Volume 38, Number 1: January/February 2004

Racism in Canada

As part of our plans to celebrate CD’s 40 years of publication, our Editorial Collective asked certain writers to reflect on racism in Canada and consider whether or not it has diminished over this forty-year time span. Their excellent contributions appear in this issue of Dimension. Around the time of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution of the mid-sixties, the Liberal Party of Canada took the strategic decision to promote multiculturalism both as a counterweight to Quebec nationalism and as a genuine means for “visible minorities” to identify with the dominant political project in the Canadian state.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the commitment to multiculturalism has resulted in an important shift in political hegemony in Canada. Although real political and economic power remains concentrated in the hands of a relatively homogenous minority, the liberal democratic state has co-opted significant numbers of the elites of subaltern racial and ethnic groups. Indeed, this has been an important factor in the long reign of today’s Liberal Party.

So, does the legal centrality of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the central liberal vision of civic equality for all, mean that Canada is no longer a racist society?

If it does, how do we explain a recent poll of Canadian attitudes toward Aboriginal land claims, which suggested that nearly fifty per cent reject such claims, insisting that Aboriginal people be treated like “everyone else”? How do we explain the apparent indifference with which many view the arbitrary arrest and detention of people of colour living in Canada in the name of the war against terrorism?

The first paradox is explained when we recognize that beneath the apparent unity of the contemporary Canadian state there lies a colonial history and a contemporary multi-national reality. Despite the changes since the 1960s, the Canadian state still involves the unequal coexistence of a dominant and majority English-speaking Canadian nation, a majority French-speaking Québec nation and a host of mostly dispossessed and displaced First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. Within the dominant English Canadian nation there is quite simply much greater economic and political power. This has led to a (near) monopoly of information, publication and communication promoting the vision of a unified Canadian polity.

The apparent commitment to equality contained in the Charter of Rights and the idea of multiculturalism serve to erase the fact of the inequitable and unjust legacy of colonialism from the non-Aboriginal imagination. This places Aboriginal peoples at a structural disadvantage with those who now wish to invoke “equality” instead of restitution. Most of the opinions in defence of equality against First Nations claims are held fervently, in direct disproportion to the knowledge of history and politics on the part of the opinion holders.

The Canadian state is a capitalist state founded upon the lands and resources of indigenous peoples. From its inception as a settler colony, dispossession of the Aboriginal population has been fundamental to the Canadian project and continues to be so whenever Aboriginal rights and Aboriginal lands present a stumbling block in the drive to open up new territories for profit-driven exploitation.

While the Charter represents an important weapon in the fight against racism, acting as a constraint upon governments and their bureaucracies that violate the rights and freedoms of minorities, for Aboriginal peoples the Charter has an ambiguous legacy. For example, although some Aboriginal people do invoke the Charter, as in the case of non-reserve, residing status Indians who want to vote in band elections, it is viewed by others as a mechanism to impose a narrowly defined version of equality. This is because Aboriginal peoples resist being cast as “minorities,” preferring the conceptualization of Aboriginal peoples who claim rights that cannot be claimed by other Canadian citizens. Similarly the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and treaty rights, a promising initiative grudgingly supported by the Liberals, has to date depended upon activist courts to have any value on the ground for Aboriginal people’s struggles. It is generally given short shrift by the state.

This is why it is so difficult for Canadians to square their commitment to liberal and civic equality with their seemingly equal opposition to restitution for original injustices. The second paradox of an apparent indifference to arbitrary arrests and detentions of people of colour in the name of the war against terrorism is explained when it is recognized that the period since the 1960s has seen a marked tendency towards a racialized working class and an impoverished underclass in some of the key urban metropolitan centres. Indeed, it might be said that this tendency toward social exclusion and isolation represents the flipside of the co-option of elite members of key subaltern groups to the dominant political project.

In CD’s view, decolonization and self-determination are the goals of choice for Aboriginal first peoples. As part of a project of decolonization, which necessarily includes restitution, this goal will necessarily depart from the idea of civic equality.

Within the rest of Canada, the defence of refugees, landed immigrants and citizens unjustly and racially targeted by the U.S.-led “war against terror” must become part of our radical sovereignty project. A war against the war on terror must become our democratic response to the continentalist security-state project emanating from Washington and the closely linked security-state apparatus in Ottawa.