Most Canadians believe systemic racism exists — but could it affect how they vote?

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Calls to end systemic racism in this country have brought thousands of Canadians into the streets, driven by a hope that things might finally begin to change.

The protests already have had an impact, but political leaders will need to think hard about their impact on another vehicle for change — the ballot box.

The thousands who have participated in the mass demonstrations represent only the tip of the iceberg, as polls indicate that most Canadians believe systemic racism is a problem in Canada.

A survey by Abacus Data for CityNews found that 61 per cent of Canadians said they were certain or pretty sure that there is systemic or institutional racism in Canada. Only nine per cent said there probably or certainly isn’t.

Thousands of people wind through downtown Montreal’s major streets after an anti-racism rally at Place Émilie-Gamelin. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

According to a poll by Léger for the Association for Canadian Studies, 50 per cent of those surveyed said that racism is a very or somewhat serious problem in law enforcement, while 72 per cent supported those protesting in the streets in the United States — nearly twice the number of those who said they supported the police who have been deployed against those protesters.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau injected himself into the debate last week when he took a knee at an anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

On Thursday, he said “systemic racism is an issue right across the country, in all our institutions, including in all our police forces, including in the RCMP … It’s the issues faced by Canadians of diverse backgrounds over years, decades and generations. This is a moment Canadians are recognizing that there is an unfairness built into our system.”

There are some differences in how Canadians are viewing this issue, however, depending on where they live and the colour of their skin.

According to Léger, 56 per cent of Canadians living in urban centres believe that racism is a serious problem in law enforcement, compared to 48 per cent in the suburbs and just 42 per cent in rural areas. While 48 per cent of white people said it was a serious problem, that rose to 61 per cent among visible minorities.

This has the potential to make racism a potentially divisive issue in an election campaign, one that might erupt whether the parties want to discuss it or not — as Trudeau’s blackface scandal demonstrated last October.

Liberals lead by wide margin among racialized Canadians

Despite that controversy, the Liberals retain a significant amount of support among racialized Canadians.

According to Abacus Data, the Liberals have the support of 52 per cent of decided voters among racialized Canadians, compared to just 22 per cent for the Conservatives and 20 per cent for the New Democrats. Among white Canadians, the Liberal lead over the Conservatives is just six percentage points.

Trudeau’s own personal image among people of colour also remains quite good. In polls by Abacus Data conducted since the beginning of May, an average of 53 per cent of racialized Canadians said they have a positive impression of the prime minister. Only 19 per cent have a negative one.

That’s a significant improvement since the election, when an average of 43 per cent of racialized Canadians held a positive impression of Trudeau. Abacus’s tracking survey suggests that Trudeau’s reputation might have taken a momentary hit after the blackface scandal, but that it was largely rehabilitated by election day.

Abacus Data polling on impressions of Justin Trudeau among racialized Canadians. (Abacus Data)

As has been the case among the general population, positive impressions of Trudeau spiked among racialized Canadians as the COVID-19 crisis struck.

Thanks to that pandemic boost, the Liberals would easily secure a majority government if an election were held today. But by the time an election campaign actually takes place, the Liberals may no longer be benefiting politically from their handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The party’s base remains in the urban and suburban centres of the country — particularly in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia — where most people of colour live. In the urban centres, the Liberals’ main opponents are the New Democrats — themselves led by a racialized Canadian, Jagmeet Singh.

Supporters of the NDP tend to care more deeply about racism than supporters of the other parties. Léger found that 65 per cent of NDP voters think racism is a serious issue in law enforcement, compared to 59 per cent of Liberal voters, 55 per cent of Green supporters and and just 31 per cent of Conservative supporters.

Systemic racism as an election issue

The Liberals need to hold their urban seats to hold government. The party holds 32 of the 41 ridings in which visible minorities make up the majority of the population. The Liberals hold the 24 seats with the highest Black populations in the country.

That makes avoiding the issue of systemic racism on the campaign trail risky. Embracing it isn’t risk-free, either.

The polls suggest that people in suburban areas — traditional swing seats — are somewhat less concerned about racism in law enforcement than urban dwellers. Conservative voters are even less concerned (though those same polls suggest the party might already be down to its base of core supporters — people the Liberals don’t really need to woo).

But the Liberals have shown they aren’t afraid to lean into this issue when an opportunity arises — as they did during the 2015 federal election when the Conservatives pitched their “barbaric cultural practices” tip line. Whether the Liberals would consider leaning into it again in the next election depends on a few factors, including the position adopted by the Conservatives and the damage the blackface episode did to Trudeau’s credibility on the issue.

Where systemic racism will fall as a priority for voters in the next election is also an open question, particularly if the country is still in the grips of COVID-19 or reeling from the economic shock of the pandemic.

The U.S. presidential election in November will also play a determinant role in the depth of racial tensions in that country, with reverberations likely to be felt on this side of the border.

But it’s clear that the issue of systemic racism has a motivated and sizeable electorate in Canada. What’s more, it is concentrated in some of the most sought-after political territory in the country. If thousands of marchers in the streets don’t spur leaders to action, that certainly can.

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