Politics·Analysis

Is Canada racist? Jagmeet Singh says 'no question' - then pulls his punches

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been praised as a strong voice against intolerance and racism. But his remarks on the campaign trail show he's walking a fine and ambiguous line - and he's not the firebrand some imagine him to be.

From pipelines to questions about Quebec's Bill 21, the NDP leader walks a fine and ambiguous line

There are defining moments we'll all remember during this election. Many of these moments have come from NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has had his share of viral moments on the campaign trail during the past four weeks.

His one-two punch of hoping — "tongue in cheek" — that U.S. President Donald would be impeached was followed up the next day with the statement, "I wasn't joking." And his exchange with a man who told him he should "cut off his turban" to look more Canadian earned him praise for his composure in the face of racial boorishness.

And then there was this response when a reporter suggested he was offering a "blank cheque" to Indigenous communities:

"Why would anyone question whether or not every Indigenous community should have clean drinking water?" Singh said in a viral smackdown shared many times. "If this were an issue in Toronto in Vancouver or in any city around the world or around Canada, there would be no debate. We would get it done."

But there was another moment at the same event in Grassy Narrows, a northwestern Ontario Ojibwe First Nation that has been struggling for decades with toxic mercury in its water, that did not attract as much attention. When asked whether he thought Canada is a racist country, Singh said, "There's no question about it."

"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."

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.” 2:06

Later, in a one-on-one interview, Singh demurred when asked again if he thought Canada was racist. "The label, I don't know how much that helps," Singh told CBC News.

But he said he agrees that some Canadian government policies and actions are examples of systemic racism.

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

The view that Canada has a racist history that defines the nation is hardly radical, given the legacy of the residential schools, the Chinese head tax, the Komagata Maru incident, the refusal to allow a ship of Jews fleeing pre-World War II Europe to dock in Canada and the clearing out of the Africville black community near Halifax — all events that have elicited apologies, including recent apologies from the Trudeau government.

But Singh's wobble on this and other issues during this campaign shows that he's worried about alienating certain voters.

'It should be a factual thing to say that Canada is racist'

Many academics who have been outspoken on the topic of racism in Canada don't even think it's worth asking whether Canada is racist.

"It should be a factual thing to say that Canada is racist," said El Jones, a University of King's College journalism instructor. "Not only does Canada have a racist history, but Canada continues today to have racist policies."

Still, Jones and many others agree that calling out Canada's past is politically "dangerous." It's especially perilous, she said, for Canada's first visible minority major party leader, because it's an indictment of the declared identity of a country that prides itself on being open, progressive and diverse.

It shouldn't be so risky for leaders to state the obvious, she said.

"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."

Green Party leader Elizabeth May also recognizes this. In an interview with CBC News, she conceded that talking about racism in Canada is tough.

"It's a hard answer because it makes people uncomfortable," she said. "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."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh point to the name of the mother of chief Rudy Turtle, centre, on the monument to the local victims of residential schools as Ontario NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa looks on the Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario on Saturday, October 5, 2019. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Singh is having a moment in this campaign, if the polls, viral shares and celebrity follows on social media are to be believed. Many Canadians seem to be looking to Singh to lead on issues such as discrimination, including how the country grapples with its historic and current realities surrounding race. And he has embraced this role — eloquently, passionately, patiently — all while finding his voice and his stride under the pressure of a political campaign.

But he hasn't been unequivocal.

Whether it's questions about propping up a minority government that proceeds with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Quebec's religious symbols law and an NDP government's plan to intervene through the courts on Bill 21, or the matter of whether Canada is racist, Singh has walked a fine and ambiguous line.

About the Author

David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.

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