The problematic narrative that does more damage than it seems to solve
An uncomfortable and unspoken truth in Canada is that we foster racism too. It’s easy for us to look to our Southern neighbours and think “wow, there are no Ku Klux Klan hoods raiding the streets here, we’re doing well.” But is that the case? Are we really justified in our self-righteous pat on the back? There is an aspect of willful ignorance at play here.
We are levelled at second place in the world for inclusivity, feeding into this idea that we have no points of shame in the race to eradicate racism. Unfortunately, the problem with ranking systems is that they’re relative. Our comfortable seat in second place is arguably possible because we’re better at hiding our problems here. Sifting through our current laws and policies does paint a pretty picture, but the reality of walking through downtrodden communities and seeing the traces of a long history of systemic racism largely discounts this rainbow and butterflies account of Canada.
So where is the disconnect here? Many cite our flamboyant multiculturalism policy created by the Pierre Trudeau government and launched in 1971 when trying to perpetuate this sinister myth of equality. Yet, to be blunt, that was not really the purpose of the multicultural act. For one, after WWII, immigration was changing the demographics of Canada. The 50s and 60s saw us with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, the first to be explicitly of neither French nor English descent. On top of that, Quebec began to fight for independence, sick and tired of adhering to the English people that didn’t really seem to care about them.
The multiculturalism policies were in affect designed to bring together a nation that was crumbling in terms of identity. Before, it was simple; you were either English or French, depending largely on where you stood in terms of the Quebec borders. Increasingly though, there was no easy demographic to point to and say “this is us, Canadians.” So, in a last ditch effort to curb this problem, the solution was “our identity is our multiculturalism!”
And so was born the narrative that had the potential to be helpful and was oh so damaging. Much in the way that Michael Scott’s proclamation “I declare bankruptcy” in The Office did not in fact do any such thing, neither did the federal proclamation that our identity was multicultural. The history of this nation is built upon years and years of literal and cultural genocide, as well as decades of exclusion (particularly towards Asian and Black populations). The government couldn’t stop indigenous people from coming in – they were here first, after all – so instead they forced them onto reserves, taking everything from them and setting them up for hundreds of years of facing the repercussions. The last federally-run residential school only closed in 1996, which means that all the current students at StFX are just young enough to have missed the risk of attending one themselves.
Growing up in rural Maritime provinces, I have first-hand witnessed racial resentment. In my case, it was mainly against East Asian immigrants coming to Prince Edward Island, or tensions between the black and white communities as well as the reserves in the south-west Tri-County area of Nova Scotia. The urban centers are more easily able to stick their head in the sand as the complaints are whispered, and the racism manifests less in angry Facebook rants and more so in crossing the street or clutching your bag.
This whole idea of “multiculturalism” has allowed a toxic culture of colour blindness and denial that actually prevents the country from being able to face and address the problems with racism that it has. No, there are no torches roaming the streets. Or at least few. But it could be argued that Canada’s race problem is far worse than in countries such as the United States. There, the tensions and issues are in the spotlight, for better or for worse. Here, they are swept under rugs. They are outright denied. The first problem we Canadians will have to overcome is taking a long hard look in the mirror and realizing that what we see is merely the tip of the iceberg.t