Canadians: Polite or Racist?

Sikhs on Komagata Maru by Leonard Juda Frank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sikhs aboard Komagata Maru, where they were held for two months before being turned back to India by Juda Frank [Public Domain]

When looking at the question of racism in Canada, the first thing to remember is our need to portray ourselves as better than Americans. We’re not as racist! Look at the Underground Railroad! For generations, racism in Canada was talked about essentially in that way. Point to the Underground Railroad and clam up with a touch of smug satisfaction.

A little study of Canada’s history reveals otherwise, however. Throughout Canada’s history we have had episodes of shameful prejudice and racism, and racial tensions can still provide a hostile undercurrent, even as Canada has become one of the world’s most diverse countries.

Step back a few centuries and remember. Slavery was not invented by the founding fathers in Philadelphia. It was an established institution around the world, and was brought to North America by the British Empire, as well as the Spanish, and the French Empires.  When the Declaration of Independence was signed, slavery had been in place in North America for centuries.

First Nations, often as a result of wars, would keep slaves, although how widespread this practice was is difficult to pin down. New France had hundreds of slaves forcibly brought to the New World. Canada was not founded as a reaction to slavery in the USA. Slavery was abolished across the whole of the British Empire with a law that was passed in 1833 and went into effect the following year in 1834, long after the American War of Independence.

In other words, Canada forbid the practice of slavery as an obedient member of the British Commonwealth, and not as a declaration of human rights. Far from it.

Yes, there was the Act Against Slavery in Upper Canada in 1793, banning the trafficking of humans. It also allowed for the eventual emancipation of their children when they reached 25 years of age. Nice, right? When you’re 25 you will no longer be owned by someone. But it did not abolish slavery. And merchants and farmers who depended on the exploitation of cheap labour, lobbied vigorously to amend the legislation.

Chinese Head Tax receipt By User Bourquie on en.wikipedia (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Head Tax Receipt [Public Domain]

So racism in Canada has been a somewhat more subtle but no less real affair than the more overt and explicit prejudices that were typical of America over the last couple of centuries. For example:

  • Native Canadians had restricted voting rights (they were obliged to give up their treaty rights and status until 1960 when the law was changed).
  • The Chinese head tax enacted in 1885 and raised to the then-astronomical amount of $500 to try and prevent immigration by Chinese into Canada.
  • The 1906 closing off of Canada to immigration from South Asia.
  • Increasingly strict regulations on health, literacy and financial means were applied to African-Americans attempting to move to Canada. In 1911 (a year of enormous migration to Canada from Europe) these migrants were outright banned.
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 shut the door completely to further immigration into Canada.
  • In 1936, Fred Christie – a Black Canadian and a Montreal resident who worked as a chauffeur and was a big Montreal Canadiens fan – was refused service at the Montreal Forum’s tavern. He sued and won in local court but was overturned on appeal. It went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that businesses in Quebec had the right to discriminate as long as “public order” was maintained. Order and Good Government indeed.

In Ontario, for example, studies have shown that a form of apartheid was practiced where Black Canadians had restricted choices as to where they could go to school, or live, or work. In essence, the Jim Crow restrictions in the Southern States had their mirror images in parts of Canada, including Nova Scotia.

So is it any surprise that racism is alive and well in Canada? Until the 1960s, the Canadian government strictly controlled who could immigrate to Canada and who had the nation’s doors shut in their faces.

And of course, one of the more obvious areas of discrimination is in terms of Canada’s First Nations. Aboriginal communities have:

But to mention this would be rude and very un-Canadian, wouldn’t it? Yes, we do have a problem in Canada. And pretending to be better than the United States is hardly the solution. But it’s a solution that’s been drilled into us for generations. Maybe it’s time to realize that Canadians can be as racist as anyone. Even in a thriving multicultural society.

But Canada’s diversity had to be built by taking down almost 2 centuries worth of restrictions and discriminations. And some Canadians are less than pleased with Canada’s current diversity. Consider a few stereotypes of discriminatory behavior north of the 49th parallel:

  • The folksy Pragmatist: you use phrases like “honest to goodness” and words like “poppycock” when insulting those who defend diversity. How could you be racist? It’s just a matter of common sense.
  • The taciturn neo Nazi: you’re as coded as a cryptographic cipher. But those sparse and acidic little statements are a badge of honor. And they function as efficient passwords into a hate-filled universe. Truth brother.
  • The righteously-raging, incoherent, goes-on-way-too-long Bigot: hopefully you’re not in charge of communications at wherever you work. Maybe warehouse management?
  • The wise, the Zen, the lover of nature, the we’ve-got-too-many-people-in-Canada Eminence: a small sample, but more than just a few famous personalities one suspects.
  • The Boss: as in the fiscally wanton political leader of your people who takes a slender budget from Ottawa and puts it on a diet, as the chosen elders dig in and feast. Yes, you too. Seeing any questions about where the money went are met with indignant outraged rants about white, conquering, evil people.

That was fun wasn’t it? Having a nice big label slapped on your forehead? Or maybe not. As Canada continues to be an increasingly diverse nation, and as we marry and divorce and work and play together, we see each other in all our individual diversity. So those labels are being peeled off. One by one. By the owners themselves, and by the rest of us as well. Hopefully. We have a ways to go.

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