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Our Health Minister Plays Race Card, Democracy Loses

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During Monday's Question Period, MP Dr. Carolyn Bennett asked Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq to explain "why (the Minister's budget) cuts target the population with the worst health outcomes in Canada, the aboriginal people of Canada?"

Usually this question would be taken as a normal part of the drama that plays out during Question Period, with the Health Minister offering some non-answer that superficially addresses the Member's leading question. But this time things were different because it just so happens that Minister Aglukkaq is of Aboriginal heritage.

Enter the politics of race, ethnicity, and political representation in Canada.

Bennett's question is of pressing importance to the health and well-being of fellow Canadians and one of this country's founding peoples. Yet, before getting to the heart of her non-answer, Minister Aglukkaq felt compelled to shoot back, "Mr. Speaker, as an aboriginal person I take that type of line of questioning to be unacceptable." In other words, she pulled the proverbial "race card."

While our Philosophy 101 professors would be proud of our ability to point out the latently ad hominem character of Bennett's question which, figuratively speaking, plays the (wo)man instead of playing the ball (or at least does both), insinuating that Bennett's question was a racially or culturally inappropriate act is quite a stretch.

After all, Bennett is not only a family physician by trade, but she is also the Liberal's Critic for Aboriginal Affairs. Her position in her party makes it her public duty to demand answers for what she and Aboriginal communities see as a troubling line of deep cuts to the funding of Aboriginal disease prevention and health promotion programs.

If we take seriously the logic underlying the bizarre nature of Minister Aglukkaq's reaction, not only are we forbidden to question the Health Minister on her decisions related to aboriginal communities (merely because the Minister is an aboriginal person herself), but we are also barred from questioning Minister Bev Oda (Minister of International Cooperation) on Canada's record on the global protection and promotion of women's rights. Why? Well, because Oda is a woman, of course...

Does that make sense to you? Ugh, me neither.

Indeed, it would be interesting and probably most comical to hear Minister Aglukkaq fully explain why her being an aboriginal person makes it impermissible for Members of Parliament to ask her questions on her ministry's decisions related to aboriginal peoples. However, this exchange between the Minister and Bennett exposes something of greater significance to Canadian politics, namely, some of the issues associated with being a visible minority or aboriginal person while serving in public office. It is the latter that deserves more attention.

Our country features a constitutional and civic commitment to a kind of multiculturalism that is (in principle) free to express itself in all its dynamism and complexities, to the extent that such expressions do not violate the principles of equality, freedom and democracy. However, such latitude is not equally afforded to the Canadian politicians who physically embody this multicultural heritage and commitment.

I say this because the standard rule in contemporary Canadian politics is that if you are a visible minority or aboriginal person serving in Parliament or in a provincial legislature, you are, for political purposes, perpetually susceptible to having your cultural, racial or ethnic background unscrupulously used against you and/or the multicultural communities with whom you share a common ethnic heritage.

Let me explain. At present, Canadian understandings of the relationship between race, ethnicity and democracy are such that the prevailing mindset holds that a visible minority or aboriginal politician is absolutely incapable of discriminating against their own or other underrepresented communities by virtue of their minority status.

As such, when a politician who is a visible minority or aboriginal person happens to make public decisions or take policy positions that have a disproportionately adverse impact on citizens who share that politician's cultural background, we hesitate and often totally avoid asking legitimately critical questions. Instead, by way of example, we tend to think in the following way: A black MP's support for policies that adversely impact black Canadians cannot ever be discriminatory, because the member him or herself is black.

In other words, it seems that we have become so obsessed with maintaining shallow appearances of multiculturalism that we have misguidedly succumbed to the false logic that discrimination, prejudice and racism are the exclusive preserve of white people. If that were the case, the concepts of "uncle tom," or "self-hating" Jew, Native or Indian would not be as well-known as they presently are.

I am not at all suggesting that Minister Aglukkaq's heritage is consciously being manipulated to hamper critique on her ministry's policies respecting disease prevention and health promotion for aboriginal peoples. And I pray that I am not being misunderstood to be insinuating that Minister Aglukkaq is in any way a "self-hating Indian," as the deplorable term goes.

My aim is only to draw attention to the fact that visible minority and aboriginal politicians rightly or wrongly have to remain acutely aware of the race-based perceptions that are bound to arise when their decisions disproportionately affect people who share the ethnic background of the political representative.

In light of this episode, it does not seem that Minister Aglukkaq was ready for this political reality, as she took Bennett's question personal and by reflex sought to delegitimize it by suggesting that some line of the racially appropriate. This problematic invocation of the Minister's aboriginal heritage does much to hurt future legitimate claims of discriminatory action against aboriginal peoples and visible minorities across Canada.

In order for Canadian democracy to continue to flourish, we cannot be made afraid to ask a politician tough questions about the decisions they make when those decisions involve or deeply affect people from the same cultural or ethnic community as that representative. Regardless of her intentions, Minister Aglukkaq's reaction stimulates this fear. If we let such a trend persist we will quickly undermine pursuits towards fully actualizing a meaningfully multicultural society.

I laud Bennett for her question. She boldly countered the silencing instincts that usually kick in when addressing political representatives from visible minority or aboriginal backgrounds.

For the sake of all fellow Canadians, I hope that Bennett's stance can be looked to as not only an encouraging example of how to fight against the chilling effect of the "race card" in Canadian politics, but also a demonstration of why it can be most important for us to do so.

With our ever increasingly multicultural society, having our politicians (regardless of their race or ethnicity) pull the race card to deflect questions about their public record is not something that should ever be taken lightly. In fact, if we don't habituate ourselves to challenging such political gamesmanship, we leave ourselves vulnerable to politicians who won't hesitate to play us, the Canadian public, with a stacked deck.