If you were reading the blog this past February, you are at least somewhat familiarwith Canada’s history of overt, ‘classical’ anti-black racism. Despite its avowed contemporary multiculturalism, Canada’s history is stained with the kind of racism that we only talk about in American History class (and even then, in hushed, clucking tones and sighs of relief about how much better things are now). Those who understand the historical arc of white supremacy and the instrumental role it played in both colonization and the rise of the European powers would probably not be surprised to see it survive through several generations of Canadian government. Even then, some of the details are still pretty shocking:
In 1885, John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons that, if the Chinese were not excluded from Canada, “the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed …” This was the precise moment in the histories of Canada and the British Dominions when Macdonald personally introduced race as a defining legal principle of the state. He did this not just in any piece of legislation, but in the Electoral Franchise Act, an act that defined the federal polity of adult male property holders and that he called “my greatest achievement.”
Macdonald’s comments came as he justified an amendment taking the vote away from anyone “of Mongolian or Chinese race.” He warned that, if the Chinese (who had been in British Columbia as long as Europeans) were allowed to vote, “they might control the vote of that whole Province” and their “Chinese representatives” would foist “Asiatic principles,” “immoralities,” and “eccentricities” on the House “which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles.”
He further claimed that “the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics” and that “the cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox, is not successful; it cannot be, and never will be.” For Macdonald, Canada was to be the country that restored a pure Aryan race to its past glory, and the Chinese threatened this purity.
We in Canada do not venerate our founders to the same degree that they are canonized in the United States, but we are taught to respect and admire them (at least I was). We are, of course, not told these aspects of their personalities. It would be different if, say, Macdonald had been a bad husband or bad father or had killed someone in a knife fight or something. This isn’t a statement of “oh well nobody’s perfect” – Macdonald’s imperfections made their way into federal legislation governing the fundamental right to participate of non-white immigrants to Canada. Macdonald’s bullying racism made sure that Canada was a white country and would remain so into the future.
And lest you think this was just a case of “well, racists gonna racist”:
He was the only politician in the parliamentary debates to refer to Canada as “Aryan” and to justify legalized racism on the basis not of alleged cultural practices but on the grounds that “Chinese” and “Aryans” were separate species. Even B.C. representatives who had been calling for Chinese exclusion for years objected to the supposed cultural practices of the Chinese, not to their biology.
The 1885 act fixed in law the idea that, at the highest levels in Canada, “race” could be the basis for voting rights. As the Opposition predicted, once the genie of race was out of the bottle, it had far-reaching effects. Ultimately race would define citizenship, immigration rights, access to jobs and services. In typically haphazard Canadian fashion, by the late 1940s exclusions based on race had been extended piecemeal federally, provincially and municipally. These enactments caught up people from India, Japanese Canadians, First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, African and Jewish Canadians as well as Chinese Canadians.
As I intimated on Monday, Canada has its own history of racist exclusion and white supremacy to contend with. It is worth noting, in both our case and the American one, that this was not simply a few kooks saying nutty things. It didn’t just make the one-by-one treatment of people of colour (PoCs) difficult. Most importantly, it didn’t stop just because the laws were repealed. There is this fallacy that “things are equal now” so PoCs should just “get over it”. The fact is that the Canadian government had officially racist policies on the books for ~60 years, giving explicit and legal preference to white Canadians. It follows that in order for things to truly be “equal”, we would need at least 60 years* of policies that single out white people for sub-equal treatment**.
This one incident would be bad enough to provoke some serious soul-searching about the myth that we Canadians carefully perpetuate amongst ourselves about our “non-racist” past. Of course, as is the case with these things, this kind of noxious racism from powerful people was not a one-time occurrence. Robert Borden, for example, ran on an explicitly anti-immigrant platform. He’s on our $100 bill. Yes, that $100 bill. The symbolism is not lost on me that two of our bills feature prime ministers who were openly white supremacist, nor has it escaped my notice that Mr. Borden’s bill is the one with the woman who had to be changed because she looked ‘too Asian’.
So while we are facepalming over how crazily racist the Republicans are, let’s reserve at least one of those for my country and its selective view of its own history.***
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*One could argue that more would be needed, since white people got all their shit first, and massive unchecked immigration of PoCs is no more preferable than massive deportation of white people.
**Please do not confuse this with a description of my feelings on affirmative action policies. That is not at all an accurate description of what they are or how they work.
***I haven’t touched on the extreme racism that Aboriginal Canadians faced in the days before, during, and after the founding of the political nation of Canada, much of which they continue to face today. My sense is that we at least have something of a better grasp on that as a country, but I could be wrong.