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How nice are Canadians, really? Reckoning with racism, police use of force tests long-standing myths

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Where do people get the idea that Canadians are nice? Or that Canada is some sort of multicultural oasis immune from the racism problem plaguing our neighbours to the south?

That’s what Si’Yam Lee Maracle OC, a writer, poet and member of the Sto:lo Nation, was wondering earlier this month as the one-year anniversary of the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) came and went with no action plan from the federal government.

“Is it because they say sorry?” she said sarcastically. “‘Sorry I killed you,’ ‘sorry we’re not going to give you anything,’ ‘sorry there’s COVID-19, but we have to give ourselves stuff first.’”

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It’s pretty clear, Maracle says, from the final MMIWG inquiry report — an in-depth, detailed document that says Canada committed genocide under international law — this country is not as benevolent as people seem to think it is.

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But actual change requires non-Indigenous people to want to change, Maracle says.

“People have to think there are consequences for this, that there are consequences for their humanity.”

To do that requires facing up to some pretty uncomfortable truths — not easy if you’ve grown up on the myth that Canadians are nicer than Americans.

The idea that Canada is kinder, gentler and less racist has come racing back into public discourse recently as the United States and Canada face twin reckonings over anti-Black racism and police use of force.

Even though police killings have not been limited to the United States — Rodney Levi and Chantel Moore died in New Brunswick, Ejaz Choudry in Ontario — there’s been pushback over the idea the two countries struggle with the issue to the same degree.

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On June 4, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said there is no systemic racism in Canada before walking back the statement the next day.

Quebec Premier François Legault, on the other hand, has stood firm in the face of anti-Black racism protests that there is no such thing as systemic racism in La Belle Province.

Federally, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said she’s “struggling” with the definition of systemic racism; then she said, actually, yes, there is systemic racism in the force, and then she offered up a widely critiqued response to a question about racism by offering “an example” of how the force’s physical abilities requirement that a person broad jump six feet was systemic racism.

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The myths about Canada being a multicultural utopia, superior with respect to racism, are false, says Rinaldo Walcott, director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto — a basic examination of Canadian history makes that clear.

Canadians tell two stories about the birth of this nation:

One is about Europeans who bravely travel to North America, where they find vast, empty lands on which to build their ideal democratic states that reflect western ideals, Walcott says.

The other is “the more terrible story of colonization, which we know involves the taking of Indigenous land, the near genocide of Indigenous people and the bringing of Africans into the Americas as slave labour and commodities.”

The latter is the truth.

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Canada often doesn’t speak about its role in slavery, about how Black people were brought to Canada as slaves — it wasn’t just the “safe haven,” an end to the Underground Railroad.

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If Canada did talk about that, Walcott says, “a lot of the contemporary understandings of the world that we live in take on a different meaning.”

But when we hide behind descriptors of Canada as “better” than the States, he says issues of anti-Black racism and colonization are hidden, preventing real action.

Take for a moment NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh being kicked out of the House of Commons after refusing to apologize for calling Bloc MP Alain Therrien racist. It gets to the heart of what niceness or politeness actually represents, says Julie Rak, professor and H.M. Tory Chair at the University of Alberta.

“Canadian niceness you can really equate with Canadian whiteness, and you can really equate that with Canadian Britishness,” Rak says. The idea made a big appearance in pop culture in the 1960s with books like Lament for a Nation by George Grant.

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Far from being just an innate virtue, “politeness has a history,” she says. After Singh was turfed, writer Robert Jago quickly compiled a list of all the times white members of Parliament called someone a racist without appearing to be similarly ejected. There were several.

“Being polite is about power,” Rak says. “It’s a response to something that may not address the problem. It’s not that we need to be rude, but politeness papers over or ignores the real situation.”

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It will always be possible “to point to how bad things look in the U.S. and say we’re not so bad in Canada,” says Anne Wilson, a social psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. That’s partly because Canada is geographically bigger, but population-wise, America has hundreds of millions more people.

“From a comparative perspective, it can be easy to point to the worst things happening in the United States and give ourselves a pat on the back,” Wilson says.

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“Of course, what that can sometimes lead us to do is to turn a blind eye to the way many of these sorts of things are happening in Canada.”

Canada is not a safe haven for racialized people — even though the mythology around what the country represents says that it is, says Robyn Maynard, an author, activist and Vanier scholar at the University of Toronto.

Maynard wrote Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present about how the Canadian state surveils and hurts Black people through institutions like the police force.

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Before the confederation of the colonies that became Canada, European colonizers operated under the guise they were benevolent to justify their actions, explains Maynard, and those lies about colonization’s “benefits” manifested into the myths we still hear about Canada today.

More than 1,000 people gathered on the steps of City Hall in London, Ont., on June 20, 2020 to participate in a Black Lives Matter protest. The crowd then proceeded to march around Victoria Park before returning to City Hall, where organizers spoke to the crowd listing their demands for city council.
More than 1,000 people gathered on the steps of City Hall in London, Ont., on June 20, 2020 to participate in a Black Lives Matter protest. The crowd then proceeded to march around Victoria Park before returning to City Hall, where organizers spoke to the crowd listing their demands for city council. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Mark Spowart

In Policing Black Lives, Maynard highlights how there was already no mention of slavery in Canada in Ontario school books 30 years after it was abolished in the British colonies in 1833.

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“You saw… only references to slavery in the United States,” she says. “You see very early on the commitment to the notion of Canada as a place of tolerance and benevolence.”

As a new country, Canada had legislation that banned Black people from migrating to the country and codified residential schools. But none of that merited mention in news coverage from the time, Maynard says — it focused instead on how unique Canada was compared with the United States.

There’s commitment to the idea that Canada stands for racial justice, she says, rather than a commitment to implementing those concepts in practice.

And yet, for all the ways “nice” stereotypes are overblown and help obscure the truth, Wilson says there may be a few positives.

“Social norms count for a lot,” she says, and “there is some evidence that the tone national leaders take can communicate what kinds of behaviours or attitudes are appropriate.”

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However, Lynn Gehl, an Algonquin Anishinaabe writer and artist of Pikwakanagan First Nation, is wary of nice words.

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“What I have found is there are a lot of nice people who say nice things and they don’t do anything,” she says. What she’s also discovered is that if she tries to cut through “bureaucratic nonsense, patronizing B.S.,” people stop finding her likeable and go seek out more obliging, nicer people.

So, Gehl summarizes:

“Nice people scare me because they get used by oppressive people.”

She also isn’t interested in Canadian myths or Canadian values, whatever that last term actually means: “Two public inquiries have concluded that Canada as a nation-state rests on the genocide of Indigenous people. So is that a Canadian value?”

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If a person is surprised by ongoing protests against anti-Black racism in or about the ways in which police violence disproportionately harms and kills Black people and Indigenous people in Canada, Maynard says it means they’ve actively chosen not to educate themselves.

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“Justice continues to be made impossible because without even an acknowledgment of these issues, there’s no way to move forward,” she says.

“Some people have been continually in danger and have been continually losing their lives and fighting for their lives in a way that’s always pushed out of view.”