Sit Down, Be Humble

Last week Justin Trudeau was asked by a reporter to comment on Donald Trump’s threats to mobilize the army against his citizens. After a very pregnant twenty second pause he said,

“It is a time for us as Canadians to recognize that we too have our challenges; that black Canadians [and racialized Canadians] face discrimination as a lived reality every single day. There is systemic discrimination in Canada.”

Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario, contradicted the Prime Minister a few days later, claiming that we do not have systemic racism in our country. I’m sorry to say that I suspect the majority of Canadians agree with Mr. Ford. There has been a lot of shocked outrage in Canada at the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing police brutality against minorities in the U.S., and that is an appropriate response. The tenor of these comments, however, is one of superiority, as though we and our policemen are above such things. This is demonstrably not true.

One need only look back on one’s life to find instances of bigotry. Perhaps the most senseless manifestation of racism I’ve witnessed came the day after the 9/11 attacks. I was driving home from work and stopped at a gas station I frequented. Two of the large front windows were covered by wooden panels which bore the words “We’re open” in big red letters. After filling up I went inside to pay and asked the young man at the counter what had happened.

It turns out that the previous evening some men in a car had raced through the parking lot, slowing only to throw bricks through the windows and yell, “Go home!” Luckily no one was hurt in the incident although the cashier’s younger brother, who was manning the store at the time, was badly rattled. The young man continued with tears in his eyes and a quivering chin, saying his parents were from Sri Lanka, a country that was completely blameless in the 9/11 attacks. They had worked incredibly hard to buy and then maintain the gas station, and he and his two brothers were born and raised in Canada. The knee-jerk racism of the attack had shaken him to the core, and he was clearly shocked and disappointed that such aggressive hatred was so close to the surface in a country where he thought he was viewed as an equal.

More recently I witnessed racism in the elementary school where I worked. There were at least two times I can think of where a white student called a black classmate the “n-word”. This ignorance was not limited to the children as just last year one of my colleagues demonstrated a textbook example of unconscious white privilege. The keynote speaker at our 2019 grade 8 graduation was Maryam Monsef, our local M.P. Ms. Monsef is a Muslim woman from Afghanistan who emigrated to Canada as a refugee at the tender age of 12. She had attended my school for grades 7 and 8 and mentioned in her speech that although she had been teased and bullied by other students, the staff had made her feel welcome. Later that evening the graduates crossed the stage to receive their diplomas, and Ms. Monsef made a point of getting up and shaking the hands of the dozen or so students of colour. She said a few quiet words to each of them, and although I couldn’t hear what she said I assume she was acknowledging the unique bond they shared for having made it through despite the many slights and insults they had both undoubtedly endured.

The next day I was in the lunchroom discussing the graduation with my staff. I was relaying the gist of the M.P.’s speech when a colleague who had been in attendance cut me off and said,

“I didn’t like the way she singled out kids when they were getting their diplomas. She should have shaken all their hands. I don’t think it was fair to the other kids that she didn’t shake their hands too.”

Wow! Here was an opportunity for me to bring a clear case of white privileged thinking to someone’s attention, so I did. I explained that only shaking the hands of the minority students was Ms. Monsef’s way of saying that she understood how difficult their school journey had been, especially in relation to that of the white majority, and that they consequently deserved special notice and congratulations. We couldn’t possibly know the on-going, subtle (and not so subtle) discrimination that these kids had almost certainly experienced in our school. We should feel happy for the few who had their hands shaken rather than feeling sorry for those who didn’t. Our Muslim, brown and black students had almost no role models to follow in our small, extremely white city, yet here was a successful woman with a similar background publicly demonstrating her faith in them. The white kids who crossed the stage had absolutely no need for that level of encouragement as our whole society is set up for them to succeed. I don’t think my colleague really understood what I was saying, but her initial statement and her inability to take my point are a microcosm of the unquestioned white privilege that permeates our country.

One need only look at the report on systemic racism in Canada issued by The United Nations in September of 2017 to see how widespread the problem is. The report recommends in its summary that the Canadian government should offer an official apology for slavery, which was practiced in New France from the early 1600’s until it was abolished in all British colonies in 1834 (just thirty years before the United States). The report also suggests that survivors of Africville, the freed slave settlement established in Nova Scotia which was razed by the provincial government in the 1960’s, should be paid reparations. Further, they should be given land because their ancestors, despite being the original settlers in the area, were not allowed to own the land they worked and developed.

The report says that in Canada,

” History informs anti-black racism and racial stereotypes that are so deeply entrenched in institutions, policies and practices, that its institutional and systemic forms are either functionally normalized or rendered invisible, especially to the dominant group.”

We can see the reality of these findings in statistics relating to black Canadians today. Landfills, waste dumps and pollutants are disproportionately located close to black communities in many cities, black families are twice as likely to go hungry as their white counterparts, and up to 60% of black students are dropping out of high school in our major urban centres. The most telling systemic racism exists in our criminal justice system. The number of black inmates in our federal prisons rose by 71% between 2005 and 2015, and statistics suggest that black people are “extraordinarily represented” when it comes to police use of lethal force, although the lack of race-based data concerning such incidents makes it difficult to assess how big the problem really is. Canadian law enforcement agencies regularly practice racial profiling, with blacks and other people of colour making up a disproportionate number of random street checks. Black inmates are also much more likely to spend time in solitary confinement.

Not only do we have systemic discrimination against black people, we also have a long and continuing history of mistreating our Aboriginal citizens. I found a very interesting table of statistics in an issue of Macleans magazine, and although it was published five years ago I can’t imagine much has changed. The table compared key statistics for Aboriginal Canadians and African Americans, offering proof that our indigenous people are faring worse than black Americans by almost every measure. The African American median income is 74% of the national average, while the number for Aboriginal Canadians is 60%. The African American unemployment rate is 1.9 times the national average and they are 3 times more likely to be incarcerated, while Indigenous Canadians are 2.1 times more likely to be unemployed and 10 times more likely to end up in jail. Two-thirds of all First Nation communities have been under at least one drinking water advisory in the past decade, and just last month Alberta’s Energy Minister enthusiastically suggested now was the time to push forward with the Trans Mountain pipeline because Aboriginal protesters can’t gather due to Covid-19 restrictions.

My son recently told me that I have a habit of mentioning when black people are articulate, almost as though I’m surprised that a person of colour could be well spoken. I’m grateful he brought this to my attention because all of us, no matter how equitable we think we are, need to be vigilant to unconscious biases as well as to instances when white privilege rears its ugly head. We also need to be willing to call out others when they act or speak in privileged or racist ways. “We the North” are constantly humble-bragging about how much more egalitarian we are than our southern neighbours, but I would argue that this only appears to be the case because we are willfully ignoring the systemic racial problems that exist here. Canadians should redirect the time and energy they spend looking down on Americans into addressing and redressing the inequities that exist in ourselves and our institutions. It’s time to clean our own house.

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