A Belief We Refuse to Name
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A Belief We Refuse to Name

Racism is more difficult to name when it's in close proximity or seems familiar, but that's exactly when it's needed.

Photo by Migrant Workers Alliance.

At the Manning Networking Conference this past weekend, New Brunswick MP John Williamson shared some thoughts about the much-criticized Temporary Foreign Worker Program. He addressed it with all of the tact and nuance that, lately, has defined the Conservative Party of Canada:

“My part of the country, I deal with temporary foreign workers and the interaction with employment insurance, and it makes no sense from my point of view—I’m going to put this in terms of colours but it’s not meant to be about race—it makes no sense to pay ‘whities’ to stay home while we bring in brown people to work in these jobs.”

To hear it from the coterie of white male journalists who’ve covered Williamson and worked alongside him, these comments were “glib” and “dumb,” but not necessarily racist. And even if they could be construed as racist by the hypersensitive PC crowd, there’s no way Williamson himself is a racist.

National Post columnist John Ivison went further, allowing that the comments “sounded like they could have come from the mouth of Archie Bunker.” But a couple of paragraphs later, he lets the former the MP off the hook: “I have known John Williamson a long time—he is a former editorial writer for this newspaper. I don’t think he is a racist.”

Ivison was not the only one to approach Williamson’s comment as regrettable but isolated.

On Monday night’s episode of Power & Politics (beginning at 1:09:22), an all-white panel described the comments as dumb, embarrassing, and lacking in discipline. The point was again stressed that Williamson, a well-liked conservative, used racist language, but is absolutely not himself a racist. The conundrum of paying employment insurance benefits to Canadians while allowing temporary foreign workers to crowd the job market is a worthwhile discussion to have, but using the words “brown people” and “whities” was going too far.

There are few reactions more typical of Canadian media than a collection of white people reaching consensus on who or what qualifies as racist. At no point in any of these discussions did anyone mention this is the same John Williamson that referred to First Nations leadership as a “Teepee Republic.” The John Williamson deeply disturbed by the idea of black single mothers and Guatemalan immigrants getting one over on our legal system. The former head of an organization that criticized Canada’s apology to its indigenous people for the abuse they suffered in residential schools.

An argument over whether or not John Williamson is racist is beside the point. The point is we should know better, or at least try to do better. We’ve just had a spate of media-driven conversations on the impact that both overt and subtle racism is having on Canada’s communities of colour. We pat ourselves on the back for recognizing the appalling impact of racism on our indigenous communities. We nod solemnly in agreement that forcing a Muslim woman to choose between removing her niqab and becoming a Canadian citizen is bad policy. We hold panel discussions on the roots of the problem, and think pieces stress the importance of taking action. Yet once again, when confronted with exactly the kind of racism that exemplifies Canada’s approach to people of colour, knee-jerk defensiveness and a lack of media self-awareness provide it with cover. 

It’s easy to attack Williamson for saying “It’s not meant to be about race,” before saying something racist. It’s easy to chide a Member of Parliament for letting the words “brown people” and “whities” fall out of his mouth. What’s not easy is being confronted by the idea that one’s educated and serious opinions are informed by a racist history and ideologies that have diffused into our everyday language. We knew it wasn’t easy when a Maclean’s article sparked a national conversation on racism. And mere weeks later, a group of white journalists can, without a hint of irony, sit around a table and agree that Williamson’s words were an inelegant but necessary critique of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Indeed, there are alarming problems with the program, and it is in urgent need of reform. While its original intent was to import highly skilled and specialized workers—doctors, scientists, engineers—it’s since become a means for Canadian employers to take advantage of an exploitable and disposable workforce. But Williamson’s concern wasn’t for temporary workers’ wages being confiscated through exorbitant rent charged by their employer, or for temporary workers who risk being deported after sickness or injury. It wasn’t even for Canadian workers replaced by those shipped in from an Italian firm. It was a specific concern for white people sidelined in the job market, while brown foreigners arrive on Canadian shores to take those jobs.

Far from being an isolated, off-the-cuff remark, this is a sentiment as old as Confederation itself. Williamson’s remark reflects a racially tinged understanding of Canada’s labour market where white Canadians are owed the right of first refusal, and whose purpose is frustrated when recreant employers hand those jobs to foreigners instead. There’s no way to have the conversation on temporary foreign workers without acknowledging race. We know where the workers are coming from, and the conversation is itself grounded in racialized anxieties.

It is an echo of the Komagata Maru in 1914, of the Immigration Act of 1952. It’s MP David W. Gordon, quoted in the 1885 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration:

I have advised a great many who have written to me from each of the older provinces not to come here and enter the labor market on a level with the Chinese. Better to live on corn husks in the older provinces than submit to such degradation…The moral effect on whites of being so unfortunate as to be placed on the same level and obliged to co-mingle with Chinese on an equal footing in the battle of life would be bad, too bad for any respectable Canadian to contemplate.

Understood through the Canadian history of white resentment towards immigrants in the workplace, “temporary foreign worker” has become less a title than a shorthand for the anxiety of white Canadians in the face of an increasingly diverse workplace. There are very legitimate reasons to be concerned about the program, but the root of that concern is grounded in a belief we refuse to name. John Williamson didn’t make a valid point with tacky language. He made the mistake of naming our fears too clearly, and despite our promises to do better, we’re all eager to put this messy business behind us.