By David Bush
The federal election began by claiming that the NDP would face challenges because of the supposed unique racism of Quebec, but photos of Justin Trudeau in brownface have exposed the racism at the heart of the English Canadian state. While the Liberals and Tories debate Trudeau’s apology and each propose policies with anti-austerity rhetoric, movements from migrant rights to climate justice are pushing for real structural change.
There is little doubt the revelations about Trudeau’s repeated use of brownface and blackface have changed the dynamic of the federal election. Before the story broke the Liberals and Tories were polling roughly even. With most of the Tory support being concentrated in the West and the majority of Liberal support coming in Ontario and the East, for the Tories to actually win enough seats to form government, they need to handily beat the Liberals in terms of the popular vote. While it is impossible to predict how this will shake out, some early polls show that Liberals have dipped in the key battleground of Ontario, while other show there has been little change. There is a high probability that this scandal feeds voter disillusionment amongst some Liberal voters, which can only help the Conservatives. Voter turnout in 2015 was the highest since 1993.
Liberal and Tory hypocrisy
Trudeau’s blackface story upended the Liberal campaign. Trudeau issued multiple apologies and admitted his racism. His acknowledgement was full of excuses and deflections — he was ‘enthusiastic about costumes’ and ‘it was a long time ago’. While much of the media initially expressed shock, the dominant liberal narrative in the media was Trudeau apologized, it was an unfortunate incident.
Liberal MPs issued letters of regret and abhorrence about the incidents, but also were quick to assure Liberals and the broader public that Trudeau is not racist and he is a champion of racialized communities. Unfortunately, this line was repeated by the Canadian Labour congress President Hassan Yussuff, who said “I have seen the efforts of this particular government in addressing anti-Black racism, Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination. While its record hasn’t been perfect, so much has been achieved even though there is clearly more work to do.”
This is the same government that refuses to rescind the anti-migrant Safe Third Country agreement, the same government that deported international student Jobandeep Singh, the same government that saw RCMP storm into Unist’ot’en territories in order to build pipelines.
Ironically, it was the right-wing press which ran the most cutting headlines and stories ripping into Trudeau’s hypocrisy and racism. Far-right media figures like Ezra Levant, co-founder of Rebel Media, were getting on their high-horse about Trudeau’s racism and blackface, but it should also be remembered that Rebel Media has produced segments in defence of blackface. Andrew Scheer was quick to condemn Trudeau’s blackface, claiming Trudeau was unfit to be PM. But it was Scheer’s campaign director who had produced the 2017 Rebel Media segment defending blackface. Just days before the story broke, Scheer, who was trying to get ahead of the inevitable rash of Tory candidates who have said racist and sexist things, issued a blanket statement saying anyone who apologizes for such actions will be welcome to continue to run as a Conservative candidate.
The response from the NDP was strong, Singh was direct in explaining why seeing images of the Prime Minister in blackface is harmful. Singh, who has a strong record in fighting racism and against carding is positioned strongly to move the discussion towards addressing the structures of racism. The Liberals tried to box Singh in when Trudeau offered to apologize to Singh directly about the blackface incidents. Singh was correct in refusing a public meeting and insisting that if any apology is to occur it has to be in private, which, according to reports, is what will happen.
For the left, Trudeau’s blackface scandal threatens to make the dominant discussion about race and racism in the election about Trudeau the person, not about the structural racism embedded in Canadian capitalism. As Ritika Goel stated shortly after the story broke:
“The problem is that this dichotomization of racist and not racist with good and bad causes huge barriers to very important conversations that must happen about how our whole society is racist, and we have all been taught and likely think and express racist feelings and ideas.“
Goel’s interview on the CBC last Friday is well worth a listen. Expressing a similar sentiment about how the structural racism that produced the casual use of blackface shouldn’t be ignored Sarmishta Subramanian wrote in Macleans:
“Moments like this one give us a chance for self-reflection. It’s up to us which things we reflect on. Of course we should talk about racism. But fixating on a baroque and well-honed discourse of symbolic racism unfortunately does little on its own to change the economic and social impediments to progress faced by the Jeffs and Marys of the world, or by their parents. The core issue is money, resources, equal access to opportunity. We should stay focused on how to achieve that.“
The Migrant Rights Network released a quick reality check about the blackface incident that hits the nail on the head:
“We must put forward an anti-racist agenda beyond apologies and responses to hate crimes that focuses on decent work, universal services, permanent resident status and full rights on arrival. Its must center Indigenous self-determination, and an end to discrimination and global displacement. “
While the Liberals and Tories debate apologies about racism instead of structural changes, they are also proposing policies with an anti-austerity veneer without actually offering real alternatives.
Ripping a page from Doug Ford’s playbook Andrew Scheer announced that the Tories would lower the lowest income tax bracket (those earning below) 47,630 from 15% to 13.75% by 2023. This could theoretically save a single income earner $444 a year and a dual income household roughly $860. But when his other tax credits that he promised are factored in the amount of savings will be far less than advertised. The price tag of this promise by Scheer is $6 billion, which the Tories would no doubt use as an excuse to cut social programs.
Scheer’s took another populist turn by also promising to rollback corporate handouts, citing the $12 million dollar gift the Liberals handed to Loblaws earlier this year as an example. While the Tories anti-corporate subsidies rhetoric is clearly posturing, it is good politics. The NDP and the wider left shouldn’t let Scheer outflank them on this question.
Scheer’s recent announcement that he would remove the “stress test” on home mortgages and allow 30 year morgatages at lower rates is a policy that will speak to the aspirations of many people who feel locked out of the red hot housing market in Canadian cities. But this policy could also overheat the market and add fuel to the flames of a potential housing bubble. Housing is a major issue, and it is clear that the market solutions on offer come nowhere close to addressing the need for affordable housing for all.
In a bid to move on from Trudeau’s scandal the Liberals announced they would be banning assault rifles, including the AR-15. Watch out for the election debate moving to the right around the theme of getting tough on crime.
Liberals made their big healthcare announcement yesterday, “$6 billion” was promised in new healthcare spending on pharmacare, palliative care and mental health. The Liberal pharmacare plan involves implementing a national list of drugs to be covered by the program and establishing a Canada Drug Agency for bulk purchases of medication. Trudeau’s promise has no timeline for implementations.
This is different than the NDP’s pharmacare plan which will see the most common drugs universally covered. This would be $10 billion dollar a year investment in a new social program. The NDP also announced their dental care policy last week. Billed as a universal dental care coverage, the reality is that the NDP is only covering dental care for households earning less than $70K. This plan would start in 2020, and cover about 4.3 million people. But it is hard not to think this is a missed opportunity to fight for a truly universal and bold social program.
Finally this week is the climate strike, a major opportunity for the left to pull the political discussion to the left and force politicians to take action on climate change. You can find an action near you here.