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(Election) Time for real action on racism

in To Each Their Own by

The provincial election has been almost overshadowed in the past week and a half by coverage of the tragic events in Paris, and the frightened and fraught response of Europe to the threat of terrorist attacks.

Sadly, it’s also led to populist pandering of the worst sort, with the politicians and pundits alike taking advantage of the tragedy to prey on public fear and try to turn xenophobia—and, let’s be honest: racism—into votes.

It’s sad, cowardly, and entirely inappropriate. And unfortunately, it’s not the first time this province has had to grapple with the difficult challenge of engaging with racism and xenophobia. But with an election less than a week away, it’s also an opportunity for politicians, parties and voters alike to send a message that we will not allow fear and racism to shape this province’s political future.

Last August someone posted a sign emblazoned with a swastika on a St. John’s street corner, prompting social media users to create the Twitter hashtag #WeAllBelongNL, while local residents responded by posting their own signs in the area featuring messages of love and acceptance.

The previous summer it came to light that 11-year-old Torrence Collier faced so much racist bullying at his Westport school that his parents were forced to consider relocating him to a school in another community. In response a Facebook group called “Torrence Collier, You Are Loved…” was created and more than a 1,000 people joined, many of them sending the young boy messages of encouragement and support.

And when the most recent wave of Islamophobia hit the airwaves and social media circuits in response to the Paris attacks, hundreds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians—many of whom do not identify as Muslim at all—joined the province’s Muslim community at Friday prayers at the mosque on Logy Bay Road to show their support.

More than words and actions

Standing up to individual acts of racism is hugely important, and we all ought to do it. However, if we want to make strides in reducing and eventually ending societal racism, it’s equally important for us to cast a critical eye on the racism that remains embedded in formal structures and systemic attitudes throughout our communities, province and country.

These formal and systemic processes send implicit messages that it’s okay to treat people differently based on skin colour, ethnicity, national background or other forms of difference. It’s only by acknowledging that these forms of discrimination remain embedded in our everybody processes of government, public institutions and day-to-day community engagement that we will be able to start figuring out how to dismantle them.

Many forms of systemic racism date back long enough and have become so much a part of our everyday reality that we fail to recognize them as such. In other cases, we fail to realize that what might be described as one thing—fiscal austerity measures, for instance—in fact affects us all differently, and often masks racist and opportunistic initiatives that take advantage of vulnerable and minority groups.

In all cases, these forms of systemic, embedded racism are what set the stage for more graphic and violent outpourings of racism, by sending the implicit message that the state tolerates discriminatory and exclusionary attitudes.

There are, sadly, no shortage of examples.

In education

Charging foreign students higher fees is a picture-perfect example of the embedding of racist assumptions in our public institutions. There is nothing ‘natural’ about the notion of charging foreigners higher fees; the introduction of racist fee differentials was encouraged, by and large, in the late 1970s by the federal government as a way for the provinces to generate additional revenue in the face of cutbacks to federal transfer payments. An array of arguments were trotted out to mask the fact that government and institutions simply sought to make money off the most vulnerable in our communities.

Arguments like “International students don’t pay taxes” (which is nonsense — they pay every bit of tax anyone else does), “Their parents didn’t contribute to the provincial tax base” (which is a racist double standard — thousands of other white students’ parents didn’t either, having lived for years in other provinces but enjoying the perks of citizenship which offer easy relocation and redefinition of residency rights), and so on.

When university administrators defend fee increases with arguments such as these, they too are playing a very dangerous game: goading on public xenophobia and sending a message that it’s okay to mask their white privilege in officious-sounding rhetoric. The people who should be upholding progressive and inclusive community standards implicitly encourage xenophobic and racist double standards, and all for the sake of a few extra dollars. Our university ought to be more intelligent than that, and dipping into racism for the sake of raising more money is irresponsible, ignoble and fundamentally disgusting.

Tuition Election 2015

Among the three provincial parties, only the NDP have promised to maintain the post-secondary tuition freeze for international students. On Tuesday Premier Paul Davis benchmarked in saying the Progressive Conservatives would maintain the most competitive tuition in the country,” which effectively means international students will face education costs that are less racist than other provinces if and when they come to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Similarly, during a recent debate Liberal MHA and Mt. Scio incumbent Dale Kirby backtracked on his previous position that maintaining a freeze for students outside the province would be good for student recruitment and indicated the Liberals will not be maintaining the tuition freeze for non-N.L. students. And the Liberal platform only guarantees a freeze for N.L. residents, despite the massively important role a universal freeze has played in reversing outmigration and strengthening the province’s economy and labour market capacity. Will the Liberals have the integrity to maintain the freeze for all students, no matter their regional, ethnic or national origin? So far they’ve dodged this fundamentally important commitment.

In employment

The provincial government has for years failed to pass progressive regulations to protect immigrant labour and temporary foreign workers, despite ample anecdotal evidence of their exploitation by local employers. Other provinces have passed legislation imposing more severe monitoring and higher standards on employers utilizing migrant workers. Why hasn’t this province?

Leaving an open door to the racist exploitation of migrant workers is also an implicit support for racism. Reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker program by the federal government have cut down on the ability of regional employers to use temporary foreign labour, which resulted in many of those workers being forced to leave the country. But the broader issue of protection for immigrant and foreign workers in this province remains unaddressed.

Liberal candidate Cathy Bennett went on record last year publicly endorsing use of the embattled and vilified Temporary Foreign Worker program, while Progressive Conservative candidate Tina Olivero stepped down as a candidate last week after the CBC raised questions about a $23,000 Labour Board decision filed against her by her former Filipina nanny. But the question raised in both of these cases is: how are the parties prioritizing their candidates’ records when it comes to use of migrant labour?

In policy-making

The provincial Population Growth Strategy also slides into xenophobic territory. If you take a look at the ads, you’ll notice a remarkable preponderance of white people. At best, those ads simply fail to represent the diversity of the province’s population; at worst, they actively erase that diversity.

Population strategies tend to swing between two approaches: encouraging immigration, or encouraging babies. In all honesty, immigration is the far better, and more logical, approach. In a world of literally billions of people, immigration helps to ensure a more just distribution of our planet’s collective wealth and resources by bringing people—real people, already-made people, with exciting ideas and skills and identities—here to help refill our depopulated communities, spread innovation and strengthen our labour market capacity. A sensible 21st century population strategy must focus predominantly on immigration.

Unfortunately, the prevalence of old white guys in government often leads to an old-fashioned focus on encouraging babies instead. This was widely evident at the Davis government’s Population Growth Strategy launch this past summer, which featured no shortage of white men making inappropriate and out-of-place high school-ish reproductive jokes.

The world doesn’t need more white babies — it needs a more just distribution of population and wealth. Moreover, in a province that fails miserably when it comes to childcare support, any focus on reproduction is an implicitly sexist one since it’s not accompanied by any meaningful support for women and families in childcare provision and in other provisions to support mothers in the workforce.

In social program funding and literacy

The Progressive Conservatives’ war on literacy deserves a column of its own. But suffice it to say that they have gone out of their way to destroy the province’s struggling literacy initiatives in a province which has some of the worst literacy rates in the country.

The privatization of Adult Basic Education in 2013 was followed this year by the closure of LiteracyNL as a result of funding cutbacks. What does the PC Government have against literacy? Why are they so apparently determined to undermine the ability of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to attain the literacy skills necessary for good employment and basic life needs in today’s world?

Literacy Election 2015

The cuts to literacy programs affect all of us, but they strike with particularly pernicious effect on immigrants whose first language is not English. Literacy challenges can hamper the ability of immigrants to pursue meaningful employment (how often do employers make hiring decisions based on a foreign-sounding name or accent rather than on the individual’s skills and abilities?), to engage in necessary day-to-day activities (grocery shopping, dealing with service providers, filling in legal forms) and simply integrating into communities.

The provincial government should reverse course and support literacy initiatives for the sake of all of us, but it also needs to be recognized that their short-sighted anti-literacy drive has a heavy impact on immigrants whose first language is not English.

In candidacies and their controversies

In August Mount Pearl Mayor and former VOCM Open Line host Randy Simms was acclaimed as provincial Liberal candidate for the district of Mount Pearl North. As a mayor, Simms clearly brings strong advantages to the Liberal campaign. But he is not without controversy.

 We have to consider racial profiling as a weapon in the war on terror, and by that I mean taking a closer look at people boarding planes into our territory from Muslim countries. — Randy Simms, The Telegram (Jan. 9, 2010)

Simms’ radio career came to an indefinite end following an “on-air spat” with Simeon Tshakapesh, chief of the Mushuau Innu band council in Natuashish, and another Mi’kmaq caller — on-air tirades which many in the public perceived and denounced as racist. These were preceded by a letter he wrote to The Telegram in January 2010 openly calling for racial profiling and demanding discriminatory treatment “for Muslims trying to enter the nation.”

Both of these acts were repugnant, and also send a strong implicit message encouraging would-be racists. It is incumbent on public figures to act with dignity and lead by example. According to a recent poll, Simms is in the lead in his district. If he is to actually sit in the House of Assembly and represent thousands of people in public office—including Muslims—both he and the Liberal Party have an obligation to stop pretending these matters didn’t happen and address them once and for all.

Certainly, people can change. But it is incumbent on candidates, if they intend to seek public assent to serve in our legislature, to give an account of themselves, apologize for their misdeeds and convince us that indeed they have changed. What does it say if someone can attack Indigenous callers on the air, call for racial profiling and discrimination against Muslims, and then receive a nod to run for office? What does it say about the provincial Liberals if they accept a candidate with this history without addressing the matter to the public?

We don’t need gentlemanly codes of honour that protect politicians from facing tough questions. We need politicians who are willing to be accountable for what they do and say. If they regret their actions, let them come clean, apologize and convince us that they’ve changed and are worthy of our vote.

Time for a change

Back to the broader issue, though. Vigils and social media campaigns offer positive expressions of community solidarity against racism, but it’s time for politicians and political institutions to show that they’re on board with the struggle against racism in this province as well.

The systemic, embedded nature of racism is one that it is incumbent on our government, and our political parties, to commit themselves to fighting. These problems will not be solved overnight, but the first step toward solving a problem, as we all know, is admitting that we have one.

Sadly, even the newly elected federal Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has caved to fear, delaying the timeline for receiving the 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year as it had previously committed to.

The reaction this past week of both Progressive Conservative leader (and incumbent premier) Paul Davis, and Liberal leader Dwight Ball, also offered cowardly examples of pandering to racist fears.

Instead of defying fear and the xenophobic Islamophobia that has festered in the wake of last week’s tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, both leaders spoke of screening and security. They should be reminded that preliminary evidence indicates the terrorists were French and EU citizens, not refugees.

Moreover, tragic as the Paris attacks were, the fact remains that the majority of terrorist attacks in both North America and Europe are committed by white Christians, not Muslim terrorists. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2015, and drawing on data from the past 15 years, less than three percent of deaths from terrorism occur in western countries (the number drops to 0.5 percent when you exclude 9/11). Of these, 70 percent are ‘lone-wolf’ attacks, 80 percent of which come from right-wing extremists and white supremacists (not Islamic terrorists).

 If indeed Davis and Ball are concerned about security, they should be working to build public trust and confidence, not fear and xenophobia.

This is not just an ideological point. If indeed Davis and Ball are concerned about security, they should be working to build public trust and confidence, not fear and xenophobia. Knee-jerk reactions in the name of safety and security tend to make us less safe, not more. This is one of the revelations in a recent collection emerging from a conference on Canadian responses to terrorism that was held at University of Toronto earlier this year.

According to researchers Ron Levi and Janice Gross Stein, the crackdown on refugees and immigrants by French government and police in recent years—conducted in the name of security—has in all likelihood made their country less safe. Following the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris in January, including the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices, it turned out the terrorists’ neighbours knew about their weapons caches and had been seriously concerned about the potential for an attack, “but they did not report these weapons or their concerns to the Paris police because of what one reporter called the “chasm” between the French police and the Muslim community of the Paris banlieus.”

Their research demonstrates that efforts by authorities to build trust and public confidence makes it far more likely for communities to work together to reduce violence of all forms. And as other researchers in the collection note, security crackdowns tend largely to wind up targeting the innocent—‘false positives’ as they have come to be colloquially known—while those with actual malicious intent easily evade the sort of broad-based measures that wind up snagging innocents.

To hear Davis and Ball appealing to voters’ base fears shames all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, while implicitly fueling hatred and resentment toward those Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who (unlike Davis and Ball) aren’t white, or of Euro-Christian settler heritage. That is not the type of leadership any of us want for Newfoundland and Labrador in 2015. They have a little less than a week to show voters—and the world—that this province will not fall prey to the cowardly attitudes demonstrated by some other jurisdictions.

For the sake of our collective future in this province, let’s hope our political leaders have the courage to distinguish themselves by policies grounded in tolerance and equality. Not those of fear, hatred or exploitation.

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