Racism in Canada: the myth and the reality

One of the things I find particularly irksome about the stereotype that Canadians have about themselves (ourselves) is that we are a fundamentally “nice” people – so nice, in fact, that we don’t really have a problem with racism. It is the case that Canada’s history of racism is not as obvious as it is in, say, the United States. We do not have the descendants of slaves making up a significant portion of our population, and have managed to keep our national racist shame out of the headlines for the most part (at least until quite recently).

As a result, Canadians have managed to convince ourselves that racism is some else’s problem – that Canada is a bastion of inclusion and a safe haven for all people. Or if not so extreme as that, we at least believe that, deep down, racism isn’t that big of a deal here. The reason this is particularly frustrating for me is that, as someone who discusses race and race issues, I find myself having to run uphill to simply get someone to acknowledge that racism can exist here. Once that’s done, then comes the harder battle of convincing them that they have a role to play in addressing it.

Like any national myth – American exceptionalism, British imperialism, French superiority – the myth of Canadian racial benevolence is quickly shattered by even a cursory glance at the evidence:

Another former Mountie in Manitoba has come forward with allegations of racist treatment, which she says led her to give up her badge. While several other native Mounties have told CBC News they faced discrimination, only Marge Hudson had been willing to go public with her story — until now.


However, she said, she was determined to live out her dream job until a superior personally made sure she knew in 1997 she was not welcome in the RCMP. In an incident where she took longer than usual to hand in bail money, she was charged with theft and dragged through a court process because the superior didn’t like women or aboriginal people, she said. She was acquitted of the charge, which the presiding judge called a personnel matter, not a criminal case. There was a “troubling aspect” to the case, the judge added. Another officer testified that Delaronde’s superior at the detachment treated her differently than other officers.

Cromrades who have been reading over the past few months will likely remember the story of Catherine Galliford, a RCMP officer (mountie) who faced years of sexual harassment and assault over the course of her service. While claims like hers are often dismissed as one person’s whining, they are nearly always followed by a flood of other, similar complaints that had been held back out of fear.

It is no surprise to me (and perhaps no surprise to anyone who understands the relationship that the RCMP has with Canada’s First Nations) that a Native Mountie (particularly a woman) would face this kind of treatment. My lack of surprise at the news doesn’t make it any less tragic. In the insular environment in which law enforcement personnel operate, people are given more leeway to engage in bigoted behaviours than they would in the general public. Couple that with repeated negative experiences with First Nations bands that are hostile and resentful of constant police harassment, and you set the stage for hundreds of just these kinds of stories.

But it is not simply the overt, “classical” racism we must grapple with:

Canada’s independent prisons ombudsman has launched an inquiry into a 50 per cent spike in the proportion of black offenders filling federal jails over the last 10 years. Howard Sapers, the federal correctional investigator, wants to study the possible causes behind the increase, which saw the proportion of black offenders in federal incarceration jump to 9.12 per cent in 2010-2011, from less than six per cent a decade earlier. It amounts to a 52 per cent leap, with the most dramatic increase occurring over the last five years. Black people make up roughly 2.5 per cent of Canada’s population.

In last Monday’s “think piece” I talked about the effect that seemingly-benign legal programs could have in exacerbating a system that is already built on a foundation of racism. When the legal system itself in run through with a vein of flawed attitudes about people of colour (PoCs), then we see disproportionate levels of punishment and incarceration in groups that already started with the cards stacked against them.

Of course, the particularly perverse part of this whole story is this:

Clarke estimates that 80 per cent of the teens he sees behind bars are black. Many are caught in a cycle of criminality. “Lots of theft, assault, robbery, armed robbery to murder, attempted murder. So it’s a vast range but the commonality is that it’s repeated,” he said. Without proper opportunities to learn and acquire skills or job prospects, Clarke foresees many of the youths he works with continuing to get locked up, boosting the numbers even further.

Thus, crime isn’t simply a bad choice that someone makes, or a debt that one can repay to society. Despite the number of right-wing talking points you might want to throw at the issue, the fact remains that until this kind of pattern is broken, our current strategy for combatting crime is forcing more black youth into jail, keeping them there, and then ensuring that they land there again after their release. The solution requires systemic change.

Of course, the kinds of change that are needed to remedy these kinds of problems requires us to abandon the comforting lie that Canadians are simply less racist than other people. It does us (those of us with dark skin particularly) a grave disservice to persist in this idea that racism is a character deficit that other countries have to deal with. Once our understanding of what racism is – and how it operates – comes into line with observed reality, we can begin to finally address it rather than simply denying its hold on us.

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