Racism in Canada: Reputation as Multicultural Idyll Masks Reality of Discrimination

The artist Celos paints a mural of George Floyd in downtown Los Angeles on May 30, five days after the unarmed black man died while while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. Photo: Apu Gome/ AFP via Getty Images

In Vancouver, an Indigenous man went into a bank with his 12-year-old granddaughter in December to open an account, and both ended up in handcuffs after an employee called police to report an alleged fraud.

In Halifax, Walmart staff called police in January on a 23-year-old Black mother they suspected of shoplifting; when she became upset, they handcuffed her, and a struggle ensued. She got a broken arm, a concussion and three charges for causing a disturbance, assaulting a peace officer and resisting arrest.

In Toronto, the family of a 29-year-old African-Indigenous woman called police after a domestic dispute in May. After officers went into the apartment without the family, they heard Regis Korchinski-Paquet calling, “Mom, help” before she fell to her death from the 24th floor balcony.

Since the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China, in January, anti-Asian hate crimes have been on the rise across the country, and Vancouver police were investigating 29 cases by the end of May alone.


Toronto protest
Activists and protesters angry over allegations of police involvement in the death of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from the 24th-floor balcony of a Toronto apartment building on May 27 march to police headquarters to honour the young Black woman. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Not a Safe Haven

As riots and protests escalated in the United States over George Floyd’s May 25 murder in Minneapolis, Minn., Canadians have joined the chorus of voices calling for an end to racism and violence against Black people, particularly at the hands of police.

But as Toronto activist and author Desmond Cole told the CBC on Monday, “We can’t wait for the Americans in order for us to talk about ourselves.”

“We have to stop pivoting from America and then saying, ‘What about Canada,” said Cole, who published The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power this year. “We have to look into our own communities.”

And Montreal author, activist and educator Robyn Maynard, who wrote the 2017 book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, told Power and Politics Wednesday that one of the reasons racism is so persistent in Canada is because of the perception that we are a safe haven of racial tolerance.

Indeed, two prominent white political pundits — Rex Murphy writing in the National Post and Stockwell Day on CBC’s Power and Politics — argued racism does not exist in Canada, with Day comparing it to the teasing he received as a child who wore glasses. The former Canadian Alliance party leader then resigned as a CBC commentator and stepped down from two senior positions he held at Telus and law firm McMillan LLP.

Reality Check

And when the non-profit Canadian Race Relations Foundation commissioned Ottawa-based Environics Institute to survey more than 3,000 Canadians in April and May 2019 from all ethnic backgrounds on perceptions of racial discrimination and the state of race relations in Canada, it proved, without a doubt, that racism was a reality in modern Canada.

Not only did more than half of the Black and Indigenous respondents say they had personally experienced racism either regularly or from time to time, but about half of Black and Indigenous people also reported that others had treated them as less than smart and with suspicion in the past 12 months.

All ethnic groups, including whites, believe Indigenous, Black and South Asian people often or occasionally experience racism.

When asked which racial groups they thought were treated less fairly than white people, almost 60 per cent felt Black and Indigenous people experienced this discrimination when dealing with police.

“Yes, it exists in Canada is the first [conclusion]. The second is that it’s generally recognized that it happens, even if the full scope of it is not fully appreciated,” said Environics senior associate Keith Neuman. “And there are very, very few Canadians, even white Canadians, who say it’s not a problem at all.”

The third big takeaway was that Canadians — including racialized groups — didn’t see racism as what Environics called a major fault line, with 71 per cent across all groups saying different races generally get along and 60 per cent saying they were very optimistic or somewhat optimistic that racialized Canadians will be treated with respect in their lifetimes.

It is notable that 50 per cent of Black respondents felt their race made it harder to succeed in life, compared with 31 per cent of South Asians, 28 per cent of Indigenous people and 22 per cent of Chinese people.

Generational Agreement

After collecting age-related data, Neuman said there was no appreciable difference in the perspective of millennials, gen-Xers and baby boomers.

Although some people may believe older generations are more racist than younger ones, history professor Barrington Walker at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., cautioned against such sweeping generalizations.

Younger people have also been drivers behind the resurgence of the alt-right in North America,” Walker pointed out in an email, “whilst lots of white boomers (e.g., Bernie Sanders) went to jail in handcuffs to fight for civil rights and marched for the same causes in the student movement.”

A History of Inaction

The frustration of Canadian protesters is born from the long history of racism and decades of government inaction or lip service.

As a United Nations Human Rights Council working group noted in its 2017 report on the African-Canadian experience, slavery existed in Canada from the 1500s until it was abolished in 1834. Even though Canada was seen as a safe haven for Americans escaping slavery through the Underground Railroad, this country was far from an idyllic sanctuary.

After slavery ended, Black Canadians faced decades of discrimination, not to mention segregation in schools, work places and in housing, as well as in some restaurants and movie theatres.

Viola Desmond, the Nova Scotia woman whose face graces our $10 bill, was arrested and dragged out of a theatre in New Glasgow in handcuffs in 1946 after she dared sit on the main floor, which was reserved for whites, because she was short-sighted and couldn’t see from the balcony. She was fined $26 for “evading” the one-cent difference between a balcony and floor seat, and died without any acknowledgement that she was subjected to racial discrimination. The pardon from Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governor came in 2010, 35 years after her death.

The conversation about anti-Black racism, like the one around missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that prompted a national inquiry and returned a finding of genocide, has been going on for years and makes headlines every time there is another senseless death, another hate crime, another blatant instance of racism.

Black Canadians are still waiting for the federal government’s response to the UN expert panel report, which had dozens of recommendations. The first was an apology to Canadians of African descent, while the second was paying reparations “for enslavement and historical injustices.”

In a recent press conference, Trudeau pledged to do better to combat racism in the House of Commons, acknowledging he “has made mistakes in the past” ­— an oblique reference to pictures that surfaced during the 2019 election showing him in blackface and brown face — and saying everyone who has felt the oppressive weight of racism deserves better.

But when reporters asked him twice if he would address the UN expert panel’s recommendations, he didn’t answer the question directly. Meanwhile, a national action plan promised by the federal government in the wake of the national inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls won’t be implemented in June as promised due to the coronavirus pandemic, even though many of its 231 recommendations are considered urgent by the report’s authors.

Racist Thoughts

Why and how racism happens is what interests Lilian Ma, the executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, a charitable educational organization set up by the federal government and the National Association of Japanese Canadians in 1988 as part of the deal to redress those who were mistreated and interned in camps during the Second World War.

“I like to study the phenomenon of racism itself, as something that people can acquire without realizing,” said Ma, who got her PhD in chemistry before switching to law school and subsequently working for the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board, the Ontario Human Rights Council and Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board.

What underlies it is something called implicit or unconscious bias, which are views and opinions we’re not even aware we have. Ma says it comes from the stories that societies tell about themselves and that people tell their children. The human brain develops shortcuts in thinking so we can make snap decisions without expending a lot of time and energy. Ma explained it gave us an evolutionary advantage because it allowed us to associate, say, tigers with danger and avoid all tigers.

The history of white colonization is one of conquering and subjugating other races and imposing European values on them, like Christianity, for example, or the English language because they believed they were civilized and everyone else was not.

“If you grow up in a society that’s already had a prejudice before, it just keeps on transferring to the younger generation,” said Ma.

Training the Brain

Ma, who is 74, grew up in Hong Kong, where she didn’t see a lot of white or Black people, so she has tried to train her brain to override any implicit bias with a mantra: “White people are good, white people are good,” she tells herself and “Black people are good, Black people are good.”

She pointed out that in 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) put out a statement prompted in part by the extermination of more than six million Jews in the Holocaust, saying that race is not a biological phenomenon but a social construct. Yet racism persists.

Ma said the key is education and, to that end, there are many lists of resources that have been published lately on social media, including a long, thoughtful Twitter thread by The Secret Life of Canada podcasters Leah-Simone Bowen and Falen Johnson.

“You have to learn,” said Ma. “We use opportunities like this to get momentum to make changes, and one of the big changes is in education.”

The race relations foundation has five modules on its website, as well as a digital guide for teachers and students called Doing the Right Thing. It is now working on a travelling bilingual exhibit called The Science of Race, which will explore the latest research on the psychological and neurological underpinnings of unconscious biases.


Watch the Canadian Race Relations Foundation documentary here:

Protests Spread

Meanwhile, protests continued in many U.S. states and spread to Europe and beyond. All four Minneapolis police officers who were involved in restraining George Floyd until he died have been arrested and charged, with Derek Chauvin, the one who kneeled on Floyd’s head and neck for almost nine minutes, facing an upgraded charge of second-degree murder.

Governor Tim Walz handed the case over to Attorney General Keith Ellison, saying the Floyd family made it clear “they wanted the system to work for them.”

On Wednesday, Ellison explained at a press conference that he didn’t charge Chauvin with first-degree murder because he would have to prove intent, and historically it has been rare to convict a police officer of violence, especially involving a Black man.

“We’re confident in what we’re doing, but history does show that there are clear challenges here,” Ellison said.

And former U.S. President Barak Obama, in virtual town hall for his foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, called on chiefs of police to review their use-of-force policies and institute eight reforms, including immediate de-escalation at the first sign of a conflict, a ban on shooting at vehicles and prohibiting some restraints used in arrests.

“Chokeholds and strangleholds, that’s not what we do,” he said calmly, as New York and Chicago immediately agreed to adopt the reforms.

Defunding Police

On both sides of the border, one of the biggest demands is for cities to take money away from police budgets and give it to communities who are disproportionately affected by police surveillance and brutality and historically underserved when it comes to social services.

In Toronto, Cole suggested that the mayor could take the $1 billion police budget and use it to fund people trained in de-escalating tense confrontations with law enforcement, instead of using it to pay $120,000 salaries to officers with guns, batons and tear gas.

“The white settler state says that policing has to be at the barrel of a gun and that police have to have a licence to kill. If you give someone a licence to kill, it’s because you want to use it sometimes,” Cole told CBC.

If defunding the police service scares some people, Cole has a question for them.

“Why are you more afraid of police being able not to hurt us than you are about police killing us? Because that is what’s at stake here. Those are the choices.”


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