Despite an unusually short Toronto city council meeting this week, councillors made a point of taking time to underline their commitment to diversity and inclusion in the wake of a fear- and terror-filled few days. They held a moment of silence for the victims of the Quebec City shooting and reaffirmed Toronto’s status as a “sanctuary city” in response to the U.S. travel ban targeting refugees and immigrants. Flanked by councillors, John Tory spoke earnestly about the need for Toronto to welcome people who've nowhere safe to go, saying, “no one should be made afraid because of who they are or where they come from.”
But people are afraid, in Toronto and elsewhere. And one of Tory’s closest associates makes a living scaring them.
Nick Kouvalis ran Rob Ford's mayoral campaign in 2010 — a campaign, and a mayoralty, that upended Toronto politics with its acceptance of Ford's history of making wildly offensive statements. Kouvalis has always been willing to play rough with others, including covert attacks on Tory himself when it was expedient. And he was, until last night, running Kellie Leitch’s campaign for the Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership, a campaign best known for its Trump-inspired calls for immigrant "values tests."
Anyone who knows Leitch’s name at all these days knows it because she’s picked up the immigrant-bashing ball her party dropped in the last election and run with it. Leitch claims to believe that every single immigrant entering the country should be interrogated by an agent of the Canadian government. (They call it “face-to-face screening,” but let’s be honest about what that means.) Immigrants are to be checked for “Canadian values,” defined on her campaign website so vaguely as to be meaningless.
It’s important to understand that Leitch’s proposal is unworkable nonsense: even if we rush right past the problem of massively expanding the number of agents to interview potential immigrants, if her proposal means anything it means a much more invasive and totally subjective assessment of each and every immigrant. There’s no moral or factual justification for this, since new Canadians already don’t exactly waltz in the country’s front door. Leitch’s proposal also suggests that a significant numbers of new Canadians who’ve already started their lives here are, in fact, potentially dangerous and need to be subjected to heightened scrutiny. After all, they didn’t get screened.
You won’t find the word “Muslim” anywhere on Leitch’s immigration policy page and, gosh, she’s shocked and confused anyone would think these ideas have any type of person in mind. But just because she (and until yesterday, Kouvalis) is treating us like idiots doesn’t mean we need to oblige her. These are measures intended to target Muslim new Canadians and other minorities, to throw up barriers to people looking to make a life in Canada. Most damning, the measures also prod everyone who’s already here to look at newcomers with fear and suspicion.
This was all true before Kouvalis’s most recent eruption of bile on Twitter, where he accused a University of Waterloo professor of “treason” and called him a “cuck,” a racially and sexually charged slur pulled out of the fever swamps of the internet’s white-supremacist fringe. (In simple terms it refers to someone — almost always a white man — who has betrayed his race and is deemed unmanly for having done so.) Kouvalis apologized for the tweet before resigning from Leitch's campaign, but even the charitably inclined are obliged only to forgive, not to forget someone who tries to bring the worst elements of Canadian politics into the mainstream.
Which brings us around once more to John Tory. Since running Tory's election campaign in 2014, Kouvalis has served as an occasional adviser to the mayor and was widely expected to play a leading role in Tory’s re-election campaign next year. That’s a problem. The mayor has repeatedly been asked about his association with Kouvalis; speaking with reporters on Friday morning he once again did not rule out working with him.
For Tory, apparently, it’s possible to lie down with dogs and not get fleas.
”I’ve indicated that I completely reject the approaches that have been taken in the course of this campaign he’s just resigned from,” he told reporters, “And so anybody who works on my next campaign — anybody — is going to have to conform to those values.” That statement is not fundamentally different from another Tory made earlier this week.
The clarity of Tory’s values is debatable. Of the 44 choices he had at council for naming a deputy mayor, the one he made — Denzil Minnan-Wong — walked out of council rather than have his opposition to this week’s sanctuary city motion recorded. In 2014, Minnan-Wong was a hard “no” vote on the matter, making his views on undocumented immigrants clear. That was on the record when Tory chose him for the post.
Failing to make a clear and explicit break with Kouvalis proves the opposite of what Tory wants it to. Instead of showing that the mayor’s own principles are indestructible, it suggests that there’s no penalty for odious conduct as long as the guilty have friends in high office who want to stay in office.
It’s folly to guess what’s in the souls of men, but the range of possibilities here isn’t encouraging. Either Tory’s loyalty to Kouvalis is mercenary, and he simply wants to ensure Kouvalis doesn’t work for someone else next time. (This is not a flight of fancy.) Or there’s some point of personal principle here — Tory could be excused up to a point for being grateful to the man who helped him win his current office.
That point has passed. Tory won’t need Kouvalis in 2018. Tory’s term has been so relatively peaceful compared to predecessor Rob Ford, and the deck is so absurdly stacked in favour of incumbents in municipal office, that Tory could be running against a literal billion-dollar pile of subway money and he’d still carry the city’s vote easily. He can stick to this morning’s position, or he can do the right thing.
If Tory keeps his ambiguous stance on Kouvalis into next year, he’s going to need to explain to voters in Canada’s most diverse city why their campaign donations should pay the wages of a man who thinks some of them don’t belong here.
Photo of Nick Kouvalis courtesy Canadian Club of Toronto and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version)
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