Canada is 'awash in systemic racism,' says Green Leader Elizabeth May

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said today that Canada is "awash" in racism and the country has to do a better job of confronting it.

'It's a hard answer because it makes people uncomfortable,' May says at foreign policy platform event

Green Party leader Elizabeth May speaks during the federal leaders French language debate in Gatineau, Que. on Thursday, October 10, 2019. ( THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Wattie)

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said today that Canada is "awash" in racism and the country has to do a better job of confronting it.

May made the blunt statement today at a press conference in Ottawa while discussing her party's foreign policy platform.

"Yes," May said, when CBC News asked whether Canada is "racist as a country."

"It's a hard answer because it makes people uncomfortable," she added. "The word has so much power that I hesitate to use it.

"But you can't deny that our society is awash in systemic racism. We're a long way from a society where racism is not at play."

May says Canada systemically racist

4 years ago
Duration 2:21
Green Party Leader says Canadian society is 'awash in systemic racism.'

May said it's a hard truth that she and other Canadians must come to terms with, adding that it took a while for her to recognize her privilege as a white person.

"This idea of being privileged, it actually took me a bit to get it," May said. "Because I have always been active in the civil rights movement.

"Even when there are best intentions, there is systemic racism in our society."

Singh: 'There's no question about it'

CBC News asked NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh the same question on Saturday when he visited Grassy Narrows, a northwestern Ontario First Nation suffering from years of mercury contamination in its river system and drinking water.

"There's no question about it," Singh said.

"If you look at the treatment of Indigenous people, there is a decision being made not to fund basic things like water. There is a decision being made to ensure that Indigenous Canadians don't get the basic funding that's needed."

Is Canada racist? 'There’s no question about it,' Singh says

4 years ago
Duration 2:06
While in Grassy Narrows, Ont. on Oct 5, CBC News asked NDP leader Jagmeet Singh “Is Canada a racist country?” Singh said: “There’s no question about it.”

Singh later softened his comments, saying labels aren't helpful when discussing racist attitudes.

"The label, I don't know how much that helps," Singh told CBC News during a one-on-one interview.

"Certainly, we have to call out the existence of very clear racist policies or discriminatory policies." 

Racism has come to the forefront of the 2019 fall election.

In the first week of the campaign, images surfaced of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wearing blackface makeup. Trudeau has apologized repeatedly for darkening his face, an act used in the past to both mimic and mock people of colour. This week, Toronto Liberal MP Judy Sgro apologized for downplaying the blackface incidents in an interview.

And while it shouldn't be controversial for a politician to acknowledge racism in Canada, it often is, said University of King's College journalism instructor El Jones.

"That's not an attack on individual people. That's not some terrible thing to talk about," she said. "It's actually something we need to acknowledge so that we can make good policy and do all the things people say they want to do to move forward."

As proof, Jones cited Canada's history of racist policies — the residential school system that took Indigenous children from their homes and culture, the recent independent reviews of police services that show police stops disproportionately target minorities, among others.


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He can be reached at david.thurton@cbc.ca

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