From blackface to ‘values’, race becomes more overt issue in Canada election

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada has long prided itself on its multiculturalism and racial harmony, but the 2019 election campaign has exposed racial tensions, including pictures of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface and the rise of a far-right populist party determined to impose what it calls “Canadian values”.

Liberal leader and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a rally as he campaigns for the upcoming election, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

With six parties competing in a tight election campaign, some candidates now advocate specific policies aimed at limiting freedom of expression for certain cultures.

Most notably, the small far-right People’s Party of Canada (PPC) of former cabinet minister Maxime Bernier wants to slash immigration levels. In statements that are unprecedented for a national party leader, Bernier cites concerns about whether immigrants are aligning with “Canadian Values.”

Bernier has denied that he or his party is racist or is promoting racist policies.

Four parties – Liberals, Conservatives, Greens & Bloc Quebecois – have been forced to ditch or reprimand candidates for making racist remarks. Trudeau apologized in September after being widely criticized when images emerged showing him in blackface at an Arabian Nights party in 2001.

The series of racially charged incidents has led some observers to predict there will be lasting social problems after the Oct. 21 election, which has the ruling Liberals and opposition Conservatives tied in polls.

“I think this is a turning point for Canada. Race is finally an issue here and how we deal with it as a country at the political level, at the social level is going to determine a lot of things going forward,” said Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

Earlier this month, a Montreal man told Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the opposition New Democrats and a practicing Sikh, that he should cut off his turban “to look like a Canadian”. Singh, whose exchange was caught on camera by reporters, replied: “I don’t agree, sir”, telling the man that “Canadians look like all sorts of people.”

In 2019, more than 331,000 newcomers — about 1% of the population — are due to immigrate to Canada.

Not all Canadians view race as a dominant issue. An Ipsos poll this year found 47% of Canadian respondents thought racism was a serious problem, down from 69% in 1992.

In recent Canadian election campaigns, the issue of race lurked below the surface but was less overt.

During the 2015 campaign, for instance, the then-ruling Conservatives unveiled plans for a hotline for Canadians to report “barbaric cultural practices” – a move many said was aimed at Muslims. The Conservatives said at the time the measure was aimed at protecting women and children from forced marriages, polygamy or female genital mutilation.

Another major theme four years ago was the wounds of colonial racism against indigenous peoples.

Errol Mendes, a University of Ottawa law professor and human rights expert, said the 2015 barbaric practices hotline was a “desperate attempt … that failed miserably” and as a result did limited damage to social cohesion.

“This time around there are some much more concerning attempts at racial marginalization that could impact long term,” he said.

Mendes cited the PPC’s platforms and a controversial Quebec law that bans certain public employees from wearing religious symbols such as turbans, hijabs and Jewish skull caps in the predominantly French-speaking province. Quebec says the law is meant to cement a secular society.

All national party leaders, wary of alienating voters, have taken a cautious approach to the polarizing law, noting that various Quebec groups are already challenging it in court.

Trudeau is the only candidate to say he might take the province to court. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said he will not do so. New Democrats chief Singh said he strongly disapproves of the law but has stopped short of vowing to challenge it.

“There’s going to come a moment in time where things are going to unravel and we can’t get ahead of it,” said Dania Hadi, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab.

“It’s Quebec today, maybe it will be another province tomorrow.”

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Some experts say such concerns about race are real, but overstated.

“I don’t think we can say that racism is a big problem in Canada,” said Amira Halperin, a research fellow who specializes in migration issues at the University of British Columbia.

“The problem is that there are enough groups, enough individuals that are not part of this welcoming approach, who are racist, who live here in Canada.”

Editing by David Gregorio

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