Taleeb Noormohamed: Growing up brown in Canada
I was 14 the first time I remember someone calling me a “Paki”.
There I was, working behind the till at the now-closed McDonald’s on Marine Drive, when all of a sudden I heard, “hey, you f***ing Paki, get over here and clean up this mess.”
It happened less than a decade after Expo ’86, when the world had come to Vancouver, and not that long after Pierre Elliott Trudeau had led a government that enshrined multiculturalism in its constitution. And it was just a few years after Brian Mulroney’s government took Canada even further down the road toward becoming a more pluralistic and welcoming society when it passed the Canadian Multiculturalism Act in 1988.
But all that progress faded away as soon as I heard those words from that customer on that morning. It left a knot in my stomach, and it’s one that I still feel every time I hear ignorant comments made to people who look like me. And that would have been the worst morning of my life, had it not been for the old man who came up to me and said how happy he was that he got to see me every Sunday when he came in for his coffee. He told me that he knew Canada was better because my parents had come here. I never knew his name, nor why he chose to reach out to a skinny brown kid in glasses that morning, but he did. And his kindness has stayed with me ever since.
I would be called “shitstain” in high school. I was forced to be the person that had to speak out publicly in condemnation every time someone with a Muslim name or a brown face was accused of doing something awful. I was asked by cops if I was bothering my white friends, and told by prospective partners that I might have a rough ride with their parents since they’d never thought their child would date a “brown person”. Those incidents would have undermined my confidence in this country and my place in it had I not seen the kindness and compassion of other Canadians who worked to make sure I knew this was as much my Canada as theirs.
But these memories don’t go away. And they all came flooding back when pictures emerged showing the now prime minister wearing brownface at an “Arabian Nights” party in 2001. That hurt was only compounded when a video emerged showing the prime minister in blackface. I was hurt because it reminded me that, even in Canada, we haven’t come as far as we need to in becoming a truly welcoming multicultural society.
But I was also confused, because it did not square with the Justin Trudeau I know. My family came to Canada in 1973, fleeing ethnic nationalism and unrest in East Africa, with no money and no contacts but possessed by a deep conviction that in Canada they’d be able to raise a family and build a life full of opportunity. They had that conviction in large part because of the words of Pierre Trudeau, who said that, “For although there are two official languages, there is not one official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other.” My parents believed in those words, and the promise of Canada that they spoke to. They still do.
So do I. That’s why I was so proud of the Liberal government when, some 45 years after my parents came to Canada, it extended the same welcome to other people fleeing persecution, terror, and war. That was after Canada took in approximately 25,000 Syrian refugees between January 2015 and May 2016—over half of them with the help of the government.
You’d think this would be greeted with universal acclaim. But you’d be wrong. When it welcomed Syrian refugees to Canada, the Liberal government faced a backlash from an opposition leader who falsely accused refugees of “jumping the queue”. When it championed M-103, a motion calling on all politicians to condemn Islamophobia, it faced another backlash from critics who said it would usher in Sharia law. And when it elevated people of South Asian, African, and Middle Eastern descent into important positions in cabinet, and worked to ensure that diverse voices were more fully represented, it was accused of fostering a “cult of diversity” that will “divide us into little tribes”.
Other party leaders have made both of these claims within the past year, and they represent an active intolerance that threatens to expose newcomers to hate. They may backtrack on their claims, but unlike the prime minister, they offer no apologies for them, or their impact on people who look like me. Justin Trudeau was unequivocal when he apologized on Wednesday, answering with a simple “yes” when asked whether what he did was racist. I wish the prime minister didn’t have to apologize for what he did, because I wish he hadn’t done it. But I’m glad he apologized—and I believe that he’s genuinely committed to making amends.
I had dinner with my parents after the news about all of this broke. Almost 47 years after they came to Canada, and after having faced all manner of institutionalized racism and discrimination, my mom asked what I thought was a remarkable question. “How come the media are concerned about him wearing makeup 20 years ago,” she said, “but they don’t care that there are racists running for the Conservatives today? Don’t they realize that people like us have dealt with racism our whole lives? This is stupidity. Racism is when we don’t get jobs because we have colour in our skin, when people egg our houses and yell Paki at us because we are brown and when governments ask us to complain about our neighbours for being different.”
She’s right, as she almost always is. Yes, I’m disappointed that someone who I know to be a good person did something thoughtless and insensitive. But I’m more disappointed by the hypocrisy of those who are trying to claim the moral high ground while still actively welcoming racists, Islamophobes, anti–choice activists and homophobes to run alongside them.
Come October 21st, Canadians will have to decide which is worse: a prime minister who did something racist in his 20s, or a man aspiring to be PM who keeps the company and seeks the counsel of racists today.