We are not political tools

Politicians need to stop tokenizing and exploiting racialized and Indigenous people for political gain.

It has been one month since white supremacists and fascists took to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in a public display of intimidation and violence against people of colour. Defiantly unmasked with torches in hand, they proudly bore Nazi paraphernalia and banners and chanted Nazi slogans such as “Blood and soil” and anti-semitic rhetoric like “Jew will not replace us!”

It’s been a month since James Alex Fields, a white supremacist, rammed his car into a group of peaceful anti-racist counter-demonstrators, claiming the life of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring more than a dozen others.

A month since Deandre Harris, a 20-year-old black man, was assaulted with metal poles by members of the very same group of emboldened, armed white supremacists at the very same event.

Following the events in Charlottesville and the upsurge of white supremacist demonstrations across North America, people have expressed shock and outrage at the unabashed hatred and bigotry on display in the streets.

Even more disconcerting has been U.S. President Trump’s response, particularly his refusal to condemn white supremacy while blaming the Charlottesville violence on “many sides,” which effectively put Nazis and anti-racist counter-demonstrators on the same moral footing.

As politicians and public figures condemned the act of terrorism, and as Heather Heyer has become a rallying figure to resist and smash fascism and racism at every turn, it seems the world is finally waking up to what Black, Indigenous and other people of colour have been trying to draw attention to for a long time.

Though Heyer is not the first casualty of violent white supremacy, it seems to have taken the death of a white-perceived woman to awaken more non-racialized people to the violence and racism that people of colour—who have mourned countless deaths at the hands of the oppressive systems that uphold white supremacy and colonialism—have been talking about for years.

Politicians and public figures speak out

Just as it is crucial for politicians and other people in positions of power to stand firmly against hatred and bigotry, it is imperative that people complicit in upholding white supremacy look inward and follow up their words with actions directed toward dismantling systems of oppression.

Grassroots organizations such as Black Lives Matter Toronto have been vilified in their attempts to hold government and institutions accountable and draw attention to how racial profiling and police brutality result in disproportionate violence and death in Black communities. Andrew Loku, Jermaine Carby, Mark Ekamba-Boekwa and Abdiraman Abdi are just some of the Black men recently killed by Canadian police.

Early last year, BLMTO occupied the Toronto Police Headquarters to demand justice for Andrew Loku and other black men who have been killed by police, and to call for a public meeting with their elected leaders. After 15 days in freezing temperatures and being brutalized by police, BLMTO finally got a response from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who agreed to meet with representatives of the group and acknowledged that anti-Black racism is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Recognizing that discussions of anti-Black racism cannot move forward without BLMTO, members of Toronto’s Black community refused to meet privately with Mayor John Tory, forcing Tory to promise a public meeting with BLMTO.

Meanwhile, anti-immigrant and Islamphobic bigotry appear to be motivations behind the killing of Azzeddine Soufiane, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Mamadou Tanou and Ibrahima Barry, and Abdelkrim Hassane earlier this year in Quebec City when 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonette allegedly entered a mosque and opened fire on the men as they prayed.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other Canadian political leaders were right to swiftly denounce the terrorist attack, though Trudeau has not been so quick to condemn the Trump administration’s islamophobic and racist policies and statements south of the border, which many have argued emboldened and legitimized those holding white supremacist ideals, including those shared by Bissonette, a known Trump supporter.

White supremacy in North America is not isolated to Trump and his supporters; it’s been on display in Canada’s streets and in this country’s political landscape too.

Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates spouted anti-immigrant rhetoric during the leadership race earlier this year, running campaigns on immigration screening that entailed testing newcomers on “Canadian values” and on “temporary immigration bans on nations or groups who pose a direct security risk to Canadians.”

These are political tactics centred on exploiting racialized bodies to incite fear and bigotry within a predominantly white party to obtain political support.

But the Tories don’t shoulder all the blame for perpetuating white supremacy within Canada’s political establishment. In addition to it’s failure to firmly and swiftly denounce Trump’s “Muslim ban,” the Trudeau Government’s reaction to Haitian asylum seekers, who continue to cross into Canada on foot out of fear of imminent deportation from the U.S., has been shameful.

Despite Trudeau’s welcoming messages to would-be asylum seekers, last year as many Haitians seeking refuge in Canada were rejected as were welcomed.

The Safe Third Country Agreement states that individuals who try to enter Canada via the border with the United States are denied entry based on grounds that they should be applying for asylum in the United States instead. Given many Haitian asylum seekers will soon no longer be welcome in the United States, there may be no other way for them to claim asylum in Canada. This is why many are now risking their safety and lives by crossing into Canada on foot.

As black and brown lives continue clamouring for survival, governments must acknowledge that legislation that disproportionately impacts racialized people—such as the Safe Third Country Agreement—must be rescinded.

Ongoing abuse in a time of so-called ‘reconciliation’

“This is a time of real and positive change. We know what is needed is a total renewal of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples,” Trudeau announced after receiving the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in December 2015. “We have a plan to move towards a nation-to-nation relationship based on recognition, rights, respect, cooperation and partnership, and we are already making it happen.”

There is much to say about a government that repeatedly promises truth and reconciliation with the people on whose land its country was built, while at the same time exploiting those people for political gain.

In their 2015 federal election campaign the Liberals promised to lift the two percent funding cap on First Nations social spending, to invest an additional $50 million annually for post-secondary education for Indigenous students, to respect First Nations’ right to veto unwanted industrial development on their lands, to launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), and to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, including the full adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

After likely benefitting the most from a surge in Indigenous voter turnout, the Liberals have failed to deliver.

Support for controversial projects such as the Site C hydroelectric dam and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline in B.C.—and on this end of the country the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador—despite active opposition by First Nation and Inuit peoples demonstrates that promises to Indigenous communities can be broken once political gain has been achieved.

Meanwhile, the long overdue MMIWG inquiry has been mired in controversy, with key individuals hired to complete the inquiry resigning and calling for a complete overhaul of the process.

In 2017, Indigenous peoples across Canada continue to face neglect, colonialism, and state-sanctioned violence. For evidence, we just have to look at the the boil water advisories that continue to plague hundreds of First Nations communities, the ongoing legacy of police brutality, the inadequate basic health services and supports despite ongoing mental health and suicide crises in Indigenous communities, and in our own province the criminalization and incarceration of Indigenous land protectors who are only trying to protect their families, land and food.

Public statements by the prime minister about how his government “strongly condemns any form of discrimination at home and the global community” and continues to “promote inclusiveness, acceptance, and equality in Canada and around the globe” do not reflect the lived reality of so many people in this country, like the thousands of racialized and Indigenous people disproportionately impacted by poverty, who are unable to access post-secondary education, healthcare, and housing due to lack of government funding.

Unless backed by concrete actions developed in partnership with affected communities, condemning overt and systemic racism amount to tokenizing displays of solidarity and allyship — meaning no real solidarity or allyship at all.

Such statements are exploitative of the emotions of racialized people, whose pain and oppression are being used to build social and political capital.

Communities of colour are struggling to heal, and even to survive, on a daily basis.

We are not tools in your ascent to power. We deserve more than lip service, perfunctory gestures, and empty promises.

Rizza Umali is an international graduate student in the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University, a student activist and organizer, and the Racialized Student Representative for the Canadian Federation of Students Newfoundland and Labrador.

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