If you have been paying close attention to the last eight days of the 2019 federal election campaign (and the months before that), you would note that your candidates for prime minister are as follows:
A sitting prime minister who just admitted to multiple incidents of brownface, despite touting Canada’s multiculturalism and diversity on the world stage.
A Conservative leader whose candidate base includes those who align with racist and homophobic perspectives, and whom he refuses to denounce or remove.
A female party leader — the only one in the race — who has had to fight off accusations of racism, after it was made clear that people were defecting to her party because they thought the NDP's electoral prospects were weakened by the fact that its leader is not white.
That leader is Sikh — and the first-ever racialized candidate for prime minister in Canada. He is bearing the burden to denounce them all, while facing media reports that are surveying voters who say that they would vote for him only if he took off his turban and “be normal like us.”
And, although a long shot, a fifth party leader who doesn’t believe in race and diversity, and campaigns in favour of "fewer immigrants."
Like it or not, the 2019 federal election has always been about race, but as quickly as it comes up, it’s been swept away or worse: it’s been left hanging in a void of no accountability.
A week before the election campaign started, reports emerged that a group of NDP candidates in New Brunswick were leaving the party to join the Greens.
The former federal NDP's executive member for Atlantic Canada, Jonathan Richardson, suggested that there was "a bit of racism undertone" against NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh — in other words, Singh’s ethnicity would hurt the party’s chances of winning.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said Richardson's remarks were taken out of context, and that “we have zero tolerance for sexism, Islamophobia, antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia or hate speech of any kind."
Day 1 of the election campaign started with questions about Bill 21 — Quebec’s law that now prohibits public servants like teachers, lawyers and police officers from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. No leader has yet to come forward to say in plain-spoken words that they would make sure the bill is killed from their perch atop the highest office in the land.
"Like it or not, the 2019 federal election has always been about race, but as quickly as it comes up, it’s been swept away or worse: it’s been left hanging in a void of no accountability" - @fatimabsyed
The first five days of the campaign saw party leaders dismissing and defending candidates over old social-media posts. A Conservative candidate in Manitoba has been turfed by the party after a left-leaning advocacy group unearthed anti-immigrant and Islamophobic social media posts, according to a report from progressive publication Press Progress, one which said “I’m proud to be white.”
A Green Party candidate said he has no “racist or prejudicial bone” in his body, but he believes focusing on racism is a “distraction” from problems facing “the planet.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says that, on condition of an apology and acceptance of responsibility for what they've said in the past, he would stand by Conservative candidates with a history of racist or homophobic comments.
Last month, the Liberals dropped Hassan Guillet as a candidate in the Montreal riding of Saint-Leonard-Saint-Michel after B’nai Brith Canada, a Jewish advocacy group, uncovered a series of old statements he made on social media that B’nai Brith described as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.
The same month, the National Council of Canadian Muslims called on the Conservatives to drop Ghada Melek, who is running in Mississauga-Streetsville, over past social media posts they said were Islamophobic.
Meanwhile, the People’s Party of Canada also dropped one of its candidates in British Columbia. Brian Misera, who was the candidate for Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam, said on Twitter on Thursday that the party had sent him an email to revoke his status, which came a day after Misera posted a video on Twitter urging party leader Maxime Bernier to speak out more clearly against racism.
“If you can’t be adamantly clear about that, I don’t know how the hell you expect me to campaign for you,” said Misera.
And, the Canadian Nationalist Party, a far-right group that says Canadians "must maintain the demographic status of the current European-descended majority" and is accused of advocating white nationalism, is now an official political party in the federal election, espousing policies that include withdrawing from the UN refugee convention and abandoning legal support for multiculturalism.
Like I said: if you’re paying attention, the 2019 federal election has always been a reckoning over race.
Canadian politics is — and continues to be — white
The fact is: it’s hard to make race a central theme of the Canadian election when more than the majority of the politicians are white.
A National Observer survey into the make up of candidates across the five political parties found that, other than the NDP, the remaining parties are not representative of Canada’s visible minority population — black, Indigenous or people of colour — which Statistics Canada finds amounts to at least 25 per cent.
The NDP clears this bar, as around 32 per cent of the NDP’s 310 candidates are visible minorities, 20 of whom are Indigenous and 22 who are Black Canadians.
Here's how the rest of the parties fare, at present, based on the candidates that have been designated on the website of each party:
Over 20 per cent of the Liberal Party’s 316 candidates are visible minorities (14 Indigenous, 5 Black).
Almost 18 per cent of the Conservative Party’s 337 candidates are visible minorities. The Tories have the lowest number of Indigenous (4) and Black (2).
The Green Party is lagging behind in this regard with approximately 12 percent of their 325 candidates being not white (8 Indigenous, 5 Black).
Of the 317 candidates nominated by the People’s Party of Canada, some 14 percent appear to be Black, Indigenous or people of colour. (Note that some 30 PPC candidates have no online presence or visibility and couldn’t be included in this calculation).
Looking at these numbers, it’s not difficult to call out the hypocrisy of Canadian politics when it comes to denouncing racism in one breath while peddling it either implicitly — through a lack of active effort in creating a diverse slate of candidates that have probable chances of making it to Parliament Hill — or explicitly by taking concrete, effective action against structural and societal Islamopohobia, anti-Semitism and racism towards Indigenous communities.
Too many Canadians have refused to acknowledge in this election — and every election before this one — that Canada's political spaces continue to be disproportionately white and yet are also shaping policies that impact the lives of racialized people.
Pundits are quick to say that the floodgates to the race conversation opened Wednesday night when Trudeau admitted to two brownface moments in his past. But the floodgates were already open the minute Trudeau framed himself as a champion of Canadian multiculturalism and diversity but then failed to work against racism with all his power, starting with addressing it in his own past.
The duality exists beyond Justin Trudeau and his government.
Canada welcomed refugees but continued to disproportionately police racialized communities leading to criminalization.
Canada expanded its humanitarian efforts but failed to address the disproportionate rates of black and Indigenous children apprehended from their families and made to navigate the child welfare system.
Canada boasted its pride in its multiculturalism on the global stage, but its immigration policies limits the job prospects and paths to permanent status for racialized migrant workers.
The same can be said for Scheer who was quick to call Trudeau's brownface photos racist but hasn't been held to account or actively explained how his party is not peddling the same dual narrative: that Tories believe in diversity, but not enough to remove candidates with seemingly racist views.
Jagmeet Singh has been left out of this, if only because for the first time, Canada is reckoning with racism with a brown man as an option on the top of the ballot.
If the country is serious about race, Canadians would connect these dots and ask hard questions of our top leaders: we would ask when they acknowledged racism, if they understand racism — and if they don't, why they believe they are best suited to help all the communities in this country.
Because if Canadians want to continue to brand themselves as the global ambassadors of the most multicultural country in the world, it's time they elect leaders that understand what it means to purport and protect that.