home North America, Politics, Racism Would a Canadian Obama be possible?

Would a Canadian Obama be possible?

When it was announced that Barack Obama had won the American election, many Blacks across the diaspora cried with jubilation. Seeing a Black man become leader of what is termed the free world gave hope to many that have lived with desperation, racism, violence and hate. Whether or not we agree with his politics, which are decidedly centrist, his body represents hope to many.

In Canada, President Obama actually has a higher approval rating than in the U.S. His rating is also higher than our sitting Prime Minster. When he visited last winter and was greeted by our Governor General, it was as though a conquering hero had arrived on Canadian soil. Even Caesar returning to Rome in triumph was not so besotted with love and adoration.

Despite the love shown for the shiny new American president, if Obama were to run for election in Canada, he would never be elected. No political party has been led by a person of color and we are nowhere near seeing people of color legitimately represented on Parliament Hill. White liberals run special committees to address race issues, but without the input of those that are actually affected by racism, what progress can possibly be made?

The highest ranked Black person in government is the Governor General and based on the fact that she was openly referred to as La Reine-Nègre (Negro Queen), it would seem that Canadians are more than prepared to allow race to determine worth. Though the term La Reine-Nègre is clearly offensive, we were assured that it had nothing to do with race and was simply a commentary on the way she preformed her duties.

Many Canadians look southward with a sense of superiority and it has not escaped the notice of people of color that we do not have a national group, like the NAACP or the Congressional Black Congress, to represent our needs in government. In academia, if one wants to take courses in African Canadian history, one must attend a university in an Eastern province. It is, in fact, impossible to get a degree in African Canadian studies outside of eastern Canada, and this would lead one to believe that African Canadians have not contributed to the growth of Canada as a nation.

Politicians have made many racial comments without apology. Even in the States, they at least attempt to cover their hatred by claiming that they never meant to offend. What better evidence is there of White privilege than the ability to display one’s inner racist to the world without receiving censure or social discipline?

Though the conversation about race in the U.S. is continually conducted in a false binary of Black vs. White, at least it is taking place. Canada still functions with the myth that we are an integrated society that has moved beyond racial discord. In the 2005 Ipsos Reid study that was commissioned by the Dominion Institute to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, one in ten respondents said they wouldn’t want people from another race as next-door neighbours. Nearly 15% of the 1,001 people surveyed said they thought skin colour made a difference at work, while 13% told pollsters they would never marry or have a relationship with someone from another race. The great salad bowl is filled with rotten produce.

Canadians barely acknowledge that slavery occurred here and instead we prefer to focus on the Underground Railroad because that makes us seem morally superior. The first slave in Canada was a child, and his baptismal name was was Olivier Le Jeune (the African name has been lost to history). He was brought to the province of Quebec by David Kirke in 1628. Slavery as an institution existed in Canada until the British Parliament emancipated slaves throughout the empire effective August 1, 1834. The purposeful denial of Canadian history is but one of the many ways in which we ensure that people of color remain at a second-class status.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” Yet we know that justice has routinely been denied Canadians of Color. Just as in every other Western nation, people of color are over-represented in the penal system, and yet we look southward and speak about the US industrial prison complex, thereby conveniently ignoring our own faults.

We are routinely ignored in the mainstream media unless it is to discuss a crime. The correlation between capitalism and racism that combine to create these situations is erased from discourse. We don’t even have an Essence magazine or BET network in which to discuss our issues.

Barack Obama could never become our Prime Minister because, unlike the United States, we have yet to admit that we are deeply flawed. How could a Black man rule a nation which has yet to accord its citizens of color even the semblance of power? Black Canadians are presumed to be from elsewhere, as a Canadian identity is understood to be white. Obama’s Kenyan ancestry would be an issue, despite the fact that one need not be a naturalized citizen to be Prime Minister. We speak about about wanting a politician to engage us in the way that Barack did Americans with his “yes we can” slogan, but it would seem that we can only admire change and hope from a distance.


Renee Martin

Renee Martin lives in Canada and writes the famous Womanist Musings blog. She is as interested in socio-political issues as she is in television.

15 thoughts on “Would a Canadian Obama be possible?

  1. Not to minimize the systemic racism at play in Canadian society, I do think there’s a chance for someone like Obama to become PM here (albeit, an Obama who was more ‘left’ on certain issues, like capital punishment, than the actual Obama). We, especially the younger generation, do like to construct our national narrative through a lens of multiculturalism, even when we don’t collectively live up to (or even, when it comes down to it, actually want to live up to) the ideals espoused thereby.

    However, I think the question here should, ideally, be different — in the Canadian context and consciousness, black people have not traditionally been the racial Other haunting white dominance and privilege. I think a better test question would be, could an aboriginal person become PM? Here, unfortunately, I think the answer is still no. The racial mistrust shown toward Obama as a black American runs at least as deep — and likely more — in Canadian white-aboriginal relations.

  2. I think much the same arguments apply to Australia too. I can just barely imagine us having a female Prime Minister, but definitely not an Aboriginal or even Asian one.

  3. in the Canadian context and consciousness, black people have not traditionally been the racial Other haunting white dominance and privilege.

    Now that is a lovely bit of oppression olympics you are playing. I suppose that slavery, lynching, rape, poverty and segregation didn’t effect Blacks either?

  4. I don’t see that as oppression Olympics at all, but fact. First Nations people have been swept aside by white (what we expected; who see us as quaint natural savages) and black Canadian (who don’t see us at all because they take up all the colour space and stomp over us on the way).

    Take a look at graphics, illustrations and pictures in any textbook, ad, media: who are the visual representations of colour? Asians, Blacks, East Indians. First Nations in Canada are invisible to whites, and ground into the dirt by blacks when we say we are distinct, and refuse to be you.

  5. huh? how exactly are blacks. with no power, stomping on the first nations?

    are you blaming blacks for the representation in a textbook made by white people? is this your evidence?

    funny how you attach the more violent images to blacks that you claim ‘stomp over us’ and ‘ground into the dirt by’

    i must have missed it, when exactly did the blacks put out a statement that the first nations weren’t distinct?

  6. Native people are traditionally very passive. That’s been the problem. We are different from you, from your culture. We handed our land over to whites–and blacks–thinking it was sharing. Then we learned, you own it, and we should just go back to Kesechewen.

    The highest office in Canada is held by a black woman; provincial highest offices, many are black (men), and many times throughout history. Members of Parliament, Members of Legislative Assembley, chancellors of universities–black persons. First Nations? One, ever, of any of those offices, comes to mind.

    We are invisible, to white and black alike. And I really don’t see any difference in the racism I get from blacks to the racism I get from whites. I’m sorry if this shocks you.

  7. Not that I don’t believe you, but exactly who called Ms. Jean by that name you mentioned?

  8. Funny how you react similarly to my description. I’m not you. And I shouldn’t have to put up with abuse because I stand up and say I’M NOT YOU! I’M FIRST NATIONS! But that’s what happens, in real and online; a native woman saying she’s not black and she’s gonna get stomped on.

  9. @Alston Adams re: “La Reine-Negre”

    The author of the term is Victor Levy-Beaulieu, who used the term in an online article in “L’Aut’Journal” dated May 24, 2009.

    The article is reprinted online in French at http://www.vigile.net and criticized in an English-language editorial at http://www.crarr.org.

  10. @Alston Adams re: “La Reine-Negre”

    The author of the term is Victor Levy-Beaulieu, who used the term in an online article in “L’Aut’Journal” dated May 24, 2009.

    My earlier comment on this issue is still in moderation because the comment provided the URLs for reprint and criticism of the article. But these URLs can be found by Googling “La Reine-Negre.”

  11. I fail to see how Black Canadians have actively oppressed Native Canadians in which Blacks stole their land, abused and prevented them from practicing their culture, took away their language their rights, the traditions and their priveleges–yet somehow we are blamed for destroying and “stomping” on Native Canadians. What Blacks (who are a small minority) is so much worse than what the White Canadians have done, i.e. wholesale genocide but Blacks are the ones who caused it.

    Yeah Ok. So as usual the bad, horrible scary Black people are the enemy of native and White Canadians because we are so racist and evil and deny basic rights to these said groups. Blacks have such an amazing amount of power for so small a population.

  12. sis, show and prove about this abundance of black politicians.
    show and prove how many were in offices in the past.
    show and prove how they’re trying to force the first nations to call themselves black.
    show and prove how questioning your flawed logic is akin to stomping the first nations.
    and while you’re at it, show and prove how you can speak for all first nations.

  13. Hey, if you follow Renee’s work, she is an advocate for Aboriginal issues. It makes me sad to see this exchange, because it is exactly what the colonizer society wants.

    Racist treatment of Blacks is a mainstay of Canadian history, for sure: the institution of slavery (nothing like the numbers of the US, but indeed it existed); the restriction of free Blacks to only the poorest farmlands; segregated schools; segregated public places including theatres, even into the post-war era (our own little Jim Crow); and the pathetic immigration propaganda that stated Blacks would not ‘prosper’ in this climate (not to mention the continuing prejudice against Black applicants from Africa). Hell, even Canadian citizens are rejected by our government when abroad, apparently for daring to travel while Black.

    But here’s the “but”: Everyone who is not Aboriginal in this country partakes in the privileges of colonialism: being able to live on Native lands, and to partake, however partially, in the colonizer’s society that was built on and continues to prosper from the spoils of other people’s countries.

    Yes this edifice was built by White (French and English) empires and is perpetuated up to this minute by White newcomer society – but being non-White does not absolve anyone from their stake in the colonizer’s work.

    This does not deny the real and serious racism faced by Black and other non-White newcomers (a good term for anyone of non-indigenous heritage, whether you are born Canadian or not).

    But we need to be careful to not make invisible the unearned privilege all newcomers have for living on Aboriginal lands.

    I think it’s something to come together on, rather than something to divide us: *all* newcomers together.

    As Rosemary Brown (first Black woman elected to BC legislature and second-place leadership candidate for federal NDP in 1974) said: “Unless all of us are free, none of us will be free.”

    Here’s some herstory: http://section15.ca/features/people/2000/06/02/rosemary_brown/

  14. The whole idea that blacks are the only oppressed group is ludicrous. Oppression in this country does not belong to one group of people; there is no monopoly in oppression. First Nations are by far the most disadvantaged group in this country and not because they have squandered opportunities, rather they have been deliberately set up to fail. Just like the apartheid and the Jim Crow laws, these laws were meant to bring disadvantages to some and advantages to others. Apartheid and the old Jim Crow laws are part of the past, but today Native people still live under the (radicalized) Indian Act. Moreover it was part of Canadian culture to suppress natives, and as a result there is still a residue of oppression that is present in Canadian culture. Native people would, on the other hand, be wise to recognize what the blacks have gone through, and take some lessons on how oppression can be overcome.
    Firstly we have to have a common struggle that will moreover unite us and from there seek justice.
    Native people need a voice that resounds through Canada, a voice that knows that all people have the same opportunity and that no man should be held down by another man’s oppression. Freedom is an innate right; otherwise we would not have a country like Canada. Freedom created this country, so it makes no sense why there are still people who are controlled and dominated. As mentioned, unless the lowest can benefit from this country’s liberty, Canada cannot and should not boost freedom for all.

  15. The comments have gone off topic, so back to the question:

    A Canadian Obama would definitely be possible, because voting is primarily about a candidates political charisma and the popularity of his policy stances with voters. Obama is centrist and is a charimstic orator, therefore he would have a strong chance to win in any democratic country in the world.

    The most obvious reason Canada has not had a black president is the same reason they have not had a 6’9″ or ginger-haired president – because black people, 6’9″ people, and ginger-haired people are only a small minority of Canada’s population. Even if Canada were entirely free of any deliberate or subconscious racial discrimination whatsoever, the chances of a non-white president would be equal to the % of the population who are non-white i.e. it would be a long shot.

    Political history in democracies has shown that members of ethnic minorities can be elected to the highest office e.g. Fujimori in Peru, Morales in Ecuador. There is simply no evidence that it is impossible for a skilled and popular politician to win a presidential vote in a democracy just because he or she has a different skin colour to the average voter. Personal opinion and speculation without supporting evidence is not the basis for an argument.

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