The House

How well are black Canadians represented in Parliament?

It's been over five decades since Canada's first black MP was elected to Parliament and rookie NDP MP Matthew Green says that's a problem.

'If you can't see it, you can't be it' - NDP MP Matthew Green

The longest serving female MP, Hedy Fry and rookie MP Matthew Green spoke to CBC Radio's The House to kick off Black History Month. (Canadian Press)

It's been over five decades since Canada's first black MP was elected to Parliament and rookie NDP MP Matthew Green says that's a problem.

One of only a handful of black MPs sitting in the House of Commons, Green told CBC Radio's The House that the chamber is still failing to reflect the nation back to itself.

"If you can't see it, you can't be it," Green told host Chris Hall Thursday in an panel discussion with Liberal MP Hedy Fry.

Green said he vividly remembers being nine years old and seeing Canada's first black MP, Lincoln Alexander, on stage. He said Alexander's "dignity ... grace and an authority" impressed him powerfully and spurred his interest in politics.

If it hadn't been for Alexander's example, he said, "who knows where I would have ended up today?" 

Green said black Canadians continue to face discriminatory barriers and racism daily. He urged all Canadians to consider the record of racism in this country and not "situate black history as this thing that happened a long time ago that people need to get over."

"I call this the new civil rights," he said. "We are watching the work of Black Lives Matter, journalists like Desmond Cole and other street-level activists who are working hard to address the systemic racism that people are facing today."

Fry, Canada's longest-serving female MP, said black communities in Canada are still suffering from stereotypes about gun violence and drugs.

But she insists progress has been made on the legislative front.

"We have all the legislation in place, [the Charter of Rights] being the major one," she said. "We've employed equity, we have all of the legislation necessary to ensure a society where there's equal opportunity for all regardless. But that does not control societal decision-making."

She called for more public education on the lived realities of black Canadians, and for the government to use legislation, policies and programs to empower communities "so that they can get on that level playing field ..."

Complexities of identity

But progress can't be a one-size-fits-all approach, Fry and Green said. They urged their fellow MPs to remember there's diversity even within the black community.

"Sometimes we're oversimplifying the statement that the black community is under-represented because [it's] not monolithic," Green said. "We don't come from the same countries. There are different experiences."

 And for people of colour themselves, Fry said, questions of identity can be complex.

"What is black?" she asked. "When I was a minister for multiculturalism, Africans used to tell me, 'You know, we are not all black and we don't all belong to one religion.'"

The blackface scandal

The last federal election saw the appearance of decade-old photos of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing blackface.

Green said that, despite Trudeau's multiple apologies, his actions haven't "been dealt with" and the fallout continues.

"It was a mistake multiple times and speaks to a level of privilege and power and a cavalier nature in which people are being portrayed," he said. "That's unacceptable."

Green brought up the case of Manjot Bains, a Vancouver woman hired to work on a federal anti-racism program who said she felt she'd been pushed out of her job after publicly criticizing Trudeau for wearing blackface.

"There is a silencing of experience and there's a silencing of people to be able to disrupt this kind of power ... to be able to speak truth to power," he said.

Fry defended Trudeau, saying he didn't realize the impact of his actions.

"I will tell you now, this is a good man. He did not mean any harm. People do this sometimes, unconsciously, not knowing that it's hurtful," Fry said.

"I don't think I necessarily think it's privileged. I think sometimes it is just ignorance of how sometimes what you say and what you do impacts on other people."

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