Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been caught wearing brown face. There are at least three instances where a younger Trudeau wore brown face to parties, including the first instance to come to light. He was 29 years old and teaching at the West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver when he went to an Arabian Nights-themed party as Aladdin, complete with the brown face. He has apologized, and I believe he is sincere. In relation to the 2001 incident in Vancouver, Trudeau has declared that he didn’t think it was a racist move at the time, though he now sees things differently. I also have to give Trudeau credit for standing up into the face of this scandal and admitting he was wrong. I’m not sure, however, this is good enough.
As this scandal involving Trudeau emerges and attracts international attention, what is striking me is the casting of Canadian society and history in the same light as the United States. Once more for those of you in the cheap seats, CANADA IS NOT THE UNITED STATES. I am hearing from friends in Canada, the US, and the UK about this. Americans are entirely missing the point of Canada and Canadian history. Canadians themselves are.
Canada has its own history, it has its own race issues, it has its own issues with racism. Put bluntly, like the United States (and every other country in the world), Canada is racist. I have written about this in the past many times (for the record, there are seven links in that sentence).
The problem is that Canadians don’t like to admit this. Since the mid-1970s, the official government policy of our country has been one of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism arose out of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the 1960s, when the Canadian government attempted to come to terms with one of the defining features of Canada: there is a very large French Canadian minority in the country. Instead of this, however, the commissioners found another faultline, which was the descendants of immigrants to the country in the late 19th and 20th centuries, who demanded that their voices be heard. These people were Eastern and Southern European, they were Jewish, South Asian, East Asian, and increasingly, African, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean. It is in this context of official state policy of multiculturalism that Canada has operated for the past 40+ years. In the 1980s, the slogan was ‘Celebrate the Diversity.’ Today it is ‘Our Diversity is Our Strength.’
Trudeau himself has campaigned on diversity, he leads the most diverse of our political parties, the Liberal Party of Canada. He has the most diverse federal cabinet in Canadian history. He is an avowed feminist. He is, in other words, a progressive. And yet, this brown face issue.
Quite frankly, it was well into the 21st century before Canadians began to have serious reservations about brown face. Instances of brown face in public have almost entirely been confined to the province of Québec, from whence Trudeau hails (it is also my home province, we are both from Montréal). Wikipedia lists a whole bunch of brown face incidents in 21st century Québec. Note that the most recent one was last year.
In 2016, the proverbial shit hit the fan in Québec, when the director of a Radio-Canada (SRC) New Year’s revue show, Louis Morrisette, published a column in a popular French-language magazine complaining of ‘political correctness run amok’ because SRC forced him to hire black actors, rather than just using brown face, as he had in the past. Targets of brown face have included popular hockey players PK Subban and Georges Laraque of the Montréal Canadiens, amongst others. Again, that was 2016.
Racism runs deep in Canada. It permeates all parts of life, this despite and maybe because of the fact that two of the country’s largest cities are predominately populated by people of colour, Toronto and Vancouver. Montréal, for its part, is about 40% minority today. It is hard to pinpoint exact numbers because the Canadian census gives us the opportunity to mark ‘Canadian’ as our ethnic heritage, and this marks the largest figure in returns for the 2016 census, as 33% of us claim to be ‘Canadian. But all told, around 40% of Canada is made up of ethnic minorities.
We like to think of ourselves as not racist because Canada was the final stop of the Underground Railroad in the first half of the 19th century. And because of the long history of South and East Asians on the West Coast (we ignore the obvious incidents of racism, like the Komagata Maru Incident, riots in Japantown and Chinatown in Vancouver, or Japanese Internment). And, of course, multiculturalism. We ignore the shameful history of Canada’s relations with the indigenous. Or blatantly racist events like the destruction of Africville in Halifax.
Last night, in response to the Trudeau scandal, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has himself been the victim of racism within his own party, tweeted
Tonight is not about the Prime Minister.
It's about every young person mocked for the colour of their skin.
The child who had their turban ripped off their head.
And those reliving intense feelings of pain & hurt from past experiences of racism.
To you, I say you are loved.
— Jagmeet Singh (@theJagmeetSingh) September 19, 2019
And this is it. Canada is long past the time where we need to have a national discussion about the legacy of racism in our country. We cannot move forward as a nation until we do so, and yet, we won’t. Our politics are toxic, having become Americanized as a result of both the Liberals and Conservatives importing tactics from the United States. More’s the shame for our country.