No sooner had Canadians settled into the reality of a new prime minister than Justin Trudeau once again made news last week with the announcement of a heavily symbolic cabinet on November 4th that sparked both laud and not a little indignation.
The Prime Minister’s 31-member cabinet was determined by a rigorous selection criteria — gender, ethnicity, race, disability, language, region, and more. In keeping with the party’s platform promises, the final results included 15 women, as well as open attempts at achieving regional and ethnic balance. However, the real kerfuffle in Canadian media arose when National Post’s Andrew Coyne started a debate over representation versus merit — was this cabinet defined by tokenism and political correctness, or capability and real experience?
(You can read the full gamut of responses here.)
While the brouhaha continues as pundits left, right, and center speculate about the implications for Canada’s future, Justin Trudeau’s new Cabinet also prompts a look into the past. For me, the questions of merit and recognition seem especially timely in view of our upcoming Remembrance Day.
Lest we forget. We’ve all encountered the oft-repeated motto at school assemblies, in Heritage Minute infomercials, even inscribed on the sides of poppy pin donations stands. But who do we remember?
A quick scroll through the Canadian War Heroes website will reveal grainy, daguerreotypesque portraits of white, male soldiers who (with all due respect to their individual acts of heroism and sacrifice)… all look the same after a while because, well, they are white and male.
But Canada’s military history actually includes a rich account of minority and polyethnic armed forces, dating back to the nation’s very beginnings. Indigenous forces played a decisive role in many of the early skirmishes between English and French settlements, and military units of all racial backgrounds were part of British North America’s colonial army during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Regardless of what racism they faced at home, people of colour demonstrated their patriotism during WWI and WWII. More than 7,000 Aboriginal Canadians participated over the course of both world wars. In particular, Thomas Longboat was a renowned Native marathon runner who represented Canada at the 1908 Olympic Games, and later used his talent to serve as a dispatch carrier for Allied forces in France. Twice wounded and once even declared deceased, he survived the war to continue a successful racing career. In addition, the Carty brothers were five African Canadians who each overcame the stringent and often racist recruitment requirements of the Royal Canadian Air Force in order to become airmen during the Second World War. Schema’s Chloë Lai documents the exploits and sacrifices of three Chinese Canadian women who served during WWII. These are only few among many First Nations, Black, and Chinese Canadian soldiers who served, and often paid the ultimate price for, their country.
Remembrance Day is a time to honour history’s forgotten heroes, and also to recall those who were denied the chance to prove their loyalty. No matter where their sympathies lay, immigrants born in “enemy states” such as Japan, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, Serbia, Romania, and Ukraine were not permitted to enlist during WWI, and many were sent to internment camps. The Chinese Immigration Act banned most Asians from immigrating to Canada until after WWII.
This Remembrance Day, I plan to be a lot more conscious and inclusive about who I remember. As for Justin Trudeau’s new Cabinet, only time will tell whether our new ministers will live up to Canadians’ expectations, but at least citizens of all backgrounds are finally afforded the opportunity and the platform to prove their merit.
Dreisziger, N. F. Ethnic Armies Polyethnic Armed Forces from the Time of the Habsburgs to the Age of the Superpowers. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1990. Web.