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The Role of Race in the 2019 Canadian Federal Election

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at U Toronto chapter.

Nasty. That’s the word most frequently used by political analysts to describe the campaign. Reporters and analysts taking over the airwaves to decry this cycle as more vicious than any in recent memory. Where every debate gave room to direct attacks, the focus shifted from individual candidates to the leaders, and the results show a country less able to agree on priorities than ever.


But much of the discourse during the campaign wasn’t about platforms – it was about race. From long-suppressed brownface and blackface incidents surfacing (and later defended by a long-time MP as a compliment to minority communities), to voters straight up accosting the first federal party leader of colour and demanding he “cut off” his turban to fit in. From dog whistles to racist supporters at rallies, to openly displaying billboards demanding an end to “mass immigration”. This election truly had it all.


We saw racialized candidate after candidate explain how their campaign signs were destroyed or defaced with racial slurs. A Brampton candidate saw the n-word on theirs, another graffiti-ed with demands she ‘go back’ to where she came from. One candidate had to replace a sign emblazoned with a swastika. Another found hers in shreds.


The secret blessing of being Canadian is the inevitable comparison with American politics. At least we’re not like them, we reassure ourselves. In an economy that depends heavily on population growth by immigration, we congratulate ourselves for being the tolerant ones. No walls being built here. Move along, nothing to see.


But this blessing also brings a difficult reality into stark contrast. Canada is not a post-racial multicultural utopia. Our global image as polite, nice Canadians keeps us from taking a long, hard look in the mirror when it comes to race issues. We still suffering the fallout of a legacy that includes residential schools, the Komagata Maru, the Chinese head tax, Africville, Japanese internment camps, and rejecting Jews fleeing Nazis in the Second World War. Among just a few examples.


Even this past month, not one federal debate tackled the issue of race – even though the consortium rushed to give the same platform to an openly xenophobic party as one led by its first person of colour. Not one party emerged with a real plan to confront the alt-right. Not one voice stepped up to confront Bill 21, though there were two solid voices defending it.


But the problem doesn’t stop at the federal level. Take a look at city hall – despite more than half of Brampton, Mississauga, Markham, Richmond Hill and Toronto are minorities, there are no more than one or two people of colour to be found in chambers. Less than 10 per cent. 


So what about Queen’s Park? The provincial government prides itself on being the most diverse Conservative government yet, but Premier Ford spent a long time trying to dissociate from outspoken white nationalists. And of the 73 MPPs currently in the legislature, the only 8 not to have gotten a promotion or salary hike are immigrants.


This is not the first time elections in this country have been battled on the race card. When the Harper government initiated talk of a Barbaric Practices Hotline, voters largely understood this to be a move targeted at Muslim populations, and galvanized the turnout to fight it. 


But that kind of unity and single-minded focus among voter bases doesn’t exist anymore – partly because of short attention spans, and partly because politics no longer aims to appeal to specific issues, just broad strokes. Perhaps now, more than ever, it’s time for Canada to reflect not just on whether it can reckon with a racist past, but whether it wants to truly tackle structural oppression in a meaningful way.

Mehr Yawar

U Toronto '22

Hi I'm Mehr, pronounced meh-her, and I'm an International Relations major aspiring to become a human rights lawyer someday. Find me at the nearest café consuming copious amounts of caffeine. If you want to talk about anything from beauty to food, music to politics, and everything pop culture, I'm your girl.