OTTAWA—For Liberal MP Greg Fergus, one of his most enduring achievements as co-chair of the Parliamentary Black Caucus revolved around three words.
They were “anti-Black racism,” and Fergus wanted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to say the words — out loud.
It wasn’t a simple ask, Fergus recalled, reflecting on his nearly seven years co-leading the group, which was formed in 2015 to convene Black parliamentarians and their allies to address issues facing Black Canadians.
“The prime minister got it. But it was convincing all the people, officials, political staffers below, that … we can say it,” Fergus told the Star. “It’s reflecting a truth. It’s not something that’s made up.”
Squeezing those words through the vetting process took a concerted effort from the group’s MPs, senators and staffers, Fergus said.
But it worked. On Jan. 30, 2018 — a date ingrained in Fergus’s mind — Trudeau referenced anti-Black racism in a speech recognizing the United Nations’ International Decade for People of African Descent.
That was just one piece of the group’s ongoing journey to advocate for Black communities in Canada, a country where Black people continue to face discrimination in accessing health care, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and contend with a rise in extremist and white supremacist rhetoric.
Among other initiatives, the caucus has appealed to all levels of government to support Black-owned businesses and improve the diversity of the public service. Earlier this year, members published an open letter asking for increased accountability over the so-called “Freedom Convoy,” and called for Ottawa to ban displaying hateful symbols in public.
Fergus is now taking a slight step back from that work; while he’s still an active member of the advocacy group he helped create and was one of the first to lead, he’s stepped down from the co-chairing role he held alongside Ontario Sen. Rosemary Moodie.
“Honest to goodness, it was really a growing concern … for a number of years that (the Parliamentary Black Caucus) was getting too closely associated with just one person,” Fergus said. “I’ve been looking for a while to try to pass on the flame.”
That flame was handed this week to Liberal MP Michael Coteau, who will now chart a new vision for the group with Moodie and other caucus members.
Leading such a group is not new ground for Coteau, who first started advocating for anti-racism measures as a school board trustee with the Toronto District School Board. It was there that he pushed for the collection of race-based data — an issue that also holds great importance for Fergus — which revealed that a disproportionate number of Black students weren’t graduating high school.
“That was kind of my entry point into equity work and inclusion and disaggregated race-based data,” Coteau said. “And fighting anti-Black racism, which at the time, was a term we never used.”
Coteau wasn’t yet an MP at the time Fergus and his fellow caucus colleagues were championing the use of the term: he was elected federally in Don Valley East last year. But it started surfacing during the next chapter of his career, he said, as an Ontario cabinet minister who became responsible for eliminating racism.
Under then-premier Kathleen Wynne, Coteau helped establish in 2016 the province’s Anti-Racism Directorate, and introduced anti-racism legislation the following year that specifically targeted anti-Black racism and other forms of hate.
“I learned that people don’t like talking about race. That was the number one problem,” Coteau said. “It’s kind of hidden and shoved underneath the carpet.”
But things feel different now, both Fergus and Coteau say.
This week marks two years since George Floyd was killed in Minnesota by a police officer who knelt on his neck, a moment that sparked a wave of reckoning about racism that is still rippling across Canada and the world.
“The under-40 crowd has no time for playing around with these issues. They want to see real equality for Black people, for people with different identities, for Indigenous Peoples,” said Fergus, who took a knee with Trudeau on Parliament Hill during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
“Now we’re into the implementation stages.”
And there’s plenty Coteau wants to implement in his new role.
He’s hoping to study the African diaspora in Canada more closely, and also wants to see more collaboration between Black politicians in Canada, the U.S., the Caribbean and Africa.
Coteau is also hoping to help MPs across the country tap into the Black communities in their ridings and ensure they know what Ottawa is doing to stamp out racism.
“My number one goal, from a personal perspective, is to build a larger forum for discussion so we can achieve more not only in Canada, but from a global perspective as parliamentarians,” Coteau said. “I just want to be a table builder.”
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