Stereotypes around religion, ethnicity and race can have damaging effects on people, yet some Canadians still believe these harmful tropes.
A recent poll conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of Global News found that three in 10 Canadians believe Muslims follow Sharia law instead of Canadian law, and two in 10 think people of the Jewish faith run media and finance.
What’s more, over four in 10 Canadians think that people of different races are fundamentally different from each other.
Though almost nine in 10 Canadians agree that racism is a terrible thing, almost half admit to having racist thoughts that they would not voice. (All of the Ipsos poll data is available online.)
Experts are not surprised by these findings.
“We’ve made a number of strides … but there is still a lot of racism in this country,” Ruth Frager, an associate professor at McMaster University’s School of Labour Studies, told Global News. “It’s something that we really have to deal with much more carefully.”
Where stereotypes come from
There’s no shortage of religious and racial stereotypes that people believe. As shown in the Ipsos poll, these include harmful — and often inaccurate — perceptions around people’s faiths.
According to Victoria Esses, a professor of psychology and director of the Centre for Research on Migration and Ethnic Relations at the University of Western Ontario, people hold both racist views that they are aware of and also implicit attitudes that are deeply ingrained.
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“We may learn these as kids, we may hear them on the news, we may watch them on television shows and we may hear it from friends. We also may develop these views ourselves,” she said.
Esses said people are more likely to have misconceptions of other faiths if they’ve never experienced or taken part in a religious ceremony outside of their own.
“Discussing people’s beliefs or experiencing their religious practices is a way of ‘demystifying’ them,” she said.
“If there’s a view that Jewish people go into their synagogue and they’re ‘doing something’ in there but you don’t know what, going in there and seeing that they’re praying like anybody else sort of demystifies the whole practice.”
Barâa Arar, a graduate student who lives in Ottawa, said that many people don’t actually understand her faith and think that because she is Muslim and wears a hijab, she is “a victim” or under the control of a male family member.
“I can’t wear (my) hijab and be me; I have to wear the hijab and represent something — perhaps even something sinister,” she said.
“The narratives of weak or oppressed Muslim women are prevalent in both the news and popular media, and I do think many people have internalized them. In fact, that’s how Muslim women become understood as ‘easy targets’ because often people think we won’t fight back.”
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Arar also said that many people think Islam is violent and regressive when, in reality, it shares many similarities with other world religions.
“I think there is a lot of misinformation, and that’s in part (due) to media and post-9/11 narratives,” she said.
Esses said there are also many harmful stereotypes around immigration and new Canadians.
“One of the common stereotypes in the area of immigration is that many of the people who are coming in claiming refugee status aren’t true refugees who are fleeing war and persecution, but they’re just economic migrants who are using Canada’s so-called ‘generous system’ to unfairly get into the country,” Esses said.
“There’s also a stereotype or a belief that skilled immigrants come in and steal jobs, and those who don’t do well are draining our welfare system.”
(Research shows this is not true, and immigrants are actually needed to sustain Canada’s job market.)
Frager said immigrants are often used as “scapegoats” for larger economic issues, like the erosion of certain job markets.
“We’re living in a time when we’ve had a lot of deindustrialization, and a lot of people … across the country who work very hard at jobs are not earning a living wage,” Frager said.
“Sometimes, this leads to scapegoating and the fear that if immigrants come in — especially if they are seen as racialized, meaning they don’t look like what a ‘typical Canadian’ is supposed to look like — there’s fear of competition for jobs.”
Stereotypes hurt job opportunities
Stereotypes and prejudice may become even more apparent when physical symbols of religious beliefs are present.
This is something Amrit Kaur, a recent university graduate student who lives in Quebec, experiences. Kaur, who is Sikh and wears a turban, said it’s harder for her to land a job because of how she looks.
“I feel people are judging me not based on my character or my personality, and they’re not looking at my skills but they’re just looking at what’s on my body and not judging me for my merits,” Kaur said.
“We’ve seen this in the Sikh community when someone who applied for a job as a daycare professional was denied … because of her turban.”
Unfortunately, Kaur’s stories are not uncommon.
Usha George, a professor and director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Immigration and Settlement, told Global News that even if someone is skilled and qualified for a job, discrimination can prevent them from getting hired.
This is particularly true for immigrants, George said.
“Coming to Canada on the point system does not necessarily guarantee a place in the labour market, simply because other sets of criteria seem to be operating here,” she said.
“Race, attributions of race and notions around people’s abilities all play a part in … (getting) a job.”
When stereotypes are politicized
Experts say stereotypes also affect policies and government laws. In Quebec, many have argued that the province’s so-called secularism bill, Bill 21, is discriminatory and primarily targets Muslims.
The bill aims to prohibit public servants in positions of authority — including primary and secondary school teachers, police officers, Crown prosecutors and prison guards — from wearing religious symbols, like hijabs, on the job.
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Kaur said the bill legitimizes racism and stereotypes and is validating some discriminatory views.
“(It’s) an excuse for people to show racism in the workplace and it is being supported by the government,” she said. “If the government won’t hire you, why should people in the private sector? … This has a trickle-down effect.”
George said that Bill 21 is not an “independent piece of legislation” because its origins, in part, are shaped by 9/11.
“It is all related to the (fear of) extremism that we have seen after 9/11 … and that came together to form this bill to say: ‘OK, no visible signs of religion in the public place,’” she said. “It is associated with a lot of history.”
How to challenge stereotypes and move away from them
When it comes to hiring, Esses said that “blind hiring” is a practice that can help combat discrimination.
“I think if we have clear criteria for decision-making, we’re less likely to be influenced by our implicit biases,” she said.
Fruger said a lack of education and understanding of different ethnicities and religions helps fuel sterotypes. If someone does not understand a faith, for example, they are more likely to believe misinformation.
Combating stereotypes and harmful views starts in the classroom.
“Educators (need to) work on ways to reach children and really promote an anti-racist educational curriculum because we are not doing enough of that here,” Fruger said.
“If we regularly interact with people from faith-based backgrounds who wear religious symbols, that fear goes away, and you slowly realize that they’re no different than you and I,” Kaur said.
“They have families, they work hard, they pay their taxes — they’re no different.”