OTTAWA—While Justin Trudeau is apologizing this week for acts he admits were racist, the Liberal leader and his partisan supporters are urging Canadians to take heed of their efforts in government on racial equality.
Among the cabinet ministers and Liberal MPs defending Trudeau’s character this week was Greg Fergus, leader of a small parliamentary Black caucus who is running again in the Quebec riding of Hull—Aylmer.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Fergus said people should acknowledge Trudeau tried as prime minister to improve the lives of Black Canadians and people from all backgrounds. He pointed to the “historic” decision to enshrine the story of Viola Desmond on the $10 bill. Desmond was a Black Nova Scotian woman who was arrested in 1946 for refusing to leave a whites-only section of a theatre in New Glasgow.
Fergus also hailed the Trudeau government for embracing diversity and adopting the United Nations Decade for People of African Descent, an initiative that continues to 2024 as the federal government commits to improve research and data collection on racial inequality, address the impacts of anti-Black racism in Canada, and earmark $25 million for community projects to celebrate Black Canadians.
The government also launched a $45 million anti-racism strategy this year, with $30 million going to community programs that address racism and discrimination, and a new division to help increase diversity in the federal public service.
In an email Friday, the Liberal party also highlighted decisions in government to analyze the impacts of all federal policies on women and minority populations, increase representation of visible minorities in the courts, and more.
“I think those are really the measure of the man, and why I have confidence in his leadership,” Fergus said this week.
Speaking in Windsor, Ont. Friday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh directly challenged the notion that the Liberals stood up for racial equality in government. As an example, he cited how the party used their majority in parliament to quash an attempt by the NDP to expunge the records of people convicted of marijuana possession. The government opted instead to allow people to apply for pardons, which don’t erase the conviction from criminal records.
“That doesn’t undo the injustice,” said Singh, stating that these convictions for something that is now legal affected many racialized Canadians.
“There is again an ongoing pattern of behaviour here where he does not understand what people are going through, and it shows in the policies, and that to me is very, very concerning,” he said.
Cheryl Thompson is a professor at Ryerson University who researched the history of anti-Black racism in Canada. She credited the Trudeau Liberals with championing racial diversity, but said she hasn’t seen that reflected in who actually held positions of power in Trudeau’s cabinet.
“In 2015, I remember he made this grand announcement,” she said, referring to Trudeau’s proclamation that he appointed an equal number of men and women to cabinet “because it’s 2015.”
“I would have liked to have seen him make that statement about (racial) diversity,” she said.
Another aspect of his governing record that Trudeau emphasized this week was his push to empower Indigenous peoples by funding better services and pursuing reconciliation based on new relationships between First Nations, Métis, Inuit and the federal government.
On that front there has been progress, but it’s not easy to accept this as an example of the Liberal government’s push for racial equality, said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Her organization is still involved in a legal case that led to a 2016 ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that Ottawa was racially discriminating against Indigenous children by underfunding services.
Since then, the tribunal has ruled several times that the federal government is still failing to comply with an order to increase funding. Earlier this month, the body ordered the federal to compensate children who were impacted by this “wilful and reckless discriminatory practice” since 2006, while giving Ottawa until Oct. 7 to appeal the ruling.
“(Trudeau) needs to take the blinders off to be able to understand that he has the obligation — not just the opportunity — but the obligation to make sure another generation of First Nations’ children isn’t vanquished to unnecessary harms,” said Blackstock.
In an emailed statement to the Star on Friday, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation credited the Liberals with taking “significant steps” to address racial inequalities in recent years. The foundation — a Crown corporation mandated to educate Canadians on these issues — also acknowledged that the images of Trudeau were “unfortunate events” that show the need for further education.
“The last few days have been a reminder that we are always evolving as a pluralistic society and must remain vigilant in order to realize Canada’s vision of multiculturalism,” the statement read.
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga