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Federal Politics
Election 2015

Some Context for Twitter's 'Old Stock Canadians' Backlash

Yes, it's a term that's popped up before, but not alongside loaded (and bogus) refugee claims.

Sarah Berman 18 Sep

Sarah Berman is managing editor of The Tyee.

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Breaking down the 'old stock' head scratcher.

After last night's Globe debate on the economy, one statement catapulted to meme status far quicker than, say, Tom Mulcair's pot joke or Justin Trudeau's "lack of ambition" puzzler.

That statement was Stephen Harper's reference to "old stock Canadians," which immediately sent the Internet searching for what the Conservative leader actually meant.

First, let's play back the tape:

"The fact of the matter is, we have not taken away health care for immigrants and refugees," said Harper, reluctantly addressing his party's changes to the Interim Federal Health Program. "On the contrary, the only time we've removed it is when we have clearly bogus refugee claimants who have been refused and turned down. We do not offer them a better health care plan than the ordinary Canadian receives. I think that's something that new and existing and old stock Canadians agree with."

The claim itself was spurious: since 2012, refugees whose asylum claims are being processed no longer receive federal or provincial health care, except in rare court-ordered cases. In fact, even refugees that have been approved and do qualify for provincial health coverage have been turned away because doctors still aren't sure about the rules.

As for what Harper meant by "old stock" -- which could easily be different from what "old stock" means generally -- Twitter was full of ideas.

Some commentators guessed "old stock Canadian" was a passport type, or maybe a box on the long form census (RIP).

Many decided First Nations have the oldest stock, but few agreed that's what Harper had in mind.

Others quipped some sort of colour wheel might help.

But the most consensus centred around Conservative supporter Earl Cowan's "old stock" membership.

(Dude has strong, stable old stock -- naturally.)

Others still characterized reaction to the statement as overblown, particularly since "old stock" has been uttered in the House of Commons by (gasp) Liberal MPs. Harper's awkward comment couldn't possibly have racial undertones if Justin Trudeau once said something similar, the reasoning goes.

But here's where that argument fails to consider context and intent. Mere seconds later, Harper claimed Mulcair and Trudeau would "throw open our borders" to "literally hundreds of thousands of people without any kind of security check or documentation."

Trumped-up claim

As Ottawa Citizen journalist Terry Glavin pointed out, that was some wild and fear-monger-y hyperbole that fans the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment. Neither the Liberals nor the New Democrats have plans to bring in anywhere near hundreds of thousands of refugees -- and certainly haven't said they would forego Canada's standard-procedure security checks. In fact, Mulcair pledged to take in 10,000 Syrians before 2015 concludes, and an additional 46,000 over the next four years. Trudeau pledged to bring in 25,000.

This got me thinking about semiotics and American politics. We can all recall an outrage-causing statement that wasn't about the words said, but the context that cast it in a strange, politically potent light. Just yesterday, Donald Trump didn't bother challenging a supporter who claimed the nation's president is a non-American Muslim, and who then darkly asked Trump, "When can we get rid of them?"

Trump shrugged and said his team is "looking at a lot of different things." He didn't respond with any overtly xenophobic words, but he tacitly accepted a voter's hateful and fearful premise. An extreme example, sure, but one where context matters more than what the highest-polling GOP presidential candidate said.

Similarly, in 2012, when Mitt Romney said he had considered "whole binders full of women" for his cabinet in Massachusetts, it wasn't the fact that "binders" was some kind of gendered euphemism that riled equal pay advocates. The overcompensating context of that stumble was what rendered Romney's so-so position on inclusiveness transparent.

Neither was Jim Prentice's recent "I know math is difficult" quip to Rachel Notley the first time one party leader unintentionally condescended to another. (For the record, Tory MPs Kevin Sorenson and Stella Ambler have both uttered "math is difficult" in the House of Commons without incident). Moments before, Prentice had accused the NDP leader of bringing in a 20 per cent corporate tax -- not the 12 per cent her party actually proposed. It was again the context -- that Notley did know a thing or two about corporate tax rates, and that Prentice was the one with bogus numbers -- that made viewers turn up their noses.

So I arrive back at Stephen Harper's "old stock Canadians" line. The words, without context, may not suggest any wrongdoing to his supporters. But since the phrase immediately preceded his recitation of bogus refugee numbers that stoke fear of immigrants as terrorists, the comment certainly sounded like a dog whistle to some voters' hateful and fearful premise.

It's no wonder Twitter lit up with questions, and why so many turned to another kind of Old Stock.


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