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COMMENTARY: Yes, there is systemic racism in Canada — our history is filled with it

Click to play video 'Toronto journalist says Rex Murphy and others think Canada is racial utopia' Toronto journalist says Rex Murphy and others think Canada is racial utopia
Toronto journalist Vanmala Subramaniam says the information Canadians get on race is selective and that’s why she isn’t surprised people who have not experienced it first hand don’t think it exists. – Jun 3, 2020

Some people will not hear you regardless of how truthfully you speak. They will not hear you regardless of how loudly or lovingly or profoundly you speak because they do not want to.

That is what the one-sided conversation around racism in Canada feels like, one that is falling on deaf ears. It is exhausting to repeatedly explain that racism exists in Canada. It is tiresome to constantly be told “go back home” by the same people who deny its very existence. Yet here we are.

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In 2020, Rex Murphy and others are still continually given the megaphone to wax poetic on a Canada that is free of sin. It is a dangerous thing, because their privilege is blinding.

For Canadians who have likely never experienced systemic racism, it is easy to deny its existence. That makes it easy for them to make smug remarks about our neighbours to the south, like “that would never happen here” or “we’re so much better than that,” because they are personally so far removed from oppressive situations.

They fail to recognize the parallels — including the police brutality that is happening here at home. Most Canadians know the names George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin. Why do so few know about Black Canadians like D’Andre Campbell, Nicholas Gibbs, Olando Brown, Jermaine Carby, Andrew Loku and Abdirahman Abdi who have also died at the hands of police?

Why are Black Torontonians 20 times more likely to be shot by police than the city’s white residents? Why do Black people in Toronto account for 25 per cent of police-involved shootings when they make up only slightly more than 8.8 per cent of the population?

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently stated that Canada doesn’t have the same “systemic, deep roots” of racism that the United States does — he has since retracted that statement — but his initial, unfiltered words prove a telling point that our country’s racist past, which continues to be felt by people of colour, in particular Black and Indigenous communities, is not something that white privileged people give much thought to (without a prompt) because it doesn’t directly impact their lives.

But that’s the thing — it does impact their lives, through generational wealth, access to higher education, positions of leadership, influence and power from a system that is upheld by ideologies of white supremacy.

The proof is in our history books.

Between 1628 and the 1800s, 3,000 people of African ancestry who were enslaved in the United States were brought to Canada and forced to live here in slavery. The Slavery Abolition Act didn’t officially become law in Canada until 1834, just 27 years before the American Civil War.

Click to play video 'Historian highlights Canada’s history of anti-Black racism in wake of Ontario premier’s comments' Historian highlights Canada’s history of anti-Black racism in wake of Ontario premier’s comments
Historian highlights Canada’s history of anti-Black racism in wake of Ontario premier’s comments – Jun 3, 2020

From 1886 to 1996, 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools. The trauma of residential schools and the ’60s Scoop is still being felt today.

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From 1881 to 1884, 17,000 Chinese labourers came to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Many died during the construction. Upon completion, Canada introduced a “head tax” that applied only to Chinese immigrants. After collecting $23 million through the head tax between 1885 and 1923, Canada closed the door to Chinese immigrants until 1947.

In 1939, Canada turned away the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner carrying 907 Jewish refugees. Forced back to Europe, 254 of the passengers later died in the Holocaust.

During the Second World War, the Canadian government forced 20,000 Japanese people — 75 per cent of them Canadian citizens — into internment camps.

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After the war, Canada continued with a range of policies that made it difficult, if not impossible, for people of colour to immigrate from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. It wasn’t until 1976 that a point system was introduced, which allowed for a fairer immigration policy.

Even so, the last segregated school in Canada, in Guysborough County, N.S., did not close until 1983.

In 1983, two years after I immigrated to Canada from England, my own experiences with racism here began. I was five years old at the time.

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From our start in Brantford, Ont., I got used to regularly hearing the word “paki — even on my wedding day.

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Being born an Untouchable in the Hindu caste system, my family has been deeply affected by caste, classism and racism. My grandparents were not permitted to attend school. In the era of segregation, my father had to sit at the back of the classroom and was not called by his name, but simply “BC” for “backward class.” He was not permitted into upper-caste homes, stores, places of worship or public gatherings.

Coming to Canada would mean a better life, but that trauma has been passed down generation to generation. It’s a legacy that is still being felt today. While we don’t experience it in the same overt ways, those ideologies of power and privilege persist right here in Canada.

All that said, I recognize my own privilege in the insidious racial hierarchy of white supremacy, which has treated my Black friends and family far worse in this country — even leaving some dead.

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When we think of the Amy Coopers of the world, make no mistake that those women are very much a Canadian problem — Cooper herself is a Canadian woman. From her since-deleted social media accounts, Cooper grew up in Canada, graduating from the University of Waterloo in 2003. Racism is a learned behaviour and her “education” began in this country.

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Besides the overt microaggressions that scar so many of us, what affects me so deeply is the vehement denial of racism by these very same perpetrators.

Every time I write a cultural piece, I am flooded with messages telling me to leave Canada, go back home. I am slut-shamed and defiled. When we call out racist behaviour, we are dismissed with racial stereotypes and seen as trouble-makers, angry or ungrateful immigrants.

But enough. If we truly aren’t a racist country, we should have no issue saying no lives matter until Black lives matter. Yet many Canadians they can’t bring themselves to do that.

Let’s stop patting ourselves on the back while we shake our judgmental heads at the U.S. Let’s admit our own truths and do something about it.

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.