This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet.
We have been conditioned to think of the tax system and its architecture only through the lens of class. Our governments have led us to believe that measures that categorize people by income are sufficient to restore a sense of social justice. This Black History Month, as you prepare to file your tax returns, we would like to propose thinking about taxation through another lens: that of racial justice.
Our tax systems are far from neutral, and are in reality powerful instruments that perpetuate and worsen economic and social inequalities, particularly for Black and racialized people.
Damaging the oppressor
Let's start with recent history: it's 2015, and on the web a tweet from an account called “Her Majesty’s Treasurer” is causing a stir. It informs readers that the British government has just finished paying the state’s debt to their country’s former slave owners. In 2015. Imagine seeing this message when your ancestors were enslaved.
This anecdote, reported to us by the historian Aly Ndiaye (who also goes by the name Webster), is not a fiction, nor a parody taken from a satirical newspaper. It is something that really happened in the United Kingdom. The message came from the executive department of the British government in charge of developing and implementing public finances and economic policies. It said, “Here’s the surprising news of the day. Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes.” The tweet included a picture of how England had to compensate slave owners with a sum, in 1833, equivalent to 40 per cent of its annual budget and amounting to nearly $4 billion Canadian in today’s dollars. It added that the sum was so large it took the government until 2015 to pay it off in full. Beyond the awkwardness of that rapidly erased tweet, the reality remains.
For 182 years, white British families saw their fortunes grow over generations as a result of these payments, while Black British citizens unwittingly had to pay compensation, through their taxes, to those who had once enslaved their ancestors.
Yes, it’s hard to believe, especially given the historical links between Canada and the British regime that are all too obvious even today. As historical scholar Rito Joseph often reminds us, we are subjects of the Queen, after all: look at your bank bills. There were also slaves in Montreal. In fact, it was the British Empire, as revealed in Article 47 of the 1760 Montreal Articles of Surrender, that allowed the defeated French to keep the Indigenous and Black slaves they owned before the Conquest.
To return to the original message, a tweet can be deleted, but the harm and injustice caused to those who were enslaved and their descendants cannot be erased.
Haiti, the revolution extorted
What happened in England is not unique. In 1825, France forced its former colony Haiti to pay a high price for its new independence, after having already paid it with the blood of its children in 1804. This debt, transformed into a double debt by dubious financial maneuvers and a coercive strategy, was inflicted by France as the ultimate reprisal against the young revolutionary state.
In the end, France extorted the country and its wealth for 125 years after independence, preventing it from reaching its full potential as the first free Black republic.
It’s ironic to note that the cradle of the Enlightenment tried by every possible means to sabotage the rise of a nation that at the time, with its burst of freedom, represented the quintessential ideas of liberty and equality for all, to which the intellectuals of the Enlightenment aspired.
The long sketch of inherited precariousness
History is rich in lessons, if only we would take the time to move away from the dominant discourses to listen to those who have resisted the hegemonic narrative. Numerous historical facts show that the organization of our current world is not a matter of chance. What is taking shape today before our eyes has been sketched out for centuries. The Jim Crow laws in the United States are an eloquent example of this intentional arrangement.
Among these laws is one that restricted the vote of Black people by connecting it to their ability to pay a tax. At the same time and in several states, Black people were not allowed to own property. Meanwhile, “about two-thirds of America’s wealth comes from real estate,” points out Thomas Shapiro, an economics professor at Brandeis University with expertise in issues of racial inequality. Even today, this wealth gap remains, and it is Black renters who continue to pay mortgages or annuities to white homeowners without being able to provide anything but precarity as an inheritance to their children.
Canada’s long history of tax racism
But enough of foreign examples. Let's come back to what has happened and is happening here, since Canada, like other colonial empires, is far from being outdone in this dynamic of fiscal racism. In 1885 the government introduced the Chinese Head Tax, imposed under the Chinese Immigration Act. It was the first law in Canadian history, but not the last, to restrict immigration on the basis of ethnic identity. The Chinese had to pay a minimum of $50 to come to Canada. The tax was later increased to $100 and then to $500. During its 38-year history, about 82,000 Chinese immigrants paid nearly $23 million in taxes.
We recently saw high-ranking Canadian dignitaries and politicians everywhere wishing a happy and prosperous Year of the Ox to Chinese communities here. But beyond these wishes wrapped in surface-level speeches on the important contribution of these communities, can we hope one day that there will be complete reparation and full repayment of this debt that Canada owes to the descendants of Chinese migrants?
Another fact from the same period: In the 1800s in Ontario, Black property owners were required to pay school taxes while being deprived of the right to send their children to the schools supported by those taxes. School segregation persisted in the province until 1965, when the last segregated school closed. To this day, the Ontario school system continues to struggle with systemic racism and the continued marginalization of Black children.
According to experts, Black students too often get streamed into applied (rather than academic) programs, leading them to drop out of school. Meanwhile, their parents continue, despite lower incomes, to pay school taxes regardless of the brutality of the system against their offspring. The examples are sadly too numerous for us to ignore a historical analysis of the discriminatory and racist public policies and financial and fiscal measures that have woven the current wealth gap between white and racialized, Black and Indigenous people.
In June 2020, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer revealed that the top 1 per cent of the population owns a quarter of all the wealth in the country and the top 10 per cent owns more than half of it. Canada fits in well with countries that have allowed unbridled capitalism and never put in place the measures needed to allow an equitable redistribution of wealth.
In recent years, social justice groups have called for tax reforms, such as a wealth tax or policies that end tax evasion. These demands are certainly legitimate, but too often they remain colour blind and limited to an analysis of the present without a reflection on the intentional orchestration of this injustice towards racialized, Black and Indigenous people.