While we witness ongoing, global anti-racism uprisings, we simultaneously witness the backlash. We hear Donald Trump characterize anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter activists as “thugs” and “terrorists”. Although we cannot directly transpose the geopolitical context of the United States onto Canada, we cannot minimize the realities of racism in our own country.
Indeed, we need to pay close attention when elected officials in Canada attempt to silence BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities who demand social justice. Many racialized Québecers, for example, continue to hear Premier François Legault’s patronizing tone that trivializes systemic racism in Québec, whether on the subject of racial profiling by police or Bill 21.
Or take the case of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who was ordered to leave the House of Commons on June 17 after he called Bloc Québécois MP Alain Therrien racist. This was after Singh proposed a motion to tackle systemic racism within the RCMP. Therrien abruptly and loudly proclaimed “no” to it. Singh explained that what angered him was Therrien making direct eye contact with him while giving a dismissive hand gesture. As Singh put it:
And I thought, how offensive to all the people, to all the Indigenous people, the Black people, the racialized people that are fighting for change, to just wave-of-a hand dismiss and say no to something so vital and meaningful.
How often have BIPOC communities attempted to describe their lived experiences with racism, only to be told that they are being “oversensitive”, and to have their grievances dismissed as “political correctness” or “cancel culture”? Singh’s expulsion from parliament is a telling reminder of our country’s entrenched denial of racism.
As Press Progress points out, a few weeks before the 2015 federal election, Therrien (then an MNA for the Parti Québécois) shared on his Facebook page what many would describe as an anti-Muslim blog article by L’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) professor André Lamoureux. In the article, Lamoureux vehemently opposed the anti-Islamophobia motion put forward by Québec Solidaire as he argued it violates free speech. Furthermore, he promoted a conspiracy theory that what he calls the “concept of Islamophobia” was actually fabricated by radical Islamists during the 1980s in order to protect themselves from critique and “fraudulently” portray Muslims as victims of racism. In a Facebook comment, Therrien described this article by Lamoureux as “très solide.”
Lamoureux is someone who, in an op-ed for Le Devoir in 2017, accused Québec Solidaire of being “allied with radical Islam to destroy capitalism”. In a 2017 blog article highly critical of Singh’s then campaign for NDP leadership, Lamoureux made claims without valid evidence that Sikhs in general are frequently opposed to abortion and gay marriage. Considering Therrien’s apparent support of Lamoureux’s views, it is hard to believe that Therrien’s loud “no” and dismissive hand gesture to Singh were innocuous.
However, Therrien was not the only person who engaged in the dismissal and silencing of Singh during that heated House of Commons exchange. Bloc MP Claude de Bellefeuille spoke in defense of Therrien and expressed outrage at Singh’s mere mention of the word “racism”. Bellefeuille aggressively demanded that Singh be expelled from the House for not apologizing. Such outrage is symptomatic of what sociologist Robin DiAngelo terms ‘white fragility’.
White people, DiAngelo contends in her bestselling book, often respond to racial triggers such as challenges to their held beliefs about racism, with emotions of anxiety, defensiveness, or anger. White fragility works to silence racialized people. We hear white fragility in Bellefeuille’s defensive anger and disbelief in hearing Singh’s comments.
We also heard white fragility in Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet’s stern and patronizing warning that there should be “severe consequences” for Singh if he refused to apologize. This deafening silencing of Singh after he dared to agitate white feelings highlights the potency of white fragility as a tool for reinforcing racial power hierarchies. As others have pointed out, the white elected officials attacking Singh seem to be more concerned with protecting white feelings than defending Singh in his efforts to stand up for the lives of Black and Indigenous people.
What is further troubling about this controversy is how news cycles quickly moved on from the story without much analysis of the broader racial dynamics at play. Numerous headlines from major Canadian outlets focused on Singh’s complaints and subsequent punishment without mentioning Therrien by name or his actions.
Fareed Khan, founder of Canadians United Against Hate, recently highlighted in the Toronto Star that the headlines and coverage of the Singh incident demonstrate how insufficient media attention is given to the “underlying racism that is the catalyst for racist acts”. Khan suggests that this raises questions about systemic racism within our Canadian media institutions and how predominantly white decision makers in newsrooms frame stories related to racism.
Singh has experienced racism while growing up and also during his political career. He has struggled to make his way up to being the first racialized person to lead a Canadian federal party. The optics of a brown turbaned Sikh man being forced out of the room by a white Speaker of the House for calling out racism are quite striking. Perhaps the Speaker was simply abiding by existing parliamentary rules of decorum and conduct. Maybe these rules should be revised if our federal government is truly committed to tackling racism.
Singh is not the first MP in recent parliamentary history to accuse another MP of being racist. More importantly, there has been arguably more hurtful and offensive language used by white male MPs in the past such as when Liberal MP Sheila Copps was called a “slut” and a “bitch” during House of Commons question period, or when black NDP MP Howard McCurdy was called a “sambo”. Singh’s “parliamentary privileges”, on the other hand, cannot give him immunity against daily racist microaggressions and muzzling white fragility that many racialized people know too well.
Let us now hope our white elected officials and citizens will take inspiration from Singh and also empathetically listen to the voices of Canadian anti-racist scholars and activists who have long documented the history of systemic racism in this country. This would be the first step in the struggle for an anti-racist future in Canada.
Nimalan Yoganathan is a PhD student in Communication Studies at Concordia University in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal, Canada). His research interests include the politics of listening, sonic resistance as anti-racist activism, aural counterpublics and how race and intersectional identities are represented in popular and news media.