The car attack on counter-protesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina highlights the rising temperature in race relations that is taking place south of the border. The response from President Trump – assigning blame to both sides – did little to calm the situation. Instead, the President only ratchetted up the idea that America is increasingly divided on racial lines. There are those who say this could never happen in Canada, but we have to make sure we aren’t just telling ourselves what we want to hear if that is to be the case.
The longer term fallout from the President’s response has been more in line with the moderate reaction one might expect after an incident which took the life of one person and injured nineteen others. It took days, but the President finally condemned the coalition of white supremacists whose ‘protest’ sparked the attack. Gone from the Whitehouse is controversial ‘alt right’ figurehead, Steve Bannon whose presence on Trump’s campaign and role as advisor was seen as key to delivering racially charged support. But Bannon has gone right back to fomenting dissent on behalf of Trump through his Breitbart News Service and claims he will restore the Trump presidency which has been taken away from his followers – which include many white supremacists.
Here in Canada the alt right has its own news service, Rebel Media, headed by former Sun TV personality, Ezra Levant. Rebel had a journalist covering the rally in Charlottesville who seemed to be mocking the counter-protestors before the car attack took place. That action, coupled with a long history of interpreting news in a racially and religiously charged manner has cost the online media outlet dearly. Sponsors have pulled ads, politicians that were friendly with the outlet are refusing to be interviewed, freelance journalists have publicly distanced themselves, and co-founder/radio personality, Brian Lily has walked away. Whether the backlash will spell the end of the outlet is unknown, but a lot of editorial opinions were predicting just that over the last week.
Despite that, there is an appetite for the message Rebel was promoting and this is where Canadians have to be very careful about how we view ourselves. Many are not aware that there are approximately 100 white supremacist groups operating in Canada. We are too quick to equate not having the degree of a racial problem as is found in the United States with not having a problem at all. The facts don’t bear this out and it doesn’t take much to pop the balloon – which is exactly how we must proceed if we are to build the Canada many of us like to believe exists already.
Consider the phenomenon of carding in Toronto. Here in the north it may seem unbelievable that people are stopped and asked to produce identification for no other reason than being out in public, but that is the reality that black men face in our biggest city. We have our share of attacks on religious minorities as well. Synagogues and mosques are targets as are individuals. Last winter a shooter killed six people in a Quebec City mosque. We can’t just sweep these events under the carpet and consider ourselves to be doing better than our American cousins. We must confront and challenge ourselves to be what we think we are, or we will slip.
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the Charlottesville attack was the President’s response. What has been uplifting is the overwhelming response of condemnation and dismay with the administration. The voices of moderates will have to remain strong to ensure that any gains are not lost to hate and fear. This is just as true in Canada as it is in the United States.