Canada has a problem with addressing race , from delayed action on missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people to the lack of federal race-based data collection. Canada also has a problem with platitudes , prone to making remarks or statements intended to stifle or quell social or emotional unease without providing any concrete changes or action.
“It’s a very Canadian tradition to speak in platitudes, to refer to the underground railroad and to speak about Canada as a haven and a place that acknowledges its past mistakes,” notes Robyn Maynard, author of Policing Black Lives. So it’s no surprise that if Canada has a problem, the highest-ranking political official in our country also has a problem.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s latest comments on anti-Black racism bring to memory his personal and professional struggles with race over the last year. It is difficult to believe or support any of his recent comments on racism and anti-Black racism in reference to what is happening in Canada and the United States.
I attended the Black History Month reception at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on February 24, 2020. Hosted by Bardish Chagger, federal minister of diversity and inclusion and youth, this year’s theme was “Canadians of African Descent: Going Forward, Guided by the Past.” The event’s main attraction was Trudeau’s sit-down interview with Canadian broadcast journalist and cohost of The Social, Marci Ien. As I walked in and engaged with colleagues and friends, I wondered out loud at the incoherence of Trudeau speaking at a Black History Month event given recent events. All this took place amid ongoing calls — including by the Federal Black Employee Caucus — for Trudeau’s government to add more diversity among senior employees within the public service.
The crush of people at the venue was overwhelming, and the room was unbearably hot. Both Trudeau and Ien were seated, and it was difficult to see over the throng of people standing. I missed much of the preamble, as people began to move through the room and settle in.
Then, like a whistle through a silent night, Ien asked the prime minister about his surfaced blackface photos and his response to Black Canadians. The tension was thick, and it felt as though hundreds of people were holding a collective breath.
Those I could see around me winced, and I experienced a delayed sense of elation and shock. I could not believe Ien had asked the question — and in this room of political aficionados in Ottawa no less. Black women have an incredible ability to cut through white noise and touch the heart of the issues that are most critical to Black survival. Ien asked what so many of us had sitting in our minds and hearts.
The distrust of those in leadership positions does not happen overnight. It results from repeated infractions and slights that build up over time. Without a doubt, for many people in this country, blackface will characterize Trudeau’s leadership. The conversations I’ve had with Black community members whenever Trudeau comes on screen begin with the continued incredulity that he could darken his face, put on an afro, play act in a theatre production , take photographs — then fail to mention the existence of these photographs for years as an elected official.
Trudeau did not earn the distrust of Black Canadians overnight . He forgot us in the assembly of his first Cabinet. Then, by failing to recall his blackface, he forgot us again. Those are only two small incidents among hundreds.
At the event Trudeau appeared nervous and fumbled through the beginning of what sounded like a scripted response. The white guilt and shame — reminiscent of many racialized people’s historical experiences of racism — came as no surprise. Prime minister or not, as a white man living in Canada, Trudeau did what most white people in this country do when asked a direct question about race. He apologized, reduced systemic oppression to a series of interpersonal interactions, and mentioned Black and racialized leaders he had sought education and absolution from. Of course, this was after days of minimal response.
We waited for minutes it seemed , and as the platitudes continued, the tension persisted. Black people were not going to hear anything different than what we had already heard before.
So imagine my disbelief when media outlets rushed to write that Trudeau had appropriately conveyed his contrition and that he had received a standing ovation from Black members of the community. I had not witnessed a standing ovation but rather attendees at an event clapping at its rapid, uncomfortable conclusion. Is that not the way of Canadian norms? But so is the media’s read of Canadian politeness as absolution, trust and respect from Black communities. Black people see, hear, and feel racism differently.
Two days later Mary Ng, the minister for small business, export promotion, and international trade; Ahmed Hussen, the minister of families, children and social development; and the prime minister hosted a reception following a trip to Africa. Many of us remember the circulated images of Trudeau and Hussen at the Door of No Return at the slave house on Gorée Island, Senegal. No doubt that was part and parcel of the blackface redemption tour that saw Trudeau engaging with Black and African communities for weeks as a pseudoapology for the surfaced blackface and afro images. This was the first time a Canadian prime minister attended an African Union Summit, with travel to both Ethiopia and Senegal. And he took Maasai Ujiri, the general manager for the Toronto Raptors who had recently won an NBA championship.
As a member of the Somali diaspora in Canada , engagement with the African continent is important to me. But the circumstances that promoted this engagement felt distasteful and inappropriate. To then use Black Toronto’s basketball heroes to further Trudeau’s apology tour felt like compounded racism — it questioned the intelligence of Black communities.
Racism does not always prompt immediate or public reactions from Black and racialized people. Often it requires safety and energy to process the emotions and experiences of anti-Black racism with other Black people. Two days after the sit-down interview, I saw familiar faces at the government reception. Huddled in corners and after perfunctory greetings, we discussed the impact of Trudeau’s contrition. Black people often discuss experiences and matters of race with one another using coded language when in public. It took months for me to better understand what had transpired in that room of heat and shame. It took almost three for me to put words to paper.
National discussions on race cannot happen overnight — and they cannot be swept under the rug with platitudes asking Canadians to stand together. They take a toll on those of us already experiencing a deluge of racism in our everyday lives. Policy change has to be justice oriented, nimble, and flexible enough to dispense with bureaucracy when expedient for Black people, and careful enough to give time for the processing of the trauma presented — 151 years of history comes with a lot of baggage.
While I agree with the calls and recommendations for all elected officials to be required to expend more energy learning about the complex and multifaceted Black communities living in Canada, I can’t help but wonder why the bar is so low for those we elect into positions of power.
We breathe just fine with acknowledgements, platitudes, and scripted statements and appearances from our Black superheroes and celebrities — but without action, these are rendered meaningless.
All levels of government have a role to play here , and municipalities can reduce and defund their police force. In this time of COVID-19, we must heed calls to stop sharing health data with police.
The federal government is not exempt from widespread change, and defunding the police also includes reducing the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and Canada Border Services Agency. Canada’s policies on anti-terror disproportionately impact Black Muslims. Put money in the places where Black people struggle the most to improve housing, programs and social spaces in neighbourhoods, and opportunities for education.
There is a saying that “a fish rots from the head down,” meaning that leadership may sometimes be the root of an organization’s or country’s failure. Irrespective of the actions of our leaders, all Canadians have an ethical obligation to do what’s right by Black people in this country. Critical politics has always been about the will of the collective — not the will of the the most powerful individuals. The time for solidarity was always, but we’ll take it now.
Hawa Y. Mire is a critical writer, strategic senior leader and community organizer based on the indigenous lands of Tkaronto/Toronto.