As election day looms, some voters are left wondering why the social and racial reckoning once dominating headlines has turned into a fringe issue among federal leaders.
“This election, I very much wanted it to be talking about the very real racism that we face … (but) there is just this lack of leadership across the board,” said Tristan Joseph, an Indo-Canadian woman in London, Ont.
Joseph used to be excited to talk about federal politics, but nowadays she finds herself feeling uninspired and “disappointed” by how federal leaders have approached issues of race. Joseph lives in the same riding where a few months ago, the Afzaal family was attacked and killed for being Muslim.
During an interview with Global News, she fought back tears talking about feeling “disenfranchised” by all federal leaders, who have barely addressed issues like Islamophobia or omitting the existence of systemic racism altogether.
“I don’t understand what bubble they’re all living in, that they don’t understand that these issues that are impacting people of colour are fundamental,” she said.
Joseph isn’t alone in her thinking, as NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh agreed with her assertion that race-based issues have not been getting the attention they ought to.
“Not only have they not been getting enough attention in the past six years, there hasn’t been enough action,” he said in an interview with Global News.
The Liberal Party of Canada did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was unavailable to interview with Global News, but a party spokesperson did acknowledge “dark episodes of racism” that exist within Canadian history in an emailed response.
“Every day people experience discrimination or racism in some form. There is absolutely no room for intolerance, racism, or extremism of any kind in Canada — that’s why we are committed to working with communities and doing the hard work of finding concrete solutions to these problems,” wrote Mathew Clancy, a spokesperson for the Conservative Party of Canada. He did not elaborate on what those solutions are.
To Joseph, the parties are running a tone-deaf campaign, noting that they’re choosing to tip-toe around the issue of Bill 21, which bans religious wear for government employees in Quebec.
When federal debate moderator Shachi Kurl asked Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves Francois-Blanchet why his party supported the “discriminatory” law, it set off a firestorm.
Even Singh, who would be the only federal leader impacted by the law due to his turban, has said it’s for Quebec to solve, and that no one province should be singled out for discrimination. When asked the specific problem with Kurl’s question, Singh said the premise of the question singled out a group of Canadians.
“It’s the assertion or the focus on a concern of systemic racism in one province and not other,” he said.
Singh was, however, unequivocal in calling the law itself discriminatory.
“There’s no question about it,” he said. “It’s a law that was found to be discriminatory in court. This court case — the judgments from the superior court made it clear, it’s absolutely discriminatory.”
The Quebec Superior Court ruled in April that the secularism law is mostly legal, but did note that the rights of Muslim women are violated and that it has “serious and negative” impacts on people who wear religious symbols.
But, when pressed to see if he’d intervene in Bill 21 at a later date if he was to form government, Singh was non-committal to the idea, insisting that it was being fought right now.
To Erica Ifil, the founder of Not In My Colour, an equity and race consultant firm, the stances by all the leaders ring hollow.
“I’m not surprised,” Ifill said. “(We knew) the listening and learning would be short-lived because the default in this country is a culture of white supremacy.”
What do the parties say?
In an interview with Global News, Singh said the NDP is looking to change the RCMP’s use-of-force policy, ending racial discrimination entirely and making changes to the criminal justice system.
There is no mention of Indigenous issues or systemic racism in the opening statement of NDP platform but there is a promise to “take on longstanding inequalities” that Canada faces. Singh’s party does say it plans on implementing all 94 calls by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There are promises to immediately give Indigenous communities control over the child welfare system and a commitment to end discrimination against First Nations.
Singh’s major call on Indigenous issues is to create a housing strategy for First Nations that would be fully implemented within the first 100 days of him taking office. For other racialized communities, the NDP plans to introduce more hate crime units within police forces, confront the growing racism in Canada, and address the boom of white supremacist groups.
In the Liberals’ platform, reconciliation and systemic racism are mentioned on the very first page. Throughout the platform, there are plans to grow and support Black and racialized communities through an endowment fund, increase funding for BIPOC artists and journalists, and raise diversity targets in the public sector.
In terms of reconciliation with Indigenous communities, the Liberals plan to provide funding to build a permanent home for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Across the aisle, both the Tories and Liberals say they would fund a national monument to honour the victims of residential schools.
As for the Conservatives, “inequality” is mentioned in the first paragraph, but Indigenous issues aren’t mentioned until later in the Tories’ platform.
The party writes that if elected they intend to increase funding for mental health services in First Nations, hire economic development officers and consult with Indigenous communities when cancelling major projects.
There is no mention of Black or racialized Canadians at any point in the Conservatives’ platform.
While there are some noteworthy promises being made, Ifill said it’s hard for her to discern which party is worse on BIPOC issues between the two front-running parties. The diversity consultant said the Liberals often use performative measures like taking knees at Black Lives Matter marches to show solidarity, but fail to follow through in a meaningful way.
In the Conservatives’ 150-page platform, the word “racism” is not included once.
“Is it better the Liberals mention us at all, or the Conservatives don’t? I can’t really tell,” she said.
As for Singh and company, Ifill feels “the NDP hasn’t gone far enough,” to be a progressive beacon for BIPOC people, adding that their stances on policing and Bill 21 are similar to the Liberals or weaker.
Impact of media
To Ifill, she thinks media organizations have let the leaders off the hook after giving them the space to make promises of a better future for BIPOC Canadians for the better part of a year.
“We’re not talking about how much blood has to be spilled, how much Black and Brown and Indigenous blood has been spilled,” Ifill said.
Ifill isn’t the only one who thinks actions like Trudeau taking a knee should not be major news. Desmond Cole, a Black rights activist and author, said giving Trudeau a platform is a disservice to Black Canadians, if he’s not also coming with substantial policy change to improve the lives of Black Canadians.
“The media gets to decide most of what gets discussed when, how it gets raised with the potential leaders, the issues that I or others might want to see reflected more in the media,” Cole said.
On Sept. 13, during an interview with Global News’ Neetu Garcha, Trudeau was asked multiple times about reconciliation and Bill 21 in Quebec. The Liberal leader said he “agrees” with the impatience Indigenous people feel around reconciliation, but the federal government cannot make decisions without input from First Nations.
On Bill 21, he said that he disagreed with the premise of the law and that it should not be up to a government to make a decision on what people wear. Garcha pressed Trudeau, who intimated to her that she didn’t ask about the pandemic or other “serious issues,” but Garcha said reconciliation and Bill 21 are serious issues that needed to be discussed.
“She didn’t hold back on really holding him accountable,” Cole said.
However, that moment can be seen as emblematic of how the suffering of BIPOC communities has become an afterthought during this election, which did not come as a surprise to Cole.
“It would be naive to think that a government and a political system, in general, that doesn’t prioritize those things in general (during) normal times would do so during an election,” Cole said.
To Michelle Robinson, a Sahtu Dene woman, the lack of discussion around Indigenous issues has been jarring. Canadian flags are still at half-mast to recognize the deaths of Indigenous kids in residential schools, but to Robinson, Indigenous issues are infrequently discussed and in the wrong manner.
“I just see a lot of partisan rhetoric by colonial parties trying to one up the other colonial party,” she said.
To Robinson, hearing the Tories discredit the efforts made by Liberals to eliminate boil-water advisories while dropping the ball for nearly a decade themselves feels like partisan politics at its worst. The NDP and Leader Singh have attacked Trudeau, but to Robinson, they could have made a real difference while being the powerbroker in the minority government the past two years.
“They had a critical role in a minority government being able to push the government … now there’s an election, they are quick to attack,” she said.
Singh pushed back on the criticism, saying “it was a significant issue” for the NDP and the failure of not delivering clean drinking water falls in the Prime Minister’s Office. Despite the Liberals needing Singh’s support to pass bills, Singh did not agree that his party bears any responsibility.
The push ahead for social justice
While the federal leaders seem to be shying away from some race-based topics according to Robinson, she thinks the work will lay with Indigenous politicians who are elected to continue to put internal pressure on their party for real change.
“They fight not just for Indigenous people, but all Canadians,” she said.
For Cole, racism is deeply pervasive in Canada, from the “injustice system,” as he calls it, to politics, but there is a lack of willingness to acknowledge and shoot down discrimination, like with Bill 21.
“We have to be really honest about the country that we’re living in,” he said.
According to Cole, the changes we saw in 2020, from the acknowledgements of police brutality against Black people to Islamophobia and reconciliation, were movements driven by the afflicted communities, not by those holding political office.
“If we took steps forward last year, it was because Black people, Indigenous people, other people of colour and our allies took to the streets and made things very uncomfortable and impossible to ignore for the rest of Canadian society,” Cole said.
“We know the struggle continues.”