The Truth About Racism in Canada

Addressing the ancient Canadian proverb: “At least we’re not America”

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(Source: CBC)

On the afternoon of June 2 Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was participating in a news conference when he was asked about the actions taken by security forces to prepare for President Trump’s June 1st photo op in Lafayette Square.

Reporter: You’ve been reluctant to comment on the words and actions of the US president, but we do have Donald Trump now calling for military action against protestors. We saw protestors tear gassed yesterday to make way for a presidential photo-op. I’d like to ask you what you think about that, and if you don’t want to comment what message do you think you’re sending?

*21 seconds of silence*

Trudeau: We all watch in horror and consternation what’s going on in the United States. It is a time to pull people together but it is a time to listen. It is a time to learn when injustices continue despite progress over years and decades but it is a time for us as Canadians to recognize that we too have our challenges. That black Canadians and racialized Canadians face discrimination as a lived reality every single day. There is systemic discrimination in Canada which means our systems treat Canadians of colour Canadians who are racialized differently than they do others. It is something that many of us don’t see. It is something that is a lived reality for racialized Canadians. We need to see that not just as a government and take action but we need to see that as Canadians. We need to be allies in the fight against discrimination. We need listen, we need to learn, and we need to work hard to fix, to figure out how we can be part of the solution, on fixing things. This government has done a number of things over the past years, but there is lots more to do and we will continue to do that, because we see… we see you, we see the discrimination that racialized Canadians live every day.

After this clip began to circulate I saw some folks — mainly Americans — taking this as an inspiring moment.

Me? I was embarrassed. And angry.

Us Canadians have a very different experience of Trudeau than the rest of the world. You see, we are used to politicians that speak in complete sentences composed entirely of real words. We are not as easily impressed. Canadians know Trudeau’s shtick — the way he mixes consultant-speak with woke-isms to sound profound. While he is great at acting out the symbolism of allyship, we haven’t heard anything about policies to tackle the “systemic racism” that Trudeau claimed to be concerned about.

Canada is sometimes painted as a post-racial wonderland, but often we use the problems in America as a distraction for our own issues. Canada maintains an image of a multiracial utopia, led by a young turbo-progressive feminist. I want to pop that bubble for anyone who still buys into this image of Trudeau, or this myth about Canada.

Trudeau Doesn’t Stand Up to Racism and Authoritarianism

For those not paying attention to Trudeau’s statement, he didn’t actually criticize Trump. To be specific, he said that Canadians were looking in “horror and consternation”, which could refer to Trump’s authoritarianism, the police brutality, or the riots. His language is vague to avoid getting on President Trump’s bad side.

It is worth stating plainly the what exactly Trudeau was commenting on. Activists who were participating in a lawful and peaceful protest were forced out of Lafayette Square by Secret Service using pepper spray and physical force so Donald Trump could participate in a photo-op.

That is a heinous abusive of power.

In Trudeau’s news conference, he had a clear opportunity to address that particular incident. Not a generalized critique of Trump, the Republicans, or racism in America — a single specific event. Trudeau could have been indirect or conditional if he wanted to. Instead, he chose to say nothing at all.

Cowardice like this isn’t unusual for Justin Trudeau. He has an extensive history of failing to address Trump’s authoritarianism and racism. When asked about Trump’s impeachment in a December 2019 interview, he said he does not comment on America’s domestic matters. The Prime Minister declined to comment on President Trump’s Middle East “Peace Plan,” which Palestinian leaders dismissed as a “type of apartheid.” Trudeau did comment on the child separation policy… the same day Trump signed an executive order officially ending the practice.

It is no secret that Trudeau doesn’t like Trump. They had a blow-up last December over comments Trudeau made at the NATO summit. Negotiations of the revised NAFTA agreement were also quite bitter, even though the final changes were relatively minor. Despite this, Trudeau avoids standing up to Trump on issues related to race.

In this context, Trudeau’s silence should not be heard as a symbolic protest against Trump, but as another surrender to Trump.

Justice for Regis and Chantel

Police brutality does not know national boundaries. While the story of George Floyd was particularly egregious, one of the reasons his death was so activating is the video footage. Canada has its own troubling incidents, though fewer they haven’t been caught on tape. On May 27th, Regis Korchinski-Paquet — an Indigenous-Black woman — fell out of her balcony during a police “wellness check.” The circumstances of Korchinski-Paquet’s death are unclear, but many are concerned that she was pushed off the balcony by police. On June 4th Chantel Moore — an Indigenous woman — was shot and killed by police during a “wellness check.” Once again, the specific circumstances of Moore’s death are not public at this time. These deaths have been an inspiration for the large demonstrations seen in Canada over the last couple of weeks.

As is often the case, this goes beyond a couple “bad apples.” On June 12th video was released of Allan Adam — an Indigenous chief — being beaten by law enforcement officers in March, 2020, over an expired license plate registration. D’Andre Campbell was shot to death in his home on April 6, 2020, after he called the police over a domestic matter. In June 2016, Abdirahman Abdi was beaten to death by police while he was experiencing a mental health crisis. Dafonte Miller lost his eye when he was attacked by an off-duty police officer an his brother during an encounter in December, 2016. Many of these cases include evidence of police cover-ups, and no officer has been convicted of a crime in any of these incidents.

Is police brutality less common in Canada than the United States? We have some data that suggests there are fewer deaths, but we do not have detailed information. Canada does not have publicly accessible statistics regarding police use of force. Without such resources it is difficult to assess the scale of the problem. Activists and experts often rely on the information that police departments choose to make public. Groups like Black Lives Matter have called for Canada to release disaggregated data of police use of force, but as of yet this has not been done.

Hate Crimes in Canada

Canada’s hate crime statistics are alarming. 2,073 hate crimes were reported to police in the year 2017 — the highest since reporting began in 2009. 2017’s peak came after four years of consecutive increase. 2018 was the second highest year with 1,798 reports.

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(Source: Stats Canada)

For comparison, the United States reported 7,106 hate crimes in 2017. This computes as roughly 21.6 hate crimes per million people. Canada had 55.1 hate crimes per million people — over twice the rate of America. Comparing crime statistics between countries has limitations given the differences in legal definitions and reporting procedures, but this data suggests that hate crimes are more common than Canadians may realize.

Would you like to take a guess which ethnic group is most likely to be the target of a hate crime in Canada? The Black people! Black individuals also reported a higher number of hate crimes than Muslims, or LGBT+ people according to Stats Canada. Canada’s Black population reports roughly 16% of hate crimes, despite being only 3.5% of the total population. A Black person in Canada is more than four times as likely to report a hate crime than a Black person in America. Black people also experience a disproportionate number of violent hate crimes. This shows that overt racism in Canada is not only prevalent, but directed towards Black communities.

Canadian Slavery

Slavery has a special status in the history of oppression. The practice is based on a foundational belief that members of a lesser race are so inferior that they can be viewed as property. Slavery is most associated with America due to the civil war, and scale of the institution in the southern states, but that is hardly the only place it was practiced. Canada also participated in slavery. Scholars have identified at least 4,200 slaves in Canada between 1671–1834, of which roughly two-thirds were Indigenous, and one-third were Black. Most experts believe the actual number of slaves was likely much higher.

What is most peculiar about slavery in Canada is the collective amnesia surrounding the subject. Canadians (and the world more generally) have managed to forget about slavery in our country. Canadian history books generally do not touch on the subject. Take the history curriculum in Ontario. The subject of slavery is primarily discussed as a feature of ancient history, or as a practice carried out by the British and the Americans. There is no requirement to learn about Canada’s role in slavery.

On the other hand, the work of Canadian slavery abolitionists features prominently in Canada’s collective memory. Known as the “Underground Railroad,” these efforts are celebrated as a testament to Canada’s history of multiculturalism and racial unity, perhaps most recognizably in one of the “Heritage Minutes” commercials that would run on Canadian television in the 1990s.

Propaganda like this would regularly run during commercial breaks on Canadian TV in the 90's.

The imbalance between the celebration of the Underground Railroad and the erasure of slavery, is suspicious. As McGill Professor Dr. Charmaine Nelson said in an interview with the CBC;

The underground railroad was about 30 years [from 1833–1861]. It’s just that window of time that African Americans are fleeing north… Canadians slavery transpired over 200 plus years. So, what does it take to erase 200 years of history from the collective consciousness of a nation, but to enshrine three decades?

Those who do acknowledge the history of slavery in Canada will sometimes downplay the brutality of the enterprise, suggesting Canadian slaves had more autonomy than American slaves. While that may be the case, there is also evidence that plenty of Canadian slaves were subjected to vicious abuse, including rape, beatings, forced sterilizations, and constant surveillance. Given the incomplete historical record, it is impossible to assess the “typical” treatment of slaves, but it is misguided to suggest that slavery in Canada was especially humane.

Treatment of Indigenous People

While the focus of this essay is on the oppression and mistreatment of Canada’s Black population, it is necessary to touch on the treatment of Canada’s Indigenous people. While the history and modern day experiences of these groups is very different, both have been oppressed by the same system of white supremacy.

Since the time European colonizers first came to Canada, the Indigenous population has been subjugated, terrorized, and cheated. While it is impossible to recount all the horrors and humiliations inflicted on Indigenous people by the government of Canada, residential schools are worthy of special mention. The name sounds innocuous, but these sites were more akin to indoctrination camps than educational institutions. Indigenous children would be forcibly taken to boarding schools, and then subjected to programs designed to eradicate their culture, language, and religion. There are widespread reports of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at these institutions. Residential school survivors have experienced an elevated risk of mental health challenges and substance abuse. These health issues have even been passed down to the children of residential school survivors. The last residential school closed in 1996, meaning that many former students are still alive.

The history of residential schools is largely uncontroversial. Canada’s government acknowledges what happened at these institutions. That doesn’t mean they have done enough to mend the damage caused by residential schooling. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is a body that was instituted by the Canadian federal government to evaluate the damage inflicted upon Indigenous people by residential schools. The TRC’s 2015 final report outlined 94 calls to action that would assist the Indigenous community. Almost 5 years later, only 10 action items have been completed, and a full 63 have either not been started, or remain in the initial planning phase. Even when Canada acknowledges its mistakes, and has a template for addressing the problem, the country fails to follow through.

The Myth of Canadian Exceptionalism

The myth of Canada as a multicultural utopia is deceptively powerful. Even myself, after writing about hate crimes, police brutality, and indoctrination camps, I feel attracted to the narrative that Canada is “good.” History is a complex beast, and while there are moments when Canada has shown tolerance, it doesn’t excuse the harm the country has done, and continues to do. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Much of Canada’s image is framed as a contrast to the United States. So many conversations about racism and prejudice are deflected by the mantra “At least we are not the U.S.” Are we better than the U.S.? I don’t think that matters. If you asked a young Black man if he would rather be unjustly shot to death by police north or south of the border, I expect he would not have a strong preference.

What makes Canada truly exceptional is not its tolerance, but it’s our ability to be racist with a smile, as Donovan Bailey put it. American patriotism has a bombastic jingoism that is both easy to identify and deconstruct. Canada’s myth is subtler. We tell the world that we may not be great, but at least we aren’t bad. This narrative of benevolent neutrality is so mild that Canadians don’t realize they have bought in.

Canada views itself as a bystander of history, first as a subject of the British Empire, and now as America’s accomplice. Trudeau’s 21 seconds of silent disapproval is another chapter in that history — performatively displaying a race-conscious image, but unwilling to do the work needed to take on racist institutions.

Recommended reading: Desmond Cole’s ‘The Skin We’re In’, which was an important influence for this article.

Contact the author: website, email, Twitter,

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Scientist / Writer / Environmentalist ~ I would love to work with you. Learn more about me: https://jesse-harris.ca/

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