TORONTO (NUW) — When discussing race relations, I find that fellow students often assume and emphasize Canada’s superiority over the United States. They argue that since we had never institutionalized slavery or segregation, Canada is more equitable towards our black population. More broadly, Canadian identity is supposedly founded upon an inherently tolerant “mosaic,” instead of an aggressive, assimilation-promoting “melting pot” in the US.
This explicit commitment to diversity certainly deserves a pat on the back. Yet, it is incredibly arrogant to repeatedly emphasize these achievements as trumping the US. Such rhetoric absolves us of any responsibility to investigate Canada’s colonial past and how racial oppression manifests today.
For example, we often boast that Canada was a refuge for slaves fleeing the US. However, simply focusing on Canada as a “haven from racism” erases how black people faced de facto segregation after arriving in Canada. In 1911, the Edmonton city council passed a resolution to ban black people from the city. Similarly, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court legitimized racially segregated movie theatres in 1946. Such systematic discrimination continues today — in Toronto for example, our police stop and question black people at disproportionately higher rates than others. In one patrol zone, the likelihood of being “carded” was 17.1 times higher for black people than white people.
This is not to mention Canada’s abhorrent treatment of its Aboriginal people. Our country is marred by the legacy of residential schools, stolen children, and land appropriation, and this state-sanctioned violence is hardly a relic of the past. In particular, there are a disproportionate number of Aboriginals in prison currently — they make up almost a quarter of all inmates but constitute only four per cent of our population. We are also facing a crisis of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, for which Prime Minister Stephen Harper callously refuses to pursue a public inquiry.
Being cocooned in U of T’s ivory towers, we are easily preoccupied with grand political theories and distant historical texts. As such, it is easy to forget how much racism translates into the daily experiences of fellow students on campus. Consider what happened in 2009: five students not only showed up to a U of T–affiliated Halloween party in blackface, but also received the best costume prize. More recently,EngSoc held a questionable “fiesta-themed” pub night this year, which many criticized for encouraging racial stereotypes. I’ve also heard countless disparaging comments about U of T being “too Asian,” as if Asian identity is somehow homogenous and undesirable.
These anecdotes are neither anomalous nor trivial. They accumulate daily, creating a hostile social climate for many racialized
students. Indeed, “The Final Report of the Task Force on Campus Racism” published by the Canadian Federation of Students in 2010 has catalogued the numerous and multi-faceted ways racism continues to affect students and faculty across Canada.
Moving forward, we need to be more proactive in fostering an inclusive and supportive environment for our peers. For instance, professors can add equity statements in syllabi and discuss them at the beginning of their course. This would remind students of how certain behaviours or remarks can be discriminatory, while also informing students of procedures for reporting any racism they may face or observe.
Colleges and student unions should also mandate anti-oppression education for elected student representatives. This would not only ensure our student leaders are sufficiently informed about how racism operates on campus, but would also empower them to intervene where racism occurs.
Above all, we need to listen. Specifically, when our peers speak out about their lived experiences of racism, it is crucial to recognize and uplift their stories as valuable insight into the problem, instead of accusing them of being “too sensitive.”
Let’s not fall prey to the idea that Canada’s race relations are necessarily better than the US’. Even if we were, that’s no excuse for social stagnation — we can always do better.