The Justin Trudeau blackface controversy is not about whether the Liberal leader is racist. It’s about the racism of Canadian institutions — institutions that fail to sanction the Justin Trudeaus of the world for wearing blackface, that reward the Andrew Scheers and Michelle Rempels of the world for targeting migrants and rubbing shoulders with white supremacists, and that punish the Jagmeet Singhs for trying to lead the country while wearing a turban.
In other words, this is about structural racism. And we need to talk about it.
When Trudeau’s government tries to cut a deal with a multi-billion-dollar multinational corporation to help it avoid prosecution on criminal charges, while allowing Indigenous peoples to live under boil water advisories and suffer mercury poisoning — that is structural racism.
When his government prevents refugees, overwhelmingly brown and black, from seeking asylum in Canada if they come through the United States, forcing them to seek protection from Donald Trump, under whom many are detained and could be deported to persecution — that is structural racism.
When his government signs onto the Arms Trade Treaty but continues to prop up a Canadian arms industry complicit in war crimes by supporting the sale to Saudi Arabia of light armoured vehicles used to kill black and brown people in Yemen — that is structural racism.
Poverty, homelessness, and addictions are ailments that disproportionately affect people of colour, and our governments of all stripes and at all levels have systematically failed to invest in poverty reduction, legal aid, affordable housing, and pharmacare — that is structural racism.
As prime minister, Trudeau could have ended immigration detention, where black and brown people are disproportionately imprisoned for seeking a better life. He could have ensured Indigenous children have equal access to public services, which Cindy Blackstock has been tirelessly calling for and which a human rights tribunal recently awarded damages against the government for. He could have taken more decisive action on climate change, a major cause of wars, famine and natural disasters affecting black and brown people disproportionately, but instead he bought a $5-billion pipeline. That is structural racism.
The fact is that people of colour have been sounding the alarm on structural racism for years. We know it exists because we live it every day. Whether it’s being carded or killed by the police, or being passed over for a promotion, we know our institutions need reform. People of colour did not need a blackface photo of the prime minister to remind us that our institutions seldom demand accountability for racist actions.
So let me say this. I believe Justin Trudeau’s apology. Both of them. Indeed, as Samya Hasan, executive director of the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians, noted in her organization’s statement, “nobody is born woke or anti-oppressive.” Racism is learned, and it can be unlearned.
But an apology is good enough only if there’s nothing more you can do. Justin Trudeau is no “Monsieur Tout le Monde.” He is a national leader.
And as national leaders, the Justin Trudeaus of the world can do a lot more. Unlearning their own racism is a good start. But I, for one, would like to see them commit to take decisive steps to tackle the problem of structural racism. People of colour have already told them where to begin.
Aditya Rao is a human rights lawyer in Ottawa.