A weekend of chaos in North America ended in tragedy. As President Donald Trump faced a storm of protest against his executive order banning travelers and immigrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries, a mosque in Quebec City was attacked by a white nationalist gunman on Sunday night. At least six people were killed and 18 were wounded. On both sides of the border, it seemed, anti-Muslim sentiment was driving the news.
But the Canadian and American governments struck very different notes the next day. And as long as Trump is in the White House, the contrasts between his divisive, nationalist presidency and Canada’s current embrace of inclusiveness and multiculturalism seem likely to grow even more stark.
Addressing the House of Commons, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the assault on the mosque a terrorist attack. “To the more than one million Canadians who profess the Muslim faith, I want to say directly, we are with you,” said Trudeau. He received a standing ovation from the assembled legislators, including his opponents.
In Washington, meanwhile, the Trump administration staunchly defended its executive order, which critics deemed “un-American” and a boon to jihadist recruitment. White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the numerous tales of lives interrupted – or shattered – as a minor “inconvenience” in the quest to keep Americans safe. When asked about a 5-year-old held by authorities on Saturday, he showed little sympathy.
Josh Eidelson tweeted: Spicer, asked about 5 yr-old: “To assume that just b/c of someone’s age or gender or whatever that they don’t pose a threat would be wrong”
Then Spicer tried to argue that the attack on Muslims in Quebec City was further justification for what Trump is doing. “It’s a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant and why the President is taking steps to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to our nation’s safety and security,” he said.
Ever since Trump began his presidency with an apocalyptic inaugural address, we’ve known the United States is voyaging into uncharted political waters. His doctrine of “America First” is an explicit moral retreat on the world stage, a call for the United States to look after its narrow interests rather than defend global values. It’s an ultra-nationalist rejection of a liberal order the United States spend decades creating.
Now Canada is the outspoken defender of values that Americans have long embraced as their own. Trudeau, a progressive liberal, has emerged as a kind of anti-Trump (a phrase I may have coined almost a year ago). They are both experts at branding, but project almost diametrically opposed visions of themselves and their nations. For thousands of Americans now marching against Trump, Trudeau represents much that they see missing in their current president, from his celebration of feminism and belief in man-made climate change to his openness to other cultures and willingness to apologize for his nation’s past misdeeds.
Consider the issue of refugees. Trump actively campaigned against Syrian refugees, secured the support of hardline anti-immigrant voters by vastly overstating the threat Syrians posed and now seeks to shutter his country’s existing refugee resettlement program. His son notoriously likened refugees to poisoned candy.
Trudeau, on the other hand, has been a consistent advocate for Syrian refugees. His Liberal government has welcomed some 40,000 Syrians since he took office in November 2015, a figure that dwarfs the 15,000 resettled in the United States during the entire war. After Trump’s executive order signaled a refugee ban, Trudeau tweeted a message of support to those seeking sanctuary.
It’s not simply a contrast of two leaders. While Trump put forward a national security plan that scapegoats all refugees as a threat – no matter the evidence to the contrary – Trudeau appointed a minister of immigration who was himself once a refugee: Ahmed Hussen, who was born in Somalia and arrived in Canada as a teenager in the mid-1990s. He became a lawyer, worked in a struggling urban community and even testified in Washington in 2011 before a U.S. congressional committee on the subject of the radicalization of some Somali Americans.
This weekend there were suggestions that Hussen could be denied entry to the U.S. because of his Somali roots, though White House officials eventually clarified this wouldn’t happen. Hussen played it cool. He assured people stranded in Canada because of Trump’s executive order that they would receive temporary residency, then deflected reporters’ questions about his opinions on Trump with a defense of Canadian values.
“I can tell you what our principles are,” said Hussen. “Our principles are of openness: open to ideas, open to people, open to those who want to come here and make a better life for themselves, contribute to our economy [with] their high skills, and to also to continue to have compassion for those who seek sanctuary in our country, and I think we’ve been a better country as a result.”
Jason Kenney, a leading Canadian conservative politician, was a bit more blunt. Trump’s order, he tweeted, is “a brutal, ham-fisted act of demagogic political theater.”
Some see this moment as a chance to live up to Canadian ideals as Trump’s America turns its back. “The United States closed a door. Canada can open a window,” wrote Ratna Omidvar, a Canadian senator who called on Trudeau to expand his refugee resettlement program. It’s also potentially profitable: CEOs of Canadian tech companies are now eager to offer jobs to numerous high-skilled immigrants at risk in the United States because of another Trump plan to curtail certain employment visas.
Others express more caution. After all, the attack on the Quebec City mosque shows Canada isn’t immune to its own hateful pathologies.
“This is a great country, and I would not choose to live anywhere else. But I don’t think we Canadians have any special purchase on justice, diversity or fellow feeling,” wrote University of Toronto philosopher Mark Kingwell earlier this month. “This is not the best of all possible countries, as recent arrivals and indigenous peoples will certainly attest. We are as rife as anyone else in intolerance, bigotry and ignorance.”
But to Trump’s critics, Canada certainly looks rather exceptional at the moment.