Last November, the prime minister of Canada stood on Parliament Hill, surrounded by his newly minted cabinet, to introduce them to the country. His choice of words deserves some reflection: “It’s an incredible pleasure for me to be here today, before you, to present to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada.”
And in that moment, right before establishing his gender-progressive bona fides with the iconic “Because it’s 2015” comment, his lack of black cabinet ministers (as well as the failure of reporters to note their absence) spoke volumes about where black Canadians belong in Justin Trudeau’s Canada.
For many black Canadians, especially those of us doing the difficult labour of anti-racism, Trudeau’s pithy “Because it’s 2015” answer struck a far different note than intended. The sight of the prime minister – a young and handsome white man – succinctly dispensing with the notion that gender parity in his cabinet should even need to be explained, right after implying that a cabinet lacking black Canadians is a cabinet that looks like Canada, was by no means an unfamiliar one. Our story in this country, as reflected by white-dominated media and an education system birthed from the womb of colonialist white supremacy, is a story of existing only when we are granted permission.
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It is a story of respectability, and proof that hard work will bear the fruit of wealth and recognition. It is a story of the noble parliamentarian Lincoln Alexander. Of the regal former governor general Michaëlle Jean, and of Jean Augustine. It is the story of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, and of opera singer Measha Brueggergosman. It is a story of tolerance, peacekeeping, and refuge from human rights atrocities. Canadians who warmly opened the borders to black Americans emancipating themselves from a society that considered them livestock. A prime minister, father to the current title holder, who gracefully loosened immigration laws and precipitated wave after wave of new Canadians hailing from African and Caribbean nations.
It is therefore a story of erasure. The Canadian story we are taught to identify with and embrace is held separate from the story of the Wilfrid Laurier government of the early 20th century. The story of Canada not only barring entry to black Americans fleeing pogroms in the south and midwest, but sending emissaries to discourage black activists from rallying their people northward. The story of Canada breaking its promise to black loyalists not once but twice, shunting them to the least habitable lands available in Halifax. It is the story of Canada compounding the misery of Africville’s black residents by denying them potable water, dumping the city’s waste at their doorsteps, and tearing their church to the ground. The story of Canada that gives no recognition to the Afro-indigenous experience, that denies a race problem within its police forces, even while decades of lawsuits and activism prove otherwise, and has but one black councillor in the city touted as North America’s most diverse.
Canada is a country of several stories, many of them good. But this is not the country where black boys and girls can find stories of more than a handful of role models in business, government, judiciary and our media. We are vastly overrepresented in detention halls, in the custody of children’s aid and in federal prisons. We are most likely to fall into the hands of police, even when not suspected of any crime, and to be killed by them. This is our story – that we are born free, and steered towards shackles. We are all but barred from entry into the senior echelons of both the private and public sector, harassed out of teaching positions, and find the caltrops of various systems scattered in our path when we attempt any escape from poverty.
This is what it is to live in a Canada where our prime minister believes an absence of blackness in his cabinet reflects the country we actually live in. To be recognized far outside our borders for the culture that birthed Canada’s pop music renaissance, yet struggle within our borders to have our histories taught outside of Black History Month anecdotes and Heritage Minutes. To be pressured into a genteel, respectable blackness which never, ever intimidates or offends our white colleagues and neighbours. To accept what we’re given. To exist when we’re permitted.
“A cabinet that looks like Canada,” but doesn’t look like us, was not so much an omission as it was a suggestion. That black Canadians can aspire to the vaunted level of a Lincoln Alexander or a Jean Augustine, but not that of the prime minister’s own seat. Fortunately, with the surge of black pride and activism battering the ramparts of white supremacy in North America, this is no longer a suggestion to be taken seriously. We will, in our lifetimes, dismantle those barriers to become Supreme Court justices, CEOs, editors-in-chief, city councillors and mayors. We will push through a white prime minister who fails to see us, and elect a black prime minister who does. We will do these things because it’s 2016, and our story is far from complete.
Andray Domise is a community activist, writer and co-host of the Canadian politics podcast Canadaland Commons.
This is part of a series of reflections on Black History Month in Ontario. For the month of February, TVO.org features essays on how black history and black lives today intersect with education, pop culture, social policy and more.