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So who’s ‘woke,’ what does it mean and how is it being used in Canadian politics?

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre and his wife Anaida attend the Parliamentarian of the Year awards at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa November 5, 2018. Photograph by Blair Gable

The word originates with Black activist communities in the mid-20th century.

The word “woke” — originally used to describe awareness of discrimination — has been adopted by figures on the political right to discredit policies and politicians they consider too progressive, experts say.

The word was directed earlier this week at the Liberals and NDP by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre. And some Liberals have been dancing around the term when asked about it by journalists.

“It’s a term that’s been evolving fast,” said Jennifer Saul, a professor who specializes in the philosophy of political language at the University of Waterloo.

“For a while, there were people happily identifying themselves as woke. It now has been adopted as a term of abuse.”

Some Liberals distance themselves

After Poilievre was elected to lead the Conservatives, a number of Liberal MPs told Radio-Canada that they want their party to shift to the centre to combat Poilievre’s populist brand of conservatism.

“We need a government that is down to earth and less woke,” one MP, speaking on the condition they not be identified, told Radio-Canada.

Poilievre would later call the Liberals and the NDP — who are supporting the government through a confidence-and supply-agreement — a “radical woke coalition” in his first address to caucus as Conservative leader.

Poilievre’s use of “woke” as a pejorative had a number of Liberal cabinet ministers circling the word cautiously during the party’s caucus retreat earlier this week.

“Frankly, I don’t even know what it means to be woke. I’m working to serve Canadians,” said Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.

“I certainly don’t believe I’m woke, trust me, and no one in my family believes that either,” said Innovation and Science Minister François-Philippe Champagne.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre greet each other as they gather in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Even NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh didn’t explicitly embrace the term when asked about it during an interview on CBC Radio’s The House — although he did say he doubts Poilievre understands what it means.

“I don’t think that Mr. Poilievre knows what he means when he says that. I don’t think he understands what he’s saying when he just throws the words around,” Singh told host Catherine Cullen in the interview airing Saturday.

“I think it’s a baseless kind of position. It doesn’t really add up to the reality,” he said, adding that his party’s focus is on getting help to Canadians.

Where does the word come from?

The use of the term “woke” in a political context originates with Black activists in the United States in the early- to mid-20th century, according to McGill political science professor Terri Givens.

Givens said it was used as a term of vigilance, calling for greater public awareness of racial discrimination. As a Black woman growing up in the United States, she said, she was very familiar with the term.

“I’ve heard this term throughout my life,” she said. “It’s a term that means, ‘We need to wake up to the fact that [discrimination is] happening to us.'”

Givens said that while the term has been used within Black communities in North America for decades, it gained prominence in the wider public discourse during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A new street sign for Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House in Washington. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Saul said that in the years following the rise of Black Lives Matter, people started applying the term more broadly to awareness of other social issues, such as sexism, poverty and the challenges facing LGBTQ people.

Both Saul and Givens said the term has since been seized by right-wing figures to castigate people or policies they see as too progressive.

“This has become a blunt instrument of the right,” Givens said.

Saul agrees but notes that “woke” has gained some negative meaning on the left as well. The term “woke-washing,” she said, is used to describe the actions of people or organizations that try to convince others they care about certain issues.

Woke in the current political climate

Both Saul and Givens said Poilievre’s use of the word to discredit the Liberals, and subsequent attempts by some Liberals to distance themselves from it, are not surprising. The same things are happening in the U.S. and Europe, they said.

“I think a defence of, ‘Yes I’m woke and proud of it’ is unlikely to succeed because the term ‘woke’ has become so thoroughly appropriated,” Saul said.

Givens said she doesn’t think the historical context of the term is understood by either the Liberals or the Conservatives.

“It really pains me to see politicians throwing these terms around … [as] a quick soundbite, instead of having a nuanced conversation,” she said.

Source : CBC Canada