Racism in Canada: Change and Continuity

Article excerpt

A Thought Experiment

Historians like to engage in thought experiments with dates. One way to measure the change in racism in Canada over the past forty years is to put the question in the context of the previous forty-year period. If one was asked the same question in 1963, Canada would probably not have looked all that different from the Canada of 1923. In 1963, as in 1923, Canada was still a country in which nearly all citizens (with the exception of Aboriginal people) could either directly or indirectly trace their ancestry to Europe. Within government policy and many organizations, non-white immigrants and Aboriginal peoples were still regarded as groups who posed "racial" problems for the processes of nation building and state formation. I doubt whether we can say that there is a similar continuity to the 1963-2003 comparison. Canada today is considerably different from the Canada that existed four decades ago. Four significant changes have occurred.

Racism: What Has Changed

First, Canadian institutions and organizations are now less likely to engage in overt discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnicity. Decision makers and power holders within organizations still discriminate and treat individuals unequally: Further, organizations may still engage in systemic discrimination, as the debate about racial profiling within police forces suggests. However, there are few cases where discrimination and unequal treatment is formally endorsed in the laws of the land. Part of the change in overt discrimination can be traced to the introduction of legal prohibitions against discrimination and unequal treatment. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, human-rights legislation and hate laws form a significant part of the changed context. None of these measures are perfect, and all could be improved. However, this new legal context makes it more difficult for individuals and organizations to get away with racist practices and other kinds of unequal treatment.

Second, there have been changes in racism in the area of immigration policy and practices. As we know, racism played an important role in the regulation of the flow of workers and potential future citizens. However, there is no longer a legislated preference for white, European immigrants, and the more blatantly racist aspects of the immigration-policy field have been trashed. There are still racist remnants to immigration policy and practices, and certain policies impact immigrants and potential immigrants in different ways, but they are a far cry from the early 1960s, when race, colour, nationality and a variety of euphemisms for "race" played a determining role in who got in. …