OTTAWA - Federal leaders have not focused on addressing systemic racism during the campaign, despite the urgency of the issue after findings of unmarked graves at former residential schools and rising hate against minority communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say.
While the Liberals and NDP have included programs in their election platforms to tackle barriers that people of colour face, the Conservatives don’t mention the word "racism" even once in their 150-page election plan, said Fareed Khan of Canadians United Against Hate.
Regardless of promises, Khan said the lack of discussion by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh of fighting racism during their campaign events makes him wonder how seriously they are taking the issue.
"On the one platform when it would make the biggest impact during an election, they haven't talked about it,” Khan said.
“So what that says to me and a lot of people, activists, is that maybe what they've said over the last year is just a lot of talk, and they're not as serious about fighting hate as they said they were.”
Khan said the campaign is an opportunity for politicians to explain how they will respond to those who have protested against anti-Black racism, called for justice for Indigenous Peoples and demanded action against Islamophobia.
"The people have spoken. They want action on this," he said.
The issue of systemic racism reached the campaign trail this week after Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet complained about a debate question that he said painted Quebecers as racist. Trudeau and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole jumped to defend Quebec as not racist, while Singh said it’s unhelpful to single out any one province.
The question was about Quebec laws the moderator deemed "discriminatory," including Bill 21, which bans some civil servants from wearing religious garb on the job. Mustafa Farooq, chief executive officer of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said it was "shameful" the main party leaders did not step in to argue the law was discriminatory.
But on Friday, Trudeau told dozens of people gathered in a restaurant in Scarborough, Ont., that the pandemic hit racialized people harder than others and saw an increase in hatred and intolerance. The rise in hate has been aggravated by COVID-19 but the issue is "bigger than that,” he added.
"We see more and more white supremacist groups and racist groups taking toeholds on the internet, and more and more in our communities," he said.
After defending his government's record on supporting racialized communities, Trudeau promised to introduce a new law combating online hate in 100 days of his new mandate if re-elected.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Friday, Singh said systemic racism is a problem many people live with every day.
"We've seen it in police violence (where) racialized people who had mental health or health concerns ended up losing their lives. We know that this is a problem that exists and it needs to be fixed, and we are committed to fixing it."
O’Toole said in a statement that every day, people experience discrimination or racism in some form and he is committed to working with communities to find concrete solutions to these problems.
“Conservatives believe that the institutional failings that have led to these outcomes can and must be urgently addressed. It is imperative that we meet this challenge with practical policy changes that solve institutional and systemic problems,” he said.
While the Tory platform doesn’t contain the word "racism," it does propose strengthening the Criminal Code to protect Canadians from online hate and notes that racialized people have been disproportionately impacted by unemployment during the pandemic.
Chief R. Donald Maracle of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte First Nation in Ontario said there are programs in place, funded federally and provincially, to eliminate racism but it still is a problem.
"First Nations people have suffered racism by government over decades, with a lack of investments to deal with housing and water and post-secondary education and also lack of opportunity for employment and training," he said.
"In recent years the governments have invested a lot of money to try to overcome those barriers."
He said there are many competing issues to be addressed by political leaders during the campaign with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy.
"The focus seems to be to keep the economy restarted and return to some kind of normal life for most Canadians, but again there's a lot of racism that has caused a lot of systemic poverty," he said.
"It's an issue that remains outstanding to be addressed."
Andrew Griffith, a former director at the federal immigration department, said it's surprising that the Conservatives didn't include any specific measures to end racism in their platform despite the rise of hate during the pandemic.
The pandemic also highlighted the link between being a member of a minority group or an immigrant community and the lack of access to health care and good housing, he said.
"Ongoing issues in terms of policing, various reports in terms of increased anti-Asian incidents, antisemitism remains perennial, attacks on Muslims, including the most recent ones in London, (Ont.), so there's a whole series of issues there that I find it striking that there's really nothing there in the (Conservative) platform," he said.
Farooq, of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said it's saddening that federal leaders are not prioritizing tackling systemic racism.
"We have a week or so left in this federal election campaign. I would hope that they take seriously what Canadians have been asking for," he said.
All major federal leaders travelled to London, Ont., in June to show solidarity with the Muslim community after a vehicle attack against a Muslim family left four dead and a nine-year-old boy seriously injured.
"It's easy to talk in the aftermath of a tragedy and to say that you're committed to action and doing something,” Farooq said. “But the real test is at a time like this. What are you actually committed to standing on and standing for?"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.