As we commemorate the Quebec City mosque massacre, the Muslim Association of Canada’s Abdul Nakua argues that non-profit organizations can play a critical role in nurturing a vibrant democratic society to combat the toxic effects of polarization.
As we commemorate the Quebec City mosque massacre, we are reminded of the cost of weaponized anger and the corrosive imprint this stamps on the social cohesion of society and the national political discourse and culture.
Michael Wernick, Canada’s former top civil servant, shocked the nation when he raised alarm bells about the national political discourse in Canada during a parliamentary committee hearing in 2019. “I worry about the rising tide of incitements to violence when people use terms like ‘treason’ and ‘traitor’ in open discourse.” At the time, his comments were dismissed, but only 17 months later, two men were charged in separate incidents for allegedly threatening the life of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
These are only two examples of many that point to the rise of corrosive polarization in our political and social discourses. Polarization has become ubiquitous, in large part, because it permeates many conversations and exchanges. About 35 books have been written about the subject in the past decade and numerous studies and surveys published. Those who believe in its pervasiveness will point to the rise of alt-right groups, hate networks, virtue-signalling from both the right and left sides of the political spectrum, and the increase in toxicity within the political discourse. Studies and research signal that while polarization in Canada has not reached the levels seen in the United States, there is a high risk of sliding into a similar trajectory.
The best defence against [polarization] is nurturing a vibrant democratic society. Non-profit and charitable organizations can play a critical role in this undertaking.
The best defence against such slide is nurturing a vibrant democratic society. Investing in civic virtue and increasing participation in the democratic process will go a long way toward combatting the pernicious outputs of polarization. Non-profit and charitable organizations can play a critical role in this undertaking.
A 2020 public opinion study by Environics concluded that unlike in the US, left–right polarization in Canada is much less pronounced and has generally declined, rather than increased, over the past decade. Canadians are more likely than Americans to place themselves in the middle of the political spectrum and are less likely to place themselves on either the left or the right. About two-thirds (66%) of Canadians avoid either pole and opt for the middle ground. The study highlights other differences between the two countries. Canadians expressed much higher rates of satisfaction with democracy, support for the political system, and respect for political institutions. The study recommended that the Canadian context should be approached differently with proper nuances pertinent to its attributes.
There are different studies that categorize the risks for growing polarization in Canada as high and requiring attention. In one report, the Canadian Global Affairs Institute predicted with a high degree of confidence that political polarization in the US will have a spill-over political impact in Canada. It points to the 2022 trucker protests as evidence that US political polarization is resonating with a portion of the Canadian polity. More alarmingly, the Task Force on National Security of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) warned about the risks of increasing distrust in government. Erosion of trust opens space for misinformation and disinformation to spread; this weakens democratic institutions. It also identified ties between far-right extremists in Canada and the US. It further concluded that anti-government, antisemitic, Islamophobic, anti-Asian, or misogynistic far-right groups have developed or increased ties to like-minded actors in the US and beyond.
Among its recommendations, the report urged the government to address these threats by building institutional capabilities to counteract disinformation originating in the US and to short-circuit the ability of American actors to influence Canadian politics.
Despite the similarities between polarization in Canada and in the US, there are unique features and peculiarities in the Canadian context. The Digital Democracy Project (a partnership between the Public Policy Forum and the Max Bell School of Public Policy) concluded that the main drivers for polarization in Canada are ideology and partisanship rather than the media. It noted that the intensity of polarization increases as the differences in party positions sharpen and the loyalty to the party increases. Richard Johnston, former Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation at the University of British Columbia, noted that Canada is polarizing, and it’s because of the parties. He traces the heightening of polarization of the Canadian political discourse to the realignment of the Canadian party system in the early 1990s, with the rise of populism and the emergence of the Reform Party.
Partisans exploited the utility of anger to motivate and mobilize their base. Unlike fear, which is triggered by unfamiliarity, anger is triggered by moral outrage. Soon, polarization became a tactic and a strategy to mobilize the base and raise money. A new communications business model was built around stoking outrage and weaponizing anger. A prime example of an effective use of this is the weaponization of Islamophobia. Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, published in 2011 by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, exposes how Islamophobia in the US is manufactured, spread, and funded. It reveals not a vast right-wing conspiracy behind the rise of Islamophobia but rather a small, tightly networked group of misinformation experts effectively amplifying their message through influencers, media partners, and grassroots organizing. More recently, Jasmin Zine, a professor of sociology, religion, and culture at Wilfrid Laurier University, mapped the Islamophobia network within Canada. She unpeeled how an ecosystem is built, starting with platforming messages by media outlets and influencers and validated by self-designated security experts, and then enabled by politicians who authorize Islamophobic narratives and policies that promote anti-Muslim sentiments, citing Bill-21 in Quebec as an example.
During the 2015 federal election, the “Barbaric cultural practices” snitch line exemplified the type of vulgar language used to mobilize the base to heighten partisan tensions. The business model was at work. In 2008, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in Quebec concluded that the tabloid press and some radio and television stations in Montreal were partly responsible for the divisive “reasonable accommodation” crisis. The commission concluded that almost none of the sensational stories produced by these outlets were based on fact.
It is conceivable that there is a strong correlation between this toxic polarization and the massive growth of alt-right groups. A 2016 study for the federal government reported that there are 100 or so known white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Canada. More recently, this number was placed at 300 groups in 2021.
Can the centre hold?
Numbers, statistics, and opinion polls cannot capture the real cost of polarization and the heavy toll that divisive tactics and hateful campaigns inflict on communities. However, there is consensus among experts about two points: there is a mushy middle in the Canadian political terrain that prevents the country from sliding into hyper-polarization like in the US. The second is that Canada is influenced by what takes place in the US. This fight can be won only if the whole society joins this endeavour. Non-profit and charitable organizations can make a huge contribution by growing this middle and strengthening it so the centre can hold together. Secondly, we cannot win this fight by appeasing the partisans; we must challenge and expose their dangerous tactics of exploiting insecurities, social inequalities, and economic disparities.
Non-profit and charitable organizations can make a huge contribution by growing this middle and strengthening it so the centre can hold together.
The social good sector is founded on the values of equity, openness, empowerment, participation, responsiveness, and commitment to the enrichment of human life. It can leverage its unique position and attributes to facilitate meaningful political dialogue and mediate citizens’ participation in the democratic process. The sector is very diverse, as it engages faith communities, social services providers, and environmental and cultural groups. It includes sports, arts and culture, education and research, health, housing, business, and professional associations.
The sector enjoys a strong presence in communities, rivalling that of the political parties. Unlike the political associations, it brings people closer together rather than forcing them apart. On average, there are approximately 450 non-profits and charities in each riding. They employ more than 2.5 million Canadians. They engage 13 million volunteers who give close to two billion hours each year. The sector can utilize its roots within communities to reach and mobilize segments of the community that are underrepresented in politics.
Despite the sector’s considerable voice and communicative potential, it has failed to play a role commensurate with this potential.
The sector enjoys the trust of Canadians. According to the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer, 73% of Canadians trust non-profits (compared to 58% for the government).
Despite the sector’s considerable voice and communicative potential, it has failed to play a role commensurate with this potential. In part, the sector suffers from some structural weaknesses that limit its capacity. One is that the sector has shifted its focus away from civic discourse and instead focused on service delivery. There has been an overemphasis on the static matrices of service delivery at the expense of dynamic outcomes of civic vibrancy, social capital, wealth creation, and advocacy and policy influence.
The government’s overregulation of and arbitrary rules around advocacy, and more recently the political targeting of charities, has helped to increase the pace of this shift. Political activity requires a distinct set of skills and expertise, including the ability to build coalitions and analyze public policy. Without key investments in capacity building in this area, it is difficult to reach critical mass for effective advocacy or attain measurable influence.
The non-profit and charitable sector needs to build its internal convening capacity.
There are some hopeful signs and good examples of grassroots political engagement work that can really make a difference to short-circuit hyper-partisanship. The Samara Centre for Democracy is a non-partisan charity dedicated to strengthening Canada’s democracy through education. It provides programs to combat fake news and disinformation. The Canadian Muslim Vote is another non-partisan initiative that was founded in 2015 to mobilize Muslim voters across Canada. Recently, a number of leading organizations formed the Canadian Vote Coalition to engage Canadians in the political process and encourage voting during elections.
The non-profit and charitable sector needs to build its internal convening capacity. Several umbrella organizations have emerged as enabling voices for the sector, including Imagine Canada and the Ontario Nonprofit Network. A number of other networks are growing in size and influence, such as the Alberta Nonprofit Network, Impact Organizations of Nova Scotia, and CivicAction. But the sector still lacks the critical mass to build coalitions or mobilize the community on a large scale.
For the sector to reach its potential and fulfil its role as a social-capital builder, we need to reclaim the civic spirit that is part of the sector’s DNA and reject the narrow notion of reducing the sector to a service-delivery arm of the government.
Key investments in infrastructure and capacities are required to build an ecosystem to enable this coalition building. Incubators, collaborative hubs, learning platforms, literacy tools, and training are accelerators for this undertaking. But there are formidable hurdles to achieving this transformation. There is a general complacency within the sector. This is compounded by a hierarchical and power differential where concentration of money and human capital are at the opposite ends of the hierarchy; the sector could be characterized as having low barriers for entry but often insurmountable hurdles for growth and scaling.
For the sector to reach its potential and fulfil its role as a social-capital builder, we need to reclaim the civic spirit that is part of the sector’s DNA and reject the narrow notion of reducing the sector to a service-delivery arm of the government. The sector should advocate for a shift in how the government views the sector – from service-delivery partner to strategic partner – to improve economic and social outcomes for Canadians.
We can counter the partisan use of anger as a tool of division and polarization and turn it into a force of good. This requires a commitment to building robust coalitions, across our sector and beyond. As W.E.B Du Bois, one of the great protest leaders in the US in the last century, warned, coalitions are not built on “complete unity of belief.” We can use two guideposts for coalition building. In this time of high polarization, the first thing to defend is democratic debate and the free circulation of ideas. Secondly, we should make visible the economic and social structures that produce inequality, injustice, marginalization, oppression, and violence.
Building on the rich legacy of Du Bois, Martin Luther King reminded his followers in a speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Du Bois that “the supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.” Uniting our sector to reclaim its civic spirit will transform it to be the anchor for thriving communities.