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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks about the Syrian refugee crisis during a campaign event in Surrey, B.C., on Sept. 3, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks about the Syrian refugee crisis during a campaign event in Surrey, B.C., on Sept. 3, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tabatha Southey

There’s truth in advertising after all – Stephen Harper isn’t perfect Add to ...

It’s clear the Conservatives were caught off guard by the general public’s recent swell of concern for Syrian refugees, a cause for which the party has never had much time. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander once criticized Ontario’s decision to provide health care to asylum seekers at the provincial level, after the federal government had ended it, by saying “Simply arriving on our shores and claiming hardships isn’t good enough. This isn’t a self-selection bonanza, or a social program buffet.”

Various Conservative MPs have campaigned on this and similar sentiments.

It’s almost as if the party has been governing a different country than the one in which it lives, and when the actual country turned up – using a language the Conservative party doesn’t understand any more and certainly doesn’t speak – the Conservatives made the classic mistake of talking in their own language really loudly.

“We also are the most generous country to refugees in the world,” Mr. Alexander said, kicking things off on CBC’s Power and Politics, the day the picture of Alan Kurdi’s body, lifeless on the beach, hit the papers.

“Our country has the most generous immigration and refugee system in the world. We admit, per capita, more people than any other,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself said, in response to that same photo, before retreating to the security of security issues – pretty much saying that he’s barely keeping Canada safe as it is and Canadians themselves can’t be trusted to vet anyone.

What we were hearing there from our PM was a convenient conflating of immigrants with refugees, one that’s popular with Conservative politicians just now and, frankly, when you’re being this loose with your definitions, you might as well throw in vacationers, and boast that everyone may purchase as many small glass bottles shaped like maple leaves full of maple syrup as they wish upon arrival.

Mr. Harper compounded this by confusing Canada being first even in the generous and not entirely relevant category of new arrivals per capita with us being 24th. This level of numerical literacy does not inspire much faith in him as the steward of the economy his party claims him to be.

“We’ve been ahead of the game,” Paul Calandra crowed later, also on Power and Politics, before taking the hotly contested Conservative Refugee Talking Point Hyperbole Prize with “I’m glad that our European allies … are starting to catch up with us.”

To be clear: As of last month, Canada has, according to the government, taken in 2,374 Syrian refugees. As of March, 2015, Germany had taken in 105,000.

Last weekend 25,000 refugees (from all countries) arrived in Munich alone.

I half expected Mr. Calandra to follow that one up by congratulating Europe on catching up with Canada in its construction of classical Greek temples.

It’s difficult to imagine a more tone-deaf response than the one Canadians have been offered, and we’re not really that difficult to please.

We’re a nation of a generous but not particularly naive people. Few were expecting politicians to say, “We made a mistake,” and most would have accepted an immediate “We can do even better!” but that is not what we were given.

Over all it has felt as if Canadians have just called out “Hey, we can help!” – only to have the Prime Minister and many in his party assure them that, no, they cannot, enough is being done. Any greater effort on anyone’s part could only spell disaster, because, unlike a good many other nations and the UN just now, we’re just not up to the task of screening refugees.

The Conservatives are, they almost seemed to assure us, in way over their heads – so we should vote for them.

There’s a political and marketing tactic so established that it has its own acronym: FUD. It stands for fear, uncertainty and doubt. Traditionally, FUD involves a strategy of spreading vague anxiety about the merits of one’s opponents, or their products.

It’s a tired ploy but in the past few weeks we have seen it boldly reimagined; Mr. Harper has had the questionable vision to apply FUD inward.

He appears to be, rather industriously, trying to actively make the public fearful, uncertain and doubtful about himself.

The “Stephen Harper isn’t perfect but…” ad could be said to have launched the effort. Then, when for reasons known only to himself and his producers, CBC-TV’s Peter Mansbridge interviewed each of the party leaders this week one-on-one outdoors in different woodsy locations (it was a bit like watching the world’s worst fishing show), Mr. Harper said: “I’m not perfect, but…”

We are, it feels, mere days away from being offered “Stephen Harper, the devil you know,” as a campaign slogan.

What we needed to hear was not that the problem is too big and that we are too small and should be more afraid than caring. What we needed to hear was: “We’ll roll up our sleeves, you pull out your couches,” because most of us know this story.

I grew up close to a Ukrainian family. The mother came to Canada right after the Second World War as a little girl, her family having fled Ukraine when the Russians invaded. They travelled first on bicycles – she was three, her father pushed hers – and then on a sled someone gave them, which her father pulled, all the way to Germany.

Once in Germany, they were processed to come to Canada, where an uncle had sponsored them, and – this is what I never forgot, although I think I only heard the story once – the little girl’s arm was broken and her mother chose to remove her daughter’s cast and sling, so fearful was she that the family would be rejected as unhealthy, perceived as a potential burden to Canada.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I was meant to take away from this story, but it stayed with me as a kind of parable about the value of my country.

To my young self, it was in part a story about how much people wanted to come here, and the difficult, possibly pragmatic choices and calculations a parent might make in order to achieve that end, but mostly the story was almost comedic to me then because: They were coming to Canada, to join family, of course we’d let them in.

That the mother – coming from some other, terrible, place, not realizing that her child’s broken arm would not be held against the family – was something resembling a punchline to me, and that this struck me as remotely funny, struck me as serious then, and more serious these past few weeks.

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Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

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