Lack of consensus on racism troubling – Cardozo

By Andrew Cardozo

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Opinion

Lack of consensus on racism is troubling

Hopefully the government will create a new anti-racism strategy that addresses a range of issues from the criminal justice system to the work of cultural agencies and national security. But the announcement last week on a new legal framework for Indigenous peoples is a big first step in that regard.

OTTAWA—There used to be a consensus in Parliament about combatting racism and hate. That doesn’t exist anymore.

The Liberal government and its MPs want to embark on some new or renewed initiatives, the NDP want them to move stronger and faster. But on the Conservative end, the very analysis of the problem is fundamentally different.

So we have the recent court verdict in the death of Colten Boushie. The Liberals pushed the boundary hard in showing sympathy with the Boushie family and Indigenous people across the country and are promising some specific actions. The thing is this is hardly an isolated case. Nothing new. The current inquiry on the treatment of Indigenous women in northern Quebec is just one more case in point. The problem is getting worse, if anything.

A government is always in a tough situation when there are two sharply divided sides in a case of this kind. Say something and get creamed by the opposing side, or say nothing and get criticized by both sides.

The Conservatives have taken the approach of criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould for their comments on the verdict; first strongly, but then quickly in muted tones. By criticizing the government, they run the risk of lining up with the non-Indigenous side, in this tense division between Indigenous people in Saskatchewan and settlers—read the white farming community against the First Nations people there.

To get more of an understanding of how the parties view racism and combatting it, a new House Heritage Committee report provides some insight. It’s got a long name, but let’s call it “Taking Action” in short.

Remember M-103? That was the House motion a year ago to direct the Commons Heritage Committee to look into racism in Canada, including Islamophobia. It’s that last word that caused the Conservatives to go ballistic.

It’s not clear why, considering they had passed another motion unanimously mere months earlier. In the world of combatting hate and racism there are so many other terms and concepts that have come along recently, mostly terms that are decidedly loaded to express a condition or trend, and why this word became the hill to die on is unclear. Think of these terms: settlers, privilege, oppression, racialized peoples, anti-black racism, LGBTQ (and the variations on that), transphobia, #MeToo, #TimesUp, and the list goes on. To the average straight, white male, not one of these terms includes him. Who are all these people wanting their rights? What about me?

In short, that’s the definition of privilege—if none of these terms will help you advance, it’s because you have it all and there are a range of women and men saying. “I’m tired of being left out, being cut out or assaulted. I want in—and you, white guy, are going to have to give up some of that privilege and share it with me.” To be clear not all white guys feel put upon, and not all are born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

But Islamophobia is the term that RebelMedia decided to draw the red line around, during the federal Conservative race, and once one candidate had taken their position—the others had to fall in line. Maybe Michael Chong resisted, but look where that got him.

Having raised it ad nauseum during the debate on M-103, one would think the Conservatives had their say a year ago and would get down to finding ways to combat racism and hate.

Surprisingly they didn’t. The committee report is, in essence, three party reports. The Liberals have their report, which by virtue of their numbers is the majority report—it calls for a government strategy to combat racism that involves several departments. The NDP agreed with the Liberal report and added a “supplementary report,” wanting the government to go further in some matters most, notably on Jordan’s Principle and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Interestingly, the Liberals announced on the day the report was released, that they were finally going to implement Jordan’s Principle. And they recently supported the private member’s bill on UNDRIP put forward by NDP MP Romeo Saganash. But the New Democrats are serving notice that they are monitoring the government’s implementation.

The surprise was the Conservative dissenting report—which does not endorse the majority report but focuses extensively on the issue of Islamophobia. They just can’t let it go. It seems if you said “racism faced by Muslims instead,” they would be fine. But one has to ask, why Muslims are the only group who cannot define the condition facing them while every other group can. Some of the arguments put forward by witnesses against using “Islamophobia” are sadly close to those those who would disagree with the term “anti-Semitism.” Kind of leaves you feeling icky about the whole debate.

Just about every term we use—faith-based, multiculturalism, bilingualism, feminism, distinct society, federalism—is not 100 per cent carved in stone with no room for interpretation. As a free thinking society we develop terms and they evolve over time. All of them, all the time.

But what is also clear is that the Conservatives are following through on the version of Canadian multiculturalism implemented during the Harper government and led by Jason Kenney. The Harper/Kenney doctrine considered religion the central defining feature of Canadian diversity. One might say that by using the faith lens they were able to focus in on the more conservative elements in ethnic communities for political purposes, and that they are in general less comfortable with concepts such as multiculturalism, race and combat racism.

The end-result is a three-headed report, but a clearer sense that our three parties are not united in whether we have a serious problem of racism, what that is and how it should be combatted.

In 1980, there was a seminal all-party report called “Equality Now!” which guided government policy, especially that of the Mulroney government, for years after. “Taking Action” is much less focused.

Hopefully the government will take their cue from the Liberal and NDP reports and get cracking with some of the key recommendations, starting by creating a new anti-racism strategy that addresses a range of issues from the criminal justice system to the work of cultural agencies and national security.

The announcement last week on a new legal framework for Indigenous peoples is a big first step in that regard.

Andrew Cardozo is president of the Pearson Centre and an adjunct professor at Carleton University.

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