I’ve had a few e-mails and tweets and comments over the past handful of weeks asking me some version of the following question: “is racism as bad in Canada as it is in the United States?” Many people have heard of Canada as being a place where racism is not really that big a deal, and people like in relative peace and harmony. Then they come to this blog and read about all the horrible racist shit that goes on here, and it shatters the illusion.
I hope you’ll forgive me for skipping ahead to the end of my long-winded and professorial answer when I tell you that I would much rather live just about anywhere in Canada than just about anywhere in the United States. While neither country is perfect, and I have only anecdotes to inform my opinion, I can say that despite Canada’s flaws, the kind of racism we have here is, on the whole, far less violent and extreme than our southern neighbours. And when something racist does happen, it is cause for national consternation:
A Royal Canadian Legion in Cranbrook, B.C., is in the middle of a controversy after it printed a so-called “joke” in its newsletter that described hunters killing aboriginal men, then getting arrested — not for murder, but for using beer as bait. Cranbrook legion member Shirley Green — a Cree and Ktunaxa woman — says she was shocked when she read it in the newsletter and called to complain.
Because so much of the discussion about racism is imported from the United States, it focuses on black and white issues. I am not immune to this, for reasons I’ve explained before. The unfortunate and often tragic consequence is that we often lose sight of the fact that the victims of racism, both personal and systemic, are predominantly members of First Nations groups. Many First Nations Canadians live in shockingly deplorable conditions, and are subject to the most brutal and dehumanizing treatment by non-Native Canadians of all hues. The above story is remarkable only because of where it happened – in the print of a Canadian Legion hall.
The response to the ‘joke’ was, in my eyes, appropriate:
Among those saying “not funny” is Inga Kruse, the head of B.C.’s legion command. “This is not the legion,” she said. Kruse says the joke was appalling, and was used as filler mistakenly by one volunteer. “I feel that our organization needs to be heard that we do not stand for that sort of thing,” she said. Kruse says usually legions are autonomous, but this time she’s had to step in and advise against jokes in newsletters.
But at this point the damage is already done, and the retraction is not sufficient. The fact that anyone would have even thought this was an appropriate thing to put into print (or even say, or even think) means that there are some serious problems lying nascent in the community in Cranbrook. These things do not happen in a vacuum, and they do not happen by accident.
And to be sure, they do not always happen in such remote circumstances:
The Bank of Canada purged the image of an Asian-looking woman from its new $100 banknotes after focus groups raised questions about her ethnicity. The original image intended for the reverse of the plastic polymer banknotes, which began circulating last November, showed an Asian-looking woman scientist peering into a microscope.
The bank immediately ordered the image redrawn, imposing what a spokesman called a “neutral ethnicity” for the woman scientist who, now stripped of her “Asian” features, appears on the circulating note. Her light features appear to be Caucasian.
Now to be sure, there was no good way out of this. The Bank of Canada had painted (drawn?) itself into a corner by trying to be more inclusive and reflect a multi-ethnic Canada. Indeed, the original drawing was supposed to be seen as a blend of all ethnicities, suggesting no background more than another. Apparently the focus groups – several of them in fact – found that drawing to be ‘too Asiany’ for their tastes. And yes, there probably would have been some irritated discussion about using an East-Asian scientist to promote the myth of the ‘model minority’.
The correct response would have been “Canadians come from all over the world, and we avail ourselves of our first-rate education systems in order to realize the dream of our children growing up to pursue noble fields like science, technology, and medicine. This image reflects the realization of this very Canadian ambition, and pays some small tribute to the contribution that Canadians of all colours have made throughout our history. You’re damn right we’re keeping her on the bill.”
Instead, they chose the stupid response, which is to say that white people are “neutral” and “non-ethnic” (these are direct quotes, incidentally. I invite you to avoid the comments section unless you want to make yourself physically ill). Of course that’s a lie, but it’s one borne of rampant and unchecked white privilege. White people are only “neutral” if you assume that whiteness is the default, and all other groups are just derivatives thereof. Apparently that is the position of the Bank of Canada.
So I can’t say that racism in Canada is “better” than in the United States. It’s based on the same antecedents and flawed logic that American racism is. It still otherizes and ghettoizes its ‘undesirable’ groups, and is still awash in white supremacy. That being said, for whatever reason (and I can offer nothing but idle speculation), we are perhaps “better” at seeing it and identifying it. At the very least, we are gun-shy enough to at least be ashamed from it. Who knows? Given time, we might actually learn something from it. I plan on sticking around and trying to help that process along by highlighting it whenever I can.
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