Hunsperger’s fanatic language was subsequently cited by the media as evidence of why Wildrose proceeded to abruptly lose the election and why such crude and untempered right-wing crankishness was inescapably toxic with Canadian voters, even in the country’s most conservative province. Today, “lake of fire” has become a sort of Canadian journalistic shorthand for the political dangers of making bedfellows with the far right.
The media has never managed to find a similarly cautionary tale of the perils of campaigning too far to the left, however. As the head of the Ontario New Democrats, Andrea Horwath, finds her unexpected lead in the run-up to Thursday’s high-profile provincial election looking increasingly tenuous as attention increases on her slate of flaky, far-left candidates, this may prove her destiny.
Lake-of-fire-gate was one manifestation of the degree to which Canadian legislative elections are fought not through policy debate, but rather public shaming and disqualifications. In the 2015 federal election, for instance, the Canadian media tallied more than a dozen candidates who were ditched by their respective party leaders for making comments on social media or elsewhere deemed bigoted, crude or ideologically unhinged.
The Ontario election has not been quite that extreme, but the basic script is still being followed. Last month, Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford expelled candidate Tanya Granic Allen, considered a rising star in the party, after some particularly galling statements made in her previous life as a social conservative commentator were brought to light.
Horwath of the New Democrats, however, has stayed firm. She has not expelled a single candidate, though it’s not due to any lack of effort on the part of her Conservative rivals to name and shame them for extremist politics and grotesque rhetoric.
New Democrats candidate Dwayne Morgan suggested on more than one occasion that 9/11 was an inside job. Another candidate, Laura Kaminker, confidently declared there was “no proof that bin Laden or Al-Qaida had anything to do with the attacks.” Kaminker, who identifies as a “Marxist,” has caused equal scandal for referring to the wearing of poppies on Remembrance Day as an “annual ritual of war glorification” that she has no time for. Her disgust is shared by candidate Jan Johnstone, who says the Royal Canadian Legion “glorifies ALL wars” and has suggested Canadians “bleach” their red poppies into the white ones favored by a faction of far-left Remembrance Day dissidents.
Johnstone’s words are considerably milder, however, than those of candidate Tasleem Riaz, who claimed on Facebook that Ottawa’s 2011 decision to retain Canadian troops in Afghanistan until 2014 was a mandate to “keep slaughtering … innocent men, women and children for another 1095 days.” Candidate Erica Kelly is comfortable with wartime slaughter — as long as it’s of “extremist Americans.” According to a Facebook chat transcript, she once mused it “would not be sad to see these gun nuts threatening civil war have their asses blown to f— with a drone.” A similarly broad vocabulary was employed by candidate Gurratan Singh, brother of federal New Democrats leader Jagmeet Singh, who summarized his views on the state of provincial law enforcement by holding a sign at a 2006 rally declaring “F– the Police!”
Other candidates have been more cerebral in tone, but toward no less radical ends. The Tory party unearthed the doctoral thesis of candidate Joel Harden, a “democratic socialist” activist and intellectual who suggested the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela could be an “inspiration” that “suggests values for global radicals elsewhere” — presumably including Ontario. Chandra Pasma is another anti-capitalist scholar who has written on the need to “escape the clutches of labourism, with its limited ideas of work and its dehumanizing emphasis on paid labour.”
When confronted about her crop of candidates, the standard response of Horwath — whose public brand is far less extreme — has been to emphasize their apologies, defend “freedom of speech” and acknowledge that “people sometimes do quote-unquote radical things to get the attention of decision makers.”
In isolation, these are fair sentiments. A strong case can be made that a shame-based political culture is incompatible with democracy, particularly in an age in which random social media musings can be extracted and exaggerated into a dishonest simplification of a politician’s more elaborate beliefs. Yet when offered as rationalization for keeping a slate of cranks as the public face of a party long viewed as too extreme for government, voters may be less inclined to reward her robust defense of principle.
Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, ostentatious progressivism has become part of Canada’s brand, which is in particularly high demand as people around the world seek a symbol of contrast with Donald Trump’s America. Horwath’s Conservative rival has been unflatteringly compared to the American president, yet it hardly goes without saying that revulsion at one flavor of ideological politics translates to excitement for its most extreme opposite.
How left is too left for Canada? We’ll find out Thursday.