What happened in London should be a pivot point for Canada — and its politicians

If, after the horror in London, Canadians are being called on to ask questions of themselves and their country, their political leaders should face some awkward questions about their own words and actions.

When it comes to Islamophobia and its consequences, some party leaders have questions of their own to answer

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper take part in the 2015 Munk debate on foreign policy. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

In a speech in 2015, while reflecting on Canada's treatment of minorities, Justin Trudeau said that the inclusive idea of liberty that typifies the best of Canada "requires Canadian political leadership to be sustained."

Six years later, the killing of four members of a Muslim family in London, Ontario is a moment of reckoning for Canadians — but also for this country's political leaders.

If it's necessary for Canadians to reflect on themselves and their country, it's equally necessary for politicians to consider what they could have done better in the past and what more they could do in the future.

Beyond framing an idea of "Canadian liberty," Trudeau used that speech six years ago to condemn the then-Conservative government's attempt to ban new Canadians from wearing the niqab while swearing the oath of citizenship. And after reviewing that policy and the Conservative rhetoric around it, Trudeau invoked some of the most shameful events in Canadian history.

"This is not the spirit of Canadian liberty, my friends," he said. "It is the spirit of the Komagata Maru. Of the St. Louis. Of 'none is too many.'"

Much of the response to those remarks focused on Trudeau's choice of comparisons. Jason Kenney, the author of the niqab ban, said the Liberal leader had displayed "a grotesque lack of judgment."

How much has changed since 2015?

Six years later, it might be harder to imagine a mainstream party proposing such a ban and easier to imagine observers agreeing with such historical comparisons. That might count as some small measure of progress.

But the 2015 election — during which Stephen Harper also suggested he would consider extending the ban on the niqab to the public service — was hardly the last word on anti-Muslim prejudice in Canada.

In 2017, there was Motion 103. Tabled by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, it asked the House of Commons to condemn Islamophobia and endorse a study of how the federal government could better combat racism and discrimination. It did not pass quietly or easily. Eighty-six Conservative MPs — including current party leader Erin O'Toole — voted against it.

WATCH: Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole addresses London vigil

O'Toole speaks to crowd at London, Ont., vigil in honour of Muslim family killed

1 year ago
Duration 1:38
Opposition Leader Erin O'Toole addresses a crowd in London, Ont., Tuesday evening at a vigil in honour of the Muslim family killed.

O'Toole's first response to the attack in London this week described it as an "Islamophobic act of terror." He used the word "Islamophobia" in his remarks to the House of Commons the next day.

Maybe that counts as some small measure of progress, too. But even if O'Toole appeared to turn a page this week, should politicians ever be allowed to move on so quietly?

Does he regret his vote on M-103? How does he feel now about what the previous Conservative government — which he served as a cabinet minister — said and did in regards to the niqab? What about that same government's talk of "barbaric cultural practices?"

The current moment would seem ripe for the Conservative leader to publicly reflect on those choices. But O'Toole is not the only federal leader who faces questions right now.

Walking the fence on Bill 21

Trudeau put himself ahead of other leaders on the issue of the niqab when he delivered that speech in 2015. Unfortunately, it was possible then to think he had taken a political risk in so loudly criticizing the Harper government's ban. New Democrats ended up blaming their losses in that year's election in part on the fact that Tom Mulcair eventually was compelled to condemn the policy.

If Trudeau is ahead of his federal counterparts now on the matter of Quebec's Bill 21, which would ban public servants in the province from wearing religious headwear or symbols, he's not ahead by much.

O'Toole deferred to Quebec when he was asked about the so-called "secularism" law last September — another thing he might be asked about now. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has criticized the bill but has stopped short of saying a government led by him would intervene.

Trudeau has criticized the bill but is still alone among federal leaders in saying that the federal government might someday need to participate in a legal challenge against it.

That wasn't much — but then Trudeau seemed to move backwards this week. Asked by a reporter whether he thought Bill 21 "fosters hatred and … discrimination," the prime minister responded, "No."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gestures to Quebec Premier Francois Legault as they leave a news conference in Montreal on Monday, March 15, 2021. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

That answer demands an explanation — not least because Trudeau has himself used the word "discrimination" when talking about Bill 21.

It's possible to imagine non-selfish arguments against the federal government officially intervening in Bill 21 at this point.

There are politicians in Quebec who, no doubt, would relish the chance to turn this into a fight with Ottawa. If Bill 21 is to fall, it might be best if that defeat is clearly driven by Quebecers.

As one legal scholar has said, the precise role for the federal government in combating provincial laws is debatable (though if the bill ultimately is upheld because of Quebec's use of the notwithstanding clause, Trudeau might need to think seriously about taking on the challenge of constitutional reform).

Refusing to engage doesn't let Trudeau off the hook

But declining to engage legally does not prevent a prime minister — or any other federal leader — from speaking clearly and forcefully about problems with provincial legislation. If anything, refusing to intervene only increases the already considerable responsibility a prime minister bears to combat hate and systemic racism in other ways.

The Trudeau government has things it can say for itself in that respect. It drafted an anti-racism strategy and put $45 million toward it. It has put an emphasis on diversifying federal appointments.

The government is promising to table legislation soon aimed at cracking down on the online spread of hateful content — though a fall election would at least push back the implementation of such a bill. To the degree that words matter, Trudeau probably deserves some credit for rhetorical leadership in recent days and years.

But after London, the questions worth asking have to do with what more should be done — and why those things can't happen soon. Tragedy should never be a precondition for action but it can be a spur to redouble one's efforts. It creates moments that can be seized to advance progress.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims has called on the prime minister to convene a national summit on Islamophobia that brings together representatives from all levels of government. The NCCM says such a meeting would be "a start."

It might be hard to find a good reason not to convene such a gathering, even if it has to occur virtually.

"Canada is the way it is because Canadians built it to be that way," Trudeau said during that speech in 2015.

As Canadians reckon with the reality of their country, that statement might seem to have a double meaning — both positive and negative.

But the case for deliberate effort and political leadership remains as sound now as it was then.


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.