Prominent national politicians have accused their fellow politicians of racism or sexism in recent weeks, but the justification for those labels is often unclear.
One example occurred in late May, when several Conservative MPs raised questions in the House of Commons related to scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg collaborating with researchers tied to the Chinese military.
When Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen pressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about whether he would commit to “ending research co-operation with the Chinese communist military,” he asked that Tory MPs, “in their zeal to make personal attacks, not start to push too far into intolerance towards Canadians of diverse origins.”
He made similar comments about “anti-Asian racism” when questioned on the issue by Conservative MPs Pierre Paul-Hus and Michael Barrett.
On June 25, a Twitter missive from Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould told Trudeau: “Stop your selfish jockeying for an election—which no one really wants—and do what you promised in 2018.” The closing of the tweet referred to Trudeau’s 2018 promise to create new legislation that would require federal officials to recognize indigenous rights, which are guaranteed under the Constitution, as a starting point for any government action, decision, or negotiations.
In response, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett sent a text message to Wilson-Raybould that included the word “Pension?” Wilson-Raybould would need to remain in office until Oct. 19, 2021, to qualify for an MP pension.
Wilson-Raybould posted a screenshot of the text message on Twitter and called Bennett’s comment “racist and misogynist,” even though Bennett is also female. Wilson-Raybould suggested the text “Reflects notion that Indigenous peoples are lazy & only want $ … Conveys a strong Indigenous woman, is a bad Indig woman.”
Soon after, Bennett tweeted an apology. “I let interpersonal dynamics get the better of me and sent an insensitive and inappropriate comment, which I deeply regret and shouldn’t have done,” she wrote.
Frances Widdowson, an associate professor of political science and policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says she doesn’t see anything racist about Bennett’s text, noting that if the minister “had said this to a non-indigenous person, it would have been seen as typical political sparring.”
“There is nothing on its face that would make the comment racist. How does it imply that indigenous peoples are inferior because of their race, and should have fewer political rights on this basis?” Widdowson said in an interview.
“It is automatically assumed to be racist because any criticism of an indigenous person is now declared to be racist. This is what Thomas Sowell calls ‘race hustling,’” she said, referring to the black American economist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
On June 16, Green party Leader Annamie Paul levelled racism accusations after a three-hour meeting during which the party’s federal council pondered calling a confidence vote on her leadership.
At a press conference following the meeting, Paul said “a small group” of councillors produced “allegations that were so racist, so sexist that they were immediately disavowed by both of our MPs as offensive and inflammatory.”
The charge of sexism was called into question because the challenge to Paul’s leadership was prompted by a scathing letter written by two women: Kate Storey, who is the fund representative of the Green Party of Canada Fund, and Beverley Eert, the federal council’s Manitoba representative.
“Paul has acted with an autocratic attitude of hostility, superiority, and rejection, failing to assume her duty to be an active, contributing, respectful, attentive member of Federal Council,” they wrote. “She has attended few council meetings, and when in attendance, has displayed anger in long, repetitive, aggressive monologues and has failed to recognize the value of any ideas except her own.”
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, doesn’t see what Paul sees.
“I don’t see anything racist or sexist in the quotes of the two women. … However, we don’t know what was said at the council meeting or of other interactions Paul has had with councilmembers,” Wiseman said in an interview.
“Her charge about racism and sexism will have little traction unless she offers more compelling evidence. The letter by the two women is quite damning.”
Christopher Dummitt, professor of Canadian studies at Trent University in Ontario, says Paul’s accusations should prompt questions.
“In what situation would it be possible to criticize Paul? In what situation would the race card not be used to defend her? How would we know if criticisms of her leadership weren’t racist? Is it even possible to criticize her without being labelled racist?” he said.
Back in March, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan referred to “white men” when testifying before the Commons defence committee on his handling of a 2018 complaint of sexual misconduct against then-defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance.
NDP MP Randall Garrison questioned Sajjan as to why he “refused to look at the evidence” presented to him by then-military ombudsman Gary Walbourne. Garrison said that since no investigation was taking place at the time, he was puzzled by Sajjan’s explanation that his becoming involved as the minister would have been political interference.
Garrison then said he thought Sajjan’s reaction could have been either because of his long personal and career relationship with Vance, or because knowledge of the allegations was “widespread among senior leadership.”
In his response, Sajjan said he took issue with efforts to “define my experience from my service in the Canadian Armed Forces.”
“I’ve had many people, many white men, trying to tell me what my experience is. … You said I was hiding something because of service. Please don’t do that, because don’t define my experience in the Canadian Armed Forces.”