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The bankrupt morality of Canada’s political class

Settler colonial institutions seek only to keep their structure and power unchanged

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastWar Zones

Sarah Jama celebrates with her team after winning the by-election in Hamilton Centre, March 2023. On October 23, Jama was expelled from the ONDP caucus and censured in the provincial legislature for comments she made about Palestine. Photo courtesy @deardubow/Twitter.

What’s left to say? Three weeks ago, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre ritualistically “dragged” Greg Fergus, the first Black Speaker of the House of Commons, to his seat some hailed it as history-making. The occasion produced the kind of counting that still remains relevant for some Black people. It is a strange kind of arithmetic that is an important acknowledgement for some who see Black inclusion in colonialism’s highest institutions as evidence of change. In this instance that strange arithmetic was an utterly cynical and demeaning calculation on the part of parliamentarians, even if some beyond Parliament felt they needed to celebrate it. Fergus’s arrival as the Black mascot of Parliament in the aftermath of a very public political and moral failure of the House says a lot about why neither history-making nor celebration should be attached to the meaning of his arrival.

On the other hand, when Ontario MPP Sarah Jama issued a statement in defence of Palestinians and against the occupation, Israel’s ongoing apartheid and brutal siege of Gaza, the first thing her party did was to sanction her and ask for an apology. While Jama apologized, she did not retract her statement. Jama’s actions set up a dramatic moment in the provincial legislature with the corrupt Ford government bringing a motion of censure against her. Jama’s predicament exposes the bankrupt situational morality of Canadian politics in a settler-colonial country that can only but support white settler politics elsewhere as the condition of its own existence. I immediately tweeted that Jama should quit the Ontario NDP and sit as an independent. You cannot ethically integrate settler institutions because you always have to subordinate your beliefs to their perpetuation.

One of the central tenets of post-Enlightenment Western modernity is its claims to producing a higher moral world for those it has ruthlessly colonized. In the aftermath of Euro-American colonization morality was first vested in religion (Christianity) and later transformed to secularism with the rise of science as opposed to superstition, and later endowed with the discourse and practice of rights and freedoms. All post-1945 discourses of human rights and international law, including the rules of war, are vested with a Euro-American superstition—a religio-secular foundation which is then called morality. I am not particularly vested in deploying morality as a political measure, but one cannot escape how Western global leaders continually deploy morality and its various adjuncts like rights and freedoms to stake a claim on the rightness and righteousness of their global rule and any and all acts that flow from it.

Let me be clearer. When Pierre Poilievre uttered the N-word in Parliament only one journalist, a Black woman, Erica Ifill, was keen to report on the incident and the silence that greeted it. Poilievre was not censured by the House.

The story got no legs. The N-word was followed up a week later with a series of standing ovations for a Nazi war veteran. It was this morbid tribute that opened the floodgates concerning both history and morality and Speaker Anthony Rota was forced to resign. In 2019, when images of Trudeau in blackface emerged in the public sphere the new replacement Speaker Fergus was a public apologist for the prime minister’s deeply disturbing behaviour. He in fact became the face of absolving Trudeau’s naked anti-black racism. Fergus, therefore, finds himself as a willful accomplice in both rescuing the Nazi-applauding House and minimizing anti-black racism. Indeed, the entire Liberal Party and many members of the Canadian electorate including Black voters excused Trudeau’s behaviour and re-elected him. But what is most important is the morality that our leaders continually deploy at home and abroad to censor differences of opinion and in more severe cases to enact war when incommensurable worldviews emerge. The situational morality of our leaders at home and aboard is not just worth noting, it is the very terrain on which we must launch our struggles for the remaking of this world. That means thinking differently about what constitutes living a life, what constitutes caring as a refusal of others’ marginalization, exclusion and death.

As we watch the genocide now unfolding in Palestine on our multiple screens, we once again witness the situational morality of our political leaders. We bear witness to the situational morality of rights, of international law, of the rules of war, and of supranational organizations like the UN. At home, we witness our leaders endorse mass murder and then hypocritically call for humanitarian corridors and the rule of law as the devastating images of death proliferate. Indeed, the genocide in action recalls the bloody history of colonization that has never been behind us. Furthermore, Euro-American humanism has long only extended that category of the human to those of us who are not white if we are willing to inhabit it as they determine its boundaries. As the poet Dionne Brand has powerfully reminded us, human is a bankrupt theory. We therefore cannot be surprised by the situational morality of the political leaders of Canada. Trudeau’s blackface, Poilievre’s N-word utterance, Chrystia Freeland’s pretense that she did not know the soldier she applauded was a Nazi are all deeply ensconced in the Euro-American intellectual tradition of only honouring lives that are like theirs. In recent days Trudeau announced the appointment of Deborah Lyons, who previously served as Ambassador of Canada to Israel (2016 to 2020), as a Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism. This is further evidence of appearing to stake a moral claim in the aftermath of the Shoah as if Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonization is an unbroken throughline back to European antisemitism. Again, we witness a situational and distorted Euro-American morality where our political leaders pay no price for reproducing and participating in some of the most reviled aspects of the long history of colonization that we have supposedly moved away from.

Recent images of Trudeau being booed at a Mosque or of Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow wearing a hijab point to a retail style of politics where situated morality is clearly evident. These appearances, often brokered by members of the community they have condemned, are deployed to shamelessly shore up voter support later. Indeed, Trudeau’s blackface did not cost him in any real loss of votes among Black Canadians. What’s more, his government’s various anti-racism initiatives like the Black Justice Strategy have been populated with Black community members who are supposed to act as evidence of care when in actual fact they are deployed to cover up the anti-black racism that still pervades Canada in the policy realm.

But situational morality does not end there. Jama’s expulsion from the Ontario NDP caucus forces her to now sit as an independent and her censure means she is not able to speak and ask questions in the provincial legislature until she retracts her comments and apologizes. As the only elected Canadian politician to immediately call for a ceasefire Jama’s sanctioning by her party sends a message that settler colonial institutions seek only to keep their structure and power unchanged. So, while ONDP leader Marit Stiles later called for a ceasefire in Gaza too, Jama’s purging and her silencing is a lesson in demonstrating that Black, marginalized and oppressed people do not join these institutions under conditions that might change them but rather under conditions that make clear their support is to reproduce the ongoing white supremacist foundations of those organizations. Purges and genocide always go hand in hand, and we are witnessing purges across the Western world right now.

So, what is at stake? Most of the globe is at war with Euro-American humanism and its violent, coercive imposition. Euro-American humanism and its extension of its logics of rights to the rest of us—usually in the aftermath of brutal violence and resistance to it in the first instance—is always contingent on joining the world as they have made it. Euro-American humanism is an eliminationist project: it absorbs its subordinates as a second tier, or it exterminates them. The right to rights is never conceived as remaking or reinventing the world that we presently have into one that we desperately need. Instead, we are asked to be inducted into their world as the only condition of what a life might be. The hypocrisy of Euro-American humanism is that it can bomb you while offering humanitarian aid at the same time. It can collectively punish you and call it rooting out enemy combatants. This is not just gaslighting or doublespeak, it is that the white supremacist logics that underwrite Euro-American humanism are only invested in its continuance and its perpetuation and will adapt, articulate, adjust, and incorporate any position that allows it to continue to be the ruling script of global life. But indeed, the struggle to end colonization everywhere is not one to enter the world made from colonization, it is one to end the legacy of colonization so that something new might emerge. The ruse of colonization has been to expand itself when necessary to include on only its own terms and to contract its borders when more serious demands are made for a remaking of the world are at stake. In this most recent outbreak of war on Palestinians we are witnessing Euro-American humanism in action as an insistence that there are two options for the oppressed: join it on your knees or die. We the colonized refuse both. In short, Euro-American humanism can’t free us because it was invented to do otherwise regardless of its late modern adaptations.

Rinaldo Walcott is a writer and critic. He is professor and chair of Africana and American Studies at the University of Buffalo (SUNY).


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