Race and Religion At The Liberal Party Convention

Globe and Mail

December 6, 2006

Race and religion at the Liberal Party convention


Rev. Francis Xavier is the father figure of Toronto's vibrant Tamil community. His question to Bob Rae at a meeting with Canadian Tamils a few days before the Liberal Party convention was typical of the role played by the leaders of some minority racial and religious groups in blatant efforts to wield political muscle.

The diminutive Father Xavier did not mince his words in laying out the price for the support of the 45 Tamil Canadian delegates to the Liberal convention: “Mr. Rae, I am great fan of yours and you have done a lot for the Tamil community as premier of Ontario, but will you promise to delist the Tamil Tigers from Canada's list of terrorist organizations, if you become leader of the Liberal Party and prime minister of Canada?”

Mr. Rae replied that if Tamil Canadians wanted the Tigers to be delisted, they should pressure the LTTE to do what Yasser Arafat did with the PLO and Nelson Mandela did with the ANC. “Firstly, there can be no military solution to the war in Sri Lanka and, second, if any politician promises you that he will help delist the LTTE as a terrorist organization, he is not telling the truth,” he said. His response did not go down well — and nary a Bob Rae button was to be found on the 45 Tamil Canadian delegates at the convention.

In the months leading up to the Montreal convention, several groups such as this could be found bargaining the price of their cadre of delegates. Besides supporters of the Tamil Tigers, the groups included Kurdish backers of the imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan, remnants of the pro-Khalistan Sikhs, and Islamist Muslims.

Perhaps the most influential of these groups would turn out to be the Khalistani Sikh Canadians, many from areas west of Toronto, who voted en masse for Gerard Kennedy in the convention's first and second ballots.

Bob Rae had advised the Liberal government on the public interest in an inquiry into the 1985 Air-India bombing. It would come back to haunt him. The bombing featured in some of the exchanges when Mr. Rae addressed a South Asian event in Montreal on Friday. When Mr. Rae slammed the terrorists responsible for Canada's worst act of terrorism, he found little support in the room. “He is referring to all Sikhs as terrorists,” one delegate said to a B.C. senator campaigning for Mr. Rae. “Not true,” the Senator said, but the delegate simply walked away.

Another religious group, the Canadian Islamic Congress, organized by Mohamed Elmasry, sent out a mass e-mail to its members with the subject line: “More Canadian Muslims than ever before will help determine Liberal Leadership Outcome.” A religiously observant breakfast was arranged for Muslim delegates to the convention, and one Kennedy delegate organizing among the Muslim community sent out a letter to the country's mosques, asking for Muslims to vote “en masse” for one candidate. The Islamic Congress had given Mr. Kennedy an A grade, while listing other hopefuls on a scale from a B to an F. This led to a spirited response from Ignatieff delegate Salma Siddiqui, who is a vice-president of the secular Muslim Canadian Congress. “Muslims are not a herd of cattle to be sold to the highest bidder,” she responded.

Then, during the convention, the president of the Canadian Arab Federation, Khaled Mouammar forwarded a mass e-mail to Muslim delegates. The e-mail, with the subject line, “Don't elect a Leader who supports Apartheid,” had a picture of Bob Rae with the following text plastered over his face: “Rae's wife is a Vice President of the CJC, a lobby group which supports Israeli apartheid and Israel's illegal Apartheid Wall. . . . Bob Rae supports Israeli Apartheid. Don't elect a leader who supports Apartheid.”

It became a popular refrain. On Friday, a group of delegates coming from a breakfast arranged by the Canadian Islamic Congress taunted me: “Is Bob Rae going to be the prime minister of Israel or the prime minister of Canada?”

Two rookie MPs, Omar Alghabra, a Muslim, and, Navdeep Bains, a Sikh, held the strings of as many as 400 delegates in the Kennedy camp. When the time came, these delegates moved as a bloc to Mr. Dion.

Stphane Dion may not know this, but his victory came in part through a political process that feeds on racial and religious exploitation. I respect the diversity of Canada, but I want to celebrate what unites us, not what divides us into tiny tribes that can be manipulated by leaders who sell us to the highest bidder.

Tarek Fatah, host of The Muslim Chronicle on CTS-TV and founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, was a delegate to the Liberal convention and a volunteer organizer for Bob Rae.