Canadians deserve more than a white-bread response to racism

“That’s not how we do things in Canada.”

Are you sure about that?

This was the statement our racially unsavvy prime minister gave to reporters in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s statements telling four congresswomen to “go back to where they came from,” and it’s very Canadian. So too is Bill 21, Quebec’s new secularism law that quite literally excludes and punishes religious minorities by preventing those who wear religious symbols from accessing public service jobs, including as judges, teachers, and Crown prosecutors.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims are seeking to have the Quebec law struck down for being unconstitutional. On July 18, they lost a motion for an injunction to suspend the law while the merits of the constitutional case are argued. The Quebec Superior Court judge ruled that there is no evidence of a demonstrated serious or irreparable harm flowing from the new act. Yet the number of Islamaphobic incidents has reportedly risen since the legislation was tabled in March, with many convincingly arguing that the state sanctioned discrimination has emboldened racists and xenophobes.

Sunny ways don’t apply to Muslims.

Trudeau’s remarks show that he doesn’t understand the country he lives in, nor the riding he represents. Or has he forgotten suddenly that he is “the Member from Papineau?”

Meanwhile in Toronto, the Canada Border Service Agency was surreptitiously stopping anyone darker than drywall for their “papers please.” Why wouldn’t racialized and newcomer Canadians feel perfectly at home here? And this is being done in the riding of Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s immigration minister.

“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”—more wisdom from Trudeau, which would be true, except for the minor detail that it’s not. Certainly not if you’re Black or brown, or, God forbid, not Canadian at all, in which case you can be held in administrative detention anywhere from 48 hours to five years. This is to say nothing of Canada’s continued treatment of Indigenous people, reconciliation be damned.

Last month, the federal government released its anti-racism strategy, entitled Building a Foundation for Change: Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy 2019–2022. The strategy makes little mention of Islamophobia, nor does it get into the particulars of how to address racism and makes nary a mention of the rise of white nationalism and white supremacy, despite the fact that in April the head of CSIS said that the agency was seeing an increase in white supremacist behaviour.

We suppose Justin Trudeau might say, to paraphrase his July 15 remarks, Canadians ought to know exactly what he thinks of racism. The trouble is, we don’t.

Canadian exceptionalism is so well known, it’s almost a meme. We love nothing more than doubling down on the fact that Canada is consistently within the top five of global surveys for quality of life and the best places to live. (Pay no mind of the living conditions of First Nations people or that Canada is a leader of discriminatory hiring practices). But Canadian exceptionalism around racism, the idea that it cannot and does not happen here, is entirely unfounded and yet perpetrated by neophytes. And not only is it disingenuous to say “that doesn’t happen here,” as some often retort, or to minimize the role racism plays in Canadian society, it is harmful, too.

Hollow catchphrases and platitudes are not enough. Anti-racism efforts are a substantive issue that merit the same rigorous and nuanced debate and diligence as any other crisis facing our country. More than a year-and-a-half after the deadly and heinous Quebec City mosque shooting, this should be more than obvious to elected officials and policy-makers.

Canadians deserve better than a prime minister who shies away from confrontation on issues of racism, and cannot even use the term “racist” in a situation that calls for it. We deserve better than a leader who merely falls back on a flawed premise of multiculturalism as a Canadian-made panacea from the era of his father’s reign.

While Justin Trudeau seeks shelter behind flowery maxioms, Jagmeet Singh wears these values despite great personal and political risk.

Singh, the leader of the NDP, the first racialized federal party leader, and a man whose faith and religious symbols, a turban and kirpan, are targets of Bill 21, is campaigning to change sentiments around the legislation, one voter at a time in the face of ignorant remarks on the campaign trail. He has vowed to lead the opposition against the legislation, where so many political leaders have fallen silent.

The human rights and dignity of Canadians and non-Canadians alike are at stake in the upcoming election. Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people have shown us the way to creating a truly more equitable society, one that doesn’t rely on nationalist and colonial ideals of who belongs and what determines their value; the validation of belonging continues to be decided by the white majority and centred around their needs. We see this across the pages of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry report, and through the work of Black Lives Matter Toronto, Justice for Migrant Workers, and the National Council of Canadian Muslims, to name a few.

As Rep. Ilhan Omar said in response to Donald Trump’s tweets directed at her, “We are all deserving and we don’t need permission or an invitation to exist and step into our power.” Omar is showing the way for what it means to be both critical and hopeful of your country in the face of hate. “This is not about me; this is about us fighting for what this country truly should be and what it deserves to be,” she said in a July 18 press conference. Justin Trudeau should take note.

Erica Ifill and Amy Kishek co-host the Bad+Bitchy podcast.

As published in The Hill Times.