Volume 36 Issue 3, November 2011, pp. 395-414

Cet article applique la théorie critique de la race au discours de l’information afin de contrer l’effacement de la race dans le discours public au Canada, en utilisant la couverture médiatique de l’affaire Suaad Hagi Mohamud comme étude de cas. Entre mai et août 2009, Mohamud, une Canadienne d’origine somalienne, n’a pas pu quitter Nairobi au Kenya parce que les autorités canadiennes ont annulé son passeport sous le prétexte erroné qu’elle était un imposteur, entraînant ainsi sa poursuite par les autorités kényanes. Bien que le cas de Mohamud ait reçu une couverture médiatique imposante au Canada, une grande part de cette couverture a négligé de soulever l’idée que le racisme ait causé ses malheurs, malgré l’existence de faits qui auraient dû entraîner de telles constatations. En conséquence, cet article a recours à la théorie critique de la race afin de discuter de la couverture médiatique dominante sur le cas et proposer des discours médiatiques alternatifs qui, dans des cas connexes, traitent efficacement de race.

Flowing from the foregoing, I propose a critical race theoretical approach to news discourse to counter the erasure of race in the media and public discourse of a Canadian society structured in racial dominance. I therefore discuss Mohamud’s case and how it was treated by Canadian news media, particularly The Globe and Mail, National Post, and Toronto Star. Based on my analysis, I argue that unlike the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and National Post failed to critically assess the possibility of racial motivation in Mohamud’s experience. Drawing on a communitarian ethos consistent with Canadian democratic values, I argue that Canadian media have a critical role in interrogating racism as a significant social issue, and also that the potential racial implications in a case such as Mohamud’s require critical media interrogation due to the ramifications for Canadian multiculturalism.

As a reaction to legal liberalism and critical legal studies, critical race theory emerged as a multidisciplinary field with a commitment to mapping connections between dominant socio-legal values and the reproduction of racial subordination (Aylward, 1999; Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, 1993). Additionally, critical race theory can serve as an effective analytical perspective in media studies, because it facilitates the scholarly interrogation of issues of race in the media in a manner that proactively highlights the marginalization and experiences of people of colour.

In law, a critical race perspective rejects the dominant race-neutral approach to legal cases, and where there are potential racial implications, it requires

the advocate to ask the ‘race’ question and to contextualise the problem by putting it in the social context of the history of racism. A critical race advocate faced with an interracial crime must ask: What role did race play in the crime itself, and what role will it play in the trial of the black accused? (Aylward, 1999, p. 137)

This is the proactive character of critical race theory. A critical race perspective in media studies would therefore reject default colour-blind assumptions of media objectivity. It would provoke research that asks critical questions about the role of the media in the perpetuation of systemic racism through the erasure of race from mainstream discourse. Such a study of the media is highly relevant, because the media play a key role in the social construction and interpretation of reality, especially the reality of social attitudes, beliefs, and race and power relations (Mahtani, 2001). This is particularly manifest in the editorial decisions that result in the inclusions and exclusions that characterisze the construction of news discourse (Jiwani, 1995).

Although Carol Aylward’s (1999) work on critical race theory pertains to the area of law, it offers a useful framework that is applicable to media analysis. Drawing on her work, I propose that a critical race approach in analyzing media discourse in Canada requires, first, awareness that racism is a part of the Canadian socio-historical fabric, although this is often obfuscated by contemporary articulations of Canadian multiculturalism. One also needs to be aware of the “role the myth that Canadian society does not have a racist past plays in the perpetuation of racial oppression” (Aylward, 1999, p. 134). The next step is to identify when race might be implicated in an issue of public concern, to raise the “race question” if the media have failed to do so, and also to undertake an in-depth analysis of the issue and its media coverage. As Aylward suggests, “the issue of race should only be ruled out after an analysis that is grounded in the everyday lived experiences of people of colour has been made” (1999, p. 138). Finally, where a determination is made that race might have been a causal factor in a given case, a critical race approach requires the analyst to suggest alternatives to media discursive practices that are identified as marginalizing people of colour.

Since I regard the Mohamud affair as epitomizing the erasure of race in the media, it is useful to provide a brief rendition of Jiwani’s (2006) discussion of the erasure of race in the Reena Virk case. Jiwani argues that “mediated racism works by commission and omission” (p. 65). One way in which mediated racism operates by omission is through the evacuation of race and racism from mainstream narratives—narratives that account for events without acknowledging real or potential racial causes. Jiwani calls this phenomenon “the erasure of race.” To explain this phenomenon, she interrogated the mainstream mediation of the Reena Virk case. Virk, a 14-year-old girl of South Asian origin, was savagely beaten and drowned by a group of juveniles in Victoria, BC, apparently due to a boyfriend conflict with Kelly Ellard, a White girl who was a member of the group that assaulted Virk. Indeed, after the assault, it was Ellard and Warren Glowatski, a White boy, who continued the beating, completing the deed by drowning Virk in the Gorge Waterway.

Stuart Hall’s (1981) work is relevant in discussing the erasure of race in media treatment of Mohamud’s case to the extent that he regards the media as apparatuses that produce, reproduce, and transform ideologies. Hence, the media play a role in providing the conceptual tools for constructing social reality and, consequently, the frameworks for understanding issues associated with race and racism (Hall, 1981). Discussing the erasure of race by the news media therefore requires acknowledging the social construction of news as reality (and the consequent ideological properties of news discourse) implicit in Hall’s observations. Hall also offers an effective linguistic framework for understanding the less-overt forms of racism that exist in contemporary media. He calls this linguistic framework “the grammar of race” (p. 15). Among other things, this grammar conveys racist positions through silences or omissions. In news discourse, these silences result from the media’s power to define the agenda and issues in news and current affairs reportage. To the extent that the media omit racism from the discussion when dealing with matters of public concern, the media allow racist tendencies to thrive unchecked.

Adapting the foregoing to Mohamud’s case, we can say that the media had various options for articulating or constructing the reality of the affair. It could be constructed as a case of the Canadian government failing one of its citizens abroad; or it could be constructed in a manner that raises questions about potential racial ramifications, to the extent that Mohamud is Black, has an Islamic-sounding name, and wore a hijab in her official photographs.

Another contribution Hall (1980) makes to race scholarship is his work (building on Althusser) on “racially-structured social formations” or “societies structured in dominance.” Such societies have a particular heritage (e.g., a colonial heritage) that makes racial dominance an element of the national formation , even if racial dominance is not explicitly espoused. In this sense, racism may subtly influence articulations of mainstream discourse. I suggest that in societies structured in dominance, the grammar of race becomes an operative linguistic category for erasing race from mainstream discussions of matters of public concern. The grammar of race also renders less overt, ostensibly innocuous racist discourse as common sense. This is because overt racist discourse is obnoxious (and therefore incongruous) in most contemporary social contexts. As well, to the extent that a society is structured in dominance, racism has a systemic and endemic character, such that many members of society may be oblivious to moments of racism in everyday discourse.

Racism, and in particular anti-black racism, is a part of our community’s psyche.… A significant segment of our community holds overtly racist views. A much larger segment subconsciously operates on the basis of negative racial stereotypes. Furthermore, our institutions, including the criminal justice system, reflect and perpetuate those negative stereotypes. These elements combine to infect our society as a whole with the evil of racism. Blacks are among the primary victims of that evil. (R. v. Spence, 2005, para. 31)

It is pertinent that the court in R. v. Parks noted that in Canada

racism is manifested in three ways. There are those who expressly espouse racist views as part of a personal credo. There are others who subconsciously hold negative attitudes towards black persons based on stereotypical assumptions concerning persons of colour. Finally, and perhaps most pervasively, racism exists within the interstices of our institutions. This systemic racism is a product of individual attitudes and beliefs concerning blacks and it fosters and legitimises those assumptions and stereotypes. (R. v. Parks, 1993, para. 43)

The court’s observations in R. v. Parks are relevant in Mohamud’s case in many ways, not the least being that the court acknowledged the existence of systemic racism in Canadian institutions. This level of acknowledgment would rationalize a query as to whether Mohamud’s experience with Canadian foreign affairs officials was racially motivated. In this regard, equally pertinent is the court’s position that “the perceptions of those who claim to be victims of racial prejudice cannot, necessarily, be equated with the reality of such victimisation. However, to reject such perceptions out of hand, especially when they are strong and widespread, is perhaps to demonstrate the very racial bias of which they speak” (R. v. Parks, 1993, para 53).

Ironically, contemporary Canada prides itself on a multiculturalist posture distinct from what exists in the United States (Razack, 1998). Arguably, Canada has one of the most multicultural and tolerant societies in the modern world. As the Supreme Court noted in R. v. Gladue (1999), “Canada is a world leader in many fields, particularly in the areas of progressive social policy and human rights” (para. 52). Indeed, the existence of corrective legislation such as the Criminal Code’s S718(2)(e), as well as the judicial posture signalled by R. v. Gladue (1999), demonstrate attempts by some state institutions to combat systemic racism. However, as Mahtani (2001) argues, “Complex forms of racism can emerge in countries where official multiculturalism is legislated … Canadian multicultural policy … often ensures that forms of institutionalised racism are rendered invisible” (p. 101).

Thus, various critical scholars have identified ways in which colonialist mentalities and racial dominance continue to exist cheek-by-jowl with the discourse of Canadian multiculturalism. For example, Razack (1998) highlights the racial dominance implicit in Canada’s seemingly progressive immigration and refugee discourse. And despite multicultural policy advancements in Canada, David Tanovich (2006, 2008) is concerned that racial profiling, as a motivating element in the criminalization of people of colour, is often ignored in judicial narratives, resulting in “sounds of silence” (Tanovich, 2006, p. 34) that perpetuate systemic racism in Canada. Because of these “sounds of silence,” Tanovich (2006, 2008) and Berger (2004) call for attitudinal shifts in the construction of judicial narratives so as to ensure the visibility of racial dynamics. My article carries this argument into another domain, as does Jiwani (1995, 2006), that racial dynamics must not be erased from media narratives.

Since Canada is at once a society structured in dominance and one that is multicultural, with several liberal and progressive institutions, it is important, as Hall (1980) and Jiwani (2006) propose, that one take a position in opposition to the dominant discourse, without which it would be difficult to effectively identify the traces of racism in mainstream discourse. This underscores the relevance of a proactive, critical race position. This positioning is important, since covert racist discourse manifesting inferential racism is effectively the articulation of racist moments to liberal-democratic moments that are contradictory to racism. In a word, inferential racism in societies structured in racial dominance “is a product of an articulation of contradictions … a contradictory unity” (Hall, 1980, p. 326).

Work on the media’s erasure of race and its consequences develops an area of scholarship to which Carol Tator and Frances Henry have made extensive contributions (see, for example, Henry & Tator, 2002). It is useful to borrow a caveat from their work that when talking about the erasure of race in the Canadian media, it is not to suggest that all Canadian media practitioners are racist or guilty of racism. This is a point that Hall (1981) has made on the media’s ideological functions. Indeed, given the diversity offered by the contemporary mediascape, it should come as no surprise that there would be a lack of homogeneity in how the media treat current affairs.

In total, I reviewed 438 print news items obtained through the ProQuest Canadian Newsstand electronic database relating to the Mohamud affair between July 2009 and January 2010. For the purposes of this article, I focused on news items between July 2009, when the story broke, and August 2009, when Mohamud and her counsel made direct references to the potential racial undertones in the case. I took into account how the case was treated in Canadian mainstream print media but centred my analysis on items from the Globe and Mail, National Post, and Toronto Star.

In focusing on print media, I am conscious of their “traditional role as providers of analysis and extended information” (Zelizer & Allan, 2002, p. 7). My choice of the Globe and Mail, National Post, and Toronto Star was strategic. Both the Globe and the Post are regarded as national papers in Canada, for they are distributed nationwide (although they are both Toronto based). While the National Post leans to the Right ideologically (Alhassan, 2007; Henry & Tator, 2002), the Globe and Mail is more centrist, although the latter also has the tendency to veer rightwards (Alhassan, 2007; Odartey-Wellington, 2009). As national newspapers with different ideological positions, how the Post and Globe treat a matter of public concern is highly relevant. The Toronto Star is the largest circulating paper in Canada, though its readership is mostly concentrated in Ontario (Canadian Newspaper Association, 2010). The Star adheres to a left-of-centre orientation (Alhassan, 2007) and also adopts a social-justice editorial posture. Since the paper was the first to break the Mohamud story and has a strong Toronto focus (Mohamud is a Toronto resident), a social justice orientation, and a large readership, it was an obvious choice for my study. What the three newspapers share is that they are all “quality” newspapers that Richard Ericson and his colleagues define as having “longer items, features and continuing stories on complex matters affecting business and political elites on a national and international scale” and “a concern with being a source of record” (Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1991, p. 35).

My method of analysis is informed by Eduardo Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s discourse theory of articulation. Laclau and Mouffe conceptualize discourse as a social construction resulting from an articulation of “moments,” ordinarily floating in a discursive contestation as “elements” (Jorgensen & Phillips, 2004, p.26; Laclau & Mouffe, 2001, p.105). The dynamics of news production accurately illustrate articulation. As Amin Alhassan succinctly puts it, “[T]he practice of journalism is the art of articulation” (2004, p. 28) because news items are discourses produced by the editorial articulation of contesting interpretations of social phenomena. In my study, therefore, I investigated how the Mohamud affair was articulated or framed in the news reports and editorials relating to the matter. Articulation enables an analyst to identify other potential articulations of a subject as well as elements excluded from a dominant discourse.

Similarly, a story in the Star on July 25 focused on the fact that the Canadian foreign minister had finally broken his silence to shift the burden of proof of citizenship solely onto Mohamud (Wadhams, 2009). This prompted a letter published in the Star on July 27, 2009, as follows:

Well, I don’t always look like my passport photo either—I often wear glasses, and sometimes I shave my beard—yet not once have I been questioned by the authorities over this. I wonder if it’s because I’m white and Canadian born. (Bryce, 2009, p. A10)

In the totality of the Toronto Star’s narrative thus far, this letter was the first to introduce the subject of race into the discussion of Mohamud’s case. Similarly, another letter to the editor published by the paper on August 7 decried Ottawa’s reaction to a number of cases, including Mohamud’s, stating:

Does anyone think that if any of these Canadian citizens were white and Christian rather than black and Muslim they would be abandoned by our government? The obvious racism of the Harper regime is creating two classes of Canadian citizens based on colour and religion. (McCaskell, 2009, p. A20)

The August 12 issue of the paper carried significant coverage of Mohamud’s case, because, as it reported, the federal government had finally commenced formalities for her return (Goddard, 2009f). Although the Toronto Star itself did not explore the matter of race at this stage, another story in the paper quoted Henry Pardy, a former senior Canadian foreign officer who hinted at the discrimination implied in the contrast between how Mohamud’s case had been handled as compared to the Conservative federal government’s reaction to the case of Brenda Martin1 (Woods, 2009, p. A1).

In the same August 12 issue, the Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume made a radical discursive intervention in the case, in a provocative article titled “Is Citizenship Now Defined by the Colour of Your Skin?” Hume (2009) charged that

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s regime is determined to create different categories of citizenship. According to the administration’s new meaning of Canadian citizenship, the main qualification is not residence, place of birth, oath of allegiance or passport—it’s the colour of your skin. (p. A6)

Hume based his contention on the particulars of Mohamud’s ordeal, arguing:

Had Mohamud been a white mother from Leaside, you can rest assured that Harper himself would have led the charge to have her repatriated. And we’re not talking about the Omar Khadrs, or the Maher Arars, men suspected of real or imaginary ties to terrorist organisations. We’re dealing with a single mom who produced her Shoppers Drug Mart Optimum card and even receipts from a local dry cleaners. (p. A6)

A letter to the editor expressed similar sentiments:

Have you ever seen a passport photograph, or any other ID photo for that matter, that really looks like you? If the authorities went by my photo, I would be put in prison at the drop of a hat. But I am white, have an Anglo name and so I am not automatically looked upon as suspect. (Vivian, 2009, p. A18)

However, the paper’s editorial on August 12 appeared to suggest that Mohamud’s experience was indicative of the government’s failure to assist Canadians abroad generally, stating:

This is a government, after all, that has proven only too willing to abandon citizens. Omar Khadr still faces trial before a tainted Guantanamo tribunal. Ottawa had to be ordered by the courts to repatriate Abousfian Abdelrazik from Sudan. And to seek clemency for Ronald Smith, a murderer who faces execution in the United States. (Editorial, 2009, p. A18)

Unlike the interventions made by Hume and Pardy in the Toronto Star that day, the editorial failed to interrogate the perception that the federal government is more helpful in the cases of some citizens than others. Also, it is perplexing that the paper conflated Mohamud’s case with Ronald Smith’s. Unlike Mohamud, Smith (who is White) has been convicted of murder and sentenced by a court of competent jurisdiction, and the merits of his matter are radically different from Mohamud’s.

An editorial titled “A Country That Abandons Its Own” in the next issue of the paper, however, articulated the potential racial element in the case, noting that

Suaad Hagi Mohamud … is not rich. She’s not a political insider. She’s not a media darling. She is a black Somali immigrant who had to live on charity once Canadian authorities sent her passport to Kenyan police and suggested they prosecute her for not really being one of us. She had produced a half-dozen forms of valid identification, but our bureaucrats closed their ears to her desperate pleas for help. (Editorial, 2009, p. A.20)

The editorial echoed a theme that Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui discussed in the same August 13 issue. Siddiqui noted that while the Conservative federal government was often loath to intervene on behalf of non-White Canadians facing national security-related charges, Mohamud’s case had nothing to do with national security, raising the suspicion that the main reason for the government’s reaction to Mohamud was because, unlike Brenda Martin, she is Black and Muslim (Siddiqui, 2009a). The Star’s Oakland Ross also explored the racial dimension in an article on August 15. Drawing on statistics regarding client satisfaction with Passport Canada, Ross (2009) stated:

It seems only fair to point out that what has happened to Suaad Hagi Mohamud at the hands of Canadian officialdom in Kenya is more the exception than the rule. Granted, this is an easier observation to make if one happens to be a Canadian-born white male who speaks with a North American accent, none of which applies to Mohamud, who was born 31 years ago in Somalia and has lived in Toronto for the past decade. Did her skin colour and original nationality play a role in her misfortune? We may never know for certain, but it is at least possible they did. “Canadians who were not born here and have accents or are visible for their skin colour are subject to more scrutiny when they enter,” said Obiora Okafor, an associate professor of law at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. “That’s beyond question.” (p. IN1)

In the same August 15 issue, a reader wrote:

The Harper government’s Orwellian mistreatment of a Canadian citizen is evidence of a racist attitude at the highest levels of this government. I am certain that I would not have been so callously abandoned by my country had it been me stuck in Kenya. Why? Because I’m white, I speak with a reassuring Canadian accent and I don’t have a “scary” name. (Myers, 2009, p. IN7)

Whereas Christopher Hume’s must-read article makes a compelling case that non-white Canadian citizens (like Omar Khadr, Maher Arar, Abousfian Abdelrazik and now Suaad Hagi Mohamud) face discrimination from the Canadian government, I respectfully beg to disagree that skin colour is the driving force behind the government’s cavalier attitude toward those it views as “second-class citizens.” Instead, what is really the “hidden agenda” behind this ill treatment is that all these unfortunate people are Muslims. (Alibhai, 2009, p. IN7)

Not everyone agreed with the racial inferences. Another letter to the editor complained:

It’s been four weeks and your staff have become so fixated on this story that it has become your obsession. That doesn’t make it front-page news. If hyphenated Canadians decide to go to obscure places in the world, they should do so at their peril. It isn’t the Canadian government’s problem. (McKenna, 2009, p. IN7)

Overall, between July 1 and the end of August 2009, the Toronto Star ensured that Mohamud’s case entered the public sphere and kept it on the public agenda for several weeks, until the federal government brought her back to Canada. The paper’s coverage of the case initially articulated a discourse that framed the case as one of a Canadian single mom in distress due to the insensitivity of the state apparatus. However, while letters to the editor raised the racial question between July and August, the issue of race was not part of the articulation in the paper’s initial news reports, columns, or editorials regarding the case until mid-August, after which the racial element became a key moment of the Suaad Mohamud news discourse in the Star.

Subsequently, the paper’s columnist Christie Blatchford (2009), in an August 19 article very sympathetic to Mohamud, compared Mohamud’s case to that of William Sampson, who was jailed and tortured by Saudi authorities for several months on concocted charges. Blatchford suggested that Mohamud’s case reflected a pattern of government neglect of Canadians abroad. Since Sampson is White, one can infer that Mohamud’s race was not an issue in Blatchford’s articulation, as another Canadian (this time, White) had also suffered an even more traumatic experience. However, such a perspective ignores the fact that in Sampson’s case, the Saudi authorities were acting entirely on their own motivation. Canada’s contribution to Sampson’s harrowing experience was the failure to act vigorously to ensure his release (Bell, 2005; Shephard, 2005).

In Mohamud’s case, however, it was Canadian authorities who requested her prosecution on the dubious grounds that exhaustive investigations had established that she was an impostor. Whether her ethnicity had anything to do with this is an issue that needed to be explored.

In an August 22 story, The Globe and Mail reported Mohamud’s lawsuit against the federal government and her counsel’s recommendation that “an independent probe is needed to find whether she was treated that way because of her Somali ethnicity” (Ha, 2009, p. A8). The report further quoted her counsel as saying that

the question that needs to be posed and answered is whether the colour of her skin and her cultural background as a Somali had anything to do with her treatment.… The question has to be asked whether a Caucasian in the same circumstances would have been treated the same way. (p. A8)

Hence, the first explicit mention of race by the Globe regarding Mohamud’s case was in the August 22 issue, when Mohamud’s counsel mentioned it, almost two months after the story broke in Canada. However, the fact that the paper dedicated an entire story to this allegation was significant in making the racial angle topical. Yet when the paper next mentioned Mohamud in an editorial on August 31, 2009, it avoided the racial element. The failure to interrogate the racial dimension following her lawyer’s serious allegations of racism muted the significance of his concerns expressed in the August 22 story. Unlike the Toronto Star, therefore, The Globe and Mail’s editorial stance was to focus exclusively on the potential bureaucratic deficiencies in the Mohamud case, and thus the paper did not explore the racial element.