On Punishing The Calling Out of Racism

Open Letter to Speaker Anthony Rota and Deputy Speaker Carol Hughes

When I heard the news this week that Jagmeet Singh had been ejected from the House of Commons, I was not shocked but I was dismayed at the blatant and violent double standards exercised by you in your roles as Deputy Speaker and Speaker of the House. 

I have visited the House of Commons once, and since then I have listened to and watched numerous recordings of proceedings. I have often noted the way that many parliamentarians seem to engage in an immature and petty display of personal digs, insults, catty remarks, name calling and so on. I understand that over the past few years, efforts have been made in some regard to make the House a workplace safe from verbal sexual assaults or other attacks protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While I appreciate the role of Speaker to facilitate proper procedure and decorum, I take issue with the actions taken by you, Madame Deputy Speaker (and through deferral also Mr. Speaker) on the matter of New Democratic Party (NDP) Leader Jagmeet Singh calling Bloc Member Alain Therrien a racist, in response to his attempt to block a motion to investigate systemic racism in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). 

While ejecting a member for violating decorum is a part of your job, a part of your job is also to facilitate dialogue between differing viewpoints on the issues most pressing to our country. As a racialized person who has spoken out about his lived experiences of racism in this country, including practices like carding, Minister Singh has a viewpoint that absolutely needs to be in the House. This is especially true when the conversation on the table is about race and the ways that our nation’s systems are built on a foundation of white supremacy. Ejecting racialized people who speak out against racism is further evidence of the white supremacist foundations of this country. 

The racism that built both Canada and our neighbours in the United States persists to this day. We can see that playing out on both sides of the border and the long overdue conversations about race in our countries are making their way to every table, from Sesame Street/CNN town halls, occupations and demonstrations filling the streets in towns and cities around the world, the back orders of now best selling books on unpacking white privilege and dismantling white supremacy.  For these conversations to be of any value, they need to include and center the voices of people who have been systemically harmed, silenced, and subjugated. There must also be opportunities for members on the floor to call out discrimination and systemic violence as it is seen and heard. 

The protocols for the latter exist and were called into play by Bloc MP Claude DeBellefeuille in his Point of Order in regards to Minister Singhs calling Minister Therrien a racist. At that moment, your role as speaker gave you the opportunity to make a ruling on what to do with that Point of Order. The record seems to show that your ruling was deferred and therefore the responsibility is on both sitting Deputy Speaker Carol Hughes and Speaker of the House Anthony Rota. Minister Singh called Minister Therrian a racist in a moment when he was acting racist. I’m sure this isn’t the first or only action that could earn him a call-out of this nature, but in that moment Minister Therrian was behaving as an agent of systemic racism in the House, by blocking the resolution to investigate racism. 

Actively standing in the way of measures that aim to bring about racial justice is racism. Denying the existence of systemic racism in the RCMP is systemic racism. A position of this nature is made possible by the layers of Canadian society historically built and maintained that prioritize the voices and participation of white men (later conditionally extended to white women). The feelings (or command of power) of a white man being prioritized in this affray is the predictable outcome of a system built on white supremacy playing out as it was designed to do. 

At this time, as we see voices across the continent rallying to speak out against racism within policing, Canada must not be left behind in hearing those cries and taking appropriate action. While the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis was a catalyst for much of what we see today, the conversation didn’t start last month. The urgent need for dialogue and action has been building and is visible in Canada, even earlier this year in regards to Wet’suwet’en Solidarity protests and the RCMP being used as armed guards for Coastal Gaslink on sovereign Indigenous territories. The RCMP’s Red Serge is red with Indigenous blood, historically and as recent as the deaths of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi. The Canadian government is long overdue in its responsibility to not only investigate and consider the RCMP in this regard, but also to call for urgent, immediate action. Previous investigations, including the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has already identified that systemic racism impacts police action and inaction. Earlier this month RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki was struggling with the definition of systemic racism and denied the existence of systemic racism in the institution she oversees. When contradicted by the Prime Minister, who stated unequivocally that systemic racism exists in the RCMP, she retracted her statement as she came to a clearer position of understanding of the issue through parliamentary leadership. 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh demonstrated parliamentary leadership in calling Minister Therrien (and/or his behavior in his choice to block an important motion) racist. Minister Therrian was demonstrating racism. In the moments following, so did you. By confirming that unapologetically calling out racism is punishable by physical dismissal, you continued to enable and enforce the white supremacy woven into the very foundation of this country. This could be considered an example of tone policing, which is a well documented and researched way that within white halls of power, racialized voices are dismissed as being too angry, especially in regards to matters that impact them personally. 

I hope dearly that as long as the House of Commons or the country of Canada are to exist, we continue to see more representation of racialized and otherwise marginalized positions. As the house diversifies, it will be on the shoulders of the Speaker to ensure that the voices of those who have historically been systemically left out of leadership in this country are not silenced by protocols of white supremacy. 

Many white settler Canadians are just starting their personal process of learning the true histories of this country, while unlearning the mythologies created by and upheld on behalf of white supremacy in our schools and culture. This work is not easy as it asks us to identify the ways in which we have been complicit. This work asks us to identify and uproot the ways we ARE complicit. The subtle and maybe unnoticed ways that we are responsible for maintaining unjust distribution of power within our society can be uncomfortable to admit.  We are all responsible for doing this uncomfortable personal work, as the alternative is also a strong choice.  It is the choice to allow the systems of white supremacy that we work in, as well as those that work in us, to carry on. 

I ask you to recognize the misstep in your choice to eject Minister Singh and as is protocol, own that through a direct and public apology. The leadership of this country will never move beyond its racist foundation unless all members individually, and the system itself, are able to identify and uproot those foundations and take bold action towards an equitable and just society. 

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