Justin Trudeau promised action ‘very soon’ to tackle systemic racism. Seven weeks later, where is it?

Very soon is a relative concept to politicians. For the opposition, the shorter the better, even if largely symbolic.

For government, which actually has the responsibility to develop, implement and manage policies and programs, a longer timeframe is involved except under exceptional circumstances such as the various COVID support measures.

The symbolic is easy and can often be meaningful. But tackling long-term structural issues is hard and requires longer-term commitment and effort:

It has been seven weeks since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised action “very soon” to address systemic racism in Canadian policing and other institutions.

For Matthew Green, an NDP MP and member of the cross-party Parliamentary Black Caucus, “very soon” is now long past due — and can’t come soon enough.

That’s especially the case, he says, after more than 100 Liberal MPs and half of Trudeau’s cabinet signed a declaration from the Black caucus in mid-June that called for a wide range of reforms.

“If these ministers are not serious, then they ought not have signed on,” Green told the Star by phone on Wednesday.

“What we’re asking for is not radical. It is actually basic justice principles of applying policy and the legal system in an equitable way,” he said.

Responding to questions from the Star on Wednesday, Trudeau spokesperson Alex Wellstead provided a quote from the prime minister after the Liberal cabinet retreat in early July. Trudeau pledged at the time that his ministers would craft a “work plan” for the summer to build “strong policies” to tackle racism. This would include reforms to police and the justice system, improved protections for temporary foreign workers and legislation to expand First Nations policing of their own communities, Trudeau said.

In 2019, the Liberal government unveiled a $45-million strategy to tackle racism in the public service and federal policies. The party also promised during the election last year to increase funding for the strategy.

But in mid-June of this year, Trudeau pledged further action on systemic racism would come “very soon.” At the time, much of the Western world was roiling from widespread demonstrations denouncing police brutality and racism against Black, Indigenous and other racialized people.

In Canada, demonstrations were fuelled by a series of incidents in which people died during interactions with police. These included Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old First Nations woman shot and killed on June 4 during a wellness check at her apartment in Edmunston, N.B., and 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Indigenous woman who died in Toronto after falling from an apartment balcony during a police visit.

On June 16, the Parliamentary Black Caucus released its declaration that called on governments to “act immediately” on a wide range of demands to address systemic racism in Canada. The document called for Ottawa to end mandatory minimum jail sentences, create programs to support businesses owned by Black Canadians and improve the collection and release of race-based data. It also called for more Black and Indigenous judges, and to shift money from police budgets to health and social services.

The document was signed by at least 25 cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Justice Minister David Lametti.

Greg Fergus, a Liberal MP from Quebec who is a member of the Black caucus, said Black Canadians have been waiting for decades for reforms and that he is confident the Trudeau government will take significant steps to address racism. He said he has spoken with Trudeau directly about the issue and that he has been assured actions are going to be taken — though he declined to discuss specific plans because he doesn’t want to “scoop” his own government.

“I know that everybody would like this to be done yesterday, but I’m glad they’re taking the time to get it right,” he said.

“For the first time in my life I actually really feel that, Wow, we’re going to get at this, we’re really going to give this a real say — because Canadians will want things to be done.”

Green was less optimistic, and said he believes the Liberal government has already missed opportunities to implement change. He said several demands in the Black caucus declaration could have been pursued immediately, including the elimination of mandatory minimum jail sentencing and amnesty for people convicted for cannabis-related crimes before it was legalized.

The federal government was also criticized this spring for delaying its promisedresponse to the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which probed the systemic causes of disproportionate violence against these groups and concluded in June 2019 with a list of demands for change.

Green said he will be looking to Aug. 12, when the House of Commons is next scheduled to sit, as the next chance for the Liberals to follow up with the action they promised.

“This government can move immediately — immediately — within weeks to award their insiders and their friends a contract that would have resulted in the benefit of $43 million,” Green said, referring to the controversy over the Liberal government’s decision to outsource a student grant program to WE Charity.

“They did that without any drawn out or protracted incremental approach. So why can’t they make those same investments in the Black community?” he said.

Source: Justin Trudeau promised action ‘very soon’ to tackle systemic racism. Seven weeks later, where is it?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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