The West Block – Episode 3, Season 9

Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, September 22, 2019 with Mercedes Stephenson.


Episode 3, Season 9

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guest Interviews: Green Party Leader Elizabeth May

Strategist Panel: Anne McGrath, Fred DeLorey, Sarbjit Kaur and Robin Gill

Location: Vancouver, British Columbia

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “When we reflect on mistakes we’ve made in the past, that’s a question that we’re always going to be asking — why did we do that? Why did we think it was okay? Why did we think it was a good idea at the time? It wasn’t a good idea. It was a terrible idea. It was something that minimizes and takes advantage of a reality that I have not had to live with — of being discriminated against, of being marginalized, of being judged, for the colour of my skin, for my language, my background. I come from a place of privilege, and I have to recognize that I let a lot of people down with that choice. And I stand here today to reflect on that and to ask for forgiveness.”

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer: “Wearing brownface is an act of open mockery and racism. It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019. And what Canadians saw this evening is someone with a complete lack of judgement and integrity and someone who’s not fit to govern this country.”

NDP Party Leader Jagmeet Singh: “When I was growing up, I fought racists. I dealt with them myself and I fought back. But I got a message from a friend who reminded me that there’s a lot of people out there that couldn’t do that. They couldn’t fight back. They didn’t have the ability to do that. They couldn’t. They couldn’t do it themselves. And I think that it’s going to hurt to see this. It’s going to hurt them a lot.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Good morning from Vancouver. It’s Sunday, September 22nd. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

A campaign off the rails: Justin Trudeau scrambling to get back on track in damage control mode after two photos and a video obtained by Global News show the prime minister in blackface and brownface.

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Long-time friend and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is now questioning her relationship with the Justin Trudeau she thought she knew.

I sat down with Ms. May late last week here in Vancouver. Here’s that conversation.

Elizabeth May, thank you so much for sitting down with us.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: It’s great to see you. Thank you, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s been a pretty tough week the past week for Justin Trudeau and the Liberals on the campaign: three different incidents of the Liberal leader in blackface or brownface. What is your response to that?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: I’m so deeply shocked. Those who know me know it’s hard to believe that I’m finding—trouble finding the words. I usually don’t have trouble articulating my feelings, but I find this deeply troubling and really shameful behaviour, and it’s inexplicable that Justin Trudeau could be three times recorded. I mean it seems to be something he likes to do, which is racist behaviour.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that he’s fit to the prime minister of Canada, given there’s been three incidents?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: I belong to a tradition that is prepared to forgive, but he has to express—or to me, and all Canadians—why we should forgive him. At this point, it is behaviour that hurts people. It hurts children of colour. It hurts Indigenous peoples. It hurts all of us who care about really eradicating racism from this culture, form this society and it puts it right in our face that racism is alive and well in Canada, and that is unforgiveable.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that there’s concerns about how many times this may have happened?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: I don’t want to sound unfair, but it’s transparent that he apologizes for the incidents that he thinks are in distribution and circulation. He apologizes when he’s caught.

Mercedes Stephenson: And he should have come out before any of this became public, do you think?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: Well at this point, I can’t feel certain that I know who he is anymore. I can’t feel certain that there aren’t other pictures circulating among friends with more of this sort of thing. How much could there be out there and what possible explanation is there for this racist behaviour which surfaces not once, not twice, but now three times.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: His camp says that he has demonstrated policies that clearly show he’s progressive, that he’s not racist. He has said that he regrets this, that it was a mistake. But given the three incidents, do you feel that you could support a Liberal government in a minority situation led by Justin Trudeau?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: I need to see what happens after the election, what is the will of Canadians, as expressed at the ballot box, because my number one commitment always is to doing what’s best for Canada. Right now, my trust in—it’s hard to have any trust. I mean, so many promises were broken.

Mercedes Stephenson: Ms. May, I have to ask you, as a party leader, have you ever worn brownface or blackface? Or have any of your candidates’ worn brownface or blackface that you’re aware of?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: Absolutely never have I done such a thing, it’s appalling. And I don’t think that any of our candidates are hiding anything from us. One dear friend of mine just contacted the party to say I did once and this is of course, a well-known Canadian satirist and comic, Greg Malone, who was the founder of CODCO—he’s running in Avalon and he let us know that in one of the skits that was broadcast on CBC several decades ago. I haven’t seen the skit, but there was a skit in which he wore blackface. But it was—as I said, it was part of a comedy skit on CODCO and broadcast on National Public Broadcaster, but it’s still, you know, in retrospect, he wishes he hadn’t done it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think he should still be allowed to run as a candidate? He still wore a blackface.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: Again, at the time, it meant that it wasn’t a hidden video. It wasn’t a hidden event. It was published—it was part of a national very well loved comedy show. And I haven’t reviewed it, but he is very upfront about it and he didn’t hide it.

Mercedes Stephenson: But if blackface is wrong for Justin Trudeau in a yearbook, why isn’t it wrong for a Green party candidate on a major national broadcaster?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: I think that the context of it being a comedy show in an era where it was broadcast on national television was not something that was hidden and it was not something that he would do today. And I know Greg extremely well. They’re not multiple incidents and it wasn’t part of a private life entertainment that he thought was appropriate. So, given the outrageousness of CODCO in the day, I think it falls in a different category.

Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to Andrew Scheer, you’ve raised questions about whether or not you can support him based on his comments on Indigenous people around natural resource projects. Would you be willing to support a Conservative minority government?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: The reality of it is that Andrew Scheer’s comments on equal marriage; we were the first party to call for equal marriage. The speech that has appeared makes his views, which are appalling, completely unacceptable to me. There’s nothing in the Conservative platform that could induce me to support that platform. But after an election would I talk to the leader of a Conservative party, talk to the leader of the New Democrat party, talk to the leader of the Liberal party, whomever those people may be, to serve the interests of Canada.

Mercedes Stephenson: So there’s a possibility that you would support any of those parties in a minority situation.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: If we put—we will bring down any government on the very first confidence vote if there’s a failure to take the climate emergency seriously. That’s our bottom line. We will bring down any government, regardless of its composition if there is a failure to respond in a concrete, committed and serious manner to the climate catastrophe.

Mercedes Stephenson: Let’s talk about your platform. It was released last week.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: Yeah.

Mercedes Stephenson: We got a look at it. Everyone knows Elizabeth May and the environment and the Green party and the environment, but it was the first chance that Canadians have really had to get some in-depth peaks at your policies on issues not related to the environment, everything from National Defence to health care. One of the promises that you make in there—well several promises in terms of funding—would be free education, child care, pharmacare, dental care. That has to be several billion dollars.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: Oh, it’s more than that.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you looking at an increase in income tax for individuals at all?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: No, not at all. And no tax increase on the real backbone of our economy: small business.

Mercedes Stephenson: We talk about your passion a lot, which is environment. And now I get to ask you about mine, which is defence and security. NATO and NORAD, do you think that we should stay in those alliances?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: I think we need to constantly refresh and review what the strategic imperative for Canada is. Right now our single largest security threat is the climate crisis. Our relationship with NATO is very important, but I want to review it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Elizabeth May, thank you so much for joining us.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, how are the Trudeau blackface and brownface images affecting his party and the election campaign?

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Well, those images have now been seen around the world. The photographs and the video obtained by Global News from the Conservative party and verified with the Liberal campaign that show Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface, making headlines around the globe. From the U.K. to Asia and the United States, how is all of this affecting his campaign and the race to win in October?

Joining me now in Ottawa, NDP strategist Anne McGrath and Conservative strategist, Fred DeLorey; in Toronto, Liberal strategist Sarbjit Kaur and from just down the road, our very own Global News anchor Robin Gill.

Robin, let’s start with you. This issue really dominated the campaign trail this week. What was the reaction like in your community to these images and to how the Liberal campaign handled this, and in racialized communities across Canada?

Robin Gill: I think everybody’s heart just sank. It’s wrong. It was wrong in 1800. It’s wrong in 2001. It’s wrong in 2019. I think that people don’t understand that it is very frustrating for people like me to explain to you that this frat boy mentality, it is not funny at all. People think they’re trying to be authentic when they’re roleplaying. Well, it’s offensive.

Mercedes Stephenson: And Sarbjit, you are a Liberal strategist. When you looked at these photos and you watched Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stand up there and say he doesn’t know how many times this might have happened. He can’t remember if there might be more photos. How do you defend him as the leader?

Sarbjit Kaur: Well when I saw the photos, I was certainly surprised, disappointed, shocked. The fact that there might be more photos is not actually that surprising, because if you thought it was okay and you genuinely thought in your—your heart that it wasn’t racist and this was acceptable, not that that is the right position to take—then whether you did it once or you did it five times within the same, you know, span of time, it was all around 20 years ago from the time he was in high school or up to, you know, his late 20s. So that wouldn’t necessarily surprise me that there would be more than one instance, the fact is more of what happened back then. And the way that we can accept his apology is basically by his track record, the fact that he has worked every day to champion diversity, to champion equality whether it’s for LGBT communities, whether it’s for racialized communities and that’s why he’s going to, I feel personally, get the benefit of the doubt from many people who will hold him to a higher standard, as they should, but that he has that track record to stand on.

Mercedes Stephenson: Sarbjit, why do you think he didn’t come out and disclose when he was first asked about this that there could be more instances? He only revealed the one and then it came out there was at least one more, that Global News video, and that’s when he said well I don’t know how many others. It’s understandable, perhaps, that people did something in their past and can say that was wrong and I’ve moved on, but the fact that he wasn’t upfront about that. How did that [00:12:42 ring] in Liberal circles?
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Sarbjit Kaur: I think it is highly possible that a person would not remember exactly how many instances they may have participated in a dress-up costume party how many of those costumes may have been, you know, highly inappropriate. So the preciseness does not necessarily lead me to doubt his sincerity. He’s acknowledged that he did this. He’s accepted full responsibility. He’s apologized, and you know, actions speak louder than words, for me, personally.

Mercedes Stephenson: And, you know, there’s no question that he has championed progressive policies. He put them in place in government, and what Sarbjit is saying is if you look at his record, it suggests that he’s changed. Do you think that this is seriously damaging to him, still, when we get to October 21st or does it fall by the wayside?

Anne McGrath: I don’t know how much an impact it’s going to have on vote intention or voter intension, but I do think it is a very, very clear defining moment, where I think a lot of people’s opinions of him will change. From the beginning, we’ve been saying that, you know, for Progressive voters, you thought you were voting for, you know, sunny ways and a feminist and progressive and those kinds of things. And we’ve been pointing out some of the sort of dissonances in that. This makes that very clear. And so I think that there’s going to be a very—even for people who accept his apology, and I think a lot of people have accepted his apology and believed it was sincere, even for those people, there is a sort of they feel let down and it makes them wonder about other things like the things that he says about Indigenous Canadians and then, you know, kind of belittles and mocks an Indigenous person who came to one of his fundraisers and wanted to know about mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. So those kinds of things, I think that dissonance is going to become part of the narrative of this campaign and I think it will lead Progressive voters who put their vote with him last time to think about where they want to put that vote this time.

Mercedes Stephenson: Fred, he has apologized. Justin Trudeau came out and he apologized very, very publicly. Your leader, Andrew Scheer, has said that if candidates apologize and say that they have changed and accept that what they did is wrong, they should still be allowed to run. Why do you think that Andrew Scheer doesn’t accept that same standard when it comes to Justin Trudeau?

Fred DeLorey: I think the problem with Mr. Trudeau is that he’s caught in so many lies so often. You know, he’s promised to do politics differently: sunny ways. And, you know, he lied to Canadians on SNC-Lavalin. He’s blocking the RCMP from investigating him. And on this particular issue, he got caught in a lie again on how many times it happened. My bet is he knows how many times it happened. He doesn’t know how many times he’s been photographed, and that’s why they’re not giving out the number.

Mercedes Stephenson: Robin, I’m wondering if you can take us through this discussion about racist behaviours and being racist in Canada, because people are having it on social media and at dinner tables across this country. At best, what happened is hypocritical, but can somebody engage in racist behaviour without being a racist? What is the difference between doing something that’s racist and being a racist?

Robin Gill: People think this is like drama, right? They think this is a costume, but skin colour is not a costume and you have to explain that that seems racist. Do people intend to be racist? Maybe they do it subconsciously, unconsciously, but it’s so frustrating because you see that and you’re like, you’re a world leader. You’re on the world stage. How is this going to play internationally? How can you be taken seriously at the G7 when your past is coming up to haunt you? And where was the vetting process on this when you were becoming the leader? Where were the Liberals on this and looking at this? And that is the discussion that’s actually around the dinner table. These are the things that my friends and my community are talking about.

Mercedes Stephenson: Sarbjit, why do you think that he didn’t disclose this before it came out in the media?

Sarbjit Kaur: I probably can’t speculate as to, you know, why or what he knew, what other people knew, why he didn’t disclose. But what I can say is that he’s accepted full responsibility. You know, he’s not made any excuses. He’s used this as a teachable moment as Robin said. Awareness is still low and all the resources are out there for people who want to learn, want to understand, who want to engage with their friends and neighbours with compassion. The resources are out there. And what I’ve appreciated is that he’s continued to talk about these issues and that perhaps we can talk about deeper issues as well. It’s one thing to, you know wear a costume intentionally or unintentionally hurtful, but we have a lot of serious issues that racialized communities are facing. We have higher chances of being incarcerated, shot by police. We worry about opportunities for our children, job and employment opportunities. We worry about attacks. There is a rising alt-right movement in this country that certain candidates are pandering to, and they are happy to take those votes and happy to talk about invasions of, you know, refugees across our borders. And all of this is what threatens our social cohesion.

Mercedes Stephenson: Now Anne, Jagmeet Singh had a moment of real leadership this week. Everyone who was watching it, all of the experts, even other party’s said wow. He really was able to step up to the plate, and he has that personal connection on this. Where does the NDP take this going forward? How does Jagmeet Singh continue to build on that leadership opportunity?

Anne McGrath: Well I think it’s true that he had a very authentic voice on the evening that all of this came out, and I think that, you know, he spoke directly to the lived experience of millions of Canadians who have experienced these insults, this mockery, this racism, and so I think he did have that. But I think most importantly, he wasn’t talking about himself or his party or any partisan gain in this. He was speaking directly to those Canadians, and I think that that’s what made it so powerful. I believe that this is going to change some things on the campaign trail. I believe, for instance, that any leader that thought that they were going to go onto the debate stage and make this a two-party race and basically ignore or make him irrelevant can no longer do that because he is very relevant in this campaign. He did have that moment. But also, he is not, you know, he has not been making personal or political gain out of it either. So I think that what he has to do is, you know, speak to how he felt about it, what it means for Canadians who have experienced racism, and then he also has to talk about the issues and the positive offer that the NDP has for Canadians and make it clear that this is not—you don’t have to choose between bad and worse—that you can actually, if you want a different result, and a lot of Canadians do want a different result, you can make a different choice.

Mercedes Stephenson: Fred, there’s pressure on Andrew Scheer now to apologize for his comments about gay marriage. He hasn’t done that. He said that people have moved forward, but he hasn’t said whether his views have changed and he hasn’t apologized for what he said, which many people find very offensive. Why won’t he do that? And do you think that the campaign has to do it going forward?

Fred DeLorey: I think Mr. Scheer’s been fairly clear on this—on this matter that the issue’s been handled and they’ve moved on. At the last—second last—the Conservative convention, we’ve changed the policy declaration recognizing traditional marriage—or recognizing marriage being between two people that love each other, and Mr. Scheer was a part of that. So I think that has been handled and moved on from. At the end of the day, though, I think this campaign is focusing or becoming an issue of trust. I think that’s becoming a big part of it. We are obviously pushing out a very positive platform, trying to show Canadians that our—how our plan’s going to work to make life more affordable. But Mr. Trudeau, again, is continuously showing that he can’t be trusted, that he’s not being honest and he’s not being honest with Canadians. And I think that’s—this is going to have a huge impact on this campaign.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you very much to our strategists for joining us this week and to Robin Gill as well.

Coming up, in their own words we’ll hear from three Canadians on those blackface images.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. For the full interview with Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, you can go to our website:

And now we’ll leave you for today with the hopes and concerns of a few Canadians who we spoke to here in Vancouver after seeing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface.

For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

Terry Teegee, Regional Chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations: My whole life I’ve dealt with racism, you know, being brown skinned. I think, you know, that issue is—it is hurtful. You tend to as a person of colour to grow a thick skin. What’s troublesome about this normalization of racism is that it’s our youth. It’s our children that have to deal with it. What do I say to my children is that it is okay to be brown. It’s okay to Indigenous and we should be celebrating our differences, and quite frankly, that we are all equals in this country. And this new—this idea of Canada is supposed to be built on tolerance and love and acceptance of different people from different areas. And, you know, in our culture, we accept people. We accept their differences and matter of fact, we celebrate their differences.

Savannah Sutherland: My name is Savannah Sutherland. I hope that we finally hold politicians to higher standards, because everyone just assumed Trudeau would do what he said he would do. I hope he realized that white supremacy is a real problem in multicultural Canada and that us just being oh Canada’s multicultural just erases all the experiences of other people of colour.

Sydney Henry: Sydney Henry. I would like to say that I get angry about it, but I think that requires an element of surprise, an element of unique experience. We’ve seen this before. We’ve seen things like this on a daily basis, so at this point it’s almost exhausted as opposed to infuriating. My hope moving forward is that everyone holds themselves to a higher standard, where you are constantly considering and reconsidering the decisions that you make. And not in a micromanaging way, but in a way that is considered of those around you.

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