Karen Cocq is a long-time grassroots organizer who has recently been doing popular education and communications work with the Migrant Rights Network, a cross-Canada alliance of migrant worker, refugee, and immigrant organizations devoted to fighting against racism and for migrant justice. Scott Neigh interviews her about racism and xenophobia in Canada, both in general and in the context of the federal election, and about what the network is doing to counter them.
Even before the release of the photos of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface, racism was already powerfully present in the current federal election campaign. And to many people, though the photos may have been an unexpected development, this larger reality has come as no surprise.
Things have, after all, been getting just generally worse in recent years, globally and in Canada. That’s true on lots of axes – think growing precarity and economic inequality, plus the climate crisis – but that prominently includes a resurgence of overt racism. Hate crimes are on the rise. There is a proliferation and growing normalization of street-level far-right white supremacist groups. Hostility towards and scapegoating of migrants is becoming ever more present in mainstream political discourse. We have seen things like the use of the notwithstanding clause to pass the racist Bill 21 in Quebec. And of course this federal election includes a far-right party with an overtly anti-immigrant platform being treated by mainstream institutions as a legitimate contender through things like its inclusion in national leaders’ debates.
And all of that is in the context of the settler colonialism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness that have always been structurally part of the Canadian state and society. Theft of land, labour, and lives, and racialized exclusion and exploitation are how this country was built.
So, no, lots of people are not surprised to see racism as a prominent feature in this election. And a year ago, a number of groups and organizations from across Canada that are comprised of or organize with migrant workers, refugees, and immigrants were already concerned about it, so they came together to do something about it. They were all well aware that in many parts of the world, far-right parties are coming to power by strategically enflaming racism and anti-immigrant sentiments. They wanted to challenge the racism and xenophobia in their own right, and challenge the ways that they are used to divide communities, organizations, and movements. To that end, the Migrant Rights Network was founded in December 2018.
The group’s strategy before the election was two-fold. One element was to take up public space – to make it broadly visible that there are groups and commnunities and individuals across the country who are willing to challenge the growing racism and xenophobia. To do that, they planned a number of days of action – on the International Day for the Elmination of Racial Discrimination in March, on May Day, on Domestic Workers Day (which falls on Father’s Day) in June, and on Labour Day at the beginning of September. On these days, member groups of the network and people who responded to their callout engaged in a mixture of organizing their own public events with having an organized and visibly anti-racist presence at larger events.
The other pre-election strategy was popular education. Over four months, they used a series of in-person events and webinars to train more than 500 people. Each of these people were then equipped to go back to their own communities, workplaces, unions, and grassroots groups and lead their own workshops to give people tools to challenge xenophobia and racism. In so doing, their goal was to create a base of people with the confidence and the skills to intervene in anti-racist ways in these difficult conversations over dinner tables, around water coolers, at public events, and so on.
The network launched their election-period campaign as part of their day of action on Labour Day. They have been calling on people to sign an online pledge to speak up against racism and xenophobia over the course of the election. Everyone who signs up will be sent regular emails that they are calling “election reality checks,” which contain facts, ideas, and talking points related to the latest manifestation of racism in the election campaign.
Image: Used with permission of the Migrant Rights Network.
Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.