The premiers of Ontario and Quebec faced backlash for remarks they made this week as Black Lives Matter protests spread in the U.S., Canada and around the world.
The premiers of the country’s two most populous provinces said Canada doesn’t have the same level of systemic racism and discrimination that exists south of the border — remarks that a cultural theorist described as “alarming” and displaying “ignorance.”
“It really tells us about the pulse of Canada,” said Kathy Hogarth, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo’s school of social work.
“We are not better than this. We are not better than the U.S.”
“For our leaders to say, ‘Thank God we don’t have systemic racism like the U.S.’ is what perpetuates the injustice in our society,” she said.
Hogarth was quoting comments made by Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Tuesday. Ford said comparing Canada and the U.S. is like “night and day” when asked to comment on how U.S. President Donald Trump is handing tensions over the killing of unarmed Black men.
“Thank God that we’re different than the United States and we don’t have the systemic, deep roots they have had for years,” Ford said.
On Monday, Quebec Premier François Legault acknowledged there are incidences of racism and discrimination in Quebec, but argued that discrimination isn’t systemic and that it’s not as serious or as widespread as in the U.S.
The next day, he also claimed Quebec shouldn’t compare itself to America because it has “not experienced slavery and the history of the United States.”
Both premiers’ comments have since been criticized widely, including on social media.
In an interview on Wednesday, Hogarth — whose research focuses on social policy and issues of belonging for racialized people — said the premiers’ language “denies the reality” of individuals who have “lived and endured” racism in Canada.
‘Many people don’t understand their own history,’ expert says
In addressing the situation in the U.S., many leaders have mentioned the Canadian context or compared Canada in a more favourable light to its neighbour.
“That comparative language and the language we don’t have racism like the U.S. is a language of erasure,” Hogarth argued. “It erases a history that has existed for well over a century.”
Canada’s federal government for decades endorsed policies that saw Indigenous children forcibly removed from their families and placed in residential schools that sought to strip them of their language and culture.
Today, systemic issues in Canada include the over-representation of Indigenous people and Black people in the prison system and the over-representation of children from minority populations in care, she said.
As for Legault’s comments on slavery, Canada — including Quebec — does have a documented history of slavery, as several experts have since pointed out.
Despite “decades of education and training,” Hogarth argued that many Canadians still don’t understand their own history.
“We’ve had 200 years of active slavery practice in Canada,” Hogarth said. “We are not only about the Underground Railroad.
“So for our premiers to say, ‘We don’t have racism like the United States,’ it’s a shot in the head.”
Ford clarifies comments on Wednesday
Ford appeared to somewhat walk back his comments comparing Canada and the U.S. in the Ontario legislature on Wednesday, acknowledging systemic racism in the province.
“Of course there’s systemic racism in Ontario. There’s systemic racism across this country. I know it exists,” Ford said during question period.
“What I don’t know is the hardships faced by those communities and a lot of us in this chamber do not know the hardships within those communities.”
Ford added that his government “won’t stand for racism” and will do “everything we can in our powers and work collectively with other parties to stamp this out.”
For Hogarth, the premier’s latest remarks still don’t stand up as an adequate acknowledgement of Canada’s challenges. She argued individuals don’t need to have lived racism or discrimination to understand what the problem is.
“In one instance, he’s saying: ‘I don’t know what it is but I’m going to work to stamp it out.’ How do you work to stamp out something you don’t know what it is?” Hogarth said.
“Nice words, but it feels rather empty.”
When asked if Legault wanted to clarify his statements on racism in Quebec in response to the criticisms voiced this week, a spokesperson for the premier referred Global News to Legault’s answers from earlier in the week.
In an interview with Global News on Tuesday, Fareed Khan, founder of Canadians United Against Hate, said he was “gobsmacked” by Legault’s comments denying systemic racism.
Khan described those comments from a premier who has banned the wearing religious symbols as “a slap in the face” to racialized communities.
In contrast, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged the existence of systemic discrimination in the country — but Hogarth argued the acknowledgement is only a “first step” and Canadians need to challenge the national, multicultural identity Canada has built up over time.
“Until we move to a place of deep inclusion where Black bodies, brown bodies, Indigenous bodies have equal right to belong in this space, I’m sorry — we aren’t doing enough,” she said. “It cannot be empty words.
“What are we doing? How are we changing? How are we changing our policing system? How are we changing our justice system?
“I want to see the next steps.”
— With files from Global News’ Annabelle Olivier