In CPC leadership race, one candidate stoops to a new low

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 15, 2020.

I was disappointed this week to learn that one candidate in the race for the Conservative Party of Canada leadership had stooped to a new low by besmirching the name of an opponent while hoisting the standard of racism and Islamophobia.

If you’re unfamiliar with the name Jim Karahalios, you could be forgiven. After all, the Cambridge, Ont.-based troublemaker is best known for his Axe the Carbon Tax campaign and his legal disputes with the Ontario PC party. In other words, he is a nonentity in a race which will almost certainly come down to the two leading candidates: Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that Karahalios is relying on name-calling to draw attention to his otherwise lamentable campaign. Last weekend, Karahalios’s team distributed an email attacking O’Toole and accusing O’Toole’s volunteer campaign co-chair of advocating for the implementation of Sharia law in Canada.

Karahalios’s decision to attack O’Toole co-chair Walied Soliman was not just desperate and inappropriate, but also bizarre. For context, Soliman is a long-time party activist and fundraiser. He is widely liked and respected. Further, not only is he chair of the Canadian arm of Norton Rose Fulbright, one of the largest and most successful law firms in the world, he has served as their global chair as well.

Soliman has consistently been ranked as one of the country’s top lawyers, serves on the board of Toronto’s SickKids Hospital Foundation, and just months ago was recognized by the United Nations Association in Canada as its 2019 Global Citizen Laureate. His accolades speak for themselves, as does his long record of generosity and service.

But that’s beside the point.

Karahalios’s xenophobic attack is a reminder of the unfortunate reality that even with a reputation like Soliman’s, Canadian Muslims face uniquely vicious scrutiny for their faith.

I say his record is beside the point because it simply shouldn’t matter how successful or charitable an individual is. Like every other Canadian — Jewish, Christian, atheist or otherwise — their belief (or lack thereof) should be a matter for them, their family and their community. It most certainly should not be a political football to be lobbed in order to undercut the legitimacy of an opponent’s campaign.

In a country like Canada, which prides itself on the secularism of its public sphere, we cannot lose sight of the lived experience of those who face prejudice for their faith. Even as other barometers of social progress like the status of women and acceptance of homosexuality have moved in the right direction, religious tolerance remains a work-in-progress.

It’s easy to forget that just a few decades ago, some of Canada’s largest cities were essentially segregated along lines of faith: Catholics lived in certain neighbourhoods, while Protestant and Jewish families lived elsewhere. While that reality has changed, attitudes toward religious diversity can still be problematic.

Think of Quebec’s Bill 21, which essentially bans all religious symbols from the public sector. Not only does it send a frightening message to Muslims and other religious groups, it sows the potential for social discord.

Consider the example of a veiled woman boarding public transit. Thanks to the specifics of the law, a bus driver or transit employee is now entitled to ask her to verify her identity by removing her covering. Beyond the humiliating nature of such a request, it goes against the principle of individual liberty that a public employee should be empowered to discriminate based on someone’s clothing or religious observance.

At a time when Canadians are as divided as ever along lines of geography, class and political affiliation, it’s incumbent on our leaders to face down divisive language about religion and faith, loudly and definitively condemning nonsense from the likes of Jim Karahalios.

As with the homophobic views of Richard Décarie, I look forward to Karahalios’s realization that his opinions will find no home in the Conservative party or in Canada at all, for that matter. With two weeks to go until the next leadership race qualification deadline of March 25, with a bit of luck he will not have to wait very long to learn his lesson.