‘Words alone will not be enough’: Black caucus, community cautiously optimistic about feds’ Throne Speech pledges

Initial reactions (and wait for the budget for initiatives to be concretized or not):

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Throne Speech further elevates the priorities long advocated by the Black community, say MPs, Senators, and advocates, though some say the lack of specificity on certain planks gives the government too much wiggle room to follow through on its commitments.

Mr. Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) parliamentary reset last week featured a grab bag of mostly old commitments that are likely to compete with one another for resources against the immediate threat posed by the global pandemic.

It featured a separate section devoted to “addressing systemic racism,” reflecting, in sweeping terms, many of the priorities that the Black Parliamentary Caucus had lobbied for in response to the anti-Black racism rallies that hit many cities around the world over the summer. Some of its commitments include addressing standards on the use of force; implementing a plan to increase representation in public service; and finding new ways to support the “artistic and economic contributions of Black Canadian culture and heritage.”

Liberal MP Greg Fergus (Hull-Aylmer, Que.), chair of the cross-party caucus that includes MPs and Senators, said the attention focused on grappling with racial inequities in the speech is a testament to the caucus’ and the Black community’s drive to prevent the momentum from fading. The caucus’ statement, a document that set out policy prescriptions for achieving racial equity that was released in June, received the endorsement of nearly all cabinet ministers and more than 150 Parliamentarians.

For Mr. Fergus, who is also parliamentary secretary to the Treasury Board president and to minister of digital government, said seeing the caucus’ agenda adopted in the speech means members have a “green light” to keep pressing for reforms. Had the speech not reflected those priorities, Mr. Fergus said, there would be “screaming headlines” registering that omission—and it would have been justified.

“It’s all forward thrusters on in terms of moving on this file, and given that we are in a pandemic, for us to recognize we have to address the real fault lines that exist, and make that a priority in the Speech from the Throne, it means I got a green light for the Black caucus to continue [its work],” he said.

Mr. Fergus pointed to the “down payments” the government has made on the collection of disaggregated race-based data, which started with Statistics Canada’s move to publish, for the first time, a Labour Force Survey tracking job losses by race and ethnicity. Though such data is likely to confirm the existence of longstanding inequities linked to structural forces, having hard figures, advocates say, would help further illustrate the scope of the problems. The speech picks up on that priority advocated by the caucus, in committing to developing an approach across the government around “better collection of disaggregated data.”

Mr. Trudeau, in response to the wave of protests in June, promised action “very quickly” and enlisted his cabinet ministers to develop a “summer work plan.” A request for comment from the Prime Minister’s Office was not returned by deadline.

Independent Senator Rosemary Moodie (Ontario) said when hard data is available, it makes the inequities that have long been apparent, “much more indisputable,” and “easier for us to speak with authority.”

Independent Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard (Nova Scotia) echoed that sentiment, saying that degree of commitment on data collection suggests the government could make a push to apply an “intersectional lens” on policies. Such an approach, she noted, is already happening in the files overseen by Diversity Inclusion Minister Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.).

“Part of the problem is that, in government, change happens very slowly. Through the pandemic, it’s slowed down even more,” Sen. Bernard, a caucus member, said. “There’s a great need, in this country, for policy development to be more inclusive, and so, bringing the voices of all stakeholders in policy development is something we really haven’t been doing.”

While Sen. Bernard said the speech gave profile to the concerns of Black and Indigenous Canadians, where it didn’t “go far enough” for her was in providing specific and substantive reforms around criminal justice. During the pandemic, Canada has seen the pandemic collide with racial injustices, she said, pointing to several incidents involving police that have led to violent encounters and in some cases, the deaths of Black and Indigenous people such as Chantel Moore and Regis Korchinski-Paquet. Both women died during so-called “wellness checks” carried out by police.

“I often look at the decal on the side of police cars; it says, ‘To serve and protect,’ and there are many Black Canadians and Indigenous Canadians who don’t feel well served or well protected by police and, in fact, feel fear,” she said. “That has to shift; that requires major change, major reform, and the Throne Speech references this a little bit.”

Sen. Bernard said she had hoped the speech would have made specific references to the development of a Black-Canadian justice strategy—an acknowledgement that underscores that the community has been disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system and “state violence.” She noted that Nova Scotia has already moved in that direction. Instead, the speech states a pledge to “take action to address the systemic inequities in all phases of the criminal justice system, from diversion to sentencing, from rehabilitation to records.”

Sen. Moodie agreed that a lack of specifics would make it “harder to hold people accountable.” “I don’t think it lessens our responsibility as Parliamentarian; I don’t think it lessens our mandate to pursue that,” she added.

NDP MP Matthew Green (Hamilton Centre, Ont.) said while pledges in the speech are wrapped up in the “words of equity and the language of racial justice,” the government isn’t responding with the urgency required. He added the government doesn’t have a solid track record of implementing policies it endorses.

“The government has all the power to immediately act on the priorities outlined in the Black caucus’ statement. From procurement to policing, they have failed,” said Mr. Green.

He pointed to the government’s policy requiring that companies with more than 100 employees that are interested in bidding on contracts worth more than $1-million to set diversity targets, saying that, without audits, it’s a toothless measure.

“That is a good policy that the Liberals put forward, but how many audits have actually happened?” he said.

Federal audits of companies were scrapped under the Harper government and have not been brought back, according to The Toronto Star.

“It was not through the goodwill of the government,” he added of the government’s move to adopt priorities pushed for by the caucus and protesters. “It was the tens of thousands of Canadians led by the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding that they move beyond performative actions.”

Mr. Green cited getting rid of mandatory minimums and amnesty for those convicted of recreational marijuana possession as examples of other policies the government can move on without delay.

Even as he expressed frustration over the pace of the government’s response, Mr. Green said the work of the caucus, of which he is a member of, has been meaningful, saying it’s been an “overwhelmingly non-partisan” vehicle for change.

“We are looking at creating a governing structure to institutionalize the work we’ve done to date,” he said. “I stand by that work. My job, in opposition, is to ensure that I continue to point out the uncomfortable truths.”

‘Rare’ for speeches to have hard timelines

Sen. Moodie said the speech, which gave a “prominent place” to the concerns of Black and Indigenous communities, sends a reassuring signal that the government is serious about delivering on its commitments.

“It’s my sense there’s a will and perhaps a plan,” Sen. Moodie said. “We know the prime minister has spoken about it. He will need to follow through, or he risks losing credibility when he speaks on the issue. Words alone will not be enough for the country, for Black and Indigenous Canadians who have heard him.”

Sen. Moodie is feeling upbeat about the prospects for change, a shift from where she was at before the speech was released in late August, when she said, in an email response, “any continued delay” on responding to calls from the Black community could not be “wholly blamed on prorogation.”

Alfred Burgesson, a member of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council and founder of advocacy group Collective Action, said the main “missing piece” from the speech was the lack of “tangible targets” for measuring the pace of progress.

Mr. Fergus noted that Throne-Speech commitments rarely come with timelines.

“It’s cool to see we’re going to make progress on systemic racism, but without tangible targets, then how are we measuring our success?,” he said, speaking for himself, not on behalf of the council. “Are we just striving towards saying we’re doing it, or are we doing it to have an impact across Canada?”

He said the budget or the promised fiscal update in the fall will be indicative of whether the government is “truly putting their money where their mouths are.” Mr. Burgesson said the feds’ launch of the Black Entrepreneurship Strategy, which promises close to $221-million in partnership with banks to help thousands of Black business owners recover from the pandemic, earlier this month was a positive development, but said “that can’t be it.”

At the same time, Mr. Burgesson, who participated in a council meeting that was an hour and half long with Mr. Trudeau on Friday, said he left feeling a “great deal of optimism.”

“He’s not afraid of the criticism. …When others challenged him, he received it very well,” he said, adding that Mr. Trudeau did not respond defensively in the face of criticism about the speed of the government’s response to pressing issues.

Velma Morgan, chair of Operation Black Vote, said the speech was a “good start,” with many of the broad commitments reflecting what the community has been campaigning on for in countless meetings with government officials, but the real work has yet to begin in earnest. (Ms. Morgan is also working on Green Party candidate Annamie Paul’s leadership campaign; the two are personal friends, and Ms. Paul is the only Black candidate running for the Greens.)

“It’s time we move from aspirational to action. We need for that work to be expedited. The time should’ve been last year. There’s a little bit of catchup,” she said. “The government has been really good at speaking to the community. It has been said over and over again, ‘Let’s get it done.’ The ball is in their court.”

Source: ‘Words alone will not be enough’: Black caucus, community cautiously optimistic about feds’ Throne Speech pledges

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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