Discrimination at Parliament


Private apology from Justin Trudeau to a group of African Nova Scotians

During a recent trip to the Black Cultural Centre in Cherrybrook, Nova Scotia, a group of African Nova Scotians have received a private apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about being racially profiled earlier in February at Parliament Hill.

Approximately 150 people attended the Black Voices on the Hill, a coalition of black, youth, human rights, and labour groups meant to raise awareness of black Canadians among politicians, where they were to meet with a number of cabinet ministers.

Before meeting with cabinet ministers, a group of the visitors waited in the cafeteria. While there, an employee reportedly took pictures of the group and complained to Parliamentary Protective Services (PPS) about “dark-skinned” people. PPS then asked the group, waiting to meet with cabinet members, to leave despite having valid parliamentary passes.

The reaction to the incident has been swift, however. The chief of the PPS has launched an internal investigation, telling the CBC that there is “zero tolerance for any type of discrimination,” and offering an apology to the group visiting parliament to visit with cabinet members.

One among the group, Trayvone Clayton, a 20-year old criminology student at St. Mary’s University, told CBC that he received a phone call from Halifax MP, Andy Fillmore, about meeting the Prime Minister to receive an apology before the official apology.

Clayton reported that while the group was waiting in the cafeteria, there were complaints allegedly about noise the group was making. Clayton, however, responded that the group he was with was not making unreasonable amounts of noise, and that regardless,  “you’re obviously going to hear talking in the cafeteria anywhere you go.”

While Fillmore said the discrimination was “deeply troubling,” other members of the group have called the experience, “not isolated… but part of a broader systemic problem. It shows how at the highest levels of Canada’s public institutions, anti-black racism can flourish embedded within public institutions, how law enforcement can disproportionately criminalize black youth, and how there is an urgent need for more robust measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination from society.”

Trudeau, who was in Cherrybrook on February 21, took the time to apologize privately to the African Nova Scotians who were discriminated against at Parliament Hill, and to speak publicly about the shameful event in Ottawa. Trudeau was given a tour of the cultural centre, and remarked about the changes and progress that has yet to be made and progress that is ongoing in Canada regarding racism, prejudice, and discrimination.

The discrimination takes on special significance due to the fact that it takes place during Black History Month, and the fact that those who were visiting were there specifically to raise issues about black Canadians and the issues that they face. 

The disturbing irony of their purpose for being on Parliament Hill and their experience is hopefully not lost on members of parliament, senators and other Canadians. Trudeau acknowledged that Parliament Hill is meant to be accessible for all Canadians and they must work hard to prevent this incident from happening again, not just in Ottawa, but all of Canada.

It must be equally disheartening for the coalition attending Black Voices on the Hill as it was only two months previously that a black Nova Scotian and president of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society, Elizabeth Cromwell, was awarded the Order of Canada for her tireless work in preserving the history of black Nova Scotians.

Cromwell co-founded the Black Loyalists Heritage Society in Birchtown, Nova Scotia in the 1980s, which has documented the history of black Nova Scotians as far back as the 1780s. The Society rebuilt their museum after a  devastating 2006 arson attack, finishing construction and opening on June 6, 2015.