How a backlash against racism and mean-spiritedness turned a decade-long national frown upside down

OPINION by Gillian Steward

It’s hard to believe that just three months ago Canada was embroiled in its own ugly version of Muslim-baiting by politicians desperate for votes.

Stephen Harper grimly pressed on with his war against the niqab and Muslim women in general. And then there were the snitch lines organized by government to ferret out “barbaric cultural practices.” And let’s not forget the many moves by the Harper government to severely limit and delay the number of Syrian refugees admitted to Canada.

But other politicians bravely stood up to the mean-mindedness. And Canadian voters showed their disgust by overwhelmingly rejecting the Harperites during the October election.

But what if we hadn’t had an election at that particular time?

Would Harper now be cheering on Donald Trump? Would he have used the brutal terrorism in Paris to make it even harder for Syrian refugees to come here? Would the dark times have become even darker?

Instead, it feels like someone has turned on the lights and Canada has become a beacon of hopefulness.

Much of the credit goes to Justin Trudeau and his sunny ways, his generous nature, his confidence on the global stage, his penchant for mingling with people — all kinds of people.

Sure, he was criticized by some for staging a photo-op of himself welcoming Syrian refugees disembarking in Toronto. But why not make a splash of it? It was Human Rights Day after all, and it is important to show other countries, particularly the U.S., that this country is enthusiastically welcoming refugees instead of turning away from their suffering.

Even the New York Times editorial board took note and wrote effusively about Trudeau welcoming refugees to Canada. The piece even topped the NYT’s most-popular list on its website.

But it’s not just Trudeau that has made Canada a sunnier place, a place where robust kind-heartedness trumps fear.

There are scores of other politicians, activists, and people determined to help who have spoken out against racism and pitched in to show the world that Canada is not like the U.S., or Hungary, or many other European countries that are refusing to shelter refugees.

When not only the prime minister, but also the premier of Ontario, the mayor of Toronto and federal opposition politicians show up to welcome Syrian refugees, Canada looks like a vastly different place than it did two months ago.

And the new enthusiasm is bubbling up everywhere.

Regina Mayor Michael Fougere announced that five refugee families would be arriving in his city before Christmas. By that time, Queen City residents had donated so much money and goods to a city-run facility for refugees that he had to ask them to stop.

Fougere said he is “proud” of the generosity the community has shown, but he’s not surprised.

“We are a city and province of volunteers,” he said.

The mayor of Winnipeg, Brian Bowman, invited Donald Trump to visit his city’s renowned Canadian Museum of Human Rights so he could perhaps learn a lesson or two about compassion and tolerance.

Good for you, Mayor Bowman.

In Calgary, Mayor Naheed Nenshi was equally welcoming and has been for several months. At one point during the federal election campaign, he said the Harper government’s refugee policy was a “disgrace.”

Last month, Nenshi said while he has often dismissed Donald Trump’s outrageous stands against immigrants with humour, he no longer finds it funny.

“This has real impact on people,” he said, well aware that vandals had painted anti-Muslim and anti-Syrian slurs at a public transit station in Calgary.

Nenshi too is nailed by some for grabbing headlines. The critics would apparently prefer he stick to his knitting and only comment on civic issues. But public figures have a responsibility to speak out at times like these. Staying silent isn’t an option when fundamental values and liberties are threatened.

Canada and the United States have long had their similarities and their differences. But I’d venture to say that never have the differences between the two countries’ mainstream politics been so stark.

Thank goodness.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.