I'm not a woke PM but I play one on TV
“Because it’s 2015” was the resonant and flippant catchphrase coined in the warm glow of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent electoral success. It suggested that there is such obvious merit in gender equity that if you even have to ask the question, you need to give your head a shake. The issue has been settled, and to want anything less is a sign that one is stuck in the past. When in the past exactly? Perhaps in a year like 2001, when one was 29 years old and didn’t know any better?
Trudeau and his staff worked hard leading up to the 2015 election and beyond to build an image of a compassionate and progressive leader who cares deeply about and works hard for gender equality and respect for Indigenous people. He presented himself as someone who believes in Canadian multiculturalism, and who fights for human rights. The “brownface” photo from 2001 and other evidence of Trudeau’s racist actions, combined with other examples of his lack of awareness are all the more shocking because they potentially expose him and these ideas as mere virtue signalling. And for people of colour especially, these images are upsetting because they are a vivid reminder of just how ingrained racism is in our country’s history and how little we talk about it.
There is evidence that Trudeau is more than an empty vessel. There is some real action behind the words. He has maintained gender parity in cabinet for nearly his entire term, which seems like more than just rhetoric. There is evidence that beyond that, his government has increased the number of women appointed to positions of influence. On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s office alienated and ultimately ejected two of its most powerful, respected women both from cabinet and from the Liberal Party entirely.
One of those women, Jody Wilson-Raybould, was previously Regional Chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations. Trudeau personally recruited her to run for office, then appointed her as Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, suggesting that Trudeau took seriously his intent to have women in positions of influence and that he took seriously his party’s stated goal to advance the welfare of Indigenous people in Canada. Her subsequent demotion and ejection after a disagreement about legal principle suggested that these goals both had a tacit limit, and that the welfare of a large, politically-connected and morally dubious Quebec corporation was ultimately more important.
On the simple matter of ensuring clean, safe drinking water for Indigenous communities, the Trudeau government, despite its stated intent, has a spotty record at best, failing to provide adequate funding to solve the problem.
The 2018 decision by the Government of Canada to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline project and see it to fruition also called into question the commitment to Indigenous people, considering the heavy opposition to the project from many of the First Nations communities it would impact directly (including on their drinking water). The 2015 Liberal Party platform spoke very sternly about how, “Canadians must be able to trust that government will engage in appropriate regulatory oversight, including credible environmental assessments, and that it will respect the rights of those most affected, such as Indigenous communities. While governments grant permits for resource development, only communities can grant permission.” Meanwhile, in 2019, Trudeau found himself apologizing for a sarcastic response to an Indigenous-rights activist during a Liberal Party fundraiser.
On electoral reform, an issue that has great implications for segments of the population under-represented in government, the Liberal Party completely abandoned its promise to make 2015 the last election held under the traditional “first past the post” system after the all-party committee studying the matter didn’t recommend Trudeau’s preferred outcome of ranked ballots.
On immigration, the government worked very hard to re-settle 25,000 Syrian refugees in 100 days by early 2016. It was an admirable goal, and Trudeau and his party deserve credit for the accomplishment. After that, the winds shifted, as the number of additional refugees from Syria quietly tailed off, and a new issue emerged with large numbers of refugee claimants crossing the border irregularly from the United States in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. The Canadian government struggled to manage the situation (mostly due to an inability to handle the flow), while also sending some mixed messages about just how welcome such refugee claimants actually are. There are glowing stories and stats on how successful our country’s record on refugees is on the Immigration department website, except those stories haven’t been updated since 2017, almost as if the government no longer wanted to draw attention to the matter. And, as in the United States albeit at smaller scale, there are still immigrant children held in detention or separated from their parents being held in detention.
I hesitate to criticize Trudeau’s words themselves too much. Words are important. It is through words that we colour our own image of ourselves, and it is through words that we often inspire ourselves and others to take action or stand up for our beliefs. Our prime minister should continue to be vocal about the importance of equity, should continue to champion diversity, should continue to advocate for the welfare of Indigenous people. Our prime minister is, ultimately, a public figure who should represent what and how we want to be as a country. But those words need more continuous and sustained action to support them. Those words should include discussion of where we’ve all gone wrong, not just in 2001, but in the past four years, and what we’re going to do about it. We should not have learned about our prime minister’s racist past from an American reporter by surprise. Far better would have been that Trudeau revealed it himself, early in his leadership, and that he used the opportunity to encourage others to look to their own actions, assumptions and biases, and re-examine how they may have affected others. That few Canadians, whether in media, opposition or anywhere else have tried to expose whether Trudeau was all that he claimed to be, suggests we may not really have wanted to know the truth. Canada in 2001 wasn’t always — and in 2019 still isn’t always — the welcoming, tolerant, peaceful place that so many of us want it to be. Historically we have much to regret and looking forward we have much to improve. The only way to start making it better is if we first admit that.