Dispatch from the Front Line: Statements of belief, WE the media, and the inequities of COVID-19

Our response to COVID-19 is disadvantaging one group in particular. No one will touch the topic.

We begin today's dispatch by rectifying our long neglect of new Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O'Toole. Earlier this week, he appeared on CTV's Power Play with journalist Evan Solomon. Solomon noted that O'Toole would consent to say "racism" but not "systemic racism." Was the latter term just something that "you don't buy?" he asked. 

O'Toole responded:

"I want to have a study because it means something different to every person. You've defined it one way, Evan. I'm saying most people would say your definition is wrong because you haven't included income inequality as part of it." 

For a moment, let's set aside the question of whether or not O'Toole is playing a smart strategic game, here. O'Toole claims that the term doesn't seem to have a clear definition: is this not true? Whenever somebody demands fealty to the idea that Canada is "systemically racist," we at The Line can't help but recall this 1,400-word explainer of the topic entitled: "What is systemic racism? There is broad national confusion about the concept"

Published by "National Post Staff" two months ago, the thing reads like maggots were eating the poor writer's brain at the time. The jumbled analysis touches on everything from police profiling in Montreal, to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It also never actually defines what "systemic racism" is beyond: "The idea of systemic racism is not about individual attitudes. It is about how society works. Good people can participate in systemic racism."


Can we go back one step? "Systemic racism." Let's start there: which system? The legal system? Our social welfare system? The policing system? The media? Our corporations? All of human society? Are we talking about Canadian society, or North American society as whole? Are there geographic limits to the systems we're talking about? Is China systemically racist? 

Let's break this down further: what definition of "racism" are we using? Are we using the old definition whereby any bigotry based on skin colour is "racist"? Or are we engaging the new definition, where "racism" is an expression of structural power — and, therefore, only white people can be racist because only they hold structural power?

It’s impossible to fix a problem if we can’t come to a common understanding about plain meanings of the terms we are using. Vague in, vague out.

There are many statements of "systemic racism" that we, at The Line, would have no qualms agreeing with, i.e.; "The Indian Act is a clear example of systemic racism in Canadian law." That isn't a controversial position — but it also isn’t an unclear one. Asserting a belief in “systemic racism" sounds like a broadly agreeable thing to do, but the term is loaded with meaning and ideological baggage that is not immediately apparent. 

Take, for example, a claim that Canadian society is systemically racist because it is structured at all levels to favour white dominance — and that any disparity of outcome between racial groups is proof of that fact. Well, that's a much more all-encompassing ideological position, isn't it? There's a perfectly legitimate framework for critique in here, but there's also a lot to unpack. 

It's easy to find legitimate examples of systemic racism while leaving the actual meaning and implications of the term both vague and tautological. But if we're going to use statement of belief in “systemic racism” as some kind of litmus test for political acceptability, the clear meaning of the term matters. 

In the absence of that clarity, using it as a gotcha question and backing people in public life into reciting this stuff as if it were some kind of statement of faith comes off as not a little creepy. 

Further to the creepy file, amid the political controversy surrounding the the Prime Minister’s cozy relationship with the WE Charity and the Canada Student Service Grant, this week our country’s best-known exporter of teenaged white saviours announced that it would be selling many of its real estate assets and shutting down its Canadian operations. 

"In Canada, WE Charity will no longer have staff to support educators to inspire and equip the next generation of community leaders, including no new curricular resources, youth service coaches, educational speaking tours, or the celebration-of-service event, known as WE Day." 

Spare a moment for a lost generation of parental chaperones and tiny fundraisers/conscious capitalist consumers. 

It should be noted, however, that WE is not exactly dead. Further to its announcement: "The endowment fund will support WE Villages projects in Latin America, Asia and Africa that are currently underway, but are not yet completed. It will also fund key, large-scale infrastructure projects that need ongoing support, like the Baraka Hospital and WE College in Narok County, Kenya, and the Agricultural Learning Centre in Ecuador.”

As we stand and gaze with fascination upon the wreckage of the WEmpire, one of the major players in the entire affair is doing its best to keep its head down: the media. Indeed, the charity's list of media partners (now scrubbed from its website) stretched into the dozens and included the Globe and Mail as well as the biggest news chain in the country, Postmedia. 

At various times, the Kielburgers wrote columns in Postmedia papers and in The Toronto Star. Postmedia papers published scheduled WE sections, while the chain's editors were routinely sent off to read from pre-written scripts at local WE Day events. One of the most preposterous aspects of the scandal as it played out was the way all of these news outlets had to interrupt their stories about the affair to disclose that they were media partners of WE, even as the Kielburgers were refusing to answer phone calls from reporters with their supposed media partners. The co-optation of the country's media by this charity is a standalone scandal in its own right, though one that will almost certainly pass from memory unexamined.

Lastly, we want to do something anathema to most journalists: encourage readers to check out the comments section. 

This week, in response to Line columnist Jen Gerson's piece on schools, liberalism, and class, a commenter named Jane T weighed in with a comment so on point we cannot better it. 

Jen's article — and almost all journalism on justice and the pandemic — ignores its greatest demographic inequity of all: age. The same generation(s) that bear the greatest social and psychodevelopmental consequences of the pandemic restrictions are absolutely the least likely to benefit from them. (And are also the only ones who will be earning income when the bill really comes due.) This virus is a bastard. We're left with a series of choices marked by bad or worse. And the approach we have taken firmly prioritizes the health and quality of life for those over sixty. The Swedish model flips this equation on its head, being unwilling to inflict the harm that we have on children and young adults and placing the burden of physical isolation primarily on those most likely to benefit: the old. Back in North America, is it really any coincidence that as the wealthiest and most powerful voting bloc in modern history reaches advanced age all of our new public spending is focused exclusively on healthcare, and the young are being goaded into fighting over how to distribute the remaining little bits?

Where's the lie?

The most glaring inequality wrought by our response to COVID'-19 isn't one based on class or race — it's intergenerational. Except to note the deplorable condition of long-term-care facilities, it's the inequity we're too terrified to explore. 

Share The Line


  • With September begins the end of Summer and the beginning of the return to a new normal. We're still sketching out the edges of that normal, but here at The Line we decided to kick off with our first transparency report for paid subscribers. If you are not yet a paid subscriber, then you can't see the report. Pony up! 

  • Jen Gerson writes about how fascinating it is to watch the entirely predictable consequences of shaking faith in a foundational liberal institution like public schooling. "What happens when these institutions crumble? I fear that the answer is tribalism, violence — and the perpetual motion of self interest untethered from the commonweal. What we get is a regression to the mean of the human spirit. The war of all against all. If you want a little slice of proof, just try finding a private tutor on Facebook. "  

  • Former publisher and CRTC vice-Chair Peter Menzies is skeptical of any plan to save newspapers by penalizing Facebook or social media. "News organizations in Canada have had 20 years to adapt to the Internet. Their solution was to reduce the size and quality of their newsrooms. Thousands of journalists lost their jobs and readers — with a whole world of online news to choose from — went elsewhere." 

  • We're noting those of you who get riled up before you read past the headline, try to avoid the impulse this time. Terry Glavin lays into useless white people. "First, a brief explanation is required: I don’t mean white people as a race. I mean the majority populations of most of the Western democracies, particularly those who — out of guilt and shame or nationalistic fervour — insist on centring themselves in their whiteness. These people suck up most of the bandwidth in our domestic politics.”

The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: lineeditor@protonmail.com