I believe Canadians have a hard time conceptualizing that racism and discrimination exist in Canada and is part of the culture. A lot of people have this utopian view about Canada, that Canadians are not racist and are open to other cultures. This is simply not true. The colonial history of Canada is filled with racism and discrimination, from way in which First Nation people are treated and the Chinese head tax. These are just two of many examples of racism in Canada.
Dr. Carrie Best was a Black Canadian activist and journalist, in 1968 she described racism in Canada
Canadian society is a white society. Its legislators are white. Its judges are white, its teachers are universally white; its police are white; its executives are white; its newsmen are white; its real estate agents are white; its landlords are white; its school board administrators, its mayors and alderman, its bankers, its armed forces, and its Prime Minister are white. They support and perpetuate the institutions and customs that make Canada what it is. Thus they are racist. If you are a liberal, middle-class, the word ‘racist’ has a very concrete and narrow definition. Apartheid is racist. Segregation is racist. The political, social, and economic systems which enslave human beings, which deny them their identities, their freedom, their dignity and their future are all racist systems. This definition is good as far as it goes but it only begins to scratch the surface of racism (Dua and Robertson,1999,p. 8)
Backhouse (1999) explores the legal history of racism in Canada in their book, Colour-Coded. Similar to the belief that some Americans have of being ‘colour-blind’ or viewing everyone as a human than a race, in Canada there is this notion of racelessness. Backhouse describes racelessness as:
The ideology of racelessness, a hallmark of Canadian historical tradition, is very much in keeping with our national mythology that Canada is not a racist country, or at least is much less so than our southern neighbour, the United State. Dionne Brand, an African-Canadian historian, poet, and writer, recounts that she still gets asked in interviews: ‘Is there racism in this country?’ Her response: ‘Unlike the United States, where there is at least an admission of the fact that racism exists and has a history, in this country one is faced with a stupefying innocence.’ A ‘mythology of racelessness’ and ‘stupefying innocence’ – these would appear to be twin pillars of the Canadian history of race (Blackhouse, 2010, p.14).
Backhouse mentions that the discussion around race and racism is different in Canada than in other countries like the United States or Great Britain. Where the Unites States has a long history of racial injustices and continue to practices these injustices through its legal system, urban planning, banking and police departments. In Great Britain their colonial history comes to mind. Due to these actions and divisions it is more accessible to discuss race and racism. However, in Canada it is more complex since racial injustices in this country is often overlooked.
Canada also has a history of anti-black racism, slaves were used in country from 1689 until 1833. During this time blacks in Canada faced a series of discrimination both prior and after the abolishment of slavery by the British Parliament in 1833 (African Canadian Legal Clinic, 2012, p. 4) . Once again, this history often gets brushed under the rug for whatever reason is may be, whether it is ignorance or trying to conform to the idea that Canada is not racist.
Backhouse (1999) stresses that racism is not an individual and one-off events, as she states:
“It is essential to recognize that racism is located in the systems and structures that girded the legal system of Canada’s past. Racism is not primarily manifest in isolated, idiosyncratic, and haphazard acts by individual actors who, from time to time, consciously intended to assert racial hierarchy over others. The roots of racialization run far deeper than individualized, intentional activities. Racism resonated through institutions, intellectual theory, popular culture, and law. Immigration laws shaped the very contours of Canadian society in wats that aggrandized the centrality of white power. Racialized communities were denied the right to maintain their own identities, cultures, and spiritual beliefs. Education, employment, residence, and the freedom of social interaction were sharply curtailed for all but those who claimed and were accorded the racial designation ‘white.’ 15
This statement exemplifies that racism is more than ‘that guy’ and the racist remarks they make on Facebook or the women who shouts racist comments and slurs to someone on the bus. Racism is systemic and is found in institutions, popular culture, and our legal system.
Examining the Canadian justice system, it is clear that discrimination plays an active role on laws that are created and enforced. Owusu-Bempah and Wortley (2011) maintains that “a closer examination of the historical record reveals that racial discrimination has long been an issue within Canadian society – particularly with respect to the operation of criminal justice system (p. 395).” Through their research they conclude that “black respondents are more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white or Chinese respondents (p. 398).” They also observe that racialization exist in Canadian police departments, where “black racial backgrounds appear to be a master status that attract police attention and significantly contributes to police decisions to conduct street interrogations. To the police, young black males represent the usual suspects (p. 402).” Just that alone, that there is a criminality associated with being black is very disturbing. They conclude that the Canadian government practices ‘democratic racism’. They define ‘democratic racism’ as “an ideology that permits the emergence of two seemingly conflicting sets of values: a public commitment to racial justice and equality on one hand, but a refusal to seriously investigate and address racial inequalities and potential racial bias when these issues emerge (p. 404).”
Just looking at newspapers or reading government documents, or comments from political leaders, this is what they practice. Examining the case of missing and murdered aboriginal women the conservative government under the leadership of Stephen Harper refused to launch an inquiry into it (Jackson, 2015). In Ontario, the outrage over carding and street check went almost unheard of. Politicians and police officials were dragging their feet to even discuss it, let alone call the practice racist. After weeks of protest from Black Lives Matter Toronto in front of Toronto police headquarters they met with Kathleen Wynne, where she told the group that “we still have systemic racism in our society (Jones, 2016).” However, she quickly changed her comments when the Toronto Police Union said that her comments were out of line, and that there is no racism in the police force. She updated her comment stating “ I wasn’t talking about the police service, I was talking about societal reality that we all have to grapple with (Ostroff, 2016).” This was a truly cringe worthy moment, having the Premier of Ontario acknowledge systemic racism, but in the same breath say “no, no, no, not in police services, but in the criminal justice system and children’s aid.” This was just another prime example of democratic racism, informing the public that the government has a commitment to racial justice, but completely ignoring the issue at hand.
How do we confront racism and anti-black racism in Canada and how do we solve the many laws and policies that are created from it? First, we need to have an honest conversation about racism and anti-black racism in Canada. By having this dialogue and acknowledging the full impact racism and anti-blackness has on Canada and policies created is the first step. Secondly, we need to critically examine policies, laws, and by-laws created in this country and either amend or strike down laws and policies that are unjust are specifically target racialized groups.
African Canadian Legal Clinic. (2012). ERRORS AND OMMISSIONS: ANTI-BLACK RACISM IN CANADA ERRORS AND OMMISSIONS: ANTI-BLACK RACISM IN CANADA.
Backhouse, C., Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History., & Gibson Library Connections. (2010). Colour-coded : a legal history of racism in Canada, 1900-1950. Published for the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History by University of Toronto Press.
Dua, E., & Robertson, A. (1999). Scratching the Surface: Canadian, Anti-racist, Feminist Thought. Toronto : Women’s Press.
Ostroff, J. (2016, April 7). Police Deny Racism and Demand Data (That They Won’t Collect). The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/joshua-ostroff/toronto-police-racism_b_9624714.html
Jackson, K. (2015, September 9). Stephen Harper’s longest war: missing and murdered Indeginous women. APTN. Retrived from http://aptn.ca/news/2015/09/09/stephen-harpers-longest-war-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women/
Jones, A. (2016, April 4). Wynne meets with Black Lives Matter protestors at Queen’s Park. iPolitics. Retrieved from https://ipolitics.ca/2016/04/04/wynne-meets-with-black-lives-matter-protesters-at-queens-park/
Wortley, S., & Owusu-Bempah, A. (2011). The usual suspects: police stop and search practices in Canada. Policing and Society, 21(4), 395–407. http://doi.org/10.1080/10439463.2011.610198