Oh, Canada…

It’s really easy (and fun!) to point out the raft of egregious racism that in many ways defines the American political landscape. Part of the appeal of framing racism in an American context is that cornerstone of Canadian identity: rage/jealousy of our bigger brother. Without our American counterparts against which to contrast ourselves, the challenging of forming a Canadian identity that isn’t just another colonial throwback to our British roots is challenging*. Another part of it is the fact that the hypocrisy of America proclaiming itself as some sort of bastion of freedom is belied by its history of deep hostility and belligerence when it comes to the freedoms of people of colour (PoCs). The idea that America is ‘post-racial’ or any such fantasy is only sustainable if you ignore major parts of reality (which, to be sure, Americans have traditionally not had much difficulty doing when it comes to other elements of their politics).

But a big part of why I personally discuss racism in an American context so often is because, quite frankly, that country provides me with a steady diet of material. I don’t have to scour the web for examples of racism to help illustrate some point or another. Last week’s blitz illustrates perfectly that I will never want for scintillating news stories. Some might argue that this is because Americans are super-racist. To be sure, some of the most shocking and dramatic examples of racism are present in American history, and its regular refusal to come to grips with its own history means that they are doomed to repeat it frequently and tragically. Some might argue, though, that the reason American media produces so much about American racism is because it’s newsworthy. It means people care enough to highlight it.

Which is why I find this story so interesting:

The Canadian military has launched a formal investigation after a racially charged video was leaked to CBC News. The video features an unidentified member of Canadian Forces Base Greenwood in Nova Scotia. The man is in brown makeup and wearing a turban, pretending to be Osama bin Laden’s brother.

The video was produced for a formal dinner on the base in January 2010, a time when Afghanistan was still a combat mission for Canada and there were about 2,800 Canadian military personnel serving there.

In a four-minute excerpt, the bin Laden character jokingly boasts of working directly for his brother. Speaking with a thick accent, he refuses to reveal where bin Laden is hiding. “It seems you silly infidels will never find him. I do not want to be talking about him. It is always about him. I get the guns, I steal the bullets, I make the bombs, I do everything. All he ever does is take credit for my shit.”

A second character in the video, a woman playing the role of a news anchor, asks the bin Laden character what he’s doing now that he is living in Vancouver. “What do you think I’m doing out here, you silly infidel? I am driving one very nice taxi.” He then moves off camera and yells, “Hey kid, get away from that car bomb — I mean taxi. It is very dangerous. Don’t be giving me your dirty finger. I am telling you, I will come to your home and I’ll hump your goat.”

In a time when the federal government is trying its damnedest to define Canadian history in terms of our military, and is also desperately pandering to what it calls “the ethnic vote” (to the tune of $750,000, in the case of one Minister), this story is a gaping hole in the hull of the Harper warship**. The video is plainly racist. Putting aside the obvious racism in the use of ‘brownface’, the video goes on to play on the stereotype of new Canadians from South Asia and the middle east as cab drivers (an unfortunately true stereotype, which should be cause for national concern rather than a cheap punchline) and, apparently, goat-humpers.

This would be disgusting and unacceptable from any person in Canada. The thing that raises it to the status of news is the fact that this is an officer in the Canadian military, and the video was broadcast publicly. You don’t put something like this out there unless you’re confident it will get a laugh from your audience, suggesting that the people involved in the skit felt comfortable that the blatant racism would be not only tolerated, but approved of, by members of the military. I will leave aside the question of whether or not the audience response was as positive as the “film’s” creators thought it would be. What I do know is that while military personnel are stationed in Afghanistan, purportedly with the goal of building positive relationships and representing Canada, the presence of this kind of attitude is deeply troubling to me.

A further note, the response from both the relevant commanders of the military and Canada’s Defense Minister have framed this as an issue of “religious and cultural tolerance”:

“Religious and cultural tolerance are important and necessary components of any national and professional institution, including the Canadian Forces,” [Defence Minister Peter McKay] said in a statement. I know the contents of this video do not represent the wider military community and its leadership.”

What is interesting about this language is that it completely bypasses the fact that this shit is incredibly fucking racist. It’s not offensive to religion or culture for a golliwog in brownface to talk about goat-fucking – it sure as hell is offensive to people of colour. But nobody can bring themselves to put a name to the demon. This complete lack of an appropriate response – “the portrayal of Saudis, Afghans, or any person from another ethnic group in this fashion is racist and unacceptable. Canada is a country made up of people from all over the world, and this video is a disgraceful betrayal of Canada’s commitment to not only tolerance, but of inclusion and participation from all of Canada’s people” – is part of the problem.

Canada, by contrasting itself as the “not-racist” alternative to the United States, has lost not only the ability to recognize its own racism, but even the words to identify it. We have, by propping up this absurd myth of our ideological purity, made it impossible to discuss even the most blatantly and cartoonishly racist actions by members of our armed forces (or indeed, by anyone), except in the meaningless euphemisms of “religious tolerance”. Until we do, we will similarly be stuck running against the treadmill of our own history, pausing only to wonder why no real progress is being made.

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*I have what I think is an excellent idea of how to define Canadians

**Reading that last part aloud provides a pleasing and entirely non-coincidental homonym