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Identity politics is an electoral loser for Conservatives

The opportunity for Canadian Conservatives is not one of embracing the populism fuelled by resentment, anger or fear, or even trying to nimbly court it. As Canadians learned from the last federal election and from the early, more shrill days of Preston Manning's Reform Party, the populism of exclusion, fear-mongering and irritating the more acute fault lines at the edge of any society is not a winning or constructive political choice with long-term prospects.

For all their strengths and weaknesses, leaders such as Robert Stanfield, Stephen Harper, Brian Mulroney, Bill Davis, Peter Lougheed, Joe Clark and Jean Charest knew this and, while not perfect, navigated away from the jagged edges with some expertise. Factional leaders like Mr. Manning in early Reform days had to learn the hard way through electoral frustration. Being anti-immigrant, anti-French-Canadian, anti-Métis, does have its historical echoes in Tory and Conservative history. It is not however, a history of which to be proud or about which to be complacent.

What many of the present Conservative leadership candidates seem keen to do is embrace the territory of divisive, wedge politics and seek support of the minority of folks who, whether because of fear, anger or resentment, may live there. That embrace speaks to the worst of Canadian politics, right, centre or left. Playing politics with the Islamophobia motion in the House of Commons is as mean-spirited as it is self-destroying. There is a risk, if Tories continue to play it badly, that they need not run candidates in most of the urban ridings they lost to the Liberals in 2015. Trifling with a motion opposing Islamophobia means keeping one's options open on the bigoted tactical option for the next election plain and simple.

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The next election needs to be, both for Canada and for the Conservatives, one about economic choices, foreign and defence policy, reducing the gap between the richest and the poorest and the relevant policy choices Canadians have. Every election that was or is about division versus unity or multicultural inclusion versus discrimination goes badly for Conservatives. Those opposing the anti-Islamophobia motion are only seeding the soil for an electoral harvest Liberals will savour.

There is a modern and inclusive Conservative agenda that embraces tax and welfare reform, new approaches on how we govern ourselves, development reform, entrepreneurial support for First Nations enterprise that sets aside the narrow politics of exclusion. Of the many candidates in the race to date, Lisa Raitt, Michael Chong and Erin O'Toole leave the most convincing signals of openness to a modern Conservative mission. Others, either through sins of omission, less-than-modest impact, hard ideological self-indulgence or turbocharging the politics of exclusion, are most likely to extend Liberal hegemony for years to come.

Part of why Canadians have a more even-handed and welcoming disposition than other countries, part of why diversity is seen as a strength and not a burden, is the positive dynamic of centre-right politics federally and provincially.

When the Clark government, aided by thousands of Canadians, brought 60,000 Indo-Chinese refugees to Canada, only the National Citizen's Coalition took ads out in opposition. Mainstream supporters of all parties, business, agriculture, trade unions, religious denominations, community and service clubs rallied to the cause. The same happened when the Kosovo refugees came under Mr. Mulroney. The Ugandan Asians, largely Ismaili, were invited personally by the present Prime Minister's father. Justin Trudeau has done the same with thousands of Syrian families.

Ever since Ellen Fairclough deracialized our immigration system in the Diefenbaker government, an enduring Canadian value of humanitarian outreach, generous intake and integration toward citizenship has been the norm.

So, on the Canadian values issue, those who want to violate the core Canadian value of humanitarian hospitality for the oppressed and hounded would be wiser to promote an economically strong and inclusive patriotism that looks ahead without even the faintest nostalgia for Canada's Second World War "none is too many" past.

Hugh Segal is Master of Massey College, a former Conservative senator and former chair of the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism.

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