Dr. Dawg

Reflections on a racist remark

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John Williamson.jpg

“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.”

Thus spake the former Director of Communications for Stephen Harper, MP John Williamson at the Manning Networking Conference yesterday, in reference to the Temporary Foreign Workers program. He has since apologized, but he’s had no end of defenders. Stephen Maher, one of the best Hill journalists around, likes the guy. Any concern about the remark is just another example, he says, of “Canadian [politically correct] culture.”

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” where racist thugs in uniform beat and gassed hundreds of peaceful protesters demanding the right to vote. Perhaps it was that coincidence of timing that made Williamson’s throwaway comment even more obnoxious to many of us. In any case, in Harper’s Canada this kind of atavistic grunt can now be publicly expressed, reportedly without much reaction from the audience, and then excused.

But there really is no excuse. To paraphrase, and not much, “I don’t mean this in a racist way, but brown people are taking white people’s jobs.” Yup, he meant that in a racist way.

The Temporary Foreign Workers program is arguably tinctured with racism in itself, at least in its historical resonances. We import a foreign precariat to (allegedly) fill labour shortages. These workers have few rights: if they are injured, they’re simply disposed of.

One can’t help but be reminded of the Chinese labourers who built the Canadian National Railway, who worked for a pittance and many of whom were killed on the job. Industrial cannon fodder, they were expendable, easily replaced. The TFW program is rife with abuse: more than a third of a million workers had been imported by 2013. The Conservatives, shortly after gaining office in 2006, relaxed previous restrictions and added a fast-tracking feature to ensure that businesses had a never-ending supply of cheap labour, not all of which, it should be noted, hails from the Third World. Canadian workers were in many cases bypassed or replaced holus-bolus.

A public outcry over the Royal Bank of Canada’s dubious labour practices in this respect forced the Harper government to make cosmetic changes to the TFW program. But it’s still a miserable situation for all workers, Canadian and temporary foreign workers alike. They’re being pitted against one another, which is just the way business likes it. Calls have been made to put them on a track to Canadian citizenship, but, needless to say, the Harper government wants no part of that.

It’s a bit much for a Conservative MP to complain about a situation effectively caused by his own government. But it’s the way he complained, of course, which has raised a few eyebrows. If “race” isn’t an issue, why did put it out there so bluntly? How did the notion of “race” even enter his mind?

One doesn’t have to parse Williamson’s commentary to observe the elements of the Conservative world-view in microcosm: it’s always Us vs. Them. Here, we have lazy unemployed “whities,” creating the need for an influx of “brown people” from Outside. Canadians are all assumed to be white people like Williamson, under threat this time not by terrorists but by people of colour. How many other Conservative MPs and their senior staff think in these binary, racist terms?

Williamson obviously felt that he was among friends and that his remark wouldn’t leave the room. He’s not the first to make that mistake. The subsequent backpedalling left rubber on the road, but the deed was done. Perhaps more shocking than his mask-dropping, though, has been the supportive reaction to it. One merely has to look at comment threads in Canadian newspapers to get the gist.

Is it possible to make a clearly racist comment without being a racist? That’s the fine distinction that some people are now trying to make. But in this case it’s a disingenuous one. It’s like arguing, as my friend @Dred_Tory mockingly does, that burning a cross on someone’s lawn is a racist act, but the perpetrator is merely inarticulate. As a former Director of Communications for the Prime Minister, Williamson is anything but that.

His comment speaks for itself. And so does its reception.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on March 9, 2015 10:41 AM.

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