Volume 38, Number 1: January/February 2004

The Contemporary Struggle against Racism in Canada

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 Maru, 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 anti-racism 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. The outcome is acts that rob many of their dignity and call into question the claims of equal citizenship.

A recent personal experience involving the treatment of a close relative who went to a Canadian mission in Kenya to seek a visa for her mother is instructive. Her Canadian passport did not protect her from the indignities often visited upon non-Canadian African people who go to the visa office to apply for access to Canada. She was ridiculed by a high-ranking office who wondered angrily who she was to demand better treatment as a taxpayer and threatened never to give her mother a visa. As a woman of colour, the racial hierarchy of citizenship became painfully real for her that day.

Racism and the Workplace

We are often defined by the work that we do and attachment to the workplace is an essential part of our belonging to society. Not only does it allow us to meet our material needs and define our identities, it is an important determinant of what type of housing we can acquire and, ultimately, our life chances. That is why the fact that attachment to the workplace remains tenuous for many racialized Canadians because of systemic employment discrimination represents a major stumbling block to achieving racial equality.

The situation is aggravated by neoliberal demands for deregulation and flexibility. This creates an environment in which exploitation is intensified, and racialized Canadians are ghettoized in contingent employment. Meanwhile, poverty among racialized communities in urban areas is twice that of other Canadians, and as high as three times among youth and single parents. Inequalities in access to employment lead to higher unemployment rates (particularly high among youth). It also leads to huge income disparities and concentrations in low-income sectors and occupations, as well as low-income and insecure employment. Those with skills and qualification from abroad often contend with the devaluing of their human capital; many highly trained people ending up selling flowers on street corners, doing janitorial work, or driving cabs. It is such experiences that represent racism’s contemporary manifestations and social exclusions.

Sadly, many of our governments are in retreat from social and economic engagement, leaving the rot to fester and many to speculate on the combustion down the road. The real work to fight racism and its legacies is left to those committed to building a coalition for social justice. This needs to be made up of working people struggling in solidarity against various oppressions in workplaces and in the broader society. As racialized groups become the main source of net growth for the labour force, the role of labour and workplace struggles becomes ever more critical to future anti-racism successes.

An Effective Anti-Racist Response

Of course, not all the news is bad. What we have to build upon are those moments when anti-racism and other social-justice mobilizations have inspired institutional remedies like the Bill of Rights, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, various provincial and federal human-rights legislations and a general social sanction against the most offensive verbal racial attacks. The Charter once and for all provides for constitutional protections for the victims of racial discrimination, but successive governments are left with the responsibility to actualize those protections through legislative and program action. What is needed is a systemic response – legislation, sanctions for law breakers and regulation of the labour market.

For 40 years, Canadian Dimension has given voice to the determined and principled fight for social justice for all working peoples of Canada. Yet it has never been so urgent to hear that voice clearly and consistently today. This celebration is an acknowledgement of the tremendous work already done, and a re-dedication to the continuing struggles against such exclusions as racial discrimination.