Living to the north of the great Satan (aka the USA), Canada enjoys one great advantage. It compares favorably to its southern neighbour about issues of race. But not by much, as is becoming evident with the Black Lives Matter movement. It has brought to the fore some ugly features of systemic racism in most Canadian institutions, especially law enforcement.
It is one of the sad aspects of human behaviour that even the most despicable acts assume normalcy if perpetrated repeatedly. Thus, a serial killer may have qualms about killing for the first time but after a few murders, it becomes routine. The same applies to serial rapists.
Racism falls under the same category. Its most common feature is skin colour. People of darker complexion are discriminated against by those with lighter skin. It can extend to religion, ethnicity, tribe and even language.
Colonialism has played a major role in developing and institutionalizing racism. The church has worked in tandem with colonialism and helped entrench it. European colonialists went into Africa, Asia and other parts of the world mostly for plunder. Some areas were colonized permanently including North America (the US and Canada), Australia and New Zealand. Zionist Israel falls under the same category, hence the unquestioning Western support for its brutal suppression of the Palestinians.
For the success of colonial enterprise, it was necessary to demonize native peoples. This was soon followed by genocide. When Christopher Columbus set foot in America in 1492, there were at least 100 million First Nations people living on the continent. They helped the newly-arrived Europeans by giving them food and shelter. Regrettably, the First Nations’ kindness and hospitality were repaid with death and destruction. Today, there are less than three million First Nations people left on the entire North American continent living in appalling conditions on remote reservations.
Genocide of the original inhabitants made it possible to colonize these vast lands. Slave trade and slavery then helped develop them. Slaves were brought on ships from the West African coast. Most were Muslims. This fact is only now being gradually acknowledged. Slavery, however, left an indelible mark on the minds of both the slaves and the white slave masters. Those slaves that rebelled against the oppression and dehumanization of the slave masters were dubbed “bad niggers”, in the unmatched words of the late Malcolm X. Those that internalized slavery and surrendered to their fate were called “good niggers”.
The Native American (Seneca) philosopher, John Mohawk has used similar expressions to describe the two categories: “bad subjects” and “good subjects.” He also identified a third category: the “non-subjects,” which means they think and act outside the Western framework, that is, outside the colonial-imposed mindset.
Let us apply these frameworks to recent developments in Canada and especially to the travails of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. A person of colour, in June he presented a motion in parliament seeking unanimous consent to scrutinize systemic racism in the RCMP. Alain Therrien, member of the Bloc Quebecois, refused to give consent and dismissed the motion with a gesture of his hand trivializing the issue that clearly angered Singh. When he called Therrien a ‘racist’, all hell broke loose. The Bloc demanded Singh apologise for using ‘unparliamentary language’ and withdraw his remark.
To his credit, Singh refused. Speaker Anthony Rota then expelled him from parliament for the rest of the day. Singh was playing by the rules put in place not by the First Nations but by the European settlers. His presence in parliament is proof of that. Yet, for the Bloc Quebecois, his calling Therrien, who is white, a racist was ‘unparliamentary’.
Singh had pointed out that “several Indigenous people have died at the hands of the RCMP in recent months …” There is now also widespread recognition that there is systemic racism in Canada. If there is racism, there has to be racists, no?
A person that believes in and practises capitalism is called a capitalist. Similarly, adherents of communism are called communists but those that practice racism cannot be called racists? This attitude goes to the heart of the matter: white sensitivity and privilege. It is widespread and unless it is addressed, people of color will continue to suffer systemic racism.
It was also illustrated most graphically by the response of RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki when asked by a Senate committee if there was systemic racism in her force. She struggled with the answer but denied there was systemic racism. She later retracted but her encounter with the Senate committee exposed her true feelings.
For decades, concern has been expressed about the RCMP’s treatment of Indigenous people. Hundreds of women and girls have disappeared and murdered yet the force has done little to investigate much less solve their cases.
There was also the deeply troubling video of the arrest of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam in June. The dashcam video showed an RCMP officer jump-tackling the chief to the ground and punching him in the head. What was the chief’s crime? He had an expired vehicle license plate.
Residential schools are another shameful blot that Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. McDonald also supported. Thousands of Indigenous children were snatched from their parents and forced into residential schools where their culture and language were wiped out. There was physical and sexual abuse. The church had a hand in it. This was the white man’s civilizing mission: to Europeanize the Natives. It had disastrous consequences.
While the Canadian government has since apologized for this shameful practice, it seems to have had little effect on the attitude of law enforcement agencies as was evident from the arrest of three black men that had splashed pink paint on Sir John’s statue outside Queen’s Park in Toronto.
The contrasting outcomes of the situations of 62-year-old Ejaz Chaudry in Brampton and 46-year-old Corey Barclay Hurren in Ottawa is another example of systemic racism. Chaudry, a person of colour, had mental issues and his family called a non-emergency health line seeking help because he was refusing to take his medication. The police showed up and despite pleas from the family to let them talk to Chaudry, the police refused and ultimately shot and killed him. The police officer is even refusing to give testimony to the Special Investigation Unit.
Hurren who is white, is a member of the Canadian armed forces and is believed to have smashed his truck through the front gate of Rideau Hall in Ottawa (where the prime minister and governor general’s residences are). According to media reports, Hurren had a large number of weapons, some of them loaded. The RCMP talked to him for 90 minutes and finally persuaded him to surrender himself.
When Singh pointed out that had Hurren been a person of colour, the outcome might have been different. This was not mere speculation as the case of Ejaz Chaudry showed yet the police chiefs and the RCMP piled up making all kinds of allegations against him.
Unless the police forces are brought under control, simply issuing statements about addressing systemic racism will not solve the problem.
There is racism because there are racists in Canada. The racists must acknowledge this basic fact for there to be progress in Canada.