Canada has a racism problem, and it’s uniquely ours

Posted on June 6, 2020 in Equality Debates

Source: — Authors: – Politics/Opinion

Canadians can’t help watching the racism now roiling America and wonder where we fit in — for better or for worse.

Premier Doug Ford got himself in trouble this week after boasting about Canadian superiority while minimizing our homegrown problems. More noteworthy is that he changed his tune the very next day, acknowledging that systemic racism still discriminates against Blacks and other non-whites, notably Indigenous peoples.

In the search for answers about how we compare, we may be asking the wrong questions. Which is why this column isn’t about racist culture but political culture (I don’t pretend to have the answers for the former).

Never mind that America has a legacy of slavery that Canada doesn’t share, for we have our own well-documented history of discrimination. The bigger difference isn’t in the racism but in the responses.

America faces double jeopardy because it must not only confront racism, but also do so in the context of a polarized and confrontational culture: African-Americans versus the police — followed by protestors facing deployments of the National Guard, prison guards (bearing arms but not identification) and soldiers in full battle dress (led by their top soldier wearing a camouflage combat uniform).

Beyond the street violence, police brutality has escalated to political warfare in America — led not just by President Donald Trump and his Republican allies but evangelical enablers and apologists everywhere. Political culture is magnifying racist culture.

For its part, Canada is not without original sin (nor subsequent sin), and we dare not seek absolution by pointing fingers at a country with supposedly worse problems. But we are undeniably different, even if not in the ways we imagine.

I spent 11 years covering conflict overseas as a foreign correspondent — including civil wars pitting Sinhalese Buddhists against Tamil Hindus, and Northern Sudanese Arab Muslims against Southern Sudanese Christian Blacks. Along the way I chronicled strains of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Buddhist chauvinism and Hindutva (hegemony of Hindus over Muslims and Christians).

I’m not arguing that Canadians are less racist than anyone else. As individuals, we are perfectly capable of descending into racism or intolerance indistinguishable from what we see elsewhere.

By accident of history and geography, we have developed a culture of accommodation and compromise. But we also benefit from a political inheritance that sets us apart.

Sociologists often make reference to Canadians’ deference to authority. To me, it’s our preference for collectivity that counts.

Beyond the cliché of medicare, consider our tradition of equalization that creates a level provincial playing field, fiscally — a quintessentially Canadian impulse. More than that, most of our prime ministers in recent decades have promoted tolerance, however imperfectly, most of the time.

True, Pierre Trudeau teamed up with Jean Chrétien decades ago to propose de facto Indigenous assimilation, but they backed off. Trudeau brought troops and tanks into the streets to quash Quebec terrorism, but the country ultimately responded to separatism peacefully and civilly (without civil wars). Ottawa deployed the army at Oka decades ago, but avoided doing so this year for an Indigenous blockade of pipelines and railways, later withdrawing the Mounties to reduce tensions.

Canada’s political culture more often than not tends to de-escalate conflicts, even if it sometimes takes forever to deconstruct the discrimination that causes it. That doesn’t mean our major party leaders always did the right thing: Stephen Harper delivered a formal apology to our Indigenous peoples, but in his last campaign he used the dog whistle of a “barbaric practices” snitch line.

Homophobic and misogynistic vulgarisms were directed at Kathleen Wynne, Ford’s predecessor as premier. In power, Ford has flirted with figures of intolerance, then distanced himself (although he still makes excuses for Charles McVety’s venom).

That Ford so quickly walked back his blunder this week speaks not to his political correctness or adeptness but a political culture that won’t tolerate intolerance at the leadership level for long. That Trudeau so rapidly talked back his youthful blackface performances that resurfaced last year shows how little room there was in the public sphere for such antics or attitudes.

The Canadian tradition of avoiding confrontation doesn’t inoculate us from racial discrimination, nor diminish systemic racism. Indeed, there’s even a risk that forever preaching tolerance and introspection could lead to eternal complacency, and so we also need bracing reminders to reform our ways.

But that is Canada’s political culture, for better or for worse. We, like our neighbours, have work to do, but unlike them we do not yet see the piercing partisan divide, shameless political wedges and reckless incitement that preclude reconciliation.

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