The Contemporary Struggle against Racism in Canada

Article excerpt

Racism continues to be manifest in various ways in Canadian society. It is not a distant "bad" memory, something that previous generations practiced and experienced. Many Canadians acknowledge some history of racial oppression and the need to address it. But efforts are often limited by the habitual contrast of Canadian racism with American racism in a way that encourages moral superiority, drawing on such artifacts as the underground railroad. The absence of the historical memory of the practice of slavery by members of the family compact in Upper and Lower Canada or the blatantly unequal wages paid to Blacks and Asians doing the same work as white workers, which provoked riots both in the Maritimes and in British Columbia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, helps sustain these myths and denials. The outcome is a troubling denial of contemporary racial oppression.

The Lessons of History

The Canadian record on racism still includes a legacy Aboriginal peoples have to live with daily, dispossessed of their land by force and guile, victimized by cultural genocide, denied to engage in certain economic activities until less than thirty years ago. A legacy that making resolution of long-standing treaty, claims protracted--because it involves sharing power. Young people need to know that their history involves the turning away of a ship with Jewish refugees from our shores at the height of the Jewish Holocaust because "none was too many," or that the Komagata Mar& carrying South Asian immigrants, was turned away into dangerous Pacific waters. The Chinese head tax and various legislated prohibitions against Chinese family reunion and the internment of Japanese-Canadians assumed to have crossed loyalties should not remain stories told on Saturday mornings in heritage classes. They should be the subject of official history lessons in schools. Because these stories represent the contradiction that defines key characteristics of Canadian society--a tension between the embrace of liberal-democratic values of equality and the prevalence of workplace, social and cultural hierarchies based on superficial attributes. This tension is reinforced by racist discourses in the popular media, most dramatically resulting in the racialization of crime.

The Future History of Racism

In the face of real progress coming from struggles waged by antiracism and social-justice coalitions, racism remains intractable and racial hierarchies have replaced the ethnic vertical mosaic in giving form to the social order in Canada. Looking at access to key determinants of an individual's or a community's life chances, one realizes that the pronouncements of equality continue to come up against the legacy of the "white settler colony."

This history of racism confronts a changing Canadian population with the racialized minorities becoming more relevant statistically. By 2025, it is projected that 20 per cent of the population will be racialized and an even more significant number will inhabit our urban areas. These changing demographics will highlight the issue of race and racial hierarchies in access to opportunities and power.

After 9/11

More recently, the vivid manifestations of racism have intersected with modes of national security, as racial profiling has gained new currency and even legitimacy. This has been in sharp focus as the national-security agenda has become dominant in the post-September 11 period. Officials at Canada's borders often ignore the passport and target the passport holder's racial origin--a form of racial profiling that we also see practiced in the streets of Canada's major cities where most racialized Canadians live. Under the national-security regime, the citizenship of racialized Canadians is routinely challenged at home and abroad, subjected to indignities few white Canadians have experienced. The media has carried numerous jaw-dropping stories of this discounting of Canadians' citizen rights in the name of securing the majority. …