By: Andria Babbington, Faduma Mohamed, and Neethan Shan
On the first weekend of the Ottawa Convoy occupation, many Canadians were shocked to see swastikas, Confederate flags, and other racial hate symbols flying freely in public spaces—unchallenged by either police or fellow protesters. But for those of us who have been doing the work and advocating for real change, there was no surprise in either this public display, or what came next.
The arrival of the convoy disrupted the city of Ottawa and overshadowed the significance of the first National Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia and the January 27th International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It took more than three weeks for authorities to end the aggressive occupation from our nation’s capital. In that time, investigative reporting revealed that the organizers of the so-called “freedom convoy” had clear and direct ties to the far-right; furthermore, the list of donors to the movement entered into public record showed a pool of support that was both wide and deep.
In this country, we do an excellent job of making sweeping performative gestures that condemn racism; yet, in the actual practice of anti-racism, we have barely scratched the surface.
March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, was initiated as a response to apartheid in South Africa. In commemorating this day, we must remember that policies of racial oppression have been pioneered here in Canada. It is a grave mistake to believe that Canada has overcome its racist history when this country continues to function on systems structured to value white lives above all others.
The fact is that acts of white supremacy are commonplace. It isn’t limited to people waving flags and shouting. It’s in our workplaces, in our schools, in our neighbourhoods. Any action should hold not only the extremists responsible, but meaningfully improve systems.
When politicians and other leaders show up for memorial events but won’t show up to condemn and dismantle racism in action, that’s white supremacy getting a free pass.
From individuals who fail to condemn racists in their midst—and in so doing, excuse them—to the racist systems we collectively fail to overturn, there is evidence in abundance that we are not truly committed to racial justice.
White supremacy is a very real threat to our society and well-being. While performative politicians sleep on real change, the alt-right is organized, well-funded, and successfully growing its ranks. If we do not collectively choose to address white supremacy, head-on and soon, we risk everything.
We are three racialized people who are leaders in our communities. We are doing the work in labour and in society, but our efforts are limited without the support of government. We need strong political leadership to implement solutions that match the magnitude of the issue.
When our leaders don’t take the threat of white supremacy seriously, the lives of racialized people are negatively impacted in real ways. Moreover, it is an uphill battle to affect change: systemic racism impacts who gets heard and who doesn’t; who can access to decision-makers; whose struggles are recognized, and whose are invisible. Leadership indifference not only reinforces the status quo environment in which white supremacy is able to grow, it is also blind to the ways in which it continues to shape systems in its favour.
If there’s no progress, the people have the power to exact change. 2022 is a year in which voters can demand: do better, and do it now.
Will candidates take anti-racism seriously? Incumbents must be held to account by both their voting records and their platforms.
Will the media take anti-racism seriously, by naming white supremacy and racism and by asking better questions from political leaders?
Will voters recognize that we, too, are accountable for building the society we want?
The late Bishop Desmond Tutu, a South African theologian and human rights activist, said, "I wish I could shut up, but I can't, and I won't.” His words are a reminder that we have a moral imperative to vocally denounce racism and work to dismantle it.
For many of us who face racial discrimination directly or indirectly, there is no choice. It is a matter of survival. Like Desmond Tutu, we must not shut up.
Neethan Shan is executive director of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, Faduma Mohamed is executive director of Labour Community Services, and Andria Babbington is president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council.
Find all Labour Council Racial Justice campaign materials at labourcouncil.ca/equity.
The construction declaration website can be found at constructiondeclaration.ca.
A Leader's Guide to Equity can be accessed by clicking here.