Hon. Wanda Elaine Thomas Bernard: Honourable senators, I rise today in reply to the Speech from the Throne.
During a difficult year, 2020 brought us a historic Speech from the Throne that specifically highlighted the lives of African-Canadians. This was a first. We heard many promises to address systemic racism. Now that I have been in the Senate for just over four years, I wish to share my observations about anti-Black racism in our institution and the effort being made in the Red Chamber.
I will use two Afrocentric principles to make suggestions for how to move forward in a collective way, standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, across party lines.
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission:
Racial discrimination can happen on an institutional – or systemic – level, from everyday rules and structures that are not consciously intended or designed to discriminate. Patterns of behaviour, policies or practices that are part of the structures of an organization or an entire sector can disadvantage or fail to reverse the ongoing impact and legacy of historical disadvantage of racialized persons. This means that even though you did not intend to, your “normal way of doing things” might be having a negative impact on racialized persons.
By this definition, it is not a question of whether our institution perpetuates systemic racism; it is about how the patterns of systemic racism need to be disrupted. Many people look to federal institutions to lead the way.
The Honourable Murray Sinclair referred to senators as a “council of elders,” and I cherish this description. Honourable colleagues, I urge you to see us as a council of elders as we work to create solutions within our institution. I suggest we use an approach of anti-racism combined with Africentric principles of umoja, which means unity, and ujima, which means collective work and responsibility.
In 2020, we witnessed a global movement through the Black Lives Matter protests. The Speech from the Throne acknowledged systemic racism and promised to address inequities in the criminal justice system, law enforcement, RCMP, policing, equity and diversity in the public service, collecting race-based data and furthering economic development from marginalized communities.
The supplementary cabinet mandate letters issued by the Prime Minister in January of 2021 mirrored key objectives outlined in the Speech from the Throne. These include supporting Black culture and heritage; building on the Black Entrepreneurship Program; hiring and developing leadership roles for Black people in the public service; reviewing of the Employment Equity Act; and emphasizing the importance of applying a Gender-based Analysis Plus lens to all areas of policy.
Many leaders from all parties acknowledge the presence and persistence of systemic racism; however, during my time in the Senate, I have observed a general lack of unity, or ujima. Without unity, we don’t have a clear direction, and our efforts are scattered or siloed. I am proud to be part of the recently formed Black senators group. We are a small group building on the important work of the Parliamentary Black Caucus. These groups do not see racism as a partisan issue. All members work together to advocate for the rights and advancement of African-Canadians while addressing issues of racism within Canada, regardless of party lines.
It is time to turn aspirations into actions. I can see good intention and enthusiasm for creating systemic change. I feel hope for the future; however, unless actions follow those words, I see a pattern of performative allyship. Performative allyship, or optical allyship, is when one creates an illusion of allyship through words and gestures, but those words or gestures aren’t backed up by actions or change. Performative allyship is harmful because the work ends where it starts, and this prevents movement towards systemic change. I encourage allies to engage in reflection about personal actions for change and to expand their understanding about the anti-racism efforts that have been under way by those who came before us.
I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors, especially here in the Senate. Two former African Nova Scotian senators, the late Honourable Calvin Ruck and the Honourable Don Oliver, were doing anti-racism work in the Senate long before June 2020 and long before my inquiry into anti-Black racism, which was introduced on May 1, 2018. Both former senators consistently recognized the achievements of Black Canadians, including the No. 2 Construction Battalion and Black History Month. I encourage all my colleagues to become familiar with the work that has been done before us, rather than reinvent the wheel.
Honourable colleagues, the time to act is now. Let’s focus on the principles of umoja and ujima — unity and collective work and responsibility. I will borrow the line from other marginalized groups who say, “Nothing about us without us.” From Indigenous activists to disability rights activists, the phrase serves to emphasize that those of us with intersecting marginalized identities have the right to be consulted and trusted when it comes to topics that directly impact us. I ask that we move from aspirations of change and performative statements to tangible actions. We need to hold our government accountable to their promises stated in the Speech from the Throne, and we must develop a unified approach to truly address systemic racism. Systemic change takes collective work — it takes ujima — and the time to act is now.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.