It all could have been so simple.
First, Donald Trump tweets a vile, racist attack at four Democratic congresswomen, telling them to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Then, on the dark and terrifying stage of international politics—a spotlight! Enter, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who swiftly and clearly denounces Trump’s racism to thunderous applause. Because it's 2019.
But that isn’t what happened. When he was asked to denounce a clear act of racism—something so obviously necessary that even Theresa May and Boris Johnson managed to give it a go—Trudeau couldn’t do it.
Asked point blank what he thought of Trump’s comments, the prime minister claimed that “Canadians and indeed people around the world know exactly what I think about those particular comments.”
(No. We didn’t. That’s why we asked. That’s how questions work.)
"That is not how we do things in Canada," Trudeau continued. “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, and the diversity of our country is actually one of our greatest strengths and a source of tremendous resilience and pride for Canadians and we will continue to defend that.”
Bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter, Trudeau acted as if defending immigrants and people of colour were some rhetorical trap to be deftly evaded. But by dodging such a simple question, Justin Trudeau ended up telling us exactly what he thinks and what he values.
After a gushing bromance with former president Barack Obama, Trudeau has consistently avoided saying much of anything about Donald Trump. The obvious rationale for this is fear of poking the bear—especially when the bear is a mercurial leader in charge of the most powerful military and economy in the world.
So on myriad issues—the Muslim ban, the border wall, the sexual assault accusations, the attacks on LGBTQ communities and more—Mr. Trudeau has said very little.
Right now, Trump’s government is holding children in internment camps. He is using Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to round up Black and brown people on the streets, at work and in the hospital. And when four American lawmakers challenged him, he told them to go back to where they came from in a fit of racist pique.
People in Canada and around the world—especially people of colour—have been hoping for some moral leadership from the prime minister. Canadians of all political stripes still want and believe in a just, courageous Canada. Many still remember the Nobel Peace prize of yesteryear, an emphasis on peacekeeping and the refusal to go to war in Iraq.
A lot of these people are looking at Trudeau and wondering, if he doesn’t have the guts to denounce something this clearly vile, then what does he bring to the table? What exactly is he prepared to stand up for?
Just a few days ago, in Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen’s own riding of York South—Weston, CBSA immigration officers were reported to be conducting racist, probably illegal immigration status checks on the street. News reports and eyewitnesses detail the CBSA stopping Black and brown people at the corner store and detaining them without a warrant or cause.
At any time, this would be deeply chilling for people and communities of colour. In this political climate, it is downright terrifying.
But when Hussen was asked about his constituents potentially being harassed and illegally detained, he noted that he is “not in charge of the CBSA.”
The kindest thing I will say in public about this response is that such a cowardly abdication of responsibility is simply not good enough.
All of this is deeply personal to me. This happened just a few minutes from where I live and it could easily have happened to me, or someone I love.
As a Black immigrant in Canada, I don’t have to imagine how any of this feels—these experiences have helped shape me. I know very well that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”... until they aren’t anymore.
I have been carded as a 90-pound kid in a T-shirt and as an adult in a suit. I’ve been told to go back to where I came from more times than I can even recall. These words were hurled at me as a child on the playground. I’ve heard them viciously whispered by old white ladies on transit and yelled with carefree delight by suburban teens speeding by in their parent’s minivan. I can assure Trudeau that unfortunately, this is exactly how we do things in Canada.
What is Trudeau’s coy refusal to address racism and xenophobia supposed to do for me? What is it supposed to do for other Black Canadians who have to contend every day with antagonism, disrespect and even violence from their nation’s institutions — in schools, in the justice system, and even on the streetcar?
Sadly, it seems that Mr. Trudeau takes us for granted so much that he has even grown tired of paying lip service to our pain.
Today in Owen Sound, Muslim Canadians must go to school, to work, and to worship, knowing that their mosque has been repeatedly vandalized—that they are targets in their own community, because of their faith.
Muslims across Canada are faced with the reality of trying to navigate a rising tide of Islamophobia and hate crimes, to say nothing of the state-sponsored racism of Quebec’s Legault government.
They deserve to feel respected and safe in their communities. They and their children deserve to belong.
Canadians already know that Justin Trudeau is capable of fighting for something, no matter the cost. We’ve seen him do it to protect a billion dollar engineering firm.
What we deserve is a prime minister that will stand up for all of us—one that isn’t afraid to speak uncomfortable truths, and fight for the dignity and safety of our loved ones.
As Trudeau heads into the next federal election in the fall, he would do well to remember that he needs Black and brown immigrants. Without us, he is irrelevant.
And the last thing we need when the chips are down is a bystander playing dress-up as an ally.
Jared A. Walker is a writer, communications consultant and a speechwriter with the Ontario NDP.