British Columbia

This anti-racism adviser criticized PM's blackface. She says it cost her federal job

A Vancouver woman hired to work on a federal anti-racism program says she was pushed out of the job after publicly criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for wearing blackface. 

Manjot Bains says she felt forced to quit a job she loved after being reprimanded for speaking about scandal

Manjot Bains says she felt she had to quit her job in an anti-racism program with the federal government after she criticized Justin Trudeau for wearing blackface. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A Vancouver woman hired to work on a federal anti-racism program says she felt pushed out of her job after publicly criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for wearing blackface. 

Manjot Bains began working in May as a senior program adviser in the Department of Canadian Heritage, in the Community Support, Multiculturalism and Anti-Racism Initiatives program.

When the racist images emerged of Trudeau in September during the federal election campaign, Bains and her father were interviewed by HuffPost Canada on their reaction to the scandal.

"I was really upset and disgusted by it," she said.

In the article, Bains was not identified as a federal employee, but when she told her employer about her participation, she said she was verbally reprimanded.

Senior management told her she could not criticize the prime minister, and that the public could think she lacked neutrality or was biased if she spoke publicly about racism. 

Produces culture podcast

"You cannot critique the prime minister, is what I was told," she said recalling an October meeting with senior managers. "I was told that I couldn't be trusted, that I had lost their trust."

Bains, who produces a podcast and edits a website about South Asian art and culture, said she was given an ultimatum: she could continue her side projects that focus on arts, culture and race, or continue in her role with the federal government. 

Work became awkward and uncomfortable, she said. Bains quit her job on October 11.

"I was put in a really hard position and I felt like I had no other choice," she said. 

Racism is apparent at individual, institutional and societal levels and can permeate in ways that aren't easily recognizable to everyone, said UBC professor Handel Wright. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

In an email, the Department of Canadian Heritage said it could not comment on Bains's specific claims, citing privacy laws.

However, it said public servants are bound by a code of ethics and are expected to ensure their public statements and actions, including off-duty conduct, allow them to carry out their duties impartially and objectively. 

Today, Bains remains unemployed and feels her experience points to a systemic issue within politics and the public service sector.

She feels as a woman of colour, she was hired to legitimize the anti-racism program. But if women of colour like her can't publicly comment on issues of racism without facing retribution, she believes racism can't be properly addressed and eradicated. 

"I think it tells Canadians a lot about the actual commitment to anti-racism," she said.

"The prime minister did blackface. Like, he did it, nothing to do with me. I make one comment about it and I lose my job administering his anti-racism program. How does that make any sense?"

Canada has 'long way to go'

Handel Wright, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia, said the irony of the situation is obvious.

"This was, in a way, somebody doing almost a continuation of the kind of work she would be doing officially in her employ," said Wright, who is director of UBC's Centre for Culture, Identity and Education.

"Therefore one would have seen these as related to her employment, other than being in conflict with her employment."

People of colour who are expected to work with issues related to race are often expected to undergo that work within certain boundaries, Wright said.

Racism is apparent at individual, institutional and societal levels, he added, and it can permeate in ways that aren't easily recognizable to everyone.

"If somebody can be silenced who is in her position and be made to feel so uncomfortable that she leaves her job, then it shows that Canada has a very long way to go to address issues of anti-racism straight on."

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