The real measure of racism in Canada is not how many times Justin Trudeau has appeared in blackface or brownface, but how long it has taken media and political institutions to even admit the existence of a problem.
There is no need to comb through Trudeau’s past to find evidence of racism; it’s all over his recent political record:
• voting for Stephen Harper’s Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act and draconian national security law, Bill C-51, both based on racist stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs;
• enacting National Security Act Bill C-59, enshrining expanded powers of surveillance and data collection for security agencies without adequate oversight;
• shoving projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline through unceded Indigenous lands without consent;
• sending in armed forces against Indigenous land protectors in unceded territories like the Unist’ot’en camp;
• repeatedly challenging Canadian Human Rights Commission decisions ordering the government to compensate for decades of discriminatory funding against Indigenous kids;
• refusing to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States, which turns away mostly black and brown asylum seekers on the myth the U.S. is “safe”;
• eviscerating refugees’ international legal right to seek asylum with amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that will deny many claimants a fair hearing;
• increasing deportation targets by 25 to 35 per cent, coinciding with the arrival of Haitian, Nigerian and other black asylum seekers at the border;
And yet, the same media outlets now in a frenzy over face-gate long refused to acknowledge the truth staring them in the face: racism pervades Canadian politics.
When 44 per cent of Canadians admitted to Angus Reid they “could not” vote for a prime minister who wears a turban, this was spun into congratulatory headlines announcing a “majority of Canadians would consider voting for a Sikh prime minister” — celebrating the racist glass for being only half full.
And when polls showed only 6.1 per cent of Canadians considered Jagmeet Singh the “most ethical party leader” — far behind Andrew Scheer and Trudeau, even in the wake of revelations about Scheer’s racist Yellow Vest fraternization and Trudeau’s SNC-Lavalin corruption — no one bothered to ask why a brown man with a turban and no scandals was perceived as so much less “ethical” than two white men with major scandals.
Meanwhile, Conservative campaign manager Hamish Marshall — a former corporate director of extreme-right Rebel Media — is characterized affectionately in a recent Maclean’s profile as an “owlish data nerd,” and condemnations of him are dismissed as a “caricature” in the Toronto Star.
Even now that Canada is supposedly “talking about racism,” we’re still not really talking about racism.
Media election “explainers” on economic, environmental and immigration issues continue to omit any analysis of race, even though Indigenous, black and racialized communities bear the heaviest burdens of poverty, unemployment, migrant exclusion and exploitation and environmental devastation in Canada.
Following the blackface and brownface exposé, journalists have fixated on whether black and brown voters will “forgive” Trudeau for their “hurt feelings,” ignoring the hurt lives and bodies brutalized by police, battered by harsh immigration regimes and harassed by security agencies.
The idea that blackface and brownface are about “costumes” and “face paint” is like looking at notorious U.S. torture prison Abu Ghraib and only seeing the orange jumpsuits: the esthetics abstracted from the larger systems of violence, terror and domination in which they are embedded.
Imagine if the genocide of Indigenous nations, broken treaties, boil-water advisories, mass incarceration, mass surveillance, police brutality, torture complicity, security certificates, no-fly list and indefinite immigration detention — to name just a few of the most obvious forms of racialized state violence — were widely treated equally as scandalous as the blackface and brownface images of Trudeau.
In fact, journalists and activists calling attention to these issues in Canada have routinely been dismissed, marginalized, ridiculed, threatened, maligned and surveilled. The critiques of violence are perversely deemed more offensive and incendiary than the violence itself.
The common argument that we should refrain from criticizing more “progressive” parties to avoid empowering the Conservatives only forces communities under the boot of racism to choose between a rock and a slightly smaller rock.
A 2017 Angus Reid survey found almost a quarter of Liberal and NDP voters would “not consider” voting for a Sikh party leader who wears a turban. And, indeed, the Green party recently accepted NDP defectors in New Brunswick, with the fact “some people thought that (Singh) was Muslim” lurking in the background of the exodus.
While politicians and pundits now attempt to instrumentalize Trudeau’s racist spectacle as fodder for a partisan circus, we have long known systemic racism underlies the whole political tent.
Amar Wala is a film director, writer and producer. Azeezah Kanji is a legal academic and journalist. Desmond Cole is a journalist, author and activist.