Many watching Thursday's debate were shocked to hear Stephen Harper make a distinction between refugees and those he called "old stock Canadians." If they had been familiar with Harper's history and his Reform roots, they wouldn't have been shocked at all. Murray Dobbins writes:
Not much is written these days about the nature of the Conservative base post-merger of the old Progressive Conservative Party and the Alliance Party (formerly Reform). But the base is largely the same today, and in my book Preston Manning and the Reform Party I documented just how dangerous the immigration issue was for Manning and his then-policy chief, Stephen Harper. No other policy issue took up as much time on the political massage table as this one -- with Manning having to use all his persuasive powers to neutralize the alarming resolutions coming from the famous "grass roots" of the party.
Leading up to 1991 policy convention, the most important the Reform Party ever held, there were 18 riding resolutions on immigration. Every one of them was considered by the party executive as extreme in one way or another: imposing various restrictions on immigrants, settlement in remote regions, demands for "ethnic balance," the deportation of immigrants with criminal convictions, etc. None of them made it to the convention floor, replaced by the Party Policy Committee with three more moderate ones.
From the very beginning, the Reform Party was anti-immigrant:
One way top Reformers played to the anti-immigrant vote was through the promotion of the writings and speeches of William Gairdner, one of the party's most popular keynote speakers. In his book, The Trouble with Canada, Gairdner (in a chapter called "The Silent Destruction of English Canada...") spoke of "invading cultures" and proposed quotas on "non-traditional" immigrants (those not from the U.K., U.S., New Zealand, Britain or white South Africans). Gairdner warned "in 250 years Canada could become a Chinese nation."
And the National Citizens Coalition, which Harper headed, opposed -- among many other things -- the settlement of Vietnamese refugees:
Among its many well-funded campaigns (against the Canada Health Act, fair tax reform, unions, and restrictions on corporate political spending) was a hysterical campaign against Canada admitting the so-called "boat people" -- the 1978-79 wave of refugees from post-war Vietnam. The NCC took out two full-page ads in The Globe and Mail warning that the government's policies would lead to "at least 750,000 [Vietnamese] in the not too distant future." The actual number was 60,000.
The line from the Globe and Mail sounds suspiciously like Harper's claim that the other two parties would open the door to "hundreds of thousands" of refugees.
Bigotry was always at the heart of the Reform Party. And, even though he tries to hide it, Stephen Harper occasionally reminds us that he never was a Conservative. He was -- and is -- a Reformer.