Racism in Canada

Change and Continuity

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. Arguably, class background has trumped “race” when it come to assessing the suitability of potential immigrants.

Third, the symbolic order of race and ethnicity is changing. The stamp of the historically dominant ethnic elites is still evident in many of the ways Canadian society is organized, and there is still a way to go before people of diverse backgrounds can fully recognize themselves in the symbolic, organizational and power structures of the country. However, the ink on that stamp is fading, and social institutions are changing in ways that acknowledge that Canada is no longer made up mainly of “white” Europeans.

Fourth, there is no longer a clear-cut pattern of disadvantage that is rooted solely in racial discrimination. There are complex ways in which region of residence, gender, nativity, skin colour, educational attainment, class background and sector of industrial employment, among other variables, play roles in shaping patterns of social inequality. John Porter’s early 1960s version of the vertical mosaic suggested that, if you knew a person’s ethnic or racial background and gender, you could come up with a reasonably accurate short list of things that person did for a living. Drawing up a similar short list today would be difficult.

Racism: What Has Not Changed

What has not changed? Some individuals still think racist thoughts, say racist things, treat people badly and deny jobs, promotions, housing and other resources to people because of the colour of their skin. In other words, there are still many ways in which opportunities, status and identities in Canada are degraded because of racism. There will never be a point where racial degradations do not happen. But it has become more difficult for individuals and organizations to say and do racist things without social opprobrium. The current generation’s public contestation of “race” and racism, and more public forms of resistance to racism, will ensure that the next forty years will be saturated with “race.”

Vic Satzewich is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at McMaster University. He does research and writes on a variety of topics relating to immigration and race and ethnic relations in Canada. His most recent book is The Ukrainian Diaspora (London, Routledge, 2002).