Canadian politicians have their say on George Floyd and racism

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter/Screenshot

Our current prime minister's father, Pierre Trudeau, produced more than his fair share of memorable quotes over his long career.

There was his 1970 slap-back to a reporter, "Just watch me," which we cited in this space the other day. More inspiring, was his pronouncement that "there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." Even some of his less-quoted statements have stood the test of time, such as: "In academic life you seek to state absolute truths; in politics you seek to accommodate truth to the facts around you."

For his part, Justin Trudeau's most eloquent utterance, so far, was probably his 20 seconds of silence in reaction to CBC reporter Tom Parry's question about Donald Trump's handling of the unrest provoked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The Americans have even taken note of that one. One CNN host thought the long pause might have been a deliberate gesture on Justin Trudeau's part. 

Many of us in Canada suspect that was not the case. 

The prime minister appears to have been genuinely tongue-tied. It is not normal practice for a head of government to comment on internal events in another allied country. And it would be particularly dangerous for a Canadian prime minister to comment on U.S. domestic matters at this time.

When Parry's question came, the prime minister was fully aware of the current fragile state of Canada-U.S. relations. He knew no good could come from anything he said that sounded overtly critical of Donald Trump. But he did not want to sound indifferent or unmoved by the crisis south of the border.

Justin Trudeau took the time to compose his thoughts carefully. When his answer finally came it struck a fine balance. 

Trudeau said "we all watched in horror and consternation," but avoided overtly poking the U.S. beast. He did, however, frankly acknowledge the continued scourge of racism -- something the current U.S. president has never done -- not only in other countries, but here in Canada.

Racism conversation takes over the House, for a while

The conversation on this subject in the House of Commons, later the same day, received less attention but was revealing nonetheless.

At the outset, all party leaders made remarks about the crisis engendered by the police killing of George Floyd.

The prime minister led off. He recognized there are things he, as a privileged person, cannot know personally. 

"I know that for so many people listening right now the last thing you want to hear is another speech on racism from a white politician," he said. "I'm not here today to describe a reality I do not know, or to speak to a pain I have not felt. I'm here because I want you to know that our government is listening."

We'll wait a long time to hear such candid, self-effacing words from most white political figures south of the border, regardless of their political stripe. The only national white U.S. leader whom this writer has heard talk about his own privilege, on more than one occasion, is Bernie Sanders.

When Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer spoke in the House, he made sure to condemn the counterproductive violence that has accompanied the peaceful protests. 

"Conservatives condemn all acts of anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination," Scheer told the House, "but the violence and the destruction we have seen in response are not the answer … We must always protect the rights of people who are protesting peacefully and within the law for a just cause and separate them from those who exploit tragedies to commit acts of violence." 

Yves-François Blanchet, the Bloc Québécois leader, made a point of describing persistent racist attitudes and actions in Canada as vestigial rather than systemic phenomena.

"I do not think the Canadian or Quebec or our municipal governments are racist," Blanchet explained. "Nonetheless, there remain vestiges of that odious thing in our institutions, which colour our relations with people of different origins and with the peoples who were here long before us."

NDP :eader Jagmeet Singh was the first to talk specifically about Canadian incidents of racist oppression, some of them very recent. As is his wont when addressing this subject, Singh spoke directly and passionately.

"I think about Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto and the calls for justice for Regis," the NDP leader said, adding that, in another case, "a trans Black woman was killed in suspicious circumstances in an interaction with the police."

The NDP leader then turned to the Indigenous experience, and gave voice to the outrage and impatience many are feeling: 

"I think about Stewart Kevin Andrews, a young Indigenous man killed in an interaction with the police in Winnipeg, and the anger and frustration are: How many more people need to die before there's action? How many more speeches will be made? How many more protests need to happen before something is done?" 

The Greens' Elizabeth May was the only leader to name-check the U.S. president. 

"When you see a bully, when you hear hate speech we have to speak up." she said, "We have to speak out and we have to say that the president of the United States is fulminating hatred and violence and it's shameful and shocking that he would grab a Bible, then clear peaceful protesters on a Washington street with tear gas so that Donald Trump could pose with a Bible in front of an Episcopal church."

May is an active member of the Anglican Church, the Canadian equivalent to the U.S. Episcopal Church. In an interregnum between her careers as an environmental activist and politician she studied theology at Saint Paul's University in Ottawa.

Singh gets down to brass tacks with pointed questions

Following the opening leader statements, the two parties that get the lion's share of questions in the House -- the Conservatives and the Bloc -- had other fish to fry and asked no questions about racism and racist practices. 

When Singh got his chance to question the prime minister, he put those issues back on the table with a series of short pointed questions. 

Here's how it went.

Singh: Will the prime minister end the over-policing and over-incarceration of Black and Indigenous people? 

Trudeau: Systemic discrimination means that people of colour are at greater risk of being incarcerated than others facing negative outcomes in the justice system. We know we need to work on all the determinants of that. 

Singh: Will the prime minister make sure Canada is collecting disaggregated data on the impacts of COVID-19 on racialized people, particularly indigenous and Black people? 

Trudeau: We've made investments over the past years to Statistics Canada so that they are better able to collect data in a disaggregated fashion. We need to know what is happening within vulnerable communities. 

Singh: Will the prime minister commit to ending the over-incarceration, over-policing, and racial profiling of Indigenous people? 

Trudeau: There are many measures we're working on to make our justice system fairer, and to reduce systemic discrimination, and eventually to eliminate it. 

Singh: Will the prime minister commit to stop taking Indigenous kids to court, and will he cease delaying the response to the murdered, missing indigenous women and girls calls for justice? 

Trudeau: We have been working over the past year with partners on the ground to formulate the measures and the response that needs to move forward. Many of those partners have been engaged in keeping their communities safe and that has delayed the putting out of the report. 

Singh: Will the prime minister stop taking Indigenous kids to court when it comes to Indigenous child welfare? 

Trudeau: We agree that we need to compensate kids and indigenous peoples who have suffered harm at the hands of our child and family services over the past decades, and we will do that. 

And so it goes.

The next day, both the NDP and Bloc Québécois leaders decided to pick up where their Green colleague had left off, and to take on the what-to-say-about-Donald-Trump issue. 

Both criticized Trudeau for failing to condemn Trump's divisive and racist rhetoric. Blanchet said the prime minister "needs a spine" while Singh inveighed that Trudeau's "silence reveals hypocrisy."

Those are easy sentiments for opposition leaders to express. Prime ministers are in a different situation, however. They know it might feel good to openly confront a toxic U.S. president. And it might make many Canadians feel, momentarily, good, too. 

But that good feeling would not likely last once we all began to experience the significant, negative economic consequences of such words.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter/Screenshot

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