The Great Canadian Blackface Debate

My paternal grandmother has a great saying that she likes to remind me of. Drawing from a well of old Jamaican wisdom, she says: “Don’t watch the noise in the market, just watch your correct change.”

On September 18, Time magazine released a photo showing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface at a costume party in 2001. Similar photos and a video surfaced in the days that followed, suggesting the blackface routine is, or at least was, a habit for Trudeau. Every few days since then, Canadian news media have featured new articles, videos, commentary or panel discussions on this controversy.

With all due respect to the commentators that have kept #blackfacegate going, I can’t help but feel the media is allowing this conversation to drown out other significant stories that directly impact the material conditions of Black Canadians. But if #BlackfaceTrudeau is the noise in the market, what’s the correct change? I have a few examples.

On September 18, two Black female high school students who left their Vancouver school due to anti-Black racism finally received an apology from a white male classmate who was the source of the trouble. The white student circulated a video to his classmates in which he said, “I hope all n—— die.” The next day, the Toronto Star reported that the TTC had agreed to adopt an anti-racism plan as part of a settlement with a Black rider who sued the transit commission after he was violently accosted by three fare inspectors in 2018. These stories offered insight into the shortcomings of how Canadian public institutions address anti-Black racism.

That same week, but on the other side of the country, the Nova Scotia government released a detailed, 20-plus page action plan to support the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent. This is significant because the African Nova Scotian community has for centuries been pushing the province to help its members achieve better social well-being outcomes in education, employment, youth development, health, housing, policing and the justice system. The government plan offers a positive example for how other provinces can address systemic anti-Black racism in line with the UN project.

But it’s in Ontario where the blackface media eclipse had the most significant effect.

On the same day that the first Trudeau photo surfaced, the Toronto Police Services Board passed a groundbreaking policy requiring police to collect, analyze and publicly report data showing the racial breakdown of the individuals they interact with while on duty. The board’s Anti-Racism Advisory Panel (ARAP), co-chaired by Black Canadian community health expert Notisha Massaquoi and Sri Lankan–born mental health expert Uppala Chandrasekera, developed the policy and led its public consultations.

The adoption of this policy is an especially monumental development given the global rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was in large part driven by a lack of state accountability for anti-Black racism in policing. Canada consistently markets our multiculturalism while police and correctional services refuse to democratically collect and release data that would expose the dramatic rates of overrepresentation of Black people among those stopped, questioned, carded, charged, arrested, incarcerated and even killed by Canadian police officers and in Canada’s prisons.

The Toronto police board’s race-based data-collection policy was a result of a decades-long push from Toronto’s Black communities and their allies for greater police fairness, transparency and accountability. Because Toronto’s police service is the largest in the country, it is almost certain that police agencies across Canada will adopt similar disaggregated data collection policies.

There is still confusion about the policy, with people wondering if it gives the police legal protection to continue the extremely controversial and anti-Black racist practice of carding, also known as street checks, which government legislation was ostensibly meant to end as of 2017. Carding allowed police to stop, question and document individuals without having a legal basis for doing so.

The new Toronto police board policy, however, focuses only on collecting data when police are exercising their legal policing duties. More media attention on this, rather than the blackface incidents, might have cleared these issues up.

Finally, in a related story on September 20, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released its official policy on eliminating racial profiling in law enforcement. This policy was years in the making and will likely serve to guide police services across Canada for at least a generation to come. Was it news? Not for more than a day.

It is possible these important developments would have received just as little media attention had the Trudeau leaks not happened at the same time. And clearly, talking about Trudeau’s habit is a part of how we address anti-Black racism in this country.

But the hard work of making our police forces accountable is important too—it’s the correct change amidst the noise of the market. This is a serious concern because the noise of the blackface bruhaha will likely be forgotten long before Ontario’s police accountability changes are most deeply felt by Black communities.

Grandma, help us.


Anthony N. Morgan is a Toronto-based human rights lawyer, policy consultant and community educator. His column, Colour-coded Justice, appears regularly in the CCPA Monitor. Follow him on Twitter @anthonynmorgan.

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