Posted on April 20, 2018

Every Time Is the Right Time to Grapple with Whiteness in Canada

Vicky Mochama, The Star, April 17, 2018

In perpetually failing to grapple with whiteness in Canada, we fail to understand our own culture and our history.

White supremacists are villains easily waved away; they belong to a category that does not require reflection on the part of anyone.

In this reading, the man who killed six people in three minutes and wounded many others at a Quebec City mosque, Alexandre Bissonnette, is a monster of his own making, an exceptional criminal.

His crime is exceptional; he, however, is not. Bissonnette is as Canadian as the good old hockey game.

By his own testimony, his path to terrorism was a process. Made susceptible by his mental health (he has struggled with depression and suicide ideation for a decade), what he read and watched and believed mirror this time and its politics.

His deadly fury at Muslims and immigration was spurred by not just Donald Trump — whose Twitter account Bissonnette checked daily — but also by a mix of alt-right, white supremacist and conspiracy-theory sites and Twitter accounts.

He decided to kill people after reading the prime minister’s tweet from last January about accepting refugees.

“I was watching TV and I learned that the Canadian government was going to take more refugees, you know, who couldn’t go to the United States, and they were coming here,” Mr. Bissonnette said, “I saw that and I, like, lost my mind. It was then that I decided it was time to go.”

He lived in fear of the terror attacks that have hit Europe, saying at one point in his videotaped interrogation, “You know, I don’t want us to become like Europe. I saw that and, you know, they’re going to kill my parents, my family, me, too. I had to do something, I couldn’t do nothing.”

In a cold irony, Bissonette was led him to become what he feared: a young male terrorist.

But because he is white, his murderous anger was given the benefit of the doubt. The guns he killed with were purchased legally without a hint of an obstacle. His whiteness provided cover for a deeply dangerous violence.

To speak of race, especially whiteness, is itself considered racist by some. Other subjects aren’t treated this way. You can yell about your favourite sport but that will not make you an athlete. Talking about crime does not make one a criminal. Studying religion does not instantly render the student a religious zealot.

When freelance writer Nora Loreto noted that the youth, maleness and whiteness of the Humboldt team was a considerable factor in the national outpouring of sympathy and money, she was viciously attacked online and offline. Thousands dedicated time to sending her violent misogynist messages and to calling places she had written for in the past to demand she be fired (from a job she does not have).

Few took the time to note that Loreto’s view was similar to that of Celeste Leray-Leicht, one of the parents of a Humboldt hockey player. Reflecting on the crash and the purpose it has given her, Leray-Leicht said to the Hockey News, “There is so much hurt in this province in so many ways, particularly with the First Nations community. There is so much tragedy and affliction in this world and they don’t get the attention they deserve sometimes.”

In her grief, Leray-Leicht’s expansive empathy is touching. It is also evidence that white people do not have to lean in to racist and xenophobic anger to make sense of a changing world.

A studied silence on race acts as a wall, blocking people in Canada from each other. Just as some choose white supremacy, it is a choice to uphold it by never addressing it.

Every time is the right time to grapple with whiteness in Canada. Not doing so prevents us from fully understanding our history, our present and what we can make of our future.

Vicky Mochama