Canada is 150 and still needs to face its racism problem: advocates

Anthony Morgan, Amira Elghawaby and Karen Joseph comment on discrimination in Canada. Falconer's LLP/NCCM/Reconciliation Canada

Every day Alia Haleem she steps out the front door of her house, she knows she could be the target of a hate crime.

On most days, the Muslim mom of four says she feels prying eyes follow her through grocery store aisles in her hometown of Mississauga, Ont.

On bad days, her eight-year-old son watches as passersby taunt her, make passing remarks about her niqab, or even push her.

“Obviously it hurts you, you’re not made out of iron,” Haleem, who is also a computer engineer, told Global News.

“There are days you just come home and you feel sad. You can’t be just a normal person.”

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In a country that prides itself on diversity, Haleem’s experiences with discrimination are jarring, albeit not entirely unique.

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An Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of Global News found that 25 per cent of Canadians say they have experienced racism — up eight percentage points from 2005.

Of the more than 1,000 Canadians surveyed, 59 per cent thought Muslims and Arabs were most likely to be victims of race-motivated discrimination, followed by Indigenous peoples at 28 per cent, and black Canadians and East Indians, both at 23 per cent.

While the number of Canadians who say they’ve experienced racism increased, those who think racism is a serious problem in Canada decreased.

The poll found that 48 per cent of respondents think Canada has a racism problem, with millennials being the most likely to be concerned, compared to 69 per cent in 1992.

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Sean Simpson, vice-president of Ipsos Public Affairs, says these statistics should make Canadians rethink the idea that racism isn’t a problem in the country.

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“We have this myth about who we are. Are we a tolerant country? We’re probably more tolerant than most, absolutely,” he said.

Simpson added that Canada has seen a lot of change over the past 25 years, including more immigration, more minority groups and an overall greater diversity. While that has become integral to the country’s identity, he said it does mean there is “more opportunity for racism to exist.”

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“I’m not so sure it’s because our problem is getting worse, it’s just that we have a more diverse population, more people experiencing racism because we have a smaller majority and a bigger minority.”

Haleem says she spends more time concerned about her children’s safety than worrying about the reasons behind discrimination. She often finds her family hinting she should take off her niqab for that reason. But she has a point to prove.

“Even if I decide to take it off, I would love to wear it sometimes just to make a point — women who want to wear it should be able to wear it.”

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Haleem’s safety concerns are echoed in a report released by Statistics Canada in June, which found that hate crimes against Muslims in Canada have increased 253 per cent over four years.

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In 2015, there were 159 hate crimes reported against Muslims, compared to 45 in 2012.

Amira Elghawaby, communications director with the National Council of Canadian Muslims, says the findings on racism and hate crimes against Muslims are not surprising.

“There seems to be a recognition in the public that Islamophobia can result in discrimination against Muslims,” she told Global News.

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“What this really illustrates is the responsibility that we all have to address the overall reasons why it is Canadians hold these [Islamophobic] views,” she added.

She suggests the best way to bust myths about Muslims is through interfaith gatherings, open houses at mosques — simply getting to know each other to eliminate “the fear of the other.”

While the findings are concerning, especially after January’s fatal Quebec mosque shooting, Elghawaby said it’s important to stress Canadian-Muslims feel “overwhelmingly part of Canadian society.”

National Council of Canadian Muslims communications director Amira Elghawaby listens to a reporter’s question at a press conference in February. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Toronto-based human rights lawyer Anthony Morgan says black Canadians find themselves struggling to break through stereotypes.

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As a black man, it’s something Morgan has experienced first-hand.

“I’ve been a black man far longer than I’ve been a lawyer,” he says.

“I can’t hide how I look. That’s going to be how I’m judged, the negative stereotypes, prejudice about black people being violent, aggressive, criminals.”

He says such stereotypes have heavy consequences — especially for black youth who often lack “self-worth and a sense of belonging.”

He says Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations are an opportunity for “sober reflection” on these disparities that exist in the country.

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“There’s an unacceptable gap between the promises we project to the world [as a country] and the realities African-Canadians get to experience every day.”

Morgan adds that Canada’s history with slavery stretches far beyond 150 years.

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“We won’t talk about the 206 years of slavery, we’ll find ways to diminish it, find ways to distinguish it from American slavery, and contort our consciousness to get to a place where we can feel comfortable that we don’t have a race problem.”

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Indigenous people of Canada have perhaps the longest history of racism in the country. And it’s something Karen Joseph, the CEO of Reconciliation Canada, says has daily implications on the quality of lives.

The effects of racism in Indigenous communities range from a lack of “self-worth” in youth to safety concerns for women, Joseph says.

“You think about the way people view Indigenous women in particular, in terms of just being unsafe. Other women are able to just walk in the world.”

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For Indigenous women, who face high rates of abuse and violence, the reality is quite different.

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“You could be highly educated and successful and people won’t acknowledge that,” Joseph said.

Joseph adds that “500 years of oppressive policy” and systemic racism in Canada can be addressed if people actively “find opportunities to gain understanding.”

As the country celebrates its birthday, Joseph wants Canadians to reflect on the unfinished journey of reconciliation with Indigenous people.

“We haven’t done well in the past 150 years. So what is the next 150 years going to look like?”

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