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Our own home-grown racism

I read my post yesterday, and something in it made me cringe. I wrote that the United States has a serious race problem. The reason I cringe is not because it isn’t true, but because it suggests to the casual reader that Canada is somehow better than the USA in terms of racism. Our country has a very different racial history than our southern neighbours. Canada, as part of the British Empire, abolished African slavery in the early 19th century, more than 50 years before Confederation. African slavery had been curtailed for many years before the official abolition, and as a result there were comparatively few Africans living in Canada following the abolition of slavery. The majority of Canada’s black citizens are immigrants from the Caribbean, and more recently directly from Africa (this being largely due to changes in immigration policy and what countries immigrants were allowed to be from). It is fair, therefore, to say that Canada was not built on the backs of African slaves – the immigrant labour here was largely accomplished by East and South Asian people, as well as many white eastern Europeans and Irish.

The United States, as a contrast, did not officially abolish slavery until 1863, following a civil war fought over the very issue (admittedly among other factors). Slavery was an integral part of America’s ability to exploit its natural resources; exploitation which resulted in their emergence as a major economic power. America was built upon the whipped backs of African slaves, and had a slavery system of unparalleled cruelty. Following the official emancipation of African slaves, the black population of the United States was held in unofficial slavery for generations more (and, it can be argued, still is with racial profiling, discriminatory drug laws, school funding shortages, social program erosion, the list goes on). Black people did not become full citizens in the entire United States until 1964, an entire century after they were supposedly “freed” from slavery. The race problem we see today in the US is definitely part of its history of brutal racist oppression.

But before we Canucks start patting ourselves on the backs for being such enlightened and decent folk, we have to remember something important: black people aren’t the only targets of racism. Canada has its own history of systemic, brutal, racist oppression to deal with – that of its Native peoples. Our track record in the treatment of Aboriginal people is horrible, and still rears its ugly and ignorant head:

All Lori Flinders wanted was to build a group home for displaced native youth in the town of Alberton, Ont. What she encountered was a wave of local resistance that, to her, provided a lesson in reflexive racism. A director with Weechi-it-te-win Family Services – a child welfare agency for 10 First Nations communities in in Northwestern Ontario – Ms. Flinders says a racist smear campaign and a town council swayed by a “lynch-mob mentality” recently trounced plans to build the home.

I’ve lived in cities almost my entire life. It’s easy to become beguiled living in places like Toronto, Brampton, Mississauga, and Vancouver, into thinking that Canada is a multi-ethnic and multicultural society. Drive an hour outside the city limits of any of those cities and you’ll find a picture of Canada that is very different. Canada is still very much a white country, with people living in many places that do not subscribe to the philosophy of multiculturalism. Far be it from me to suggest that there is anything more sinister than simple ignorance at play, but there can be a serious shortage of the kind of tolerance we like to think is part of our national identity outside of major cities. This case is an illustration of this phenomenon.

After applying to build a children’s group home outside the town of Appleton, ON, Ms. Flinders was besieged by angry citizens distorting facts and expressing extreme hostility to having Native kids near their homes:

“They said the most awful things,” Ms. Friesen recalled. “They said they’d have to lock their doors now. One person said, ‘I have native friends but this is going too far.’ Another person brought an article about a murder around an Alberta group home. So all of a sudden this youth centre is being equated with violence and murder.”

Of course, while the town denies that race plays a part in the decision, it is pretty clear from the nature of the reaction that the people of Alberton are not concerned about the preservation of zoning bylaws or the appropriateness of the property for children – they don’t want no stinkin’ redskins in their town.

To Ms. Flinders, the council meeting inspired a personal epiphany. “I’d never experienced racism like I did there,” she said. “I grew up in this area and never realized the kind of harsh feelings that lay just below the surface. In a way, it was a gift.”

And another person finally gets it. Racism is inherent in the system. It’s not a problem that’s been solved, it’s a disease that has been bandaged over. Let’s hope the people of Alberton are able to examine this incident and get in touch with their own racial prejudices. I’m not going to be holding my breath though.

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