What to do about Justin?

Last week’s Blackface/Brownface controversy raises the complicated question of how we navigate our way through all the competing, compelling, often contradictory private and public actions of our politicians to determine who — if anyone — deserves our vote.

Voting is easy. Choosing who to vote for? Not so much… In our federal parliamentary, first-past-the-post system, we each get just one vote to elect our local member of parliament who is supposed to both represent our personal views and also be a puzzle piece in a national numbers game that will ultimately determine which party forms the next government and which party leader (who not only represents but also shapes party policy and sucks the rest of the media oxygen out of any policy room) gets to be prime minister.

Phew… That’s a lot to expect from one solitary vote.

But the choices get more Hobson.

Do we vote for the best local candidate and damn the larger electoral consequences? Or do we vote for the party that comes closest to our own ideological thinking, regardless of the local vote-puppet whose name happens to be on the ballot? Do we cast our ballot based on one single issue that particularly animates us, or do we compare and contrast, weigh and balance, fuss and fidget and eventually choose to vote for the better option — or at least the lesser evil?

Or do we flip that equation on its pointy head completely and decide to vote strategically to make sure the party we like least doesn’t get its hands on the levers of government? And, if we choose that approach, how do we make sure it actually leads to our preferred outcome?

But wait, we’re not done yet.

What happens after the media smoke has cleared, the local counts counted, the national numbers tallied and a government of the people, by the people, for the people is finally in place? How do we hold that government to account? How do we make sure they don’t simply renege on their promises?

To that point — and to the larger point about how difficult it is to decide how to vote — remember this Liberal/Trudeau/Andy Fillmore pledge from the last election: “We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.”

Would we be even asking ourselves these questions if the Liberals had done as they promised and brought in real electoral reform?

And so it is and has always been. Ever thus.

I couldn’t help but think about all of that this week as the Justin Trudeau Blackface/Brownface/how-many-more-photos scandal swarmed media, public and private debate, squeezing out discussion, at least for a time, of most other issues, also of moment, in this election campaign.

The question is not simply whether Trudeau — and, more generally, we as White Canadians — should have long before understood the hurt and the history embedded in even cavalier, for our-own-amusement, this-is-just-part-of-a-fun-costume smearing-on of brown and black face paint.

Of course we should have known — if we’d been listening, paying attention to what our Black and Brown neighbours were telling us. Blackface/Brownface as another columnist noted, is “the power to make racism look like it’s all just good fun.”

Trudeau was wrong to do what he did. And did. And did.

Even if he apologized. And apologized. And apologized.

We/Whites were/are wrong not to have confronted the racism in our own country more honestly, more forcefully, more often. Why should this even still be a discussion? Why should we still be expecting Black people to explain the problem to us?

But all that said, where will that leave us when it comes to deciding how (or perhaps whether) to vote in the Oct. 21 federal election?

Karl Nerenberg, the veteran Ottawa correspondent for rabble.ca, a progressive news site, tried to make sense of his own conflicted feelings.

“This writer has reported on the Liberals’ many failures and broken promises. But voters should also remember there is a positive side to the Trudeau government record, especially on issues related to diversity and race. The current Liberal government opened the door to Syrian refugees; restored health care for all refugee claimants; ended the Harper government’s restrictive measures on family reunification for refugees and immigrants; and even tacitly encouraged refugees from all over the world, who are fearful of their reception in Trump’s U.S., to enter Canada through the back door, as it were, thus getting around  the safe third-country agreement Canada has with the U.S. The Liberal approach to immigration and refugee policy, and Indigenous affairs, has been far from perfect. But it has been a huge improvement over that of its predecessor, the Harper government.”

It is also true, as the Liberals themselves have been at pains to point out this week, that the Trudeau government put Black Nova Scotian civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond on our $10 bill and adopted the United Nations Decade for People of African descent to better research and respond to anti-Black racism in Canada, as well as to celebrate the accomplishments of African Canadians.

On the other hand, as El Jones so eloquently framed the issue in The Examiner on Friday:

“When the furor over Trudeau’s Blackface photos dies down, to be referred to as an ‘embarrassing incident’ or ‘controversial,’ Black people like Abdilahi Elmi will still be facing deportation. Muslim Canadians will still be on the no-fly list. White nationalist editorials will still be commissioned by major newspapers under the guise of ‘debate.’ And immigration will still be referred to as a ‘crisis.’”

Not to forget the many and real crises facing Indigenous communities in Canada, which Trudeau himself forgot to even mention in his speech announcing the election.

And yet… again… still… As Moustafa Bayoumi, the author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror put it in The Guardian:

“I grew up in Canada (I hold both American and Canadian citizenship) and what I see in these photos feels personal. I remember very clearly the bullying and taunts that the few non-white kids, myself included, routinely faced in school. As a Muslim kid, I was forced to leave my elementary school classroom and wait in the hall while the Lord’s Prayer was read aloud over the school speakers. As a brown kid, I was constantly told by other kids that I was dirty because my knees and elbows were a darker color than the rest of my skin. In my high-school gym’s locker room, I was regularly ridiculed and beaten because I was a ‘Paki,’ and any brown kid in Canada when I was growing up was pejoratively called a ‘Paki.’ My feeble response at the time was to tell my attackers: ‘I’m not from Pakistan.’ That would sometimes elicit a pause. Then a chuckle. Then the beating would continue…

Canadian racism is real, and it’s still as pernicious, systemic and psychologically damaging as any other. Indigenous communities in particular are still forced to battle Canadian racism in the most profound ways conceivable. And until there is a real movement to confront and eliminate it in all of its varieties, racism will live on in Canada and these incidents and injustices will keep occurring.

The immediate question in front of us is what Canadians should do today. Trudeau and his Liberal Party are now in the final weeks of a re-election campaign, and the main challenger, the Conservative Party, headed by Andrew Scheer, is already exploiting the scandal. Scheer has called Trudeau ‘not fit’ to be prime minister. But just days earlier, Scheer was excusing the rampant and excessive racism and homophobia found among members of his own party. And while the Liberals have disappointed indigenous communities on several fronts since assuming power, the Conservatives haven’t even offered an indigenous policy or strategy.

Which leads us to the clear answer. Justin Trudeau’s racist pantomimes are reprehensible. But let’s make sure that what we are examining is not only Trudeau but also Canada and its racism. Otherwise, the solutions we come up with will be not even skin deep but simply made-up.”

While that may help direct us to who not to vote for next month, it doesn’t make it any easier to decide who and what to vote in just over four weeks when/if we cast our ballot for real.

Another column for another day.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner September 23, 2019.

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