Singh’s blunt message about racism reflects mood of Canadians


Already exhausted — and, in some parts of the country, angry — from a pandemic that’s left 26,000 dead, disturbing events of recent weeks have added to Canadians’ emotional burden.

First came a groundswell of emotion when news broke that the bodies of 215 Indigenous children had been located in unmarked graves on the grounds of the now-closed Kamloops Indian Residential School. Then came an outpouring of anger and grief in response to the Islamophobic murder of four members of a family in London, Ont., and more grief later, when their flag-draped coffins arrived at their funeral.

The usual sombre speeches were made — salves to help Canadians recover from the terrible events. But not every political leader was encouraging Canadians to move on. At a community meeting in London, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh spoke with anger.

Later, in the House of Commons, Singh forcefully added a new idea to the debate. “Some people have said, ‘This is not our Canada,’ ” Singh told MPs.

“But the reality is, this is our Canada. We can’t deny it. We can’t reject that, because it does no one any help. The reality is: Our Canada is a place of racism, of violence, of genocide of Indigenous people.”

Singh may be sensing a widespread mood. In an opinion poll Leger released last week, 57 per cent of Canadians said the Kamloops graves made them “question the whole moral foundation that Canada has been based on.”

Singh’s message probably won’t be positively received by “official Canada,” the network of government leaders and businesspeople who run the country. If this is a place of racism, violence, and genocide, they helped to create and perpetuate it.

But their dominance of Canadian identity seems to have been overtaken recently by the everyday experiences of previously ignored people.

The deaths and burials at residential schools were known by Indigenous families, but news media didn’t tell those stories. Nor is the frustration with ongoing racism, and fear of violent racists, new in Canada. Many Canadians live with both every day.

These are the experiences of what political science calls the “subaltern” classes of society — groups who have no say and no command in politics or business. And they certainly don’t decide the meaning of their country. Not usually, anyway.

Subaltern society is divided into identities, each pushed to the margins of political discourse, isolated from each other, and without the common networks, culture, or political language to tell a common and unifying story. That now seems to be changing.

“This is our Canada” isn’t just a demand to look objectively at Canada’s past; it’s a call to disparate people to find a new moral basis for their country.

A good political leader can sense and express the mood of the country. But what’s more rare is a politician who can shape it, which appears to be what Singh is doing by weaving together the everyday experiences of racism, fear, violence, and economic struggles.

If we’re re-evaluating Canada, as it seems we are, Singh may play a significant role in redefining it. It’s impossible to know if new ideas will help the electoral prospects of Singh’s New Democrats; the Liberals may well seize the momentum.

But something has changed. We know we can’t continue as if nothing happened, and it seems voices previously at the margins are now telling the story of what did.

Tom Parkin is a social democratic columnist and commentator based in Toronto who has worked for the NDP in Saskatchewan and Ontario.