Why Have We Never Had a Prime Minister Who Isn’t White?

Good news for the federal Liberals – Ujjal Dosanjh1 retained his Vancouver South riding, which he has held since June 2004, following a recount. A former Premier of BC, Donsanjh won his federal riding in this month’s election by a mere 33 votes, prompting a recount. After the dust settled, he still won but with a vote margin of only 22 votes!

Donsanjh retaining his seat makes me happy for a few reasons (1) if he’d lost the recount, the seat would have gone to the Conservative* (and you know how I feel about the Conservatives*), (2) had the Conservative* won the recount, this would have given an urban Vancouver seat to them (and one of the small consolations of this election had been that the Conservatives were yet again shut out the 3 major cities), and (3) I like Ujjal2.

I also noticed in the CBC article about the recount that Donsanjh has “not ruled out a run for the party leadership.”  And as I read that, it kind of hit me – we’ve never had a Prime Minister who wasn’t white. I mean, you hear so much about the issues of race and gender in the US presidential election (what with the US being on the verge of electing a black president who beat out a women for the Democratic nomination). But what about us? Aren’t we supposed to be this great multicultural country? We’ve had one token female Prime Minister – who wasn’t elected as such but became PM very briefly when the rat left the sinking shipBrain Mulroney resigned and Campbell won the Tory party leadership. And we’ve NEVER HAD A PRIME MINISTER WHO WASN’T WHITE. In this election, there wasn’t a single party Leader who wasn’t white3. Same goes for last election – all white party leaders. What is up with that Canada?

It made me wonder if we’ve *ever* had a federal party leader – like one with a real shot of becoming the PM – who wasn’t white. I couldn’t think of anyone off hand. I even consulted with my Resident Historian, Sarah – and she didn’t know of any either, at least in recent history.  Does anyone out there know of any?  And if not, why not?  What gives, Canada?

1I don’t think he has enough Js in his name.
2At least what I know of him. I’m hesitant to say I really *like* a politician for fear that they will just let me down later (John Edwards, I’m looking in your direction.)
3I’m talking about the five big parties here. I suppose it’s possible that the leaders of the Marxist-Leninist Party or neorhino.ca (formerly the Rhinoceros Party) weren’t white, but I’m only talking about people with even a remote chance of becoming a PM.

Photo credit: Photo by Roland Tanglao, posted on Flickr with a Creative Commons license.

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  • Seeing how Canada, in general, leans more to the left than the United States, I also find it surprising that the latter may get a national leader “of colour” before its neighbour to the north. I applaud Ujjal for giving it a whirl, but from what I hear, he’s far from being a frontrunner.


  • We have a parliamentary system so it would make sense to look at the prominent people in a party, to see who has a likely chance of becoming leader of the party, and possibly PM. As it is only likely the Conservatives or Liberals will be in power we should look at those 2 parties. Although Canada is a nation of immigrants, it is only really since the early 60s thanks to Pearson and Trudeau that Africans and those from the Caribbean were allowed into the country. I can’t speak for the Asian population in Canada. It is more difficult to see who the future leaders are in the Conservative party since Harper doesn’t seem to be grooming a successor, nor does he appear to be leaving anytime soon as leader.

    Since the Liberals have been in government most of the time, I would look towards that party to help understand why there have not been a non-white PM and look towards that party to explore the possibility in the future. It seems that being fluent in French is a requirement to be the Liberal leader – Ujjal is not fluent he will not be leader, at least in the next race come May. If you look at where the Liberal leaders have come from, a significant number have come from Quebec. Therefore, it may be that for a non-white to become leader it would help to be from Quebec or to at the very least be fluent in French.

    Rather than say there have been any non-whites as PM, I would want to know how many have ran in a leadership race, how many have been in cabinet or part of a shadow cabinet. Leadership races cost alot of money. Are non-whites willing to go into debt for the campaign (look at how many of the candidates from the last leadership race are still in debt)? Are there any socio-economic factors that are preventing non-whites from making a leadership run and having a serious shot? Are there issues regarding networking, getting caucus/senator support and fundraising? In the last Liberal leadership race (2006), there was only one non-white candidate and she was considered a long-shot.

    It is easy to look at the US system and say why not here but would Obama be elected PM of Canada? Would he be able to be elected as an MP, then get chosen for the cabinet/shadow cabinet, then win a leadership convention, and then have his party win the election? It is a much tougher road here to PM, than it is become president, because we don’t elect a PM, we elect MPs with the leader of the party with the most seats becoming the PM.

    So what does the future hold? Does the possibility exist of a non-white PM in the next 5 years, next 10 years? Doubtful. Who in the caucus of either party would fit the role as being a contender. Who could it be and would they be Conservative or Liberal? And more importantly why does it matter? The Canadians I talk to are looking for qualified leaders and not concerned about their race. We haven’t had any PMs that haven’t been Christian either.


  • Thanks for the insightful comment, Phillip! It would be really interesting, as you point out, to know how many non-white people have been in cabinet/shadow cabinet, run for party leadership, etc. And to explore some of the other socio-economic factors that come into play.

    Do you really think it doesn’t matter? Of course people want qualified leaders, but if we are only drawing on white people for this role, aren’t we missing out on potential excellent leaders? Shouldn’t everyone have an equal chance at becoming Prime Minister? If something is preventing people who aren’t white from pursuing and/or attaining party leadership, shouldn’t we be thinking about that?


  • It seems to me this is a question answered in part by demographics. During the U.S. Democratic Party’s 2004 primary, Vermont Governor Howard Dean was often criticized because his official panel of senior advisors contained no African Americans. As it happens, Vermont is 99.3% non-black. This is reflected in state government. Very few African American residents of Vermont had the basic qualifications for a high level state government position, never mind satisfying any specific needs on Gov. Dean’s team.

    James Carville finally put the issue to rest by giving Gov. Dean a line that went on to see use in a primary debate. When given the question, “how can you claim to be sensitive to the issues that African American voters care about when your state is less than 1% black?” Dean responded, “if the number of black voters a politician represents is the measure of racial sensitivity, then Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) should be at the top of the list.” The timing was powerful, because days before Sen. Lott had expressed aloud a longing for a different outcome when Strom Thurmond ran for President. Sen. Thurmond’s only campaign for the Presidency was as the candidate for a party openly in favor of racial segregation.

    A quick look gave me the impression that Canada is about 2.5% ethnically African. In terms of magnitude, this falls between Vermont’s 0.7% and the 15% figure representing the overall black population in the U.S. One way of looking at the numbers suggests the United States should elect six African American Presidents for every one elected Canadian Prime Minister of African ancestry. Even if an allowance is made for more frequent regime change in the Great White North, the results should still reflect a greater level of human whiteness up there.

    However, there obviously is more to it than that. I suspect Canadian racism was never the monster it so long was in these United States. In key urban centers, perhaps none more profoundly than Chicago, minority political activism created a strong power base for black public officials. Oppression by the hegemony fueled a strong response including stunning surges in voter turnout (not to mention successful campaigns of civil disobedience) all aimed at empowering minorities. Many strong institutions dedicated to promoting social justice and electing black public officials were forged in the fires of brutal persecution.

    So, while Canada is not 100% white, I believe a less diverse ethnic mix couples with a much less tumultuous history of integration create an environment where there is no particular push to place minorities in elective office. With less institutional racism and a lower level of violence (when was the last racially motivated lynching in Canada?) the much smaller Canadian black minority was never galvanized the way U.S. citizens of African ancestry were for a full century after our ridiculously-belated abolition of slavery.

    I believe most readers here would agree that the ultimate rational position is that public officials should be elected on the quality of their positions and personal capabilities — traits that can and should be evaluated without any regard for ethnicity. Perhaps what has happened is that Canada moved gracefully and swiftly from 19th century attitudes to something approximating that view. Here in the U.S., post-racial politics may yet be a little ahead of the curve. Part of Sen. Barack Obama’s immense appeal is an unflinching call for the nation to demonstrate real progress along such a path.

    All that said, if score is to be kept (and next Tuesday is not a profoundly tragic day,) it may be worth noting that Barack Obama is half white.


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