Win or Lose, Trudeau's Woke Image Has Taken A Beating With BIPOC Leaders

On reconciliation and anti-racism, advocates say the Liberal leader often says the right things but doesn't follow through.
Manisha Krishnan
Toronto, CA
September 18, 2021, 9:00am
Justin trudeau at debate podium
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau takes part in the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

There was a particularly tense moment in this election’s English-language debate where Green Party Leader Annamie Paul–the first Black woman to head a federal party in Canada—called out Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on his progressive image. 

“I do not believe that Mr. Trudeau is a real feminist,” said Paul, mentioning two women in his party who’ve had high-profile falling outs with him, former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and his former parliamentary secretary Celina Caesar-Chavannes. 

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“A feminist doesn’t continue to push strong women out of his party when they are just seeking to serve.” 

Trudeau initially wore a sombre expression during Paul’s spiel, but later retorted, “I won't take lessons on caucus management from you”—a nod to the turmoil within the Green Party leading up to the election.

But Paul isn’t the only one who feels there’s a chasm between Trudeau’s words on social justice issues—including racism, reconciliation, and feminism—and his actions.  

Once self-branded a “sunny ways” feminist who promised to end boil water advisories on First Nations and took a knee during a Black Lives Matter protest following George Floyd’s murder, Trudeau’s record on issues that concern Black, Indigenous, people of colour leaves much to be desired, activists told VICE World News. 

Wilson-Raybould and Caesar-Chavannes ended up being removed from and quitting the Liberal caucus, respectively, after their falling outs with Trudeau, leading some to question how welcoming the party is to Black and Indigenous candidates. 

He’s denied taking residential school survivors to court, even as First Nations continue to confirm discoveries of unmarked graves of children at former residential school sites. 

Though he says he doesn’t support it, he refuses to describe Quebec’s Bill 21, which forbids anyone wearing religious garb from working in public sector jobs, as “discriminatory.” 

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And despite the 2017 Quebec mosque massacre and the murder of a Muslim family in London, Ontario, in June, Trudeau has not acted on a national anti-hate strategy nor strengthened hate crime laws, though his current platform promises action on both those fronts. 

In response to a list of questions, Liberal Party spokeswoman Adrienne Vaupshas told VICE World News the party has made progress toward building “a more just and equal society.”

 “While the Conservative platform doesn’t mention the word racism once, our progressive platform builds upon the work we’ve done in the last six years and is a reflection of this as a priority. As evidenced by our plan, we will continue building a more just and fair Canada for everyone,” she said in an email statement.

Anti-Black racism 

Caesar-Chavannes, who was elected as a Liberal MP in 2015, previously told VICE World News many of her former Liberal colleagues are “fake as fuck,” and that she felt tokenized during her time as Trudeau’s parliamentary secretary. She said despite being the only Black woman MP at the time, she wasn’t consulted when the government announced $50 million in funding for Black Canadians in the 2018 budget. She quit the Liberal caucus in March 2019 and sat as an independent; she did not seek re-election in the October 2019 election. 

“What I would have wanted was... to leverage or utilize our identity-related expertise, knowledge, and experience for the greater good of Canadians and not as a prop or window dressing for your campaign hashtags of ‘diversity is our strength’ and ‘add women, change politics.’ It’s bullshit,” Caesar-Chavannes told VICE World News of her time as a Liberal MP. 

In a recent CTV News op-ed, Caesar-Chavannes said she endorsed Maleeha Shahid, the Conservative candidate in her riding of Whitby, because “she has had to experience the same sorts of challenges I have, and I know that she will represent my voice in Ottawa as best she can.” 

Caesar-Chavannes told VICE World News the Liberal government has fallen short on combating anti-Black racism, like being quick to throw money at problems without ensuring that funding comes with structural change, such as the $200 million loan program to support Black entrepreneurs.

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“Black entrepreneurs hardly get access to funding in banks. Why? Because the systems within banking are inherently subject to biases,” Caesar-Chavannes said. “Instead of them leveraging that $200 million and saying, I expect the banks to review their policies, remove any colonialist, racist policy that exists, and then you could get the $200 million they’re just like, ‘Hey, here’s $200 million; continue what you’re doing.’” 

A Liberal Party source said the government was trying to balance getting people money quickly with making structural changes and pointed to Bill C-25, a law requiring certain corporations to disclose diversity info about their boards of directors and senior management to shareholders. 

The concerns around anti-Blackness extend to the public sector as well. 

When civil servant Nicholas Marcus Thompson saw Trudeau take a knee at a protest last year following the murder of George Floyd, he was optimistic. 

“I was completely moved by that and I finally felt a sense of hope,” said Thompson, who is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the Canadian government being brought forward by Black civil servants. 

But the hope quickly faded, he said, “because there wasn’t sufficient follow-up action, tangible action, to address the situation.” 

The suit, filed in federal court, alleges that Black people are massively underrepresented in Canada’s public service, and current and former Black employees face systemic discrimination, including not being promoted. In a video posted to a website about the claim, one employee says she was not promoted in 30 years and that a manager at the Immigration and Refugee Board told her, “We should go back to the good old days when we had slaves.”

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In addition to compensation and better representation, the suit is seeking an apology from the prime minister of Canada “to all present and past Black employees of the public service for the injustices suffered.”

Thompson himself told VICE World News he wrote to Trudeau and the Prime Minister’s Office about the issues facing him and other Black government employees, hoping Trudeau might even bring in appropriate legislation. 

He said he never heard back, “not even from… one of his staff to say that the government is looking at this issue, these are the steps that the government is taking,” Thompson said. “It’s really appalling when the leadership of Canada’s public service is exclusively white.”

Thompson said promises in the Liberals’ platform, including the creation of a mental health fund for Black public sector employees and career development, mimic ideas raised by the class action. He is hoping the next government certifies the claim—the first major step towards examining the issues laid out in the lawsuit. 

But if the government fights certification, it could add years to the process. “We're hoping that it doesn't have to drive Black workers through the legal process, workers who are already significantly traumatized and injured,” Thompson said. 

Reconciliation

Wilson-Raybould was kicked out of the Liberal caucus in 2019 after she resigned from cabinet over the SNC-Lavalin controversy in which she alleged the Prime Minister’s Office tried to interfere with her role as attorney general by pressuring her to intervene in the criminal prosecution against the Quebec construction giant. Trudeau’s opponents have repeatedly brought up Wilson-Raybould’s name during this election cycle as a means of discrediting him as a feminist. 

As reported in the Globe and Mail, Wilson-Raybould’s recently released memoir Indian in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power says she struggled to push through big changes, including ending mandatory minimum prison sentences that disproportionately affect Indigenous people. (The Liberals have promised to end mandatory minimums for drug crimes in their platform—which they could have already done when they had a majority.) 

“I did have personal experiences of racism and having other ministers say the same thing that I did and it was finally heard. Those experiences that so many Indigenous people experience in their workplace, I did also,” Wilson-Raybould wrote. “There were efforts to marginalize and where my lived experiences were not taken into account … basically because they knew better.”

Lynne Groulx, chief executive officer of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, told VICE World News she was “very disappointed” about the events leading up to Wilson-Raybould being kicked out of the Liberal caucus. 

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“The environment was basically toxic for her, being an Indigenous woman with her in her very senior portfolio and not having the respect that she was entitled to,” Groulx said. 

“How is the prime minister making his party welcoming for Indigenous people when we just have this example of a very high-profile situation falling apart? That didn't give us a lot of confidence.” 

When Wilson-Raybould called out Trudeau in a tweet following the discovery of Indigenous children in unmarked graves, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett sent her a text saying, “Pension?” 

Bennett has since apologized for the tweet, which many viewed as racist, and Trudeau has defended Bennett, saying he knows what’s in her “heart.” 

More recently, Bennett appointed a non-Indigenous man—Bruno Steinke—to be executive director of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Secretariat, tasked with coordinating the federal action plan on Ending Violence Against Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ People.

“You paid over $92 million to have the national inquiry report them. You have 231 calls for justice, a declaration of genocide against Canada, statements in that reports repeatedly over all over the place, including the first page that says that Indigenous women need to be at the heart and at the forefront... And there you go. What do you do? The first important position that comes up that needs to be staffed, you staff it with a male, non-Indigenous (person),” said Groulx. 

Still, the Native Women’s Association of Canada has ranked the Liberals’ platform a “B” on issues important to Indigenous women including rights and self-determination, residential schools, environment, drinking water, housing, child welfare, and health care. (The organization gave the NDP an “A,” the Green Party a “B,” and the Conservatives a “D.”) 

Islamophobia 

Under Trudeau’s tenure, Canada has seen two mass killings targeting Muslims—the Quebec mosque shooting that left six worshippers dead in January 2017,  and the London attack this summer in which the Afzaal family was run down by a driver, leaving four dead and a small boy an orphan. 

Fareed Khan, founder of Canadians United Against Hate, said on issues surrounding racism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism, Trudeau is “reactive.” 

“It took the the Nova Scotia shooting last year, the mass shooting, and then the murder of another four Muslims before (Trudeau) ... said he was going to take action on the issues that were important to Muslims and also on the issue of racism,” Khan said. 

Khan has also expressed disappointment in the leaders of all three major federal parties for not denouncing Quebec’s Bill 21. 

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As of Wednesday, Trudeau, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh were calling on the consortium of media broadcasters to apologize for a question in the English language debate which positioned Bill 21 as discriminatory. 

Trudeau has left the door open to the federal government challenging the law once the current challenges against it make their way through the Quebec court system

Trudeau’s government did add a number of far-right groups, including the ​​Proud Boys, Three Percenters and Aryan Strikeforce to Canada’s terror list—a gesture that some have criticized as symbolic and ineffective. 

Despite having a diverse caucus, Khan said the pace of change has made him doubt that the party truly cares about fighting racism. 

“From where I sit, it doesn't seem to be the case. They only become concerned when people are yelling and screaming at them in the streets.” 

Khan said he participated in national summits on both antisemitism and Islamophobia; he said Muslims who participated in the latter felt post 9/11 rhetoric from both Liberals and Conservatives increased the Islamophobia they faced.  

The summit resulted in a number of calls to action, including the development of a national anti-hate strategy, an official apology from the Canadian government to Muslims for policies that have stigmatized and profiled Muslims, and that hate speech be reinstated in the Canadian Human Rights Act. The Liberals introduced a bill to reinstate the hate speech provision just before parliament ended for the summer and their platform says they will come up with an action plan on combating hate by 2022.  

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.