Conservative leadership candidates Peter MacKay and Leslyn Lewis said during Thursday’s debate that systemic racism is a problem that exists in Canada that needs to be addressed through concrete policies.
And while fellow candidates Derek Sloan and Erin O’Toole were less clear in their responses, O’Toole declined to use the term “systemic racism” at all. He continued to avoid responding to questions on whether it exists when pressed after the debate.
The question of systemic racism in Canada, particularly its existence within the RCMP and other police forces, has become a key political debate in the wake of anti-racism protests that spread around the world after the death of Black man George Floyd in U.S. police custody.
Listen: It’s time to dismantle systemic racism
The debate in Canada has grown after two Indigenous people, Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi, were killed in police shootings in New Brunswick within eight days of each other. Other instances of police violence, including against Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, were caught on video and prompted widespread outrage.
MacKay, a former Nova Scotia MP who served in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, said system racism exists in Canada’s “institutions, it exists in our communities across this country.” He said it’s important for governments to listen to people who experience racism in their daily lives and develop proper policies.
“It really is the action time to get things done,” he said, pointing to improvements that can be made in police reform and how First Nations are treated across institutions like education.
“It’s the action time as well to respect the views of everybody on how we build a country that is more inclusive.”
MacKay also called out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s history with blackface and brownface as evidence on how “he’s not well-situated to lead the country in a way that’s going to address these issues in a real way.”
Lewis, a lawyer with no previous political experience, made sure to draw a distinction between systemic racism and individual racism, which she also admitted exists in Canada. But she said system racism is about “outcomes, outcomes that are negative,” and said there are clear differences in outcomes in education and the criminal justice system among racialized communities.
“We see, for example, a First Nations person charged with the same crime as a non-First Nations (person) is more likely to be found guilty of that crime, is more likely to be charged … higher sentences, the less chance to get bail,” she said.
“These are things within the system that we have to say that we can make better. Canada is the best country in the world, but that does not mean that we (don’t) have the opportunity (to) make it better.”
While Ontario MP Derek Sloan refused to call Canada a racist country, he did point to Quebec’s Bill 21, which bars people from wearing religious symbols like face coverings in public, as an example of systemic racism against Muslims and other groups.
“It’s a violation of minority rights,” he said. “I know we don’t like to talk about it, we feel like it will hurt us in Quebec … but this bill is not right, and I’m against it.”
O’Toole, another Ontario MP who was Harper’s veterans affairs minister, said he supports a “zero-tolerance approach to any form of racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination,” and that success should be based on merit, “not the colour of someone’s skin.”
He also criticized Trudeau for making symbolic gestures like removing names of historical figures with troubling pasts from government buildings and cancelling energy projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline, which O’Toole said are key sources of Indigenous jobs.
“What is reconciliation?” he asked. “It needs to be participation, collaboration in the opportunity that is Canada.”
When asked repeatedly after the debate whether he thinks system racism exists in Canada, O’Toole talked about creating a “level playing field” and said individual cases of racism and discrimination need to be stamped out.
“When I’ve had a complaint from a constituent, I’ve raised that with the department and learned their procedures for looking at it,” he said. “We have to make sure we have a zero-tolerance approach from top to bottom.”
Asked if he could define what system racism is, he responded, “You could define it to me.”
O’Toole pushed back on the suggestion that his call for mandatory minimums would further increase incarceration levels for Black and Indigenous Canadians, assuring the measure would only be used for serious violent crimes and illegal arms trafficking.
Outgoing party leader Andrew Scheer has said systemic racism needs to be stamped out from within the RCMP, but has yet to say whether it exists in other institutions as well.
Instead, Scheer has taken Trudeau to task for not addressing racism during his time as prime minister.