If there’s a defining aspect to Justin Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister, it’s his fondness for big promises and soaring rhetoric. But as supporters of electoral reform can attest, those words haven’t always been backed up by deeds. Now, the Laith Marouf scandal is providing yet another reminder — perhaps the most important one yet — that if you’re going to preach something to the public, you’d better be sure you’re practising it.
Marouf, for those who haven’t seen it yet, is an activist and senior consultant with the Community Media Advocacy Centre (CMAC), an organization that received $133,800 from Heritage Canada for its work on an anti-racism project. His private Twitter feed was filled with anti-Semitic and anti-French bile, including a description of so-called “Jewish White Supremacists” as “loud mouthed bags of human feces” and a remark that “Frogs” (an anti-French slur) have “much less IQ than 77.” He even referred to Irwin Cotler, a former Liberal MP and the head of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, as the “Grand Wizard of Zionism.”
When the government found out about this through the press, they cut CMAC’s funding and condemned Marouf’s statements. “Laith Marouf should have never received funding,” Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendocino said during an unrelated press conference. Liberal MPs like Anthony Housefather and Taleeb Noormohamed also came out swinging. “Laith Marouf’s comments are vile, racist & anti-Semitic,” Noormohamed tweeted on Aug. 21. “They’re wrong by any measure, and particularly for someone that’s supposed to be working to help eliminate racism from broadcasting.”
The prime minister, on the other hand, has been weirdly quiet about this. It’s not as though he’s on vacation, given that he’s made impassioned statements about the harassment of journalists and the incident involving Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland over the last week. On August 23rd, during a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, he answered a question about it from one of the assembled journalists. On Tuesday, more than a week after the story first came to light, he elaborated a bit on that. "It is absolutely unacceptable that federal dollars have gone to this organization that has demonstrated xenophobia, racism and antisemitism." But the long wait here for a specific statement says one of two things: that he doesn’t think it’s a big deal, or that he thinks it’s a really big deal. Either way, it’s not good enough.
Make no mistake: when it comes to fighting racism in Canada, the Trudeau government has done more than any other that preceded it. But its rhetoric has gone even further, and the gap between those two things is a target the Liberals’ political opponents aren’t about to miss. Conservative politicians and pundits have been all over the government about the Marouf scandal and the hypocrisy it apparently reveals, and it’s hard to disagree.
Yes, the Trudeau haters are using it as cover to distract from their role in, and responsibility for, amping up conspiracy theorists and other disaffected Canadians across the country. But that cover was handed to them by the Trudeau government — and it will be used whenever the Liberals try to push back against racism and antisemitism and those who enable it in the future. This government has a responsibility to be better than everyone else on this file, to lead by example and to give no quarter or comfort to those who would advance or espouse hateful ideas. On all fronts, they failed miserably here.
Going forward, it will be harder for this government to advance programs and policies that tackle racism and discrimination. When it does, it will be besieged by an army of whatabouters who have been resupplied with a powerful new weapon. That doesn’t mean the Liberals should shrink from this fight. But it does mean that it will be harder than it ought to be.
The Trudeau government should listen closely to people like Mr. Cotler, who laid out some suggestions on how to move forward. “The government and the Anti-Racism branch of Canadian Heritage have to determine how the grant was even authorized to begin with, and have to put in place a vetting process and effective protocols to ensure that the funding of organizations, programs and individuals intended to combat racism and hate don’t end up funding organizations, programs and individuals that propagate racism and hate.”
This is a problem that extends well beyond a single branch of one particular government department. It's representative of a broader approach to governance, and governing, that seems to prioritize aspiration over execution. If Trudeau’s Liberals want to fend off the furious attack coming from Pierre Poilievre, they’ll need to raise their game to a whole new level. If they can’t, things like anti-racism work will be one of the many pieces of collateral damage.