CAMBRIDGE – In the summer of 2015, former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper looked set to win his fourth consecutive election, scheduled for that October. Instead, his Conservative Party won just 99 of the House of Commons’ 338 seats. The party did not win a single constituency in Toronto or the entire Atlantic seaboard. Instead, the Liberal Party, led by Justin Trudeau, ended up obtaining the second-largest parliamentary majority in its history – 184 seats – despite having started the electoral campaign in third place.
That rapid reversal of fortunes was triggered by events thousands of miles away. In the early hours of September 2, 2015, in Bodrum, Turkey, a Syrian Kurdish family boarded a dinghy to try to reach Greece. A few minutes later, the dinghy capsized, and Rihanna Kurdi, together with her two children, Ghalib and Aylan, drowned. A Turkish photographer, Nilüfer Demir, posted on Twitter an image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body lying on the beach. The picture shocked the world – and ended Harper’s political career.
The previous spring, Harper had ordered Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander to review Canada’s refugee policy, in order to ensure that terrorists were not being admitted – a move that brought the system almost to a halt. A month earlier, he had considered prohibiting the use of the niqab in public services, raising suspicion about the true motive behind the decision on refugees.
Aylan Kurdi’s aunt – Tima Kurdi, a resident of Vancouver – had been trying to get him and his family into Canada, but Harper’s refugee decisions had prevented it. Suddenly, a policy purportedly intended to protect Canadians from Islamist terrorism became a policy that offended Canadians’ sense of who they were: an open, compassionate society. Harper paid dearly for it.