Somewhat unexpectedly, the issues of discrimination and racism have moved to the forefront in the federal election. At the start of the campaign, answering a journalist’s question about Quebec’s secularism Bill 21, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau left open the possibility of some eventual legal intervention on the legislation. Predictably, there was an almost immediate response from Quebec Premier François Legault, asking all federal leaders to make a pledge to stay out of the matter. With the exception of Trudeau, the other federal party leaders quickly complied. Bill 21 prohibits the wearing of religious symbols by Quebec public school teachers, judges, police officers, prison guards, Crown prosecutors and other public servants in positions of authority, as a way of enshrining the concept of state secularism.
And then, just as the campaign’s attention on Bill 21 waned, some very distasteful photos of a younger Trudeau in brownface and in blackface hit the national and international media. Trudeau apologized many times for his past behaviour and correctly acknowledged that it was highly offensive.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer insisted that the blackface pointed to Trudeau’s lack of judgment and as such raised questions about his ability to govern. During a September 20 campaign stop in PEI, Scheer said all levels of government need to address the types of issues raised by such conduct. He said that “Conservatives will always support measures that tackle discrimination…We’ll always promote policies that promote inclusiveness and equality throughout our society.” Ironically, that’s precisely what needs to be said in addressing Bill 21.
For his part, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh made an impassioned plea to all Canadians who were offended by the images of Trudeau in blackface. He chose to speak to those people who have felt the pain of racism and urged them not to give up on themselves, adding that they have value and worth and that they are loved. But that message does not appear to apply to those persons affected by Bill 21. Singh seems unwilling to defend those Quebecers who wear a turban, hijab or kippah and want to teach at a public school in their home province. Paradoxically, while Singh can become prime minister of Canada, he would be unable to teach at a public school in Quebec under Bill 21. By insisting on the need to respect provincial jurisdiction, Singh implies that members of religious minorities need to give up their hope of seeking a career in public service.
Both Scheer’s and Singh’s criticisms of Trudeau and the related concerns about the spread of racism would be more credible if they denounced the discriminatory aspects of Bill 21 rather than bowing to the Quebec Premier’s demands and looking the other way on what Legault insists is a strictly provincial matter.
Perhaps, like many observers, the federal party leaders don’t see any connection between blackface and a state prohibition against educators wearing hijabs, turbans and kippahs in public institutions. Yet the case can surely be made that both arise from subconscious or overt feelings and/or expressions of prejudice that are, regrettably, deemed acceptable by far too many people. The difference is that Trudeau’s use of blackface occurred two decades ago, while the legislation banning religious symbols is the object of current debate.
In the aftermath of the Trudeau blackface incidents, there have been calls for a national conversation about racism. But the tone of this election campaign does not allow for a thoughtful discussion about the ongoing challenge of eliminating racism and discrimination. Ideally, all federal party leaders should work together to combat racism and discrimination, whether it appears in Quebec or anywhere else in the country.
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