New Canadian Media

By: Jeremy J. Nuttall in Ottawa

Canada could turn into a U.S.-style partisan battleground if its politicians and media don’t mend their ways, says former Conservative MP Chris Alexander.

Alexander, one of the Harper government cabinet ministers defeated in the 2015 election and an unsuccessful leadership candidate, has recently been vocal about the media, politics and the “alt-right” in Canada.

In a Tyee interview he acknowledged extreme right-wing factions were allowed a place in the Conservative party, but predicted that will change as a result of the backlash after deadly racist demonstrations in Virginia last month.

That kind of violence hasn’t hit Canada, Alexander said, and politicians and journalists need to work to make sure it never does.

But Alexander’s attempt to set out the failings of the Canadian media in an opinion piece he wrote for Maclean’s has drawn its own backlash.

Alexander accused the media of viewing Canadian politics through an American lens and inflaming tensions that divide the country.

And he set out what he called false accusations that he was anti-Muslim, linking them to a March 2015 speech by Justin Trudeau at McGill University reprinted in Maclean’s and then repeated “over and over.”

In the speech Trudeau says Alexander stood in the House of Commons and declared a woman’s hijab was “an indefensible perversion of Canadian values.”

“I never said any such thing,” Alexander wrote in the Maclean’s piece. “My wife Hedvig, who is Danish, wore a hijab through seven years in Afghanistan.” Alexander was Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and representative of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan until 2009.

Alexander, defending the Conservative government’s bid to require women to remove their hijabs — head scarves — during citizenship ceremonies, did say “the hijab has been used to cover the face of women... under the terrible influence of the Taliban in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

“Those practices have no place in our citizenship ceremonies, where we insist on confirming the identity and confirming the commitment of new citizens to our laws, to our sovereign, to our values, and to our traditions,” he told the House of Commons.

Alexander’s opinion piece sparked a rebuke from Ottawa Citizen columnist Shannon Gormley.

She said Alexander and other “far-right populists” were trying to “scapegoat elites” for their own failings.

“Adding insult to self-inflicted injuries, perhaps they should be pitied and politely ignored,” she wrote. “Only, in largely blaming others for their own fall just as they blamed them for social decline, populist misopportunists diminish the truth and the social cohesion they claim to desire.”

Failings of media

Alexander told The Tyee the Citizen column highlighted the failings of Canadian media he described in Maclean’s.

The column noted Alexander’s role in the 2015 pre-election announcement of a “barbaric cultural practices tip line” widely panned as anti-Muslim by pundits and political opponents.

But he maintains the tip line plan didn’t reflect bigotry or anti-Muslim sentiments. Alexander said he spoke to victims of cultural practices like forced marriage as he researched the initiative and they used the word “barbaric” to describe their experiences.

Victims even insisted the word be used in the government's tip line name, Alexander said.

But the media mislead the public, he alleged, painting it as a bigoted policy.

“Literally people go around calling it an anti-Muslim snitch line,” he said. “They are misleading the audience in the most dangerous way. There was nothing exclusive anti-anybody in that legislation.”

Alexander said if he had a dime for every person who referred to the line negatively without mentioning things like “forced marriage” or “honour killings” he’d be a rich man.

Alexander still speaks to the news media. But he said the barbaric cultural practices tip line coverage is the kind of story causing Conservatives to boycott media outlets like the CBC, which they say is biased against them.

While some won’t speak to the CBC, many Conservatives — including Alexander — did speak to the Rebel, a controversial right-wing online media outlet.

Alexander had been interviewed by the Rebel and appeared at the organization’s rallies.

In March he tweeted he would no longer attend Rebel events after a piece by contributor Gavin McInnes entitled “10 things I hate about Jews.”

“We have a responsibility, all of us, to hold media and social media to account to the extent they allow themselves to be platforms for spreading hate,” Alexander said then.

Alexander said he wants to talk to all media, and deciding what organizations he won’t speak to is subject to “constant review.”

He said his philosophy is “talk to everyone, pander to no one” and not to say different things to different outlets.

“I don’t think we should be, as a matter of course, boycotting media just because we disagree with reports that they put out,” he said. “I will continue to talk to the CBC and all the other professional media outlets.”

Alexander said the Canadian media is generally “professional” but declining circulations and audiences are having a noticeable affect on quality.

The downward trend, he said, has many Canadians relying on foreign news services as their go-to source for information.

During his years in Parliament from 2011 to 2015, Alexander said he noticed Canadians were increasingly less interested in consuming news from Canadian outlets.

One result has been the growing influence of the polarized political coverage from the United States, he said. “It crowds out our national story,” he said.

The Canadian media needs to change to avoid the same kind of partisan breakdown, Alexander said.

Media must create a “shared sense of public service,” he said, rather than existing to produce clickbait. Canadians should feel served by their media.

Often Canadian media seem to allow their headlines to be determined by negative attacks from a politician’s opponents, he added.

Reporters can’t allow the spin coming out of someone’s war room to drive their coverage, Alexander said, calling for more in-depth reporting and analysis.

“Let's put things in the context of real policy.” 


Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. This piece was republished under arrangement with the Tyee.

Published in Politics

By: Jeremy J. Nuttall in Ottawa 

As a Vancouver society working to support refugees fears closure after being denied federal funding, a similar organization in Manitoba said Ottawa approached it to talk about providing funding earlier this year. 

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the government needs to provide consistent support as increasing numbers of people claiming refugee status cross the U.S. border. 

“That’s extremely disturbing,” Kwan said of the situation. “There needs to be consistency and fairness on the approach and they need to recognize their responsibility on this.” 

The Tyee reported Thursday on the possible closure of the Inland Refugee Society of BC, which has been overwhelmed by a wave of refugee claimants crossing into British Columbia from the U.S., many avoiding official border crossings. 

The number of people seeking support has more than doubled, executive director Mario Ayala said, and the society’s annual funding has been exhausted already. 

In the first five months of this year, the society has helped 700 undocumented refugee claimants find shelter. Ayala said if the organization closes, Metro Vancouver could see a spike in homeless refugees. 

The federal government has said it will not pitch in to close the funding gap, saying the undocumented asylum-seekers Ayala’s organization is helping don’t qualify for federal assistance. 

The B.C. government has also turned down the organization, he said. 

Ayala said Marta Morgan, the deputy minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said part of the reason the society wouldn’t receive funding is because the federal government “can’t be seen” to be helping undocumented refugees. 

Department spokesperson Nancy Chan said it does not comment on private conversations. 

Canada recognizes two broad classes of refugees: people who apply for asylum in another country before being accepted; and those who apply once in Canada, often referred to as undocumented refugees because they have not been vetted before arrival. 

Refugee claimants arriving from the U.S. can be turned away at official border crossings because Canada recognizes it as a safe country for those seeking asylum. 

As a result, an increasing number of asylum seekers have been crossing the U.S.-Canadian border between official points of entry to claim refugee status. 

Kwan said Canada has signed international agreements to recognize refugees who make a claim once in the country, and shouldn’t abandon them. 

“If the government is taking the position to say ‘no, we can’t be seen to be supporting these refugee claimants,’ then that is very troubling,” she said. 

But while the B.C. society was told the government wouldn’t provide help for such refugee claimants, the head of a Manitoba organization offering the same services said Ottawa actually approached asking them to submit a funding request.

The Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council helps refugees find temporary shelter and settlement services and has assisted 618 people this year. 

Executive director Rita Chahal said the government asked her several months ago what kind of support the organization needs. 

“I was approached by a couple of project officers to submit a budget, which we did,” Chahal said. “No one has followed up on it, no one has contacted us to see if they reviewed it and what their position might be.”

Chahal said the federal government has always held the position that it would not help undocumented refugees.

Despite the request for a funding proposal, Chahal said she isn’t expecting any money. 

She said the Manitoba government helps her organization’s efforts with $110,000 per year in funding. The council also raises money from other donors. 

The Manitoba Ministry of Education and Training, citing a June 13 byelection, said it couldn’t comment on the decision to fund the council. 

But a press release in February quoted Manitoba Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister. 

“Just as we have opened our arms to newcomers for centuries, our province continues to provide significant supports to those organizations offering direct services to refugee claimants,” Pallister said. “Our focus remains on measures that will ensure both the welfare of refugee claimants and the continued safety and security of residents of border towns.” 

Kwan said the federal government can’t encourage one society struggling with lack of money to apply for funding while telling another there’s no chance of getting help.

She said she’s worried a wave of homeless refugees will be forced to the streets of Vancouver if someone doesn’t step up with support.  

Republished with permission from The Tyee.

Published in Politics

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Do you agree with the new immigration levels for 2017?

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Featured Quote

The honest truth is there is still reluctance around immigration policy... When we want to talk about immigration and we say we want to bring more immigrants in because it's good for the economy, we still get pushback.

-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit

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