The Kingston Whig-Standard e-edition

Potential PM needs to choose words carefully

SHACHI KURL Shachi Kurl is president of the Angus Reid Institute.

In politics, it's never too early or late for a winning team to blow its lead. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre appears to have decided now is the time.

After an explosion killed two people at the Rainbow Bridge last week, some early reportage relied heavily on unconfirmed, unnamed sources. Networks put so-called “security experts” on air to speculate about “terror cells” and “self-radicalization.” In the end, there was no evidence of terrorism.

As Official Opposition leader enjoying a 14-point advantage, Poilievre should know the weight and influence of his words. But things started to unravel during Wednesday's question period. “Mr. Speaker,” he asked, “we've just heard media reports, a terrorist attack, an explosion at the Niagara crossing of the Canada-u.s. border ... Can the prime minister give us an update on what he knows and what action plan he will immediately implement?”

Here's the problem: Terror, or the spectre of it, is by definition terrifying for all of us.

For innocent, law-abiding Muslims, South Asians and Arabs in Canada, reports of terror attacks in North America remind them of how their communities were targeted domestically for the actions of terrorists abroad after 9/11.

There was nothing wrong with Poilievre asking for an update. There was something very wrong with using the “T-word” without knowing for sure it was, indeed, that. The phrasing of the question was, at best, a careless, damaging mistake; at worst, a calculated use of dog-whistle language to spark fear and finger-pointing.

Poilievre knew to attribute his use of “terror” to “media reports.” His verbal swipe at The Canadian Press and CTV next day, blaming journalists for their reporting, was his “out.” If they got the story “wrong,” how could it be his fault?

Regardless, his behaviour lacked propriety and necessity. Especially when society's nerves are already scraped raw. Especially when Poilievre had a chance to show leadership.

The actual terror attack by Hamas that killed more than 1,200 Israelis and took more than 200 hostages has left Canadian Jews in shock, grief and, yes, terrorized.

The Israeli military response that killed more than 14,000, according to Gaza authorities, has left Canadian Palestinians in shock, grief and, yes, terrorized.

The last six weeks have brought out the worst in us. Bomb threats and shootings at Jewish schools. Calls for doxxing, censure and harassment of students and faculty who sympathize with Palestinians and ceasefire calls. A jump in hate crimes.

At such a fraught time, leadership from Poilievre would see his words appealing to Canadians' better natures, not further driving them into suspicion and division.

But will he and his strategists do this? We're not so far removed from the Conservatives' failed 2015 campaign, notorious for its “barbaric cultural practices” tip line. The director of that disastrous campaign is reportedly tipped to direct the next one.

Poilievre's Conservatives, for now, have the support of a plurality of Canadians. They need to start acting like it means something to them.





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