Yet again, Canadians watch the U.S. lose its way and wonder: Could it happen here?
The answer is that it already has. The bigger question is whether it will happen again.
You don’t have to go far back in Canadian history to see legal wrongs that debased human rights — disordered laws that yielded injustices:
Residential schools for Indigenous youth, wartime internment camps for citizens of Japanese descent, persecution and prosecution of gays. A half-century before the American insurrection, Canada had its own “apprehended insurrection” when FLQ terrorists kidnapped a cabinet minister and a diplomat — and held an entire society hostage — as tanks patrolled the streets of Quebec.
But in politics, past is not always prologue. The sins of our fathers do not condemn us to future transgressions, even if aggressions on the streets of Washington stoke fears of an anti-democratic virus traversing the border like COVID-19.
Canadians are not a superior species endowed with pro-democratic DNA. We have our fair share of gun-loving, gay-baiting extremists and enablers — people perfectly capable of lashing out at newcomers or shaming women in face-coverings (pre-pandemic).
But I believe Canada is different. It continues to do democracy differently, even if not always for the right reasons.
Mostly, it is dumb luck. And decent leadership.
As a foreign correspondent, I’ve covered peace and war from Australia to Yemen, and can tell you that Canadians as individuals are little different from anyone else. Yet Canada remains by and large a safe space — a place where those who once turned on each other abroad become changed people in their new home.
Indians and Pakistanis who might be brimming with nationalistic and religious rivalries on the subcontinent somehow come together in Canada. Jews, Muslims and Christians who suspect the worst of one another in the Middle East typically set aside their hatreds here.
It is not so much that newcomers become different people, just that everybody is part of a saner body politic here. Our political entity is different because of our history and geography, insulated and isolated from the perils that inflame passions abroad.
But if Canadians are not a superior people — just people in a safer place — I believe our politicians are for the most part a better class of leader than many of their counterparts abroad. Perhaps they can afford to be more generous and tolerant because they are spared the border wars and ethnic enclaves that foment tension.
On balance, our leaders pay more attention to pluralism — personal and political. Or perhaps they understand better that they will pay a price for fomenting intolerance — not merely at the ballot box, but in our media universe and in our parliamentary forums.
In short, the runway for sustained prejudice is not as long here as elsewhere — no local affiliates for Fox News, and no market for the failed Sun News Network. And so it is harder to gain traction here with hatred or hysteria.
Yes, our politicians inevitably stray from the path of tolerance. Former prime minister Stephen Harper campaigned on a “barbaric practices hotline” that pandered to prejudices; federal Conservatives later dissented from a parliamentary condemnation of “Islamophobia” on dubious semantic grounds (perhaps still hung up on then-leader Andrew Scheer’s lingering homophobia).
Ontario Premier Ford, who once professed to be a Trump admirer, was quick to denounce what he saw in Washington last week: “It’s despicable and it’s disgusting.”
He contrasted the bitter partisan warfare in Washington with the close co-operation between his provincial Tories and the federal Liberal government. While Ford is hardly a paragon of non-partisanship, his personal pendulum has swung back toward greater civility, even if he remains a work in progress.
In an adversarial parliamentary system, in a hostile Twitter universe, Canadians are as capable as anyone of lapsing into the default debate style that personalizes and demonizes, distorts and decontextualizes, feeding the falsehoods and the frenzies that are the currency of suspicion and insurrection.
Yet we are blessed with a quintessential Canadian impulse that stands us in good stead as we — and our political leaders — strive to keep our balance while others lose their heads:
In all things, moderation. And at all times, conversation.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist for the Toronto Star.