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He was supposed to be the guy who would be measured with his words, the one who had to stay above the fray.

Stephen Harper's use of the expression "old-stock Canadians" added an odd twist to Thursday's leaders' debate, clouding his attempts at being statesman-like.

Detractors talked about dog whistling. Supporters Googled past occasions when Liberals said the same thing. And people whose forebears didn't land in Canada until the 20th century just felt awkward or annoyed.

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"Old stock" is not a common utterance in current Canadian public discourse, but veterans of Quebec's tumultuous politics of the 1990s will remember the words and the debate – that is how the expression "Québécois de souche" was usually translated into English.

Quebec politicians struggled to find acceptable ways to describe the descendants of the French-speaking pioneers of the 17th century. As inclusive as they tried to be, the separatist leaders could not avoid talking about the newcomers and the others because much of the debate stemmed from Quebec's distinctive history and demographics.

Jacques Parizeau, no fan of political correctness, felt that there was nothing wrong with pointing out statistical realities, such as the fact that non-francophones wouldn't vote for his party.

We know how badly that ended, one night in the fall of 1995, when he was supposed to calm the crowd but instead gave way to his anger.

Liberals at the time were not immune to racial gaffes either.

I have written in the past about how, that same year, while I was chatting with the columnist Chantal Hébert at a reception in Ottawa, then-prime minister, Jean Chrétien, walked by and asked, with a grin: "Are you trying to solve China's problems?"

There was no ill will on his part. Though obviously, since Chantal isn't Chinese, he didn't see me foremost as a member of the press corps, but someone with yellow skin.

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It depends on the context, of course. Any newcomer knows that when they are asked "Where are you from?" the question could either be queried out of friendly curiosity or uttered with animosity and resentment.

Look for example at the time Justin Trudeau also used the expression "old stock."

It was in 2007, in an interview with the community weekly Nouvelles Parc-Extension News, where he explained that he opposed Mr. Harper's motion to recognize that "the Québécois" form a nation. He asked if everyone in Quebec was part of that nation or whether it was just for the "old stock."

His words were controversial at the time because he opposed the motion, not because of the way he described a segment of the Quebec population. Those who weren't "old stock" didn't mind it, since he was speaking up for them.

Was Mr. Harper deliberately sending a message?

Or, even if it was an off-the-cuff choice of words, was it a slip that revealed the speaker's hidden fear of the Other?

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It certainly reminded some viewers that they were the Other. Their anger was genuine, not a pearl-clutching act. "I couldn't even sleep last night I was so pissed [off]," one friend, a Canadian of Jamaican origin, said.

Mr. Harper's controversial remark came after he was asked about denying health care for refugees.

"The only time we've removed it is where we have clearly bogus refugee claimants who have been refused and turned down. We do not offer them a better health care plan than the ordinary Canadian can receive," he said.

"I think that's something that most new and existing and, and, old-stock Canadians agree with."

Lost in the controversy is the fact that Mr. Harper's comment about health-care coverage was inaccurate. The cut affected not only rejected refugee claimants but also claimants from what the government designates as "safe countries."

One can hear, watching that video clip again, that Mr. Harper hesitates and searches for words: "… and, and, old-stock Canadians." But the essence of it was that Mr. Harper was trying to say that even newcomers would agree with him.

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That was always the way the Conservatives made their pitch to minority voters – by drawing a line between the law-abiding ones, whose social values also happened to be conservative, and the others, those who were portrayed as queue-jumping terrorist-sympathizing bogus asylum seekers.

It was about us and the others, even if the line wasn't meant to be drawn along racial lines.

But the reaction was predictable because the Conservatives had been pressing that button before. By trying to ban the niqab from citizenship ceremonies while fundraising on the issue. By raising fears about terrorism. By retaining Lynton Crosby, an operative associated with emotionally-charged campaigning tactics in Australia and Britain.

They had played that game before, and those who already didn't like the Conservatives weren't going to give them the benefit of the doubt.

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