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Racism in Canada?
by Brad Reimer
I have been on an interesting journey looking at racism in the Canadian context. It has been both a personal journey and one of coming to understand what it means to be part of the dominant culture in North America.
My main reason for the study was dissatisfaction with Mennonite Central Committee's anti-racism training called Damascus Road. At Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS), we use Damascus Road at orientations for volunteers. My frustration is its overwhelming focus on the United States.
Because MVS is a binational program, we ought to have a presentation that addresses racism in both Canada and the U.S. I hope my study will help us create this. What follows is a summary of what I learned.
The differences between Canada and the U.S. are too many to mention, but here are some key differences:
• We have a deep-seated, historical concept of two founding nations: France and England. The U.S. does not.
• Our history of dealing with First Nations people is different. We carried out a slow and relatively nonviolent process of systematic genocide, whereas the U.S. had a much more blatant policy of cultural eradication and assimilation.
• Canada does not have one particular People of Color that makes a significant impact on the dominant culture. The U.S. has twoAfrican American and Hispanic people.
• We have multiculturalism as a national policy; the U.S. does not.
• We bear the sociological impact of having the U.S. as a neighbor; the U.S. doesn't have such an outside influence.
I have learned that much of the history we are taught is questionablethose who “won the war” write the history. To better understand things today, we need to delve into the complex realities of immigration trends, native cultural trends, distinctions between groups of people, and the workings of systematic genocide.
For example, we never learn about the racism found in the speeches of our early prime ministers. We don't learn how the government set policies to keep people of color “under control.”
Two founding nations: The reality is that all immigrant groups in Canada are measured against the French-English “norm.” Even as this reality changes, these two “founding nations” still dominate the agenda of Canadian life. This may be one of the least-researched and most powerful influences on racism in Canada.
First Nations: In the United States, the practice was to eradicate the Indians to clear the way for European settlers. Canada did not experience such a massive European influxwe had no Kansas or Oklahoma land rushes. Here, government policy turned into a slow genocide of First Nations peoples.
So today, Canada is still deeply embroiled in land claims and native rights issues such as self-government. In the U.S., these are virtually nonissues. The native population in the U.S. appears to have assimilated much more into U.S. society. We are in very different places when it comes to First Nations peoples.
People of color: In the U.S., two dominant people of color carry a significant weight. The African-American population numbers about 32 million, the Hispanic 30 million (total U.S. population is about 267 million). In Canada, which has a population of 30 million, the largest people of color is identified as “East and Southeast Asian” at 1.27 million (1996 statistics). First Nations population is approximately 477,630.
Multiculturalism: In the United States, multiculturalism is a bad word; in Canada, it's national policy. How does this affect our thinking in Canada?
I was saddened to read that the multiculturalism policy in Canada was basically a Liberal government plan to appease immigrants and keep their votes. Most minority groups would say the policy is a failure, but not all agree. Speak to groups such as Ukrainians, Jews, Estonians, and the view is different. Has it been worth the journey?
U.S. as neighbor: As the U.S. sends a barrage of cultural ideas across the border, we in Canada find it difficult to discern what is distinct about our history and society. But most Canadians would say, “We don't have a problem with racism like they do in the U.S.” This adds one more level of complexity to facing racism in Canada.
One form of racism we have inherited from the U.S. is “hate groups.” These groups would have taken root in Canada in some form even if the U.S. were not our neighbor. However, many of these groups are based in the U.S. Canada has a wide range of hate groups, including people known for their racist views, such as Ernst Zundell, Jim Keekstra, and Terry Long.
Anti-Semitism seems to be a more prominent issue in Canada than other forms of racism. Hate groups spend most of their time on issues such as the Holocaust and Jewish conspiracies. Perhaps this is because the Jewish community challenges each accusation, making it more visible. Are other “minority” groups simply not as organized?
Economics and race relations: In my readings and conversations, I continually return to economics and its role in perpetuating racism. (One can use other words in place of economics, such as class or power imbalances.) The common thread is that wherever there is economic disparity or an imbalance of power, racist ideas seem to manifest themselves.
An example is the recent fishing dispute in New Brunswick. For many years, aboriginal and non-aboriginal fishers have worked side by side, sharing the sparse resource. The recent Supreme Court decision allowed aboriginal fishers to go out three weeks before the official lobster season. As soon as the native fishers headed out to sea, racial slurs and violence began.
Did this rapid imbalance of power manifest itself in racism? Would it have made a difference if the group given “special” rights had been Mennonite or Ukrainian?
I continue to wrestle with several questions and I invite readers to engage these questions as well:
•Did racism exist before colonialism?
•How does our simplistic understanding of history feed into our racism?
•How would Canada be different if we did not have an official policy of multiculturalism?
•How does one deal with a perceived power imbalance, especially when others fail to see the same reality?
•How does our Mennonite understanding of service play into a racist theology?
Brad Reimer, Winnipeg, Manitoba, is associate director of Mennonite Voluntary Service.
© Good Books, Intercourse, PA 17534