The first debate in Canada’s federal election, entirely in French, saw temperatures rise when the four major party leaders began confronting the problem of systemic racism.
While the debate largely turned on Quebec-specific policies and problems, as it was hosted by Quebec broadcaster TVA, one moment in the middle of the debate proved illuminating about how the parties want to deal—or ignore—problems faced by Black, Indigenous, and racialized people in the country.
Hanging over the debate was Quebec’s Law 21, which bans religious symbols for many government employees: Particularly, cops, judges, and teachers. The law has already had a devastating effect on many religious minorities’, particularly Muslim women, ability to find jobs in the province.
The sparks began to fly when Liberal leader, and incumbent, Justin Trudeau was asked about the law. He repeated his long-held position: That he fervently opposes the law, and that he would consider using government resources to fight the law in court later on. But, for now, he’s waiting to see how ongoing legal challenges pan out.
Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, an ardent defender of the law, has often used it as a wedge issue to bill himself as the sole defender of Quebec’s unique social climate. Even if Trudeau is not yet challenging the law, Blanchet said, he’s likely funding groups that are through the federally-run Court Challenges Program, which provides money to minority groups looking to strike down laws. Next, Blanchet warned, they’ll come from Quebec’s French language laws—a totally invented fear.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole stepped forward to echo Blanchet’s defence: “It’s a question of respect for the division of powers,” O’Toole said. If he becomes prime minister, as the polls currently predict is quite possible, the Conservative leader said he would neither challenge nor allow federal funding to go towards any challenge of Law 21.
Blanchet seized on the opportunity, and insisted that the fervour over the law—which every major civil liberties group and religious organization agrees is discriminatory—was an example of Quebec-bashing. Law 21 was not, Blanchet insisted, an example of “systemic racism.”
“I want to hear Mr. Trudeau, and I really, really, really want to hear from Mr. Singh—who really called us racists—that Quebecers are not racists,” Blanchet said, turning to face NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, the first non-white leader of a major federal party. “And that not recognizing the notion of systemic racism from the Government of Quebec is a legitimate position.”
Blanchet particularly invoked University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran, who hasn’t just insisted that Quebec suffers from systemic racism but who has argued that the province is “like Alabama 60 years ago.” Blanchet repeatedly tried to suggest that Singh was of the same mind as Attaran.
Blanchet is perhaps particularly prickly on the issue with Singh, after the NDP leader audibly called one Bloc MP, Alain Therrien, a “racist” in the House of Commons during a debate over systemic racism in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and was booted from the chamber for it.
“We’ll make this easy,” Blanchet said, extending his hand out towards Singh. “Will you apologize for calling Alain Therrien a racist in the House of Commons?” Blanchet asked.
Singh, who had been lowkey most of the evening, livened up as Blanchet began hectoring him.
“I’ve already denounced Mr. Attaran’s comments,” Singh began, before turning to why he called Therrien racist.
“I’ve talked to people who lost their family member, because of police violence,” Singh told Blanchet.
“When I introduced a motion to deal with this racist discrimination, I didn’t see any MP say no—even the Conservatives didn’t say no—except a single MP,” Singh began, referring to Therrien. “When I looked at him, he did this-” Singh proceeded to make a sweeping motion with his hand, as though Therrien was brushing him off. “This is exactly the kind of thing which happens for Indigenous communities, like Joyce Echaquan,” Singh continued, before being drowned out by an interrupting Blanchet.
It was a stunning moment, and a rare mention of Echaquan—or, indeed, any issues of systemic racism—on the campaign.
Echaquan, a 37-year-old mother of seven, died in a Quebec hospital last year, surrounded by nurses making racist comments. An inquiry heard that her life could have been saved, had she been treated properly.
In the end, the debate spent just four minutes broaching Indigenous issues, and scarcely any time—aside from Singh’s comments—addressing systemic barriers facing many racialized people.
Follow Justin Ling on Twitter.