, or when they walk shoeless in mosques or gurdwaras.
What's surprising, in fact, is that this isn't surprising at all – despite the fact that the Conservative Party is populated by a significant number of MPs who, less than 15 years ago, belonged to the Reform Party. This is the same Reform Party that, in the early 1990s, included members associated with white supremacist groups, wanted to eradicate multiculturalism, criticized any kind of "hyphenated" Canadian identity, pressured the governing Liberals into cutting immigration numbers, and stated – in its official policy Blue Book – that immigration policy should not "be explicitly designed to radically or suddenly alter the ethnic makeup of Canada, as it increasingly seems to be."
What gets missed in the controversy over the values charter is that it has, in fact, been enormously beneficial for the federal Conservative Party. That's because the party has, since rising from the ashes of the short-lived Canadian Alliance in 2003, developed a distinctive brand of conservatism that balances appeals to two critically important groups: the traditional conservative base, and socially and fiscally conservative new Canadians.
Since taking office in 2006, the Conservatives have explicitly targeted specific immigrant populations through an "ethnic outreach strategy" that has included everything from attending community festivals, to targeted mailings, to one-on-one meetings at "major ethnic events", to important symbolic gestures, such as issuing official apologies to Chinese and Sikh communities for the racially-discriminatory practices of former Canadian governments. The Conservatives have also turned away from the Reform Party's advocacy for limited immigration: since 2007, the party has admitted approximately 250,000 immigrants annually, as robust a set of targets as any Liberal government ever pursued. Stephen Harper – once Reform's policy director – now publicly embraces multiculturalism, championing the policy as the reason for Canada's success in integrating a vastly diverse population.
And yet, this radical shift is also balanced by policies aimed at the traditional conservative base. In 2009, the federal government issued a new citizenship guide which placed a much greater emphasis on "traditional" Canadian values, symbols, traditions, and history. It also issued a law limiting dual citizenship to crack down on "citizens of convenience" in order to "re-value" Canadian citizenship. The Conservatives got tougher on "bogus" refugee claimants, appealing to the law-and-order sensibilities of traditional conservative voters, and have developed a number of immigration policy reforms (such as substantially expanding the Temporary Foreign Worker Program) to suit the needs of the Canadian labour market.
What we've missed in much the debacle over the charter is that it ultimately provides the Conservatives with an opportunity to appeal to both of their target demographics. By talking tough against it, Conservatives tap into both new Canadians' concerns regarding the charter's hostility toward minority religious practices, and traditional conservatives' suspicion of overly intrusive governments seemingly bent on infringing basic rights to freedom of religion. In other words, the charter could not be better news for the federal Conservatives. The greatest irony is that the controversy will, in the end, be equally beneficial for the PQ: it sustains their claim to speak on behalf of "real" (and beleaguered) Quebeckers, while also holding the potential to reopen the sovereignty debate if the federal government turns to the courts to sink the legislation. The only loser in all of this, then, will actually be Quebec's religious minorities, who will be forced to deal with the consequences of the PQ's political opportunism.
Inder Marwah is SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago's Department of Political Science, specializing in political theory; Phil Triadafilopoulos is associate professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto