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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  1. sambarge says


    I’m sorry that I don’t have anything more coherent to add at this moement because I am simply reveling in the “Yes-ness” of this blog post. This topic has to be discussed openly and honestly in Canada so that we can really move forward as a country.

    The recent flare-up in Attawapiskat and the Federal government’s response has been typical of the relationship between First Nations and the governments of Canada for the last 30 yrs. We need to start a national dialogue about our passive racism; recognize it, so that we can create an equity-based citizenship for all Canadians (First Nations or Euro-Canadian).

  2. says

    Have you read “You Must be a Basketball Player” by Anthony Stewart? It deals in large part with the institutional reinforcement of racism that leads to entire academic departments having only (at best) one visible minority in a sea of white professors. I read it on a recommendation from a friend when I asked for books about privilege, and I found it helpful in examining my own privilege.

  3. CanadianSteve says

    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,

    This is the big one. Most people I know echo the negative version of this – it’s all the fault of the person that committed the crime, while ignoring and probably even perpetuating the conditions that produced it. It makes me especially angry that politicians (esp conservatives) play this for political points at great cost to all of society, but even greater cost to those communities which are already impoverished and afflicted by crime. Meanwhile the white suburbanites sit on the sidelines and criticize the victims for not being smart enough, or rich enough or whatever, and say things like “lock em up and throw away the key” without ever addressing the real problems. It is never acknowledged that this is racist but that is the key component to this attitude – it is the “other” – the visual difference that makes it somebody else’s problem.

  4. says

    I did my undergrad with a fellow from Maine. We’ll call him “Sean”. Sean was a Republican who voted for Bush in 2004, and presumably, for McCain in 2008. He explained to me that Canadians didn’t have racism, because we didn’t have a big enough black population to really blame anything on. In other words, to him, racism wasn’t really a problem. It was a guilt trip.

    I explained to him that Canada’s racial history was long and complex, and sometimes includes the good (being the last stop on the Underground Railroad), but mostly includes the bad (“There is one dead Chinaman for every mile of that track”, residential schools & reservations, the above, the list goes on). But as I was then informed, “But you’re so nice about it, I can’t see how it is a problem anymore”.

    A lot of Canadians just go, “Well, you don’t really hear black people/Asian people/native people/whatever complaining like you do in the States, so it’s pretty good here, right?”


  5. ischemgeek says

    I didn’t have to be a visible minority to see that in my (rural Nova Scotia) high school, people who were visible minorities were treated deplorably – by the student body as well as, in part, by the administration. After 9/11, a boy of Hindi descent and his sister were both beaten up, spat on, called “terrorists”, etc. We had three students who were Native. One could pass as white and so rarely was hassled (she also had a “white” name so they couldn’t tell her ancestry from her name, either). The other two were treated horribly.

    The students of Chinese descent (one family) were called various racial slurs and had “chingchongchingchong” said over whatever they were saying in class. And so on. I could go on listing examples but I think people here get the point.

    The administration, just as they dealt with all other cases of bullying (I was bullied severely and have a whole host of horror stories about that, too, but that’s off-topic): Step 1: Blame the victim. Step 2: Sweep under the rug. Problem solved, right?

    I’m 24 so it’s not like it’s the remnants of a previous generation or anything.

    In other words, YES, there’s a racism problem in Canada. And we’re not even “nice” about it (whatever that means. Nice racism? Oxymoron much?).

  6. says

    I have seen racism and prejudice here since I was very young. I grew up in what most people would consider a homogenous community. However, the protestants and Catholics only integrated on a superficial level. “Mixed’ marriages were condemned by some people on both sides of the religious divide.

    Natives were always, and often still are, from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, no matter where they live.

    The adoption of French Immersion programs in school back in the 80s. That debate really brought ot the nasty in people who I previously had respect for.

    Now we have more immigrants from non-European regions, and the Chinese are known as terrible drivers, always said with a sneer, even though they are spending enough money to increase property values.

    Yes, racism is alive and well in Canada.

  7. Enkidum says

    I grew up in rural (and English-speaking) Quebec. When there was a scuffle in the playground, kids would gather round and chant “Fight, fight, a nigger and a white!”.

    I honestly didn’t know what the word “nigger” meant at the time (I was 8 or 9, and I think there were literally no black people within 20 km), but obviously a lot of the people there did. “No problem with racism” my ass.

    About 10 years ago I went back to the village I grew up in and was pleasantly surprised to see that a few black families had moved in. But I wonder if their kids have to be exposed to that kind of shit in the playground.

    Later on, my high school was a little more diverse (they bussed us the 20 km to the nearest big town). I remember a class discussion on racism where all the white kids sat around patting themselves on the back for how friendly to minorities they were. The one black student stayed quiet, but by the end was nearly pissing herself laughing. I asked her about it afterwards and she just pointed out how funny the whole discussion was, watching a bunch of white kids talking about how awesome they were. It was something of an eye-opener for me, though I didn’t precisely realize it at the time.

    So yeah. Nothing much to add but that anecdata. We’re not as awesome as we like to think.

  8. Richard Simons says

    At a pot-luck dinner last night (in Manitoba) a Meti (mixed Ojibway/white) person who looks somewhat Middle-Eastern was saying that every time he goes to a concert or other place where ‘random’ people are being frisked, he gets selected. A Cree woman once told me that she’s had people in Saskatoon cross to the other side of the street, then back again, to avoid being close to her. And have you noticed how, to many people who would be horrified at the idea of being considered racist, a drunken Indian is a drunken Indian, while a drunken White is just a drunk?

    Another time I was talking to a West African nurse about this (I had a southern African friend who was considering coming, but was concerned whether she would meet up with racism). The nurse said there was little overt racism, but a lot beneath the surface so that, for example, it was considerably harder for non-Whites to get decent jobs. All anecdotal, but it adds to the overall impression.

    I think the problem is not just racism. When I came here from the UK, I noticed that in North America it is far less acceptable to be different, be it in dress, hair style, participation in group sports, sexual issues or religious beliefs, with racism being one manifestation of this.

  9. says

    Excellent article, sir!

    Related (sort of) and interesting is some information I recently read about the effectiveness of drug sniffing dogs. I’m not sure if this has crossed your plate or not, but I wrote a brief comment on it on my blog (http://www.meddlingkids.org/2012/01/the-keen-nose-of-justice/). If you’re not interested in reading the link, it links to information that shows that the drug sniffing dogs may be less sniffing drugs and more watching their handlers for cues. I guess the data shows that the dogs are only accurate 44% of the time, and if you limit that to Latinos, the accuracy drops to 27%, which leads me to think that the handlers (in this case, American cops) are quicker to believe that Latinos would have drugs in their possession, the dogs pick up on the assumption, and 73% of the time they hassle someone who does not have any drugs on them.

    For the record, reading your blog has made me see racism in a very different light. I freely admit that I’ve been guilty of not noticing it because it’s not guys in white sheets. So thank you for helping me open my eyes to the reality of things!

  10. says

    That’s fascinating. Kind of like a “Clever Hans” deal. Not terribly surprising.

    I am glad that my writing here has helped you see racism differently. I think our lack of discussion is crippling us, and I also think people really want to talk about it. Thanks for confirming that!

  11. interrobang says

    I’m not sure if it’s “less racism” as, at least online, Canadians trying to explain to American anti-racist activists that we simply don’t have the same kinds of racism problems in Canada as in the US. That’s imprecise — the racism problems are broadly the same in that there’s a presumption and action of white supremacy, but they definitely don’t manifest the same ways towards the same groups, even. To pick two examples off the top that I can recall — one running in either direction — we don’t have specific weird cultural baggage like white people assuming ex recto that black people’s hairstyles are “political,” but as far as I’m aware, at least, American police forces don’t routinely conduct “starlight tours,” either.

    Different countries, different manifestations of racism.

    As a white person with a white supremacist mother (she’s said this out loud, to my face), who tries really hard not to be racist (unlike my mother), I get to see quite close up and personal how covert racism works. I personally think the only thing that keeps a lot of Canadians from being much more openly racist is that they think other people would think they’re rude. (They’re right, rude and then some.) Which I suppose is something, but it’s also a dismally low bar.

  12. ChrisG says

    You’re absolutely correct, sir, there is racism here, just as there is racism everywhere. Asshats are asshats the world over. In my youth the focus was not on skin colour, but on religion/language. Growing up as a bilingual, nominally catholic (I got over THAT), person with Irish, English, Scottish, French, and, possibly, Montagnais (on my maternal grandmother’s side. The family didn’t talk about it.), I got beat up as a “goddamn frog” and a “maudit tête-carré” with equal frequency. Though it faded, by the mid-70s, all I really got at high school was snark, but I lived in a pretty homogeneous-looking community at that time,so it was bearable.

    Any thoughtful Canadian will immediately concede that there is racism here, of every hue and flavour. What I hope is also true is that we continue to try, however poorly, to overcome that nasty aspect of ourselves, and really try to rise above it. I don’t think any of us are there yet, but I think it fair to say that many of us are, at least, trying, however imperfectly we succeed.

    Keep the good work Crom. Keep making us think.

  13. Aspect Sign says

    I’m from New England. The first time I went to Canada was to visit my now wife and meet the family. My impression of Canada was very much how much nicer it was than the states. My brother who had been there several times described it as “just like here only cleaner and the people are nicer” which is in many ways true.

    My wife is native and grew up on Six Nations Reserve near Brantford Ontario. I was taking the bus which went by way of Buffalo NY. While on layover in Buffalo I began chatting with another passenger. He was Canadian and realizing that it was my first trip into Canada, asked why I was travailing. I told him I was going to visit a friend, with a sly wink he said “it’s a women isn’t it?” I laughed and said yes. After a bit more conversation he asked which way I was headed after crossing over into Niagara. I told him I was getting picked up at the Brantford bus station. He looked quizzical for a moment and then responded “Huh, didn’t think there where any women in Brantford, just Indians.” I was dumbfounded. It just didn’t fit the impression I had of Canada and even in the states I wasn’t accustomed to such overt racism expressed to a stranger in public outside of angry outbursts.

    It’s not that I was naive about racism. While growing up in an area and time in New England where racism was rarely blatant, I’ve been around and had spent the previous ten years in a fairly backward rural upstate NY community (a couple of weeks after moving there something unrecognized had been nagging at me until one day while driving with a friend I saw an Asian woman and realized it was the first non-white face I had seen since arriving. I exclaimed to my friend “everyone here is white” I was then informed that no they had a black family and was given there names and where they lived and that they were a nice black family.)

    I’ve spent lot more time in Canada since then and am not so naive about it. My wife has lived here in upstate NY for the last decade and while the area has become much more diverse there is still plenty of overt racism but she hasn’t found it any worse than back home or what she lived with in Toronto. To be honest I think the biggest difference between Canada and the states is that Canada tries harder to pretend it doesn’t exist in some ways, whereas more racists and anti-racists wear it on their sleeve as a badge of honor here which keeps it a little bit more acknowledged though thats just my impression.

  14. sambarge says

    Yes. Sorry. I’ve been working with First Nations governments in northern Ontario for so long, sometimes I forget there is a whole rest of the country out there.

  15. says

    That’s a really accurate distillation of what I said. Thanks for reading! I know it must have been hard – big words and no pictures.

    Also, how the fuck is A Bear writing comments on my blog?

  16. says

    Thanks for the post. I’m a recent import from the US, and I’m doing what I can to learn both the good and the bad about Canada.

  17. A Bear says

    In my defense, big words are hard to read when they’re written with a broad brush.
    It seems to me that you do a bit of stereotyping yourself.
    “As a result we have been able to convince ourselves”
    You seem to think you can speak for Canadians, isn’t that a little arrogant?

  18. says

    I suppose if I didn’t understand the difference between general statements and universal statements, that WOULD sound a bit arrogant. Like when the news today said “New Hampshire went to the polls today”. How DARE they speculate! Don’t they know that NOT EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN THAT STATE VOTED? Gosh! The nerve!

    Luckily, I’m not quite that dimwitted.

  19. A Bear says

    Crom; I guess I am that dimwitted. I’ve used my limited reading skills to reread your piece and it still comes across as universalist as to how Canadians think.
    Don’t misunderstand me; I agree there is racism and smug self righteousness in Canada. I just don’t appreciate being lumped in with that mindset.
    I guess semi-literate knuckledraggers like me just don’t understand your nuance.

  20. says

    Well then understand that I was talking about all Canadians except you. It is possible to make general statements about the things Canadians think and value without them being universal. Canadians think that public health care is a good idea; not ALL Canadians share that sentiment. Canadians think that peacekeeping is an appropriate role for the military; not ALL Canadians think that. Canadians are passionate about hockey; not ALL Canadians like hockey.

    Generalized statements are not universal, and insofar as it is true that people in Canada feel that racism is not a serious issue that needs our attention, that idea is problematic. Nitpicking over which particular Canadians have that idea contributes nothing of substance and refutes nothing of substance about the post.

  21. Ataraxic says

    British imperialism is a myth? I’ve read some revisionist histories but none that claim that the British Empire never existed. I don’t think imperialism means what you think it means.

  22. ischemgeek says

    ^ My community was similar, except for the fact that it was almost entirely Scottish.

    I have a last name that sounds German… “Nazi” was something hurled at me regularly. Because German-sounding = Nazi, apparently.

    It was the sort of place where most people are born there, live their whole lives there, and die there without ever having left the county, let alone the province or country. The outside world seems to fade into an amorphous grey blob called Away. If you’re From Away (always said with audible capitalization), you simply don’t belong. You could move there, marry a local, buy land, raise kids and live there for 60 years, and people will still refer to you as From Away (a friend of my family did just that). Living there always felt like I was crashing a family reunion.

  23. says

    This this this fucking THIS. We are so goddamn overt about it it is absolutely sickening, and the self-righteousness…ugh, I’ll just say that the first time was excruciatingly painful but there hasn’t been anything since because I have shut up and listened (well, read).

    And the “naive” bit only makes dog whistles worse.

  24. says

    British “manifest destiny” then – the myth that England stands above the rest of Europe by virtue of its specialness. You’re right that I’m using “imperialism” incorrectly there.

  25. MichaelD says

    I cringe when I hear the phrase “I’m colour blind”. Far better to admit you at least might have some biases (probably do) and try to stay a bit vigilant to it then wrap your self up in blissful ignorance.

  26. says

    I love it when Stephen Colbert does his little color blind shtick, and talks about how he has a black friend. I laugh because I have had so many friends who used those phrases to try to justify their racist behaviors. “I don’t hate natives, like my buddy Tony. I just hate how most of them are unemployed drunks living off the government.”

  27. Dalillama says

    Well, in fairness to your friends, I also hate the levels of alcoholism and unemployment found in First Nations communities. The way those communities have been abandoned by the government is shameful, and immediate step should be taken to address those issues (ISTR Crommunist has written about unemployment among minority communities, and even First Nations communities particularly pretty recently). The problem with the friends you describe appears to be the victim blaming part, not that they haven’t correctly identified a couple of major problems.

  28. Jaimebluesq says

    Hey! I’m a new reader of your blog and am finding it a wonderful, fascinating insight! Now, on this topic, I totally agree with you. Sometimes it takes years to realize that what you’ve been seeing all this time is racism, and you look back to see why you hadn’t seen it before.

    I grew up 1/2 Franco-Ontarian in norhtern Ontario, and there were absolutely NO POCs in my schools (full French). All I saw of black people, or any person of colour, was on tv – and my idol when I was young was Nell Carter (I’m a fat girl, and she was all the confidence and charisma I wanted). I actually didn’t meet any persons who weren’t white until I started Grade 9.

    After that, though, I went to Ottawa for University, and the diversity of my surroundings changed. Not only were there people around me of diverse backgrounds, but… I started noticing the language of my parents and their friends more. And it started bothering me more. Words like Paki and the n-word, and more recently coming from my cousins, ‘gay’ to mean something bad… It’s hard to see the conflicting images of people you like and you know are genuinely good people using such hateful language and meaning it.

    Though I admit I haven’t been completely immune to the stereotypical images in our mind that make us fear POCs when we don’t have any right to, but unlike so many in my family, I try to work through them, remind myself that there’s no reason to feel that way, and to even do the opposite of what the prejudice tells me to do. Though I will admit that the issue amost always arises when it deals with a male – say on a crowded bus with only a couple of seats left, or letting my dog loose at a dog park and suddenly 4-5 young black men arrive and stop to hang out nearby (and in that latter case, I’d probably be just as wary had they been any race – kind of the Schroedinger’s Rapist thing I guess). But as I said, it’s something I recognize and try to fight against because it’s conditioning, pure and simple, and when I have children, I don’t want them to have it.

  29. sikak says

    thanks for your forthright post. ive lived in both the us and canada for substantial amounts of time and while there are similarities and differences, the bottom line is that there is fundamental assumption of white supremacy (and western ethnocentrism) that remains stable across the border.

    white canadians tend to frame the canadian tendency to be closeted about their racism as a “fear of appearing rude”…ive been thinking about this for a very long time, and was baffled by how this linkage could possibly be made. it seems like a very oxymoronic statement when you think about it…then i began to wonder: is it possible that the canadian tendency to compulsively hide its ugly face is related to its relatively small size & its rampant history of sexual abuse?

    the social dynamics in Canada of racism and hiding/being in denial of it are strikingly similar to the dynamic of a pedophile living in a household where everyone knows he/she is molesting children, but by some complicit agreement, all have decided to ignore this fact.

    racism in canada is just such an “open secret”; it is deniability that is the most potent weapon in a child molester’s tool kit, just as it is in a racist’s tool kit.

    and so as i observe the dynamics of racism in canada, i do so through a particular lens–that of family violence which includes sexual abuse and emotional abuse–and it seems clearer to me that how a racism dynamic manifests in canada is very much a mirror of how an abuse dynamic manifests in any given household.

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