OTTAWA — Direct talk in the Liberal government's throne speech about the problem of systemic racism is a welcome break with the past but needs to be followed by rapid action, advocates on the issue say.
"This is the first positive, wonderful acknowledgment beyond and above all the lip-singing acknowledgment that I have listened to for the last 30 years,” University of Ottawa professor Boulou Ebanda de B’Beri said in an interview.
Ebanda de B’Beri is a scholar of cultural studies who has examined the "historical amnesia" about Black settlers in Canada.
He acknowledged that encouraging words aren't enough.
"These are first steps, but I'm confident that there will be many other steps. This is the very first time that we see this kind of action."
While much of Wednesday's throne speech focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and plans to overhaul Canada's economy, there were also several broad promises to address systemic racism.
Those included redoubling the fight against online hate, diversifying the public service and supporting Black Canadian culture and businesses along with new investments and action on reforming police services and the criminal justice system.
Many of the commitments had been previously voiced by the Liberal government, particularly since the issue landed on the public’s radar in earnest with the death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, under the knee of a police officer in the U.S. in May.
Yet the lack of specifics such as timelines and dollar figures sparked calls from some activists and experts for an end to vague Liberal government promises and the start of real action to tackle the problem.
"Canadians have seen this government express intentions to tackle racism and hate in the past but have been repeatedly disappointed," Fareed Khan, founder of the activist group Canadians United Against Hate, said in a statement.
"So the jury is out on the Trudeau government until it takes meaningful action. Words are cheap. Actions speak louder."
That view was echoed by the University of Waterloo' Kathy Hogarth, a social-work professor who specializes in racism and equity.
She also took issue with the throne speech's emphasis, in another section, on protecting English and French as indicative of the Liberals' wanting to maintain existing government structures.
"These are great promises and we’ve heard them before," Hogarth said in an email. "If we are serious about addressing systemic racism, we have to be willing to critically examine the very structures that make us who we are."
Yet others were applauding the first-ever mention of systemic racism in a throne speech, which came only weeks after the government launched a program providing access to millions of dollars in grants and loans for Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs, which Ebanda de B’Beri noted was a specific and concrete act.
The throne speech lays out the government’s priorities for the session of Parliament, and Liberal MP Greg Fergus, who chairs the Parliamentary Black Caucus, said the fact systemic racism was included gives him real reason for optimism.
Members of the Parliamentary Black Caucus, which includes MPs and senators from different parties, released a statement in June calling on all levels of government to address systemic racism, and Fergus said the throne speech addressed all the points raised by the group.
"The throne speech is not action. It sets the direction of the government. And now the government puts flesh on that bone. But the fact that it's there allows me and others to make sure that this happens,” he told The Canadian Press.
“The fact that all the major aspects of what we want to accomplish as a Parliamentary Black Caucus is in there, it just leaves the door wide open for me to make sure that these things become concrete.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2020.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press