Prime Minister’s brand of progress launders structural racism through an illegitimate messenger
Any 29-year-old man is responsible for his own actions. A 29-year-old schoolteacher at one of Vancouver’s most elite private schools is responsible for this and much more.
And what if that teacher is from a rich family that can fairly be described as Canadian royalty?
The most controversial news story of the weekend across Canada was Justin Trudeau’s history of wearing blackface and brownface makeup — for good reason. Over the better part of the past decade, Trudeau has built a brand around himself of “progress.” He is one of the most famous people on the planet, and his image is tied closely to the fantasy of Canada as a post-racial paradise. Words like “reconciliation” and “representation” rolled off Trudeau’s tongue with ease in 2015.
Fast forward to 2019. The Liberals have abandoned many of their promises, including ones that intersect with racial justice.
An honest appraisal of the past four years on race – and Canadian history beyond that – would tank the Liberals’ election hopes.
The Liberals campaigned on a promise to enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into Canadian law. This would have included the right to refuse fossil fuel projects on their lands. In July 2016, almost a year after their majority victory, Canada’s first Indigenous Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, announced the government’s view that implementing UNDRIP was “unworkable” at the annual Assembly of First Nations.
Since then, the government has moved backwards on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The Liberal government purchased a $4.5 billion dollar pipeline project from Kinder Morgan. The project has been protested by local First Nations peoples for many years.
Trudeau has also not delivered on the promise to provide mercury treatment facility to the Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwest Ontario. This community has suffered over 60 years of mercury poisoning of their waterways. The plan to build these facilities was announced in November 2017. Roughly six per cent of the community has received compensation, and Grassy Narrows activists claim “only one per cent” of the mercury treatment facility funds have been released.
Trudeau infamously thanked a Grassy Narrows activist for their “donation” when they protested him at a Liberal fundraiser in March. (He later apologized for the insensitive remark.)
Then there was the RCMP’s forcible removal of the Unist’ot’en camp this winter, where members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation faced down armed agents on their own land while attempting to stop the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
Trudeau said that he is “deeply opposed” to Bill 21 in Quebec, enacted by the right-wing CAQ government, which prevents people from wearing religious symbols in public service work. It also prevents those already in public service from being promoted or even changing positions. The CAQ suspected the law would not pass a test of compliance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and used the Notwithstanding Clause to bypass the constitution.
However, Trudeau did not commit to fight when the Charter-dodging Bill 21 was pushed by the CAQ, calling it “counterproductive”.
Then there are the Liberal government’s international entanglements. Among other things, the Trudeau government sold a record $15 billion of military hardware to the regime of Saudi Arabia. This royal family runs a repressive government that beheads citizens and dismembers journalists. Do Yemeni children thank Trudeau for selling billions in military hardware to Saudi Arabia?
Arguments about Trudeau’s blind spots fall flat. Yes, one learns and changes over time. No human being is free of prejudice. We can sometimes give the benefit of the doubt to well-meaning people who want equality but haven’t learned about the specific struggles of people of colour.
But it is absurd to extend this benefit to the prime minister. A basic biography of Trudeau disqualifies him. He did not have a normal childhood. Since the day he was born, Justin Trudeau has been near the heights of political power. He had more opportunity than anyone in the country to have anti-racist education. In his apology he says he did not know better at the time. A man, almost 30, who does not know that blackface and brownface are deeply offensive, despite all of these privileges, has nobody to blame but himself. At minimum it speaks to a lack of curiosity about other cultures and their struggles.
Consider also that this apology comes after Time Magazine broke a story about him during an election campaign. This is not a teacher entering politics in Montreal as an MP, coming forward and seeking forgiveness from his constituency. This is a leader of one of the wealthiest countries on Earth apologizing for the acts and demanding he not lose his job.
It is not enough for a leader to enter office and speak in the language of progress. Trudeau entered government with a massive majority, which many saw as a repudiation of the ten years of Conservative rule. He had the mandate – both in public and parliament – to make deep structural changes. These changes could have forged a new relationship between our elected representatives and the communities they serve. Instead, we got a prime minister whose insensitivity in 2001 was often echoed during his government’s tenure.