When it comes to racism in Canada, our national tendency is to measure ourselves against the lowest standards of modern decency, rather than our highest principles of common humanity. This is why almost every mainstream conversation on the issue at some point pivots to the question of whether racism is worse in Canada or the United States.
It could be a panel discussion, a debate on a nightly Canadian news or current affairs show, a Q&A following a speaking event or movie screening, or a conversation in the workplace or classroom. No matter the venue, or even the supposed sophistication of the individuals involved in the conversation, at some point racism in Canada is inevitably compared to the supposed super racism that we view as characteristic of the United States. Those of us committed to advancing and supporting the cause of racial justice in Canada have become all too familiar with the individual who predictably finds a way to the microphone to emphatically affirm that racism is less harmful and insidious in Canada than it is south of the border.
This intervention often follows mention of the existence of slavery and segregation in Canada’s past, or a comment made in support of Black Lives Matter’s resistance to continued police brutality and the killing of Black Canadians with impunity. This unwelcome intervention is also common after discussions about the continued dramatic overrepresentation of African Canadians in the criminal justice system from police interactions to incarceration.
Whether intentional or not, the effect is to insultingly silence, deny, and diminish the lived realities and painful experiences of Blacks in Canada. The borders between us do not make the power and pains of anti-Blackness any less real: anti-Blackness is borderless.
No good racism
Assessing the seriousness of racism in Canada by contrasting it to racism elsewhere serves only to reinforce the pervasive institutional structures and societal denial that impede any and all efforts to eradicate racism in our country. The underlying suggestion is that racism in one place is acceptable and should be tolerated so long as somewhere else it is practised more explicitly and aggressively. This proposition is not only nonsense, but also dehumanizing and dangerous.
Canadian racism isn't okay because we supposedly do racism better than Americans. Racism is inherently violent and destructive, regardless of how it is manifested. When we fail to focus on this fact, we risk being sidetracked by fruitless debates about good racism versus bad racism, when our collective standard and social aspiration should be no racism.
Many would argue that this standard of zero racism is articulated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the federal Canadian Human Rights Act, and provincial human rights legislation. While Canada is a global leader when it comes to human rights legislation and institutions, the individuals tasked with interpreting and implementing these laws very rarely come from Indigenous, Black, or racialized communities. Moreover, the Canadian judiciary demonstrates competence in race-based discrimination in only the most exceptional cases. As Naiomi Metallic, a Mi’kmaq woman and chair of Aboriginal law and policy at Dalhousie University, has put it, Canada still has a “judiciary of whiteness.”
Metallic’s comments followed the release of a May 2016 report in the online version of Policy Options magazine that found of Canada’s 2,160 judges in the provincial superior and lower courts only 1 per cent are Indigenous and only 3 per cent are racial minorities. In the hierarchy of judicial decision-making, on questions of racism and more specifically anti-Black racism, human rights tribunal adjudicators are too often prone to defer to the conservative tendencies of judges who have the power to overturn their decisions.
By what standards should we frame our discussions about the presence of racism in Canada?
We can no longer afford to measure our standards of racial justice against the brutally low colour bar set by the United States. We must also resist the deepening of a culture of complacency that comes from a sense of moral superiority often inspired by the relatively advanced nature of Canadian human rights laws. Our human rights regime is generally strong, but is still too often applied in a destructively colourblind way.
To advance racial equity beyond the bounds of our current social imaginations, we should turn towards laws and principles articulated in international human rights law, programs and policies. Despite the fact that a Canadian, John Peters Humphrey, was the lead author of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Canadians rarely appeal to international human rights laws and principles to argue for greater racial justice. This may be why our conversations remain stifled or seem to repeat with the character of a revolving door.
There is an important, though by no means perfect, Canadian example of the possibilities of leveraging international law to advance racial justice. In May 2016, after a long campaign of organizing and advocacy by Indigenous communities, Canada officially adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Since then the government has stalled on implementing the declaration directly into law. Be that as it may, by getting Canada to adopt the declaration, Indigenous groups were able to reach past the limitations of domestic law and policy, and compel Canada to commit to a legal standard of Indigenous sovereignty, community well-being and justice.
Leveraging the international system
Black communities in Canada have also made some important recent gains with this strategy.
Increasingly recognizing the limitations of Canadian law and standards of racial justice, African Canadian political leaders, communities, and organizations have begun to more effectively leverage the international human rights system to achieve greater racial equity for Blacks in Canada. Although Canada adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1970, statistics show that the African Canadian experience continues to be marked by a persistent and pervasive racism that affects lives and life chances.
In late 2016, this was affirmed after a United Nations Working Group completed a week-long fact-finding mission that included visits to Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax and Montreal to study the experiences of Blacks in Canada. Following its visit, the group released a statement expressing concerns about the prevalence of systemic anti-Black racism in Canada:
Canada’s history of enslavement, racial segregation, and marginalization, has had a deleterious impact on people of African descent which must be addressed in partnership with communities. Across Canada many people of African descent continue to live in poverty and poor health, have low educational attainment, and are over represented at all levels of the criminal justice system.
Positively, Canada has started to constructively own and correctively respond to Canadian-grown anti-Black racism following appeals to the international human rights system. In February 2017, the UN Working Group was welcomed back to further explore the issues of anti-Black racism in the Canadian legal system, and just weeks later Ontario formally recognized the United Nations' Decade for People of African Descent. In March, Ontario announced the launch of its Black Youth Action Plan, a “four-year, $47 million commitment to help reduce disparities for Black children, youth and families.”
The next frontier
Though these are important recent developments, they can hardly be pointed to as signs that Black Canadians have reached the proverbial racial promised land.
Indeed, symbols of Black unity and freedom are still seen as a threat to some Canadians, Blacks continue to be criminalized for such mundane acts as dancing in the street, and some political leaders persist in responding with passive indifference when one of their own calls a Black mother advocating for her child a “nigger.” However, there is still some meaningful evidence that appealing to international standards of human rights, coupled with ongoing localized fervent and strategic advocacy such as that skillfully led by Black Lives Matter, is expanding possibilities for Black freedom in Canada.
The internationalization of advocacy against anti-Black racism in Canada must continue so as to move us away from tired and unconstructive comparisons of the experiences of African Canadians and African Americans. This shift also keeps us from getting comfortable with Canadian human rights law that is powerful in letter but does far too little to improve the lives of Indigenous, Black and other racialized Canadians in material terms.
Internationalizing our struggles is the next frontier of racial justice advocacy in Canada. Only when Canadian-based racial justice movements leverage international human rights laws, policies, and programs will Canada fully realize its vision of a truly just society for all who call the country home.