As Canadians watch events unfold down south regarding the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and overall discussions about race, they pay lip service to these topics without looking inward. So here I am to point out the obvious.
Let’s start with slavery:
Canada had slavery for two centuries. While enslaving any person is an abhorrent act, enslaving Black people strikes me as particularly egregious.
Why? Down south the enslavement of Blacks was the driving force of the whole economy and building of a nation, while here in the north enslaving Aboriginals was part of the Boreal economy and sustaining the fur trade. So why enslave Blacks in Canada? Simply put: because they wanted to. Again, I must emphasize: they went out of their way to enslave Blacks when the economy didn’t depend on it.
It’s a disturbing, sobering fact which makes the enslavement all the more revolting. You might think if Blacks were down south and in short supply locally, and Aboriginals were enslaved for the Boreal economy – there should be very few Black slaves, right? Wrong. Stunningly, Black slaves still made up at least a third of all slaves! And this is despite the fact they cost double the price!
To have a Black slave was to confer prestige upon yourself, and of course to keep up with the American neighbors. Canadian slavery never reached the heights it did in the United States or South America, but this is only because Canada was a poor, sparsely populated colony which no slavers felt could finance the cost of transport and purchase. (Even France refused to send shipments.)
Canada did try however: it legalized slavery as an institution in 1709, and three authorizations to ship slaves were given upon request in 1689, 1701, and 1721. In 1733, a legal precedent was set: even though a slave was ‘Christian’, he could still be sold and purchased as a commodity. Slavery wasn’t abolished until 1834, and even then it was done through a British mandate and not the mandate of the Canadian people.
We’ll move along to the cover-up:
I will compare the ensuing denial to the best analogy I can conjure: imagine a wife who denies her husband has been sexually abusing their daughter. Is the denial worse than the crime itself? No. Is it as bad as the crime? Perhaps not. But is it heinous, cruel and sickening? Absolutely!
So it is here as well: enslaving Blacks purely for ego was already evil enough, but then to hide and deny the truth afterwards is heinous and repulsive! I cannot stress this point enough, it truly sickens me.
Slavery in Canada was not taught in schools. I didn’t learn of it until I was in my thirties, much to my shock. Even then it was only because I read an article about a historian’s book on the subject. The book pointed out that “generations of historians maintained a virtual conspiracy of silence about slaves owned and exploited, bought and sold, by Canadians themselves.” From the end of slavery until the 20th century … Canada simply pretended it never happened.
I’d only learned about the “Underground Railroad” and how Canada had been a safe harbor for runaway slaves (despite slavery still existing here legally).
For generations, Canadians have sanctimoniously looked down their noses at Americans because of the slave trade, Civil War, Jim Crow and racism. While Americans enslaved Blacks for economic gain, Canadians did it for prestige and ego. While Americans fought a civil war to end slavery, Canadians did it when the British Empire abolished it. While Americans celebrated heroes such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Canadians hid from the truth and lied to generations of the nation’s children. Then they had the gall to proclaim themselves superior!
And the racism carried on. In 1870, Hiram Revels was the first Black member of the Senate and Joseph Rainey was the first Black member of the House of Representatives (during the Reconstruction Era). In contrast, Canada’s first Black member of Parliament was Lincoln Alexander in 1968. The first “Black” (biracial) U.S. President was elected in 2009, while Canada has never had a biracial or non-white Prime Minister.
And the racism carried on. The Ku Klux Klan was openly acknowledged as a part of American history, but Canada’s KKK was never acknowledged: hidden and whitewashed out of existence until only recently by mainstream media, authors and the nation.
While everyone here knows about segregation in the American south, fewer know of segregation in Canada’s east coast provinces. Fewer still know that Canada was also segregated in law and/or practice; the last segregated school in Ontario closed in 1965, the last one in Nova Scotia closed in 1983.
And the racism carried on: through racist laws which were effected because Canadians considered Blacks inferior and undesirable. There was: Section 38 of the 1910 Immigration Act, the Black Immigration Ban in 1911, various court rulings in favor of segregation, all among other things.
Why are they so racist? A curious question …
Racism cannot be justified, but there’s usually some historical context for bigotry and prejudice. For example in the United States – due to marginalization and deprivation – many Black people became associated with ghettos, the drug trade and gang culture. Although being forced into these situations wasn’t their fault, the general context became justification for present bigoted views and continued racist sentiments.
Going back to an earlier time: slavery and its aftermath created a societal hierarchy in which Black Americans were viewed as inferior to generations of white citizens.
In Canada, the case was paralleled by Aboriginals: originally slaves then segregated from society, confined to tiny reserves, ‘educated’ at residential schools and left in poverty and dysfunction. Being forced into these situations wasn’t their fault, but overall dysfunction from generational trauma became the context for present bigoted views. Canadians (like their American counterparts) label their undesired group as ‘welfare bums, degenerates, lazy, uneducated, criminals, thugs, moochers’ and so on.
If Canadian Aboriginals are akin to Black Americans, then so it’s reversed in another parallel: Black Canadians and their history are conveniently ignored and forgotten, much like Native Americans in the U.S. This was my working theory, however it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny …
Some Americans admire and respect their Indigenous nations, others with racist views may sneer at them, but mostly they are forgotten and ignored – especially in comparison to African Americans. Generally speaking, it can be said hatred is not present.
Year after year, decade after decade – Black Canadians have been the number one target of hate crimes. This is astonishing when you take into consideration the fact they represent only 3% of the Canadian population. Also consider the context: a third of slaves (a reduced history of slavery), small numbers, no real large immigration influxes, and a lack of criminality which is usually associated with Aboriginals.
In fact it looked so bad that Statistics Canada has stopped taking down the relevant information on individual races. It has never compiled federal statistical data on other issues (police shootings, murders, crime data, etc) so as to avoid the topic completely. One could never compare Black issues in Canada against the United States because the nation collectively refused to compile any data which could prove its racism.
Some can be gleaned from localized records, media reports and so on. One news study showed that Black Canadians made up 9% of police shootings despite being 3% of the population. Only this year (2020) has discussion taken place about compiling race-based data on police shootings and other subjects.
In the United States there is a long history of injustice and searing pain, which remains raw. Canada has always looked on with hypocritical disdain while not even admitting the truth about its own history and racism. Now it begins to confront it – only thanks to the United States.
It would have been great if Canada had taken the initiative, but as usual it waited until the Black Lives Matter movement erupted in the United States and then copied the protests and self-reflection so as not to be left behind. NOW the government releases a statement, NOW the media saturates with news stories and programs, NOW people begin inquiring into the past and the cover-ups. (I guess better late than never.)
And Canadians wring their hands; the media admonishes us “there is racism in Canada too!” Individuals and groups proclaim and exclaim; while doing so they also congratulate themselves on their ‘voluntary’ introspection. Swallowed down is the sanctimony and schadenfreude they usually indulge in while looking south … at least for now.
The questions remain: Why are they so racist? And what will they really do about it?
What I would like to see from the Canadian government, media and people, an acknowledgement:
That you are as racist as Americans.
That there has been less violence because there has been less immigration and fewer minorities generally throughout Canada’s existence.
That Black Canadians are particularly singled out for hatred with little historical context as a back drop.
That you have purposefully refused to compile data which proves the disparity and racism.
That ignoring slavery, your history and the past has been a heinous act which merits an apology by the state.
That there is no greater act of contempt than to refuse to admit past crimes: in this sense you minimize wrongdoing, negate the suffering, disallow survivors to become heroes, and most importantly preempt future change.
That you understand and admit all these things openly, and not simply pay lip service to change while making empty gestures and pronouncements.
Truly look inward instead of putting on a show (feeding the ego, starving the soul).
Post Script: More Thoughts
Crime and violence against African Americans is often used in comparison with Canada, the obvious inference being that Canadians are by and large less violent and being Black in Canada would’ve been better. I’m not sure I buy this argument.
Generally speaking, Aboriginals can expect worse treatment and living conditions than Black Americans. The murder rate of Black Americans is significantly higher, but this can be attributed mainly to the drug trade in inner cities.
The United States is one of the most populated nations in the world, and is also linked by land to Mexico. Both these factors contribute to the national drug trade, and historic impoverishment of Black communities explains their connection.
As of 2016, Canada’s Aboriginal population sat at nearly 5%. Despite this low percentage (at a historic high) their overall conditions are as bad or worse than Black Americans – who account for 13% of the American population. Also include the fact that half of Aboriginals live in remote areas and on reserves.
If it’s this bad now, what would it be like if they were 13% and lived in cities?* And if Black Canadians are treated this way now, how would they fare at 13% and if slavery had been a larger industry historically?
There’s no doubt that violence against Black Americans has been worse overall than Black Canadians, but I feel it’s due to context. If the situations were reversed I don’t believe Canadians would have been any better – most likely worse.
*Look at Winnipeg and Thunder Bay as examples.