TORONTO — As three Conservative leadership candidates acknowledged the need to address systemic racism in Canada, a fourth, Erin O’Toole, wouldn’t say whether he believes it exists.
A party member asked the four candidates for their thoughts on systemic racism and how they would demonstrate leadership in that area as they faced off for a debate last night.
The question underscored one of the party’s most crucial political tasks: diversifying their base of support.
Both during the debate, and afterward, O’Toole spoke of the need to have zero tolerance for racism and said if it exists within any government department, it must be stamped out.
When asked whether he believes systemic racism exists, or how he would define it, he didn’t provide a specific answer.
“You could define it to me,” he said in response to a question from a reporter after the debate.
“I’ve said, whenever we see an instance of racism, zero tolerance.”
O’Toole said Conservatives are merit-based and believe in the rule of law and in ensuring equal outcomes for all.
He’s sold himself as a candidate who can win in the suburbs around Toronto, citing the fact he’s won his own riding in the area three times so far.
Leslyn Lewis, the first Black woman to run for leadership of the party, is also from Toronto.
She said individuals often misunderstand the issue of systemic racism and get defensive, feeling they are being accused of being individually racist.
Lewis said they have to understand it’s not about that, but the way systems have been set up, leading to outcomes for certain people because of their race.
She cited residential schools as an example, as well as different outcomes in education and in the justice system.
Indigenous people are more often convicted and sent to jail than non-Indigenous people in Canada, she noted.
“Canada is the best country in the world but that does not mean we have an opportunity to not make it better,” said Lewis.
“All systems are imperfect, we need to look at them (and) look at how we can modify certain institutions,” she added, pointing to the police, the education system and the criminal justice system as examples.
Politicians of all levels have been forced to confront those questions in recent weeks after several violent interactions between police and Indigenous people, sparking a debate about systemic racism in the justice system in particular.
O’Toole’s rival Peter MacKay, who served as justice minister in the last Conservative government, ducked a question after the debate about whether he bore any responsibility for the ongoing problem.
He said there has to be acceptance that racism is a problem, and it’s a difficult, awkward and necessary conversation to have.
“It will only happen over time. This isn’t going to be some magic approach that will allow it to happen quickly,” he said.
Derek Sloan, the fourth contestant in the race, said during the debate that a new law in Quebec, which bans the wearing of religious symbols by public workers, is a form of systemic racism that Conservatives are too afraid to address because it would cost them votes in the province.