Where does Trudeau stand on racial equality?

Photo by 2017 Canada Summer Games

Shortly after becoming Canada’s 23rd prime minister, the Right Honorable Justin Trudeau gave his first speech abroad at the United Nations General Assembly, presenting himself and Canada as the progressive voice on the international stage and promising a new era of collaboration with the UN to promote a fair and sustainable world.

Given Trudeau’s interest in the UN, and his eagerness to portray himself as the face of progressive change for Canada, one would think that his government would enthusiastically embrace a new report from the UN about Canada’s record on racial equality.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released its concluding observations for Canada in August 2017 after a two-day periodic review of Canada’s compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). While the report did recognize some positive measures adopted by Canada, including the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the motion passed by the House of Commons to condemn Islamophobia and other forms of racism, the CERD did not shy away from criticizing where Canada has fallen short in combating racial discrimination.

The CERD report has been out for more than a week, yet so far, there have been no words from Trudeau and his cabinet.

Representatives of civil society, including a very strong presence of Indigenous groups, were present during the CERD review. The issues raised by the Indigenous groups ranged from land claims to environmental degradation and from discrimination in the child welfare system to the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Present also were several organizations representing communities of colour, immigrants and refugees, who saw the CERD process as another opportunity to push Canada for concrete actions on racial discrimination and growing race-based inequities.

There is no shortage of issues for communities of colour to flag with the UN, as evidence of racial disparities can be found across all social and economic indicators. For every dollar a white man makes, a woman of colour only makes 53.4 cents. Racialized people and immigrants are over-represented in part-time and precarious employment. Employers systematically discriminate against job candidates by their last names — the more Asian one’s name sounds, the less likely they are to get an interview. Due to racialized employment and income disparities, communities of colour are anywhere between two to six times more likely to live in poverty.

Another area of concern was the rise of Islamophobia and hate crime against Muslims in Canada, as reinforced most recently by yet another attack on a Muslim leader in Quebec City.

Alarms were also raised by community groups about the plight of immigrants and refugees in Canada, including the increasing number of non-status immigrants and their children (most of whom are racialized) in detention and the indefinite length of detention. Prompted by CERD, groups also addressed Canada’s refusal to repeal the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. despite the latter’s most recently adopted xenophobic immigration policies and the growing violence fuelled by white supremacist ideology and Islamophobia. CERD also questioned Canada’s refusal to sign on to UN conventions that provide greater protection for migrant and domestic workers.

Through the CERD process, communities called on Canada to strengthen the Federal Employment Equity Act and adopt similar laws at the provincial and territorial level. They urged Canada to revitalize its National Action Plan Against Racism, and build capacity for robust ethno-racial and other socio-demographic data collection and analysis. They asked CERD to make recommendations to address racism experienced by the Indigenous and African Canadian communities in criminal justice, child welfare and education systems.

Not only did CERD adopt almost all of the key recommendations proposed by the civil society groups, it also required Canada to involve Indigenous communities and communities of colour in their implementation, and report in a year’s time on progress made.

Trudeau has promised a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples, and has made gender equity a focal piece of his platform. He has created a ministerial portfolio for persons with disabilities with a national consultation on those issues currently in progress. Conspicuously missing from his “sunny ways,” however, is any commitment to bring about racial equality and the elimination of barriers facing communities of colour in Canada.

Will the latest CERD report propel Trudeau and his cabinet into action, or will it become yet another report that the civil society champions but the government ignores? If nothing else, the report should serve as a reminder that the “progressive” agenda of the Trudeau government has left behind 20 per cent of the Canadian population. It is well past time to work with civil society to implement a social justice agenda that truly includes all Canadians.

Avvy Yao-Yao Go is director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

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