As we mark Canada Day, Canadians are waking up to the country’s racist reality

GATINEAU, QUE.—Canada Day 2020 will be a national holiday that will be burned into the memory of Canadians young and old for many years to come for a couple of reasons.

To begin with, it will be the first Canada Day in living memory with no official celebrations taking place anywhere in the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which have been cancelled due to fears of transmitting the coronavirus at large public events.

However, the more important reason this Canada Day will be remembered is because of the great Canadian awakening that has occurred since the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer. Canadians from all walks of life have taken to the streets in anti-racism demonstrations from coast to coast to protest anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, and systemic racism. It’s as if Canadians of all backgrounds have awakened to the endemic racism in our society, and they have joined with Blacks, Indigenous people, and people of colour to call for action to address racial injustices.

The reality that Canada is built on a foundation of racism and Indigenous genocide is not a new revelation since there is extensive research documenting this. What does seem to be new is Canadians’ heightened awareness and desire to do something about it.

It is difficult to recall this level of attention being paid to racism in Canada, albeit there have been instances of media and public focus from time to time. Racism was one of the topics addressed in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. Hate and bigotry was on the public’s minds and the political agenda again when six Muslim men were murdered in a Québec City mosque by a white supremacist in January 2017. Attention was focused on racism again when old photos of Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface came to light during the federal election last fall, and once more when Don Cherry ranted about immigrants not properly honouring veterans on Remembrance Day on his Hockey Night In Canada segment.

In each instance, there was a brief public, media, and political focus on issues of racism in Canada which subsequently faded. This time, however, it seems to be different, as the public engages in wider discussions about the racist foundations of Canadian society in the lead-up to Canada’s national holiday.

Racism was a factor in the policies of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Racism was a factor in the policies of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. The architect of the residential schools system said of Indigenous people, “Though he may learn to read and write, his habits, training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.”  His racism also was directed towards the Chinese, who he felt would create a “mongrel race” and threaten Canada’s “Aryan” character if allowed to immigrate.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier is also notable for his racist order in council in 1911 that prevented Blacks from immigrating to Canada. In addition, Laurier’s government is well-known for policies that blocked immigrants of Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian origin.

Sir Robert Borden was also on the list of overtly racist Canadian leaders.  He won the 1911 election on the strength of his xenophobic slogan, “A White Canada.”  It was also under Borden that the Komagata Maru incident occurred, when a ship filled with Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus was forced back out to sea by the Royal Canadian Navy from the port of Vancouver.

Canada’s racist policies continue today in various forms, including police treatment of Indigenous and racialized Canadians. They were instituted by leaders who have been celebrated for years as “great” Canadians. The recent protests have focused attention on Canadian racism, resulting in public calls for change.

On this Canada Day, occurring in the shadow of anti-racism protests, Canadians have to accept that, while better than most countries, Canada is not as great as it is made out to be given its racist history and institutions. This Canada Day, we need to make a commitment to eliminate the cancer of racism from this country, so that we can eventually live up to our own hype about how great Canada is on July 1 in years to come.

Fareed Khan is founder and chair of the anti-racism activist group Canadians United Against Hate.

The Hill Times