As WE scandal drags on, so does government inaction on systemic racism

To be Black in Canada is to wait endlessly for lukewarm action plans
Photo: International Monetary Fund
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Watching the WE Charity saga unfold since early July, it’s clear that a well-synchronized team legitimized the organization’s actions well before the $912-million scandal involving the current administration. Complicity is found at multiple levels, from elected officials to individual corporate partners and players, from media institutions to the charitable sector.

Black, racialized and Indigenous people are often drawn to work in social services based on past experiences, to try to change lives for the better and support the communities within which we remain embedded. Many of us also enter this sector — one characterized by precarious employment, temporary contracts, poor working conditions and limited advancement opportunities — to make a living for our families. We come into social services hopeful that we can make a difference.

The charitable sector does not reflect the clients or communities it serves.

Most Black people in this country who have worked within the carefully policed boundaries of the charitable sector already know there are different rules for charities with primarily white leadership teams. This has not changed in decades. The charitable sector does not reflect the clients or communities it serves — somewhat like a distorted carnival mirror, using the images and powerful testimonies of Black, racialized and Indigenous people to solicit donations and draw attention away from all-white boards and all-white leadership teams.

Many of us know intimately of charities such as WE. We knew of them well before they endured public scrutiny, because they had already done irreparable damage to communities. So much of this does not come as a surprise.

“The very serious function of racism is distraction,” said Toni Morrison. “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being…. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

Where is the action plan on systemic racism from the federal government? When can we expect to see it?

White public scandal — like the current controversy around WE — functions as a distraction in Canada. Canadians have been inundated with a mass of carefully prepared information, leaving us too exhausted to pose critical questions to our elected officials about key social issues.

Where is the action plan on systemic racism from the federal government? When can we expect to see it? Nine weeks ago, Justin Trudeau responded to a question about this by informing the media that a work plan was coming “very soon.” Canadians, particularly Black Canadians, are still waiting. This delay has occurred despite a document from the Parliamentary Black Caucus, published in June 2020, calling on the federal government to take immediate action to address anti-Black racism. To be Black in Canada is to wait endlessly for lukewarm action plans, and to have to continually persist in holding other people accountable.

Our cabinet ministers are completely out of step with average Canadians, many of whom pay high rents in a country with rising unemployment and increasingly unaffordable housing.

Why does our now-former finance minister, Bill Morneau, whom we relied upon to make sound financial decisions for our country, seem to have no real grasp on his own pocket? How on earth does anyone forget $40,000 in expenses? How do you forget your daughter’s relationship to WE? How do you forget to declare a villa? Does Morneau own so many properties he simply forgot one? More appalling than this “forgetting” is the fact that our cabinet ministers are so completely out of step with average Canadians, many of whom pay high rents in a country with rising unemployment and increasingly unaffordable housing. The gap is so wide it would take an extraordinarily long bridge to cross.

There is no such thing as accountability — the election is too far away and governance is taking a real beating. I’m no financial wizard, but it feels pretty clear that by now that the total cost of the finance committee meetings, including members’ salaries and the infrastructure and logistical costs to pull together these meetings, have cost the Canadian public a pretty penny. On average an MP makes $182,600 per year, not including additional dollars for sitting on committees and allowances such as transportation and accommodation.

Meanwhile, we still haven’t increased Black youth employment. We still haven’t increased Indigenous youth employment. We still haven’t increased racialized youth employment. Despite relentless investigation, it looks as if there will be few, if any, consequences for white people in positions of power as a result of the WE scandal. But here we are, wasting our valuable taxpayer dollars on political jaunts, committees and meetings with no clear outcomes in sight. As Morrison told us, the function of racism is distraction.

Here is where attention should be. I previously asked for half of the $900 million involved in the WE Charity plan to be earmarked for Black communities instead. Here is where that $450 million should go:

  • $100 million to provide affordable and long-term housing options for Black communities;
  • $50 million for an infrastructure fund designed to increase the capacity of Black-led organizations and charities;
  • $50 million to prepare and outfit school boards to respond appropriately to incidents of anti-Black racism and increase safety for Black children and families;
  • $100 million to increase health outcomes for Black communities, with a particular focus on rebuilding the communities hit hardest by COVID-19;
  • $100 million for Black-led employment programming for youth 15–29 years old; and
  • $50 million to increase mental health services in community-led spaces and institutions.

If the federal government won’t provide Black Canadians with $450 million, Canadians must apply appropriate and corrective pressure. But Black communities can also no longer wait, and non-Black Canadians can stand in solidarity with us by fundraising the shortfall. With Black communities administering the funds, and the appropriate financial partner, there is endless room for possibility. Sometimes citizens have to show the government how the job gets done.

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