I was forced out of my job as a program adviser in a federal anti-racism program because Justin Trudeau dressed up in blackface.
When the news broke about the prime minister’s history of wearing racist makeup, I was a senior program adviser in Community Support, Multiculturalism and Anti-Racism Initiatives in Canadian Heritage. I worked with a diverse mix of community organizations applying for anti-racism and multiculturalism program funding.
I was shocked and disgusted when I saw the pictures of the prime minister in brownface and blackface when he was a high school student, when he worked for a whitewater rafting company, and when he was a teacher at a Vancouver private school gala.
A week later, my father and I were interviewed separately by HuffPost Canada on generational reactions to Trudeau’s blackface scandal. My critique of the PM was mild and if anything, echoed his own acceptance of blame and acknowledgement that his actions were racist.
I was not identified in the story as a federal employee but when I told management, as a courtesy, about the interview, I was verbally reprimanded.
Read HuffPost Canada’s news story about Manjot Bains’s case.
I was told repeatedly by senior leadership that I had broken the trust of my bosses, that I couldn’t be trusted as a public servant, and that I would have to earn it back. I could not critique the prime minister publicly, even though I didn’t disclose my job with the department in the article. This was something I could accept, even if I didn’t like it. Working in the federal government, you get used to accepting things within the bureaucracy.
But then, I was told by my manager that I would have to choose: I could keep producing my podcast and my writing that I do in my personal time on issues of race, arts and culture, or I could continue working as a public servant.
I was told that to continue to do both could lead the public to think I was biased and lacking neutrality around issues of racism. Yet, I had already cleared a conflict of interest process on that very issue before I was hired.
But now, they were changing their minds. At a later meeting, I asked why they didn’t tell me I had to choose when I was hired, or when I cleared the conflict of interest process. I was told that it was an oversight, and that they should have looked more deeply at my outside work.
It benefited the department to hire me, a brown woman, to work on their anti-racism program and promote their work. Having BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) deliver anti-racism and official multiculturalism programs works to legitimize these programs and the overwhelmingly white department that oversees and creates policy about Canadian identity and culture.
“How can we address and dismantle racism when we can’t even speak about it?”
I understand now that, as long as I remained quiet, docile, and stayed in my place as a person of colour, I could continue to work on eliminating racism in Canada. And when I did not remain obedient, I was seen as a problem that needed to be dealt with.
Talking about racism did not make me bad at my job. I was working in Canada’s anti-racism program during an election campaign that included the first racialized federal leader — who experienced several overt, public incidents of racism. Understanding how racism shows up in Canada made me better at my job.
I knew and lived these issues, and I continue to research, discuss, and learn more than ever because systemic racism and anti-Black racism are both complex, soul crushing, and remain obstacles to countless Canadians.
The issue isn’t really about Trudeau. It is about the price we pay for speaking up about racism. It’s OK if we do it within a prescribed framework. We can talk about racism in terms of fighting overt, obvious displays of hate. We can talk about anti-racism as a lofty idea: we can fund projects that attempt to tackle racism in communities by holding discussion groups.
But, we cannot speak about whiteness and the everyday violence of white supremacy and white fragility and their impact on BIPOC. Instead, the system expects us to be quiet, calm and obedient because if you do speak up, if you are loud, you will be seen as a threat. We’re not supposed to speak up about actual racism when it happens.
How can we address and dismantle racism when we can’t even speak about it?
My last day working as a public servant was Oct. 16, 2019. It was a gut-wrenching decision to have to choose between a job I enjoyed and needed, and producing the podcast and writing publicly on issues of art, culture and race, which are deeply important to me. I decided to quit, and to record and publish an episode on racism and the election.
My managers had many opportunities to engage in dialogue with me, but instead, I was told there was “confusion” with my recollection of the meetings, facts twisted, and outright omissions.
It is hypocritical to claim a commitment to diversity, to fighting racism, and particularly, to looking inward at systemic racism across departments, and then to silence, gaslight, and attack the character of BIPOCs when we speak out.
There is an irony in administering anti-racism programs promoted by a prime minister who chose to dress up in blackface. But that makes this program even more important. Every effort and action can help, very slowly, to change the system.
If a public servant administering an anti-racism program is critical of the prime minister — or anyone else who is racist for that matter — this is OK; it doesn’t show bias; it shows an understanding of issues around systemic racism in this country.
It’s such a pressing matter that the federal government created an Anti-Racism Secretariat to review systemic racism and barriers across departments.
So many people who are marginalized in small and big ways have shared with me their frustrations at having to deal with and accept the daily micro-aggressions of racism in their workplaces. But, they cannot speak up for fear of jeopardizing their jobs, and when they do speak up, BIPOC are often targeted by people in positions of power, whose white fragility is exposed when they have to deal with their deep-seated, often unconscious, racism.
I am cynical about this system, but I’m trying to be optimistic that my story will kickstart this conversation in a more meaningful way.
After all this, as I sit at home, unemployed, and still shocked at what transpired almost two months ago, I often wonder: what would Justin Trudeau think about all this?