Does systemic racism exist in Canada?

Kelly Spencer

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When Doug Ford, our Ontario Premier, was asked about the U. S. President’s handling of the protests south of the border in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Ford stated Canada does not have the “systemic, deep roots” of racism the United States does.

Despite walking back what he said the next day in the legislature, and subsequently unveiling a new anti-racism youth council, advocates and experts are criticizing the government’s commitment to ending anti-black racism.

“Of course, there’s systemic racism in Ontario,” Ford said in the legislature. “There’s systemic racism across this country.”

As if to punctuate that statement, the government announced the Premier’s Council on Equality of Opportunity, to be made up of young people ages 18 to 29, to advise the province on challenges they face, including in education, skills training and employment.

Ontario is also giving $1.5 million to organizations that support black families and youth.

But many critics aren’t buying what Ford is now selling, since there was a similar council with a similar mandate, titled the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities, and it was dissolved by the Ford government two years ago. After taking power, the Ford government also scrapped the cabinet post of minister responsible for anti-racism. Part of the role of that minister was overseeing the anti-racism directorate (ARD), established in 2016, to advise the province on how to eliminate racism from government policy making and programs. The directorate held public meetings across Ontario and released reports, including a strategic three-year anti-racism plan. Under that plan, the Liberals mandated an annual anti-racism conference, which did not happen under the Progressive Conservatives.

Perhaps, this is a case of “you learn and your grow.” I hope so. But I have heard similar sentiments about racism in Canada and even in our town.

“Racism is an American problem.”

“Does racism even exist in our town? Never seen it.”

Perhaps some of us don’t see it for a few reasons. Perhaps in a community that is 90% white people, we simply would not experience or hear of it. As well, it’s a strong possibility that we simply don’t know Canadian history as the details escaped many classrooms.

It feels like a chapter story that happened long, long ago. Slavery. Segregation. Blatant and blinded racism. But admittedly, many of us are just not informed on this, don’t experience it, so believe it does not exist or are uncomfortable to have the conversations.

At my sister’s wedding, my father got up to toast the groom and his family and welcome them to our family. My brother-in-law is a black man. My father spoke so eloquently to address the unspoken obvious… that half the room was white people and half the room was black people. He spoke about when he went to school, he remembered the fountain he drank from had a sign above it that said ‘white people only fountain.’ He also spoke about his gratitude that times had evolved.

For many years I thought racism was a thing of the past. My parents taught us to treat all people equally and my sister married a black man and I truly thought times had changed.

I was naive, uninformed and uneducated.

Did you know some Black Canadians are descendants of Canadian black slaves? People of African descent were forcibly brought as chattel slaves to New France, Acadia and the later British North America during the 17th century. Those in Canada typically came from the American colonies, as no shiploads of human chattel went to Canada directly from Africa.

Because early Canada’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade was minor, the history of slavery in Canada is often overshadowed by the more tumultuous slavery practiced elsewhere in the Americas, particularly in the southern United States and colonial Caribbean.

The number of Black slaves increased significantly after 1783, when tens of thousands of Loyalists migrated to Canada, bringing a further 1,000 Black slaves to Nova Scotia. In Upper Canada, both Indigenous and Black slavery existed.

The Code Noir (Black Code), a slavery rule book from 1743, was brought from France to Canada. Part of Article 32 of the 2nd edition of the Code Noir stated “the runaway slave, who shall continue to be so for one month from the day of his being denounced to the officers of justice, shall have his ears cut off, and shall be branded with the flower de luce on the shoulder… On the third offence, he shall suffer death.”

Slaves were owned by people from all classes in Canadian society including officials from the government and the military, traders, priests, merchants, and others. Aside from the need for cheap labour, the number of slaves that an individual had was a symbol of wealth by the white man.

Despite reports that Canadian slaves experienced better treatment than those in the United States, this is generally considered to be untrue. Since slaves were considered possessions, they did not have rights so they could be treated in any way that the owner saw fit. For example, a simple crime from a slave could warrant severe jail time or hanging. However, some owners would allow certain privileges to their slaves such as learning how to read and write as well as rewarding them with land and money.

Did you know the small town of Norwich has a museum that speaks to this? The museum shares about the Underground Railroad and Black Settlement in the Township of Norwich during the 19th century. The efforts of Norwich area Quakers helped many Blacks arrive safely in Canada. Quakers believed that men, women and people of colour were equal. In the years prior to the American Civil War, the Township of Norwich was the “end of the line” for many former slaves travelling via the Underground Railway.

Slavery itself was abolished everywhere in the British Empire in 1834. Some Canadian jurisdictions had already taken measures to restrict or end slavery by that time. In 1793 Upper Canada (now Ontario) passed the Anti-slavery Act.

Then began racial segregation. Racial segregation is the term used to describe the separation of people based on race. This has been encouraged in many countries and made law in others, including Canada.

Throughout Canada’s history, there have been many examples of Black people being segregated, excluded from, or denied equal access to opportunities and services such as education, employment, housing, transportation, immigration, health care and commercial establishments. The racial segregation of Black people in Canada was historically enforced through laws, court decisions and social norms.

Segregation was in restaurants, transportation, schooling, job, opportunity and more. In 1918, the university senate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario voted to ban Black students from further admission to the Queen’s medical program. They blamed their decision on the racial intolerance of local white Kingston residents for not wanting to have any physical contact with Black physicians. However, there was another key factor that influenced the senate’s decision. At the time, Queen’s University was under pressure from the American Medical Association (AMA), a professional medical organization that rated the conditions of medical schools in the United States and Canada, to expel Black students. Founded in 1847, the AMA did not welcome Black physicians until the late 1960s. This anti-Black restriction remained practice at Queen’s until 1965 and stayed on the books as policy until 2018, although it was not enforced.

And while this all seems historical; do you know when the last segregated school in Canada closed? 1983.

And while the last school in Nova Scotia that separated people of race in schools closed in the eighties, the treatment and injustice did not end.

“Multiculturalism has become Canada’s slogan, promoting ‘unity in diversity.’ However, it prevents anti-racism in Canada as it “rigorously omits both race and racism and, hence any historical consciousness.” Multiculturalism fails to acknowledge the fact that this country is not neutral, as it is fundamentally built on white supremacy.” – from Dangerous Territories: Struggles for difference and equality in education by L. Eyre and L. Roman.

Does systemic racism exist in Canada? It exists. Perhaps not the same as it did and perhaps not like it is in the USA, but systemic racism is very much here in Canada and it is up to each of us to learn, listen and understand to make our country a better place.

(Please note, I recognize that racism is not isolated to black-Canadians or black people. Other citizens and people of colour experience racism as well and I will attempt to articulate that in another column.)