TORONTO — Justin Trudeau better take this minority seriously.
The prime minister of Canada, re-elected on Monday with a less powerful government, can’t ignore his country’s racism problem anymore.
Not long after explosive old photos showing three instances of Mr. Trudeau wearing brownface and blackface were published, a Liberal member of Parliament insisted that her black constituents now loved him more than ever. Peter Mansbridge, a popular retired TV news anchor, said in a keynote address that Canadian voters were “not interested” in the photos and would prefer a return to the “real issues.” Naheed Nenshi, who is mayor of Calgary and Muslim, wrote that putting up with racist things is “part of the deal” for everyone in Canada who is part of a minority.
Their responses — nice, polite, sugarcoated — made me realize what lies at the heart of Canadian racism. It’s our signature behavior, our made-in-Canada brand. Nice and polite people can’t be racist, after all.
The racial reckoning that has failed to materialize after we got this glimpse into Mr. Trudeau’s past hasn’t shocked me. I’ve researched the shameful history of blackface in Canada and watched throughout the 2019 election campaign as a litany of racist incidents unfolded for black, brown, Indigenous and Muslim Canadians, to name just some of the minorities whose stories make headlines. Instead of holding public forums on race, we amplify xenophobic voices; instead of reforming discriminatory policies, we fixate on our image. And so, our multicultural paradise still looks shiny on the brochures.
After all, nice and polite people don’t make a fuss over ugliness; they pretend not to see it or erase it from their minds. Acknowledging the reality — that we have race issues in Canada — would mean we’d have to admit to the world, and ourselves, that we haven’t lived up to our own mythology.
The world over, Canadians have come to be known as nice. Canada consistently ranks in the top three in the annual “Best Countries” project by U.S. News & World Report. Canadians are often praised for their good natures, with more than 80 percent of respondents giving us top marks for our friendliness in a survey by the global social network InterNations. A study last year at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, even found Canadians tend to be far more pleasant than Americans on Twitter.
And yet plenty of not-so-nice behavior contradicted this mythology during the six-week election campaign.
None of the moderators at the only English-language debate asked questions about race issues while welcoming the openly xenophobic newcomer, the People’s Party of Canada, to the stage.
None of the parties produced an action plan for combating record highs of alt-right groups in Canada, which have tripled since the last election to an estimated 300 groups, nor the staggering 47 percent increase in hate crimes since 2017.
And none made a concrete pledge to counter virulently prejudicial legislation in Quebec, which bans the wearing of religious symbols in the public workplace, fomenting Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. The resurgent Bloc Québécois slyly tucked it away during the campaign.
Not everyone avoided the realities of being black, brown, Indigenous or another minority group in Canada. We were talking, tweeting, publishing and protesting. But people with bigger platforms — our politicians and the national media — haven’t kept the conversation going for more than five minutes. Combine niceness with newsrooms that are disproportionately white, and coverage inevitably distorts in ways that don’t adequately represent the country’s racial and ethnic diversity.
Just days before the election, the Canadian media largely glossed over another opportunity for debate on race: when Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, gave his endorsement to Mr. Trudeau, the first (known) prime minister to wear blackface. The Globe and Mail positioned it as an “unjustifiable American intrusion”; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation orated on the men’s cozy relationship; the National Post buried it in a roundup of the day’s campaign news; and Global News weirdly noted only that President Trump was reluctant to talk about Canada’s blackface scandal.
Also striking was the tone of coverage about the overt racism directed toward Jagmeet Singh, leader of the left-wing New Democratic Party, who is Sikh. Mr. Singh was repeatedly lauded for his “poise” and “grace” across reporting after a man demanded the leader “cut off” his turban “to look like a Canadian” when they crossed paths at a Montreal campaign event. And then, during the English-language debate, it was exploited as a talking point by rival candidates, who awkwardly took turns congratulating him over his handling of the episode.
And still, there was no scrutiny of the actual racism. It seems that many Canadians just don’t want to grapple with race head on. Even the progressive-minded Elizabeth May, who leads the Green Party and is frank about systemic racism, says she’s “hesitant” to speak out when asked if Canada is “racist as a country.” “It’s a hard answer because it makes people uncomfortable,” she told reporters earlier this month.
It’s time to get over being nice and comfortable. It’s time to acknowledge that Canada’s race issues impact everyone, and to work toward understanding and validating the experiences of racialized Canadians.
Mr. Trudeau loves to say that “diversity is Canada’s strength.” Diversity is also tough, challenging and sometimes outright frustrating because it requires listening, being open to what you don’t know, and letting go of what you think you do. At the same time, diversity is just the myth; anti-racism is the work. For starters, the Liberals should prep up their new Anti-Racism Strategy so it can be used immediately to launch a national conversation. No one should know better than Mr. Trudeau that this work is needed now, and must not get papered over until the next appalling episode.
My grandmother used to say that it’s not right to take a brush and sweep up everything when your intention is to get rid of just the dirt. Of course there are white people who are politically, socially and actively engaged in anti-racist work. They are my friends, colleagues and students.
In the month since the photos of Mr. Trudeau surfaced, I’ve had white Canadians share with me that they, too, performed blackface as a child, or that blackface was ubiquitous in their community. If my research has encouraged some white Canadians to stop fearing their own racist pasts, more of our public leaders could surely do the same. What we need is courage, not a polite, “Sorry about that, eh.”
Cheryl Thompson (@DrCherylT) is an assistant professor at Ryerson University in the School of Creative Industries and author of “Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture.”
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