The past is not passed

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.***

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

*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.


  1. says

    It’s pretty well known that McDonald was a drunk.

    A few years ago we had a vote on The Greatest Canadian, we chose Tommy Douglas the founder of universal healthcare and founder of the NDP. He was also a baptist minister. I haven’t gotten around to digging up dirt on him but would not have issues denouncing anything that he did that I felt uncomfortable with. I don’t understand why we have to venerate politicians of old.

  2. says

    Douglas, like many of his contemporaries of all stripes, supported eugenics prior to WW2, even writing his MA thesis in favour of eugenic policies. However as Premier of Saskatchewan he didn’t impliment such policies, despite official reviews of government policy that called for such policies.

  3. says

    But CSA: The Confederate States of America taught me that Canada was a magical place of racial harmony who could be counted on to do the right thing as much as the US could be to do the wrong thing. Aren’t movies generally good sources of info about race relations?

  4. says

    As a Canadian I winced when I saw the words racism, McDonald, history, and Chinese; it’s really, really ugly especially out here on the West Coast and has been obscenely glossed over. A bit of digging into our history is enough to make one queasy; yes, our history.

  5. Interrobang says

    At least it was only officially sixty years. Comparatively speaking, that makes us practically paragons of race relations, which is a really totally dismal thing to say, and not a defense at all, just kind of a statement on how bad the reality actually is. Humans suck.

    For the life of me, I can’t really figure out why a lack of melanin should be a thing anyway; it’s not like it’s overly useful, or gives you laser eyes or something…

  6. says

    One thing about racist rhetoric is how little it’s changed over the decades. With only a little bit of editing McDonald’s comments could be attributed to a 21st Century person regarding people from Latin America or Muslims.

  7. sambarge says

    In Douglas’s defense, and I feel like I have to defend him, a lot of people were eugenicists in the early part of the 20th century. It was a remarkably popular notion, held by many progressive thinkers.

    The expression of eugenics in Nazi Germany that led thoughtful people like Douglas to reject the application of the idea. Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding and he never implemented eugenics programs like the provinces around him did.

  8. sambarge says

    Canadian immigration policy remained explicitly racist until the late 1960s (then it just became implicitly racist).

  9. Jenora Feuer says

    Hardly just a drunk, though he was that, too. A highly arrogant man.

    A good chunk of the reason why MacDonald was first voted out of office was due to his rather blatant corruption and palling around with the people financing the Canadian Pacific Railway.

    Another chunk was due to the fact that, when called on that corruption, his response went from denial to just ‘Yeah, so?’ At least until it became obvious that his own party no longer supported him anymore.

  10. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    …huh, I hadn’t realized the “white people = ‘Aryans'” thing dated back that far.

  11. amodeo65 says

    Not to mention that when the great immigration push was on in the early 1900s, Black Americans were denied entry because it was felt that the climate would be too cold for them… or the Kobayashi Maru (I know I mangled the spelling). Even members of my own family hid their Italian identies under Anglicized names during WW II… not to mention the treatment of my Japanese relatives during that same time… We have always been polite racists.
    Thanks for bringing some things out into the open.

  12. says

    My entire school life from grade 3 to grade 11 I was bulled and oppressed because I fell into the “nerd/geek” demographic. I was bullied by white kids in Nova Scotia. I was choked and was almost set on fire by black kids in Toronto. I was assumed to be gay because of the kids I hung out with in Highschool (I was big in the theatre community) and I was called all sorts of homophobic slurs (I’d still admit to being a bit sexuality confused myself). So, with all of that experience of dealing with my own “oppression” I thought I had a good feel for what POC and “Out of the closet” Gay opression might be like. (I am white for what it’s worth). I had some very rough times in my past because of the bullying. But, I read your blog, and the blogs of Natalie, Greta and others and I come to realize just how little I really know, and really understand. It sickens me to see some of my own thoughts in the past being hung out to dry in this blog, because as someone who thought he was always supportive of Women, POC, LGBT folks, ever saying or thinking those things is repulsive. Thank you for this blog. Thank you for helping me to become a stauncher champion for those who truly are oppressed by identifying the parts of me that were still discriminatory to them. I look forward to learning more.


    I always suspected that we were not as squeaky clean as we like to think. For example the “Black Loyalists” who fled the USA and were “welcomed” to the Colonies that became Canada. Their descendents are sill living in shantytown like areas around halifax.

  13. says

    when i found out i was born in a town famous for where, apparently, the largest white on black race riot in north american history happened, i felt kind of upset… there’s probably still signs of segregation there, was plenty when i was young. i can hope it’s improved, but not much.

  14. GeoffE says

    I wonder if you’re aware that the Act establishing the Royal Canadian Navy in 1910 explicitly called for a service to be comprised of “members of the White European race” and that no blacks, natives or Jews were allowed to join until 1952.

    As I understand it, no member of these communities has ever risen to a rank commanding a ship.

  15. McC2lhu saw what you did there. says

    The worst thing I had heard up until now was the Japanese internment camps (and the Ukrainian internment camps in WWI – although I don’t know if it’s on par racism to be the wrong kind of white). I wish there was a braver generation of textbook authors when I was in school. This is the kind of thing, if taught correctly in high school social studies, that would stamp out mindless nationalism, and make people realize that an effort has to be made every day by every generation to work towards equality, justice for everyone and a sense of extending this fairness internationally, not just at home.

  16. Blair T says

    RE: “As I intimated on Monday, Canada has its own history of racist exclusion and white supremacy to contend with.”

    One reason Canadian racism in the past looks so bad is because of how much the country has changed – that is, Canada has been contending with its history of racist exclusion and white supremacy, by changing laws, institutions and culture. That process is ongoing and continues to move forward, and I would argue that Canada is doing it better than almost any other country.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *