White North: Canadian Racism ; Image as Paragon of Racial Peace and Justice Is Being Challenged

Article excerpt

For more than 150 years, Canadians have congratulated themselves on their country's tradition of racial equality. While their cousins to the south were undergoing the agonies of a bloody civil war followed by more than a century of oppression and strife, Canada regarded itself as an asylum for runaway slaves then as a paragon of racial peace and justice.

But a recently published book, "Towards Freedom: The African- Canadian Experience," by Ken Alexander and Avis Glaze shows the picture isn't quite so rosy as many Canadians like to think.

The book points out that:

Slavery was banned in parts of the United States 47 years before the 1833 British Emancipation Act outlawed it in Canada.

Nova Scotia operated segregated schools in the 1960s.

Of the roughly 50,000 escaped slaves who reached Canada by the Underground Railroad during the early 1800s, two-thirds returned to the United States after the Civil War, drawn back by family ties or the opportunities of reconstruction, but also driven by Canadian bigotry.

When Canada recruited Americans to settle its western prairies around the turn of the century and blacks from Oklahoma joined the migration, their arrival sparked a racist reaction across Canada and resulting regulations effectively barred black immigration for a half century.

The policy changed in the 1960s after black civic leaders, noting the hypocrisy of Canada's strong opposition to South African apartheid, petitioned to open the door to Africans and West Indians.

Examples of recent difficulties:

In Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, 17 blacks have been killed by police in the last 15 years.

In Nova Scotia, where black freemen who migrated to Canada after the American Revolution founded Canada's oldest black community, racial brawls have broken out in the high schools this year.

In Colingwood, Ont., where pride in their history has moved blacks to oppose changing the name of Negro Creek Road, a black church has been defaced with racist graffiti.

In Ontario, a recent study by the provincial government of the criminal justice system found that young black men in Toronto had been stopped by police at twice the rate of their white counterparts and that young blacks suspects were released on bail at half the rate of whites.

Even added together, these events may not equal the anguish of an American race riot. But black Canadians argue they are serious matters treated with insufficient seriousness.

"The black community has no allies right now," says Sheldon Taylor, professor of African-Canadian history at York University near Toronto. "When a police officer shoots a young black person, there is no court that will convict him.

"Then there is the embarrassment factor. We do not want to admit even today that there are problems. We do not want our American neighbors to know."

The embarrassment factor was evident over the summer in the national furor that erupted when Sports Illustrated magazine quoted a black Canadian sprinter, Donovan Bailey, as saying Canada was as racist as the United States. Bailey later said he was misquoted about the comparison, but stuck by his contention that racism flourishes in Canada.

Canada has no official figure for the number of blacks, because until the census being conducted this year the government had never asked its residents about their race. …