Kulbir Singh Chawla really doesn’t like when he’s connected with a customer service representative with a foreign accent.
This, despite having a accent himself.
“Here in Canada, I would say don’t even employ Kulbir,” Chawla said of customer service jobs.
“Because I still don’t have that Canadian way of (speaking) fully.”
The most recent federal election saw a small but distinct cadre of people of colour and immigrants such as Chawla supporting and in some cases even running for far-right populist parties such as the People’s Party of Canada, the National Citizens Alliance and the Canadian Nationalist Party.
All of these parties wanted to reduce immigration and scrap Canada’s official multiculturalism policy.
Despite being an immigrant himself, Chawla says he supports these policies.
Chawla, an industrial engineer, came to Canada from India with his wife and daughter in 1999. He currently lives in Nova Scotia and calls himself a Canadian nationalist. When he first moved here, he considered himself left-leaning, but over the past two decades, he’s experienced what he calls a political awakening.
It led to him attending yellow vest rallies at the movement’s peak, where he would wear a matching yellow turban. And people would call him racist.
“The left media would say this is a racist movement. And there I am with my turban. And it just breaks their narrative,” he said.
He was first drawn toward the Conservatives, then toward far-right, fringe parties such as the National Citizens Alliance, which in addition to advocating for lower taxes and the abolishment of the Bank of Canada Act, wants to reduce immigration levels to about 50,000 a year. Chawla previously ran for the National Advancement Party of Canada, the NCA’s predecessor, in Calgary Midnapore in a 2017 byelection.
He says some reasons his political stance shifted are political correctness and liberal “indoctrination” about issues such as white supremacy and racial profiling (the former he says doesn’t exist, the latter he believes is valid in some cases).
“It started with the yellow vest movement … It’s come up as a big, I will say wake-up movement for Canada and Canadians. It brought them together as well. So there’s a great deal of populism and nationalism going on,” Chawla said.
He compares nationalism to working for a corporation; the ultimate goal should be the betterment of the company, rather than advancing one’s own personal fortune. The same goes for living in a confederation.
It’s where his deep distaste for call centres that employ people with accents stems from. He said he believes it hurts Canada both economically and in terms of its national identity.
In particular, he is opposed to customer service being outsourced to other countries, for economic reasons — it takes jobs out of Canada and hurts the country’s GDP. It inspired him to create a Change.org petition urging the government and corporations to “Create call centres in Canada!”
But he acknowledges there’s an important cultural component as well.
“When I come here, if I found my own type of people speaking on the call … then it’s no different from being in India,” he said.
“We immigrants came to Canada for a whole different outlook on life. And we find it’s all changing, back to the same old Punjabi style.”
For parties such as the People’s Party of Canada that were accused of harbouring racist candidates and policies, there’s an obvious benefit to having candidates and supporters of colour, says Akaash Maharaj, a former senior resident at Massey College and CEO of the Mosaic Institute, an organization that helps bring together immigrants who have come to Canada from countries affected by conflict.
“There has been an effort by extreme right parties to try and play a game of blackface and brownface to inoculate themselves against accusations of racism by demonstrating that they have at least one or more members of their parties or candidates who are not white,” Maharaj said.
But the allure of anti-immigration policies for immigrants themselves is more complex.
“On the face of it, it looks absurd and I think it is absurd … I wouldn’t say it’s widespread,” Maharaj said. “But it’s more common than one might expect.”
“It’s the old pull-up-the-ladder syndrome,” he added. “Now that they have made it in, they want to protect themselves from people exactly like themselves that harbour the same ambitions. They are afraid more people benefiting from Canada means that their share of the pie will somehow diminish.”
This phenomenon is even more common among recent immigrants when compared to first-generation Canadians or the descendants of immigrants, Maharaj noted.
Peter Loewen, a populism expert at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said when immigrants move to Canada, integrate into mainstream society and accept the status quo, there’s a quick transition to viewing themselves as Canadian — and therefore, different from the rest of the people coming here.
He points to the 2015 federal election, where the support for a niqab ban was higher among immigrants than native-born Canadians.
“That’s largely underwritten by a sense that immigration is tough and once you’ve gone through it, you expect people to go through it without any more accommodations than you’ve had,” he explained.
Populism sells well to immigrant communities because at its heart, it’s about a deep disaffection with the political class who are seen as unsympathetic or even antagonistic toward everyday people. Immigrants can often come from countries with political corruption.
But populism comes in different forms, says Drew Fagan, professor of public policy at Munk School and a former deputy minister in the Ontario government.
“The new strain of right-wing populism increasingly pits itself against subsets of the population like immigrants and minorities. Whereas left-wing populism pits itself against what is viewed as an unfair system,” he said. “It’s about structure as opposed to people.”
And what is emerging around the world, and in Canada, is far-right populism, Fagan added. Its members are largely religious, have reservations about diversity, and are disdainful of institutions or perceived elites.
From there, populism can devolve into nativism, a policy of promoting the interests of native inhabitants of a country against those of immigrants.
This specific form of nationalism requires some sort of ethnic majority, which naturally leads to xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism, even in a country like Canada where multiculturalism is embedded in the country’s values.
And the solution, unfortunately, often involves demonization by placing blame on an external threat, according to Jon Allen, senior fellow at Munk School.
“It’s much more toxic and dangerous,” the former Canadian ambassador to Israel and Spain explained.
“It’s based on circumstances you can’t control. You don’t choose your ethnicity. You don’t choose your gender or sexual orientation … It’s a throwback to an uglier time.”
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In the most recent federal election, Ralston Coelho ran in Quebec for the Canadian Nationalist Party, a far-right fringe party with the stated goal of maintaining the demographic status of Canada’s European-descended majority. Coelho is not part of that European-descended majority.
But Coelho, whose parents immigrated from India, is a member of the party because he supports reducing Canada’s immigration levels. He’s concerned about immigrants coming into Canada and living off social assistance, or entering the country with hidden criminal records or terrorism sympathies.
In an interview with Star Edmonton, he offered dubious numbers about how half of the immigrants who came to Canada in the 1980s are living on welfare, or that refugee migrants form a disproportionate number of homeless people in Canada. He was unable to cite a source for these numbers.
“My point is, at least with me, is we need to bring in the best people,” Coelho said.
He argues that it’s important to preserve Canada’s European-descended majority demographic because it was their policies and values that attracted immigrants in the first place.
“My parents came here for a higher standard of living … and they had no problem with it,” he said, adding that his mother supported his candidacy.
“This is a country that was built by people who were a majority from Europe. So I don’t see inconsistency on my part in supporting the Canadian Nationalist Party.”
On their website, the Canadian Nationalist Party says they would “put the ethnic majority before ethnic minorities.”
He said he doesn’t see any contradiction in supporting a party that says it would prioritize the needs of others, based on their ethnicity, over his own.
“If I was living in Japan or India or any other country, I’d be in favour for nationalism there. It’s just like, common courtesy,” he said. “When you come to my home, I expect you to respect my home and keep the best interests of the home in mind.”
Chawla says more recent immigrants to Canada are “basically piggybacking on the system.” He doesn’t believe diversity is Canada’s strength, and for that reason would like to see immigration levels reduced to 100,000 people or less annually, compared to the current target of 300,000.
“The reduction needs to happen, otherwise the flavour of Canada, the way it was founded by the forefathers of Canada … is getting affected.”
The argument that European ancestry is intrinsic to Canadian identity doesn’t hold water to Maharaj, who points out that Japan and India aren’t the same as Canada — they are nation states with a linked civic and ethnic identity.
“In a country like Canada, more than 95 per cent of the people living in this country are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants. An authentically Canadian experience has absolutely nothing to do with your racial ethnicity, or what your language or religion might be,” Maharaj said.
“That’s where I see the arguments of the far right crumbling into absurdity. In fact, I would argue that the people who are being the most inauthentically Canadian are the far right. They have fundamentally misunderstood what our country has always been about.”
Alain Deng, one of the founding members of the PPC, ran for the party in the federal election in the culturally diverse riding of Vancouver South. He garnered 527 votes, or 1.2 per cent of the result.
A former Conservative party member, Deng joined the early ranks of the PPC because of his belief in free speech and frustration with political correctness. The party — which maintains libertarian values but includes supporters that are social conservatives and nationalists — called for a reduction in immigration to 150,000 people a year, with a higher percentage of economic immigrants.
In an interview during the federal election campaign, he said Canadian unity is far more important than diversity, and often repeated the phrase “Canadians first.”
“People are waking up. That’s why smart populism in this world gets the markets,” Deng said.
Deng vehemently denied accusations of racism, but he has a history of Islamophobic rhetoric on social media, most of which was removed following an iPolitics story in May.
“I’m not a racist or a bigot. I’m an immigrant from China. I escaped from a socialist dictatorship country. I was thirsty for freedom and democracy from a Western country,” he said. “But I’m totally against Islam and radical Islam.”
But what some refer to as populism, Andrew Parkin would simply call racism.
“I worry that labelling it as something else makes it disappear,” explained the executive director of the Environics Institute, a non-profit polling and research firm. “If people are targeting vulnerable members of the community. Call it what it is without painting a political theory.”
Maharaj has observed how ethnic groups that have never had conflict outside of Canada find themselves at odds with other immigrant communities once they arrive here due to different social practices and levels of economic success.
“Some of the racism one sees and some of the tensions one sees between different ethnic groups in Canada, are a somewhat unique Canadian creation,” Maharaj said.
The lure of populism, nativism and ultimately racism is strong in immigrant communities because most come from countries where cultural and racial divisions are the norm, he said. So pitching multiculturalism as an inherent virtue of Canada is not always an easy sell.
“Racism exists not only against non-white Canadians but within non-white Canadian communities against one another. That is in many ways the ugly little secret of the fight against racism,” he said.
“As the non-white population of Canada grows and becomes more complex, that truth will become more evident.”