Racism Was a Major Factor in This Election Even Before Trudeau's Brownface

Justin Trudeau's racist antics in his youth may have the headlines, but race has been a dominant factor in this election before it was even called.
September 19, 2019, 9:22pm
Elizabeth May, Andrew Scheer, Justin Trudeau, Jagmeet Singh.
Elizabeth May, Andrew Scheer, Justin Trudeau, Jagmeet Singh. Photos from the leaders' social media accounts. 

Recent Canadian elections have been relatively polite affairs, usually revolving around tax breaks for parents, tackling deficits, and white politicians in cozy sweaters talking about the “middle class.”

But as of today, that is not the case for the 2019 election, as the issue of race and white privilege has come to the forefront of the campaign after photos were unearthed showing Justin Trudeau in brownface and blackface.

As proven by Trudeau’s attempts to apologize, and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s attempts to capitalize, there’s no easy way to discuss racial issues by talking about them like you’re analyzing the deficit. Politicians, on both the right and the left, have struggled with the context—the bigger picture that includes several years of racist rhetoric and dog-whistling making its way into Canada’s public sphere.

Obviously, Trudeau’s brown and blackface incidents have made racism the topic du jour of the campaign. But anyone paying attention—like people of colour have been—would have noticed that race has played a central role in how the current election cycle has unfolded.

Right after the writ dropped, Liberal candidates tweeted out screenshots and videos of their Conservative opponents’ problematic behaviour, on and offline.

Liberal cabinet member Maryam Monsef posted how Justina McCaffrey, a Conservative candidate in Ottawa, had what appeared to be a close relationship with far-right activist Faith Goldy.

Scheer then calmly told the media on Sunday that he accepts their apologies and disavowals of previous statements. He said he was ready to move on—just not enough to also forgive Trudeau, who he called “not fit” to be prime minister.

But it’s not just the Conservatives or Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party that have been struggling with race: This campaign has shown how Canada’s progressive parties consistently traffic in the language of racial solidarity while succumbing to the same climate of racism.

The first person of colour to lead a major Canadian party, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, gave an emotional response Wednesday night to Trudeau’s brownface photo, citing how he has faced and fought back against racism his whole life. Then he pleaded for those hurt by Trudeau to not give up on the country.

But it was NDP supporters who, when Singh came out to Vernon, Ontario and rode on an orange tractor, openly told the media they won’t vote for him because he’s an Indian man with a turban (and thus not “normal”).

That was after executive NDP member Jonathan Richardson said the “racism card” was partly why potential candidates in New Brunswick didn’t want to run. He and four others then left for the Greens.

Similarly, Pierre Nantel, an MP in Quebec, was booted out of the NDP in August for holding yearlong secret talks with the Greens. He had admitted in 2017 that he thought Singh’s turban was “not compatible” with Quebec values and would hurt the party’s chances in the province.

This, of course, touches on Quebec’s law that bans public servants from wearing religious symbols. Singh is unequivocal in opposing the ban, as are the Liberals and Conservatives.

That leaves the Greens, which have not been free from controversy either. A Green candidate in Quebec, Luc Saint-Hilaire, had to resign after “calling out” the leader of the Quebec City mosque targeted in the 2017 shooting for “not condemning” an incident where a Muslim man set his wife on fire.

In a Toronto town hall with the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), Green Party leader Elizabeth May said that she’d rather be talking about how to fight climate change than get bogged down in racial issues.

This has become somewhat of a theme regarding her party’s relationship with racialized Canadians. This May, a Green candidate in Ontario named Danny Celovsky tweeted pretty much the same sentiment.

“Fascism is just a distraction,” his tweet said. “We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted anymore.”

And while May has also come out against the religious symbols ban, she said she has no power to tell her caucus what to think on the issue. The Greens won’t come out with an official party position on the issue until after the election.

The fact is that no election is completely sanitized from the effects of racial identity and tensions. The election cycle so far has shown that no party has been insulated from the spectre of intolerance, even the progressive ones.

Follow Steven Zhou on Twitter.