Fergus’ snub shows that for Black faces, the work is never enough

    Oct 27, 2021

    OTTAWA—Imagine being in the Liberal Party and thinking you’re absolved of white supremacy because you have a Black friend (or you adopted an Indigenous child, *cough* Chrétien). That Black friend is Greg Fergus, and like every model minority, he’s made no waves, kept his head down, and has done the work, expecting it would speak for itself.

    Unfortunately, the Liberal Party hasn’t been listening.

    On Tuesday, Oct. 26, newly re-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his new cabinet. The notable appointees include: Anita Anand as minister of national defence, Marci Ien as minister for women and gender equality and youth (I really like this), and Ahmed Hussen becomes minister of housing and diversity and inclusion (hopefully he won’t deny Black organizations access to funding earmarked for the Black communities in this role).

    Cool, but … where’s Fergus?

    Fergus has had a long and illustrious career with the Liberal Party. If you’ve been reading my column for a couple of years, you may be surprised at the confidence with which I write these words. I have written about him before in this paper: “In the last Parliament, MP Fergus twice held the position of parliamentary secretary, first to the innovation minister and then to the Treasury Board president. In the wake of the blackface scandal, Fergus was called upon to do his duty and he did so with alacrity; his was the most prominent Black face imploring Canadians to forgive and move on.” Let’s just say I was less than impressed.

    However, this is exactly why he should be in cabinet: not only has he been a loyal soldier to the Liberal Party in their darkest moments that threatened their victory in the 2019 federal election, but he has also brought the Black community into a political space that forcefully kept us out.

    Fergus represents the oft-forgotten intersection of race and language; he is perfectly bilingual. In his role as chair of the Parliamentary Black Caucus and the Liberal Black Caucus, he pushed files relating to diversity and inclusion, especially as they related to anti-Black racism, including the Calls To Action from the Parliamentary Black Caucus that addressed many areas of institutional anti-Blackness. (I assisted David Thurton of CBC in tracking the progress of these demands.) He included Black people in the consultation process that informed Budget 2021, which was unprecedented. As reported by Angelyn Francis of the Toronto Star, the federal government’s “plans to put $300-million forward to support Black-led charitable organizations in 2021-22 … The budget proposes $200-million to endow a philanthropic fund dedicated to supporting Black-led charities and organizations serving youth and social initiatives. As well as $100-million for the ‘Supporting Black Canadian Communities Initiative.’” Consultations usually lead to informing policy measures, which, if they are a priority, get funded. Without Fergus and those consultations taking place, the Black community may not have received that funding, since they would not have been consulted in the first place. No one else was going to do it. It’s a Wonderful Life, I guess.

    Did I mention he was also national director of the Liberal Party? What more does this man have to do to be valued for his contributions?

    A lot. Because in Canada, Black contributions are three-fifths of white ones.

    Fergus is the model minority. He works hard, keeps his head down, and delivers without complaint; he’s not like me, who, yes delivers and works hard, but never suffers in silence, calls out racism and misogyny with alacrity, and generally doesn’t care to placate white feelings when bodies of colour are on the line. The former rests in the embers of respectability politics, as defined by non-profit, Studio ATAO, which “are representations of marginalized individuals meant to depict them as sharing similar traits, values, and morals that align with the dominant group’s definition of ‘respectability.’” For many racialized Canadians, we are told that this is the way to success and are also told to stay quiet about our issues and work hard.

    Fergus’ exclusion from cabinet, however, tells a different story: it doesn’t matter how hard you work or consistently you deliver, as Black labour, your contributions will never be valued. It’s a sobering and depressing thought that plays out in organizations across the country. White supremacy diminishes Black talent; it places us in a subservient position at the starting line, while culturally appropriating our creations for its material and social benefit. And that’s what the Liberal Party has done with Fergus. He is good enough to do the emotional labour of cleaning up their blackface mess, but not good enough to be given a portfolio as the decision-maker who will ultimately gain power and influence in that role.

    Black talent matters, and so do Fergus’ contributions.

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.