Two MPs are locked in a Twitter brawl over race and identity. Time to talk?

For months now, two MPs — Liberal Celina Caesar-Chavannes and Conservative Maxime Bernier — have been locked in a very public Twitter battle over identity politics.

Maybe a sit-down between Bernier and Caesar-Chavannes would solve nothing. But that's not the point.

Left: Conservative MP Maxime Bernier. Right: Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes. (Chris Wattie/Reuters, Idil Mussa/CBC)

For months now, two MPs — Liberal Celina Caesar-Chavannes and Conservative Maxime Bernier — have been locked in a very public Twitter battle over identity politics.

Liberal MP Greg Fergus thinks they should actually talk to each other. Face to face.

"It sounds really personal now. And they do work about five metres away from each other," Fergus said in an interview earlier this week.

An actual conversation might not resolve their dispute. It probably wouldn't do much to achieve social justice, or to settle the thorny questions about race, culture and identity the two MPs been hashing out in increments of 280 characters or less. But it probably wouldn't hurt.

Issues of race re-ignite fight between two politicians

4 years ago
Duration 2:17
Quebec Conservative MP Maxime Bernier tweeted this weekend at Ontario Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes: 'You think the world revolves around your skin colour,' raising some broader questions about how we talk about race in politics.

On Saturday, Bernier tweeted that Caesar-Chavannes, the Liberal MP for Whitby, believes "the world revolves around" her "skin colour." That was in response to Caesar-Chavannes chiding him in an interview with the Globe and Mail.

Their mutual animus dates to March, when Bernier criticized the Liberal government's promotion of funding for "racialized Canadians" and said he thought the goal of anti-racism policy was to create a "colour-blind" society.

Caesar-Chavannes fired back, suggesting Bernier "do some research ... as to why stating colour blindness as a defence actually contributes to racism."

"Please check your privilege and be quiet," she added — provoking Bernier to invoke "free speech."

Caesar-Chavannes subsequently apologized and suggested that they get together to chat. Bernier dismissed the idea.

"We should certainly do everything possible to redress injustices and give everyone equal opportunities to flourish. And we should recognize that Canada is big enough to contain many identities. As a francophone Quebecer, I can understand this," he wrote.

"But that doesn't mean the gov't officially defining us on the basis of 'intersectional race, gender and sexual identities' and granting different rights and privileges accordingly. This only creates more division and injustice and will balkanise our society."

The Jordan Peterson factor

It's not clear which "rights" and "privileges" Bernier thinks are being granted in this instance. But he is correct to note that, as a francophone Quebecer, he has some special insight into this topic.

As a minister in Stephen Harper's cabinet, he supported a motion declaring that "the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada." In 2015, he supported an NDP proposal that required officers of Parliament to be bilingual.

"I'm a Quebecer too, and I've seen what type of discrimination happens just on the question of language. For a long period of time, francophones were considered to be a different group of people, a race apart," says Fergus, who chairs the parliamentary black caucus. 

"I think you can pivot from that understanding to one where you can see it in other different groups."

But this also is not the first time Bernier has recoiled from an attempt by the Liberal government to deal with a matter of social justice.

As a candidate for the Conservative leadership in 2017, he recanted his previous support for Bill C-16, which extended existing anti-discrimination protections to cover "gender identity" and "gender expression."

Bernier said Jordan Peterson — the University of Toronto professor who is lionized by many on the political right as a courageous critic of identity politics, but whose critics are numerous — had convinced him that C-16 would infringe on the right to free speech.

Asked by the Toronto Sun in March to comment on the latest Liberal budget — which made extensive use of gender-based analysis — Peterson lamented the Trudeau government's approach.

"I think the identity politics is absolutely catastrophic … We will see a rise in racial tension and tension between the genders as a consequence of this," he said. "It's already happening. We're introducing problems into a country."

It's not clear if Bernier objects to what the Liberal government is doing — or just to the words it uses to describe what it is doing.

But identity politics — focusing on the concerns and challenges faced by specific groups within the larger society — has also been critiqued by the American left in the wake of Donald Trump's election — the theory being that the Democratic party has alienated white voters in explicitly addressing the particular interests of non-white voters.

For that matter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referenced identity politics himself when he encouraged students at New York University to avoid falling into political or social tribalism.

Fergus's call for a conversation has something in common with both the American critique and Trudeau's call to voters to bridge the gap between political solitudes.

An 'inclusive' fight against injustice

"As we're dealing with this issue … you have to make sure that you do it in a way that's very inclusive," Fergus said. "That people feel that they're a part of the solution. The last thing I want people to do is to feel as if I'm pointing the finger at them saying that they are not part of the solution or that they're part of the problem."

That approach has its limits. (Some people actually are part of the problem.)

But people of goodwill who find themselves in such conversations might feel as if they are being personally accused. So it's tempting to think that an actual, in-person conversation might do what an exchange of tweets cannot.

Caesar-Chavannes says Bernier tweets are ridiculous

4 years ago
Duration 1:28
Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes responds to tweets from Conservative MP Maxime Bernier that say she thinks 'the world revolves around' her skin colour.

Maybe Bernier and Caesar-Chavannes can never convince each other. But for those calling for change — among them the representatives of a Liberal government that continues to push on issues like gender equality, diversity and systemic racism — there's something to be said for bringing as many people along with you as possible.

"If you're part of the groups that have been discriminated against systemically over time, how would you feel? You would want these issues to be dealt with because it's been going on for such a long time and there's nothing more frustrating than to feel that the cards are stacked against you," Fergus said.

"But it's also very important for people who are not part of those groups to understand what that feeling is like ...

"We have to figure out a way to get along and understand each other. That's going to be an imperfect and messy process, but we need to talk. And if people are uncomfortable with me talking about it, I want to know why they are really uncomfortable with it and let's have that conversation."

Dealing with a problem is better than pretending it doesn't exist. Talking is better than not talking — even if Bernier feels Liberals are sowing division, and progressives conclude that achieving a just society is more important than his feelings.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.