I was horrified by the scenes of violence that unfolded earlier this week in Washington, D.C. Witnessing the violent interruption of democratic proceedings so close to home is unsettling, and the continued presence of white supremacy in our society is deeply disturbing.
These actions, motivated by white supremacy and hatred, are reprehensible but could have been predicted. They come after years of downplaying the resurgence of organized white nationalist groups in the United States, while leaders sowed mistrust of public institutions through misinformation and gutting public services until they were unreliable.
As a former Washington, D.C. resident, I watched first-hand the growth of the Tea Party’s influence in state and federal governments, as well as in local communities. The Tea Party was only one of many groups normalizing white supremacy in mainstream social, political and economic life over the past few years.
The culmination of ongoing wars, deepened inequality from austerity and ongoing racism, and flagrant fearmongering from politicians like Donald Trump – but not Trump alone – created the perfect context for the brazen insurrection we saw this week. White, wealthier America has dismissed the deepened and violent presence of white nationalist groups for the past decades, and now, as I watch the news, I am conscious of how these same risks are deeply intertwined with the interest of powerful forces that also threaten Canadian society.
Indeed, many of those who stormed Capitol Hill are aligned with the Proud Boys, a white nationalist organization with roots in Canada. In Canada, several pro-Trump rallies broke out on Wednesday. And some of our political leaders have stoked the same fires of hatred and division.
There is a direct link between austerity, racist violence and the erosion of democratic processes. The U.S. is bearing the fruit of decades of cruelty — sustained racist violence, breaking up unions, cutting public services and siphoning public resources and wealth into the hands of the very elite. These practices, also present in Canada, inevitably deepen racial divisions because Canadian systems already marginalize Black, Indigenous and people of colour. Combined with scapegoating, this creates fertile ground to justify explicit political power for white leaders while targeting state and communal violence toward racialized peoples.
These divisions are clear when the RCMP targets Indigenous land and water defenders, as they did with the Wet’suwet’en, and with the double standard in policing when RCMP inaction emboldened non-Indigenous fishers in their violence towards the Mi’kmaq peoples. They’re clearin the disproportionate representation of Indigenous, Black and brown individuals in the Canadian carceral systems. They are made clear by the fact that communities of colour have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. And elected leaders contribute to these divisions when Premier Jason Kenney tries to break unions, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promotes an agenda of privatization, and when Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole declares the need to “take Canada back” (from whom?!?).
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This is the impact of scarcity politics combined with histories of colonialism and racism. Cuts to public institutions in wealthy countries like Canada make it harder for people – most often people of colour – to meet their most basic needs like health care, housing or food security. This austerity is often presented as tax and spending cuts as a means of economic growth. We know this doesn’t work — tax and spending cuts funnel wealth needed for effective public institutions into the pockets of a few. This is cyclical: budget cuts mean institutions can’t provide as many services; people go without; people get frustrated with the institutions that are supposed to help them; there is less political support for those institutions and budget cuts continue.
In countries like Canada and the U.S. where colonization and racism are part of our histories, people trying to cope with increased suffering under inequitable policies are often driven to blame others. Instead of refusing divisions and fighting to end racism, which would allow us to build a collective fight for strong public institutions that meet diverse needs, we too often spend our time targeting one another out of an artificial sense of competition. While we have a harder time paying rent or protecting ourselves from pandemics, we scapegoat one another along lines of citizenship, race or ethnicity, or Indigenous status. Instead of looking at the systems at play in inequitable fisheries, for example, settlers targeted Mik’maq livelihood fisheries with direct violence. Black, Indigenous and all people of colour disproportionately suffer poverty, violence and death because of this cycle, while more and more people across society from all backgrounds share in those economic struggles to a growing extent. Directly impacted people also are most often leading in creating solutions to these issues. White Canadians need to commit to doing this work alongside them.
It is possible to fight back against the kind of violence we saw this week by refusing to buy-in to the false pressure of racial scarcity politics. We must instead come together to refuse racist scapegoating and build institutions that they benefit everyone living in Canada. We cannot be divided.
Politicians across the political spectrum must stop sowing mistrust of policies that support equity and Indigenous sovereignty and must explicitly speak out against white nationalist groups like the Proud Boys, Yellow Vesters and others. They must support equitable public institutions and the distribution of resources to all people living in Canada.
We can start by supporting frontline communities who are actively creating the new conditions needed for thriving livelihoods. This means direct support for water and land protectors, migrant workers, Black and Indigenous-led movements to end police killings. These communities are showing us what it means to disrupt white supremacy in Canada.
Those of us who, like me, have been shaped by our whiteness, our wealth and our relative privilege must pay attention to and follow the leadership of people who live and work from different perspectives. We will learn how to disrupt this history of white supremacy and find a new way of working, together.