No pri­me mini­ster in Cana­dian histo­ry has used iden­ti­ty poli­tics more than Justin Trudeau

By Peter Holle
Fron­tier Cen­tre for Public Policy

In a famo­us 60 Minu­tes inte­rview in 2012, Mike Wal­la­ce asked actor Mor­gan Fre­eman how to get rid of racism.

Fre­eman instan­tly responds by say­ing it’s easy: stop refer­ring to him as a Black man and he will stop refer­ring to Wal­la­ce as a whi­te man. Fre­eman says only by remo­ving racist labels will we get rid of racism.

A love­ly video is cir­cu­la­ting of very young chil­dren of dif­fe­rent races being asked what the dif­fe­ren­ces are betwe­en two friends of dif­fe­rent races. In one clip, a child points out that she likes swim­ming whi­le her friend likes run­ning, or that one likes math and the other likes English. The­se chil­dren don’t see each other by the­ir race but by who they are.

A long-stan­ding belief by Cana­dians is that we see each other as indi­vi­du­als – not by what race we are.

But Pri­me Mini­ster Justin Tru­de­au and fede­ral NDP Leader Jag­me­et Singh want to chan­ge all that.

In the past, Cana­da and the Uni­ted Sta­tes col­lec­ted data very dif­fe­ren­tly. In the U.S., race-based data is col­lec­ted as a mat­ter of cour­se – on driver’s licen­ces, insu­ran­ce docu­ments, health records, edu­ca­tio­nal docu­ments, and on and on. In Cana­da, we have pur­po­se­ly avo­ided that. The only docu­ment we col­lect racial data on is the cen­sus form – which is ano­ny­mo­us – and it’s col­lec­ted once eve­ry 10 years.

No pri­me mini­ster in Cana­dian histo­ry has used iden­ti­ty poli­tics more than Justin Tru­de­au. Many Cana­dian poli­ti­cians use racial iden­ti­ties in cam­pa­igning, but this has been taken to new extre­mes by making refe­ren­ces to vario­us eth­nic gro­ups on a weekly basis.
It has been effec­ti­ve on the cam­pa­ign tra­il but it’s questio­na­ble whe­ther it has been effec­ti­ve in run­ning our country.

Now, at the urging of Singh – with the implied leve­ra­ge of NDP sup­port for the Libe­ral mino­ri­ty govern­ment – the govern­ment must now start col­lec­ting race-based data.

Altho­ugh it will start with health infor­ma­tion on the COVID-19 pan­de­mic, this is sim­ply the wedge to begin to seg­ment our socie­ty more and more into tiny com­pe­ting gro­ups. If it’s to be used on health data, then it can be used on inco­me tax forms, driver’s licen­ces, scho­ol trans­cripts, and on and on.

In coun­tries like Cana­da and the U.S., 15 per cent of our chil­dren are of mixed race – and rising by five per cent eve­ry deca­de. By the end of this cen­tu­ry, most people living in Cana­da and the U.S. will be of mixed race and which race you are will depend on how you per­ce­ive yourself.

The most extre­me exam­ple to date is U.S. Sena­tor Eli­za­beth War­ren. She looks Cau­ca­sian, was bro­ught up by two Cau­ca­sian parents, and a gene­tic test reve­aled she was at least 98.44 cent and up to 99.8 per cent Cau­ca­sian. Despi­te this, no less than Harvard Uni­ver­si­ty cla­imed that War­ren was the first full fema­le pro­fes­sor of colo­ur at the scho­ol. So how does a per­son who is 99 per cent of Euro­pe­an ori­gin cla­im to be a per­son of colour?

This isn’t uni­que to War­ren and is hap­pe­ning in Cana­da within govern­ment hiring, whe­re iden­ti­ty has been used by most govern­ments to scre­en and select can­di­da­tes. This has led to many can­di­da­tes self-asses­sing in simi­lar ways to War­ren. And in govern­ment, there’s no DNA test so it’s all self-asses­sment, with no pro­of requ­ired or allowed.

Cana­da will need to make a deci­sion. Do we want to con­ti­nue with our histo­ric belief that all Cana­dians are equ­al and eve­ry­one sho­uld be tre­ated the same? Do we want pro­gress toward the view of Fre­eman and stop descri­bing people by the­ir race? Or do we want to adopt the War­ren route – to high­li­ght any and all racial dif­fe­ren­ces in socie­ty even if the dif­fe­ren­ce amo­unts to only one per cent?

We may be at an inflec­tion point, whe­re we’re looking to ensu­re that our socie­ty beco­mes less racist than ever. This is true for both the U.S. and Canada.

Do we achie­ve this by looking for more ways to accen­tu­ate racial divi­des or do we work har­der at tre­ating eve­ry­one the same?
It’s a cho­ice Tru­de­au and Singh are for­cing on socie­ty and we need to deci­de which way to go.

Peter Hol­le is pre­si­dent of the Fron­tier Cen­tre for Public Policy.
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