Anti-racism protests stemming from the death of George Floyd, both in the United States and closer to home in Canada, has brought to the forefront the issue of systemic racism.
Floyd, a Black man, died in Minneapolis on May 25 after pleading for air as a white police officer pressed his knee onto Floyd’s neck for several minutes.
His death has sparked calls for justice, an end to racism and police impunity.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged systemic racism is a reality in Canada.
“It is a time for us as Canadians to recognize that we too have our challenges, that Black Canadians and racialized Canadians face discrimination as a lived reality every single day,” he said.
“There is systemic discrimination in Canada, which means our systems treat Canadians of colour, Canadians who are racialized, differently than they do others.”
Meanwhile, Quebec Premier François Legault, while admitting there is still work to be done when it comes to combating racism, said on Monday that systemic discrimination is not an issue in Quebec.
“We have this discussion very often. I think that there is discrimination in Quebec, but there is not systemic discrimination,” he said. “There’s no system of discrimination, and it’s a very, very small minority of people doing this discrimination.”
Dr. Myrna Lashely, a psychologist and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University, said she suspects the premier “doesn’t fully understand what systemic racism is.”
“Maybe he’s just hearing the word racism and not the word systemic in front,” she said.
Lashely said systemic racism is in the policies and rules that have been set up by people in power to control other people, to tell them how their lives are going to be lived, and to determine who is important and who isn’t.
“They are rules that have been inherited and embedded into the system,” she said. “Every colonial-based society has them. No one is saying that they created them, although some of them were created.”
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Fareed Khan, founder of Canadians United Against Hate, said he was “gobsmacked” by Legault’s comment denying systemic racism.
He also took aim at Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the federal Bloc Québécois party.
On Tuesday, Blanchet appeared to skirt around the issue of systemic discrimination, saying that while some individuals need to be educated about racism, governments in this country are not the problem.
Blanchet said no government in Quebec is racist “in any shape or form.”
“It’s clear that these two men live in a world removed from reality where the institutions of power in Quebec are devoid of racism,” Khan said in a news release.
“Maybe like good politicians they need to get out and listen to the stories of people who have been the victims of racism at the hands of government, police, and public agencies.”
Khan also pointed to Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism law, which bans certain public servants in positions of power from wearing visible religious symbols while at work.
“For these two men to deny the existence of systemic racism in Quebec when the provincial government’s Bill 21 targets Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and other faith communities whose adherents visibly display their faith is a slap in the face of all racialized communities in the province,” he said.
On Tuesday, when the issue again came up during his daily address on the province’s response to COVID-19, Legault again reiterated that discrimination is not widespread.
“There are still people who unfortunately are racist and really like making comments on social media,” he said. “It’s unfortunate but I think that it can not be tolerated. And when it’s exaggerated it has to be erased.”
He also took issue with comparisons between the situation in the United States and Quebec as far as problems of racism and race relations are concerned.
“I don’t want us to compare ourselves to the United States,” he said.
“We have not experienced slavery and the history of the United States and I do not feel towards the visible minorities … that the situation here is similar to the one in the United States.”
Lashley quickly corrected the premier, pointing out that slavery did exist in Quebec and was only abolished in 1833.
“He’s right that it wasn’t the same as in the United States but to say that we didn’t have slaves — James McGill for god’s sake — owned slaves,” she said, of the founder of Montreal’s McGill University.
“A lot of the Quebec economy was built on the back of slaves,” Lashely said, adding that while they weren’t picking cotton, “because there was none to pick,” they worked in the fields, and inside people’s homes.
Lashely addresses the issue of systemic racism and how it can play out in schools.
“What are we teaching them in schools, when we teach history classes? Are we only teaching it from one perspective? Are we telling students ‘, yeah, you know what? There was some slavery in Canada. We did have slave markets here,'” she said.
Lashley said perhaps some of the reluctance in admitting to the problem of systemic racism is the need to take action.
“If you admit that systemic racism exists then you have to do something about it. You have to look at yourself, you have to look at your compatriots, you have to look at society, you have to look at your policies,” she said.