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Modern Racism In Canada Has Deep Colonial Roots

02/20/2017 06:44 EST | Updated 02/23/2017 12:10 EST
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I recently had the privilege of being called upon to comment on the state of racism in Montreal, Quebec, and Canada on the Leslie Roberts Show CJAD Radio. I must also thank Tommy Schnurmacher who has extended this opportunity to me many times in the past.

When I hung up the phone, I was deeply unsettled. No matter how many segments one is offered, when it comes to a topic like racism in Canada, the gulf between the white Canadian public and the rest of us (the black, brown, and Indigenous people who are experiencing the racism) is so large, that there is never enough time to explain the complexity of the issues. I therefore will try to expand on a few urgent points here.

Put simply, contemporary racism is historical racism.

While I understood Leslie's desire to keep the topic focused on the occurrences and impact of racism today, I wish to re-articulate that there can be no full comprehension of contemporary racism without an understanding and acknowledgement of its historical, colonial roots.

Put simply, contemporary racism is historical racism; it is just a continuation and adaptation in another form, another guise of policies, strategies, systems and indeed infrastructures of racist oppression which were put in place centuries ago to differentiate free from unfree people.

A case in point would be the way that the use of passes in the period of slavery -- hand written or printed documents that articulated the identity and ownership of enslaved Africans -- have been replaced by other systems of racial profiling, surveillance, and unjust data collection like carding, which are disproportionately directed at black populations.

leslie roberts

Leslie Roberts. (Photo: Global News)

When we understand that freedom came to be conflated with whiteness and bondage with blackness (and in Quebec, Native-ness, too) not automatically, but as a product of specific colonial strategies which empowered certain populations of European and European-Americans as settlers, then we can begin to understand the power and longevity of these historical actions and see today's racism as its legacy.

Without such a historical understanding, a discussion of racism today gets coded as a series of oddities, anomalies that somehow misrepresent the "real" truth of Canada that "we" Canadians experience as an inclusive and racially tolerant nation.

When Leslie invoked the Canadian "we" in his questions about Canada as a racially tolerant state, the "we" that he invoked was not racially neutral. It is unsurprising that white Canadians, talking amongst themselves, would come to the false and fact-free conclusion that racism is not an issue in Canada since it is not an issue for them.

Police departments developed out of the tradition of slave patrols.

However, for black, indigenous and brown people in Canada, race and racism are a daily consideration in how we live, make decisions and navigate the world. Like all of my black friends and family, I have been singled out (when in the company of whites) profiled by police and civilians in positions of power for shopping and walking while black. Many of us have been stopped for the "offence" of "driving while black" -- a particularly prevalent police tactic when racist white officers perceive a black person to be driving a nice car, one above their assumed lower-class status.

Police departments developed out of the tradition of slave patrols. These were mainly white males, working independently or at the behest of a slave owner or plantation manager, to hunt down, capture or kill fugitive slaves. Fugitive slave advertising, ubiquitous across the Americas (with significant repositories in Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario, by the way) reveal the pervasiveness of African resistance to slavery.

But such advertisements also reveal that white participation in the criminalization and recapture of the enslaved was incentivized through the offer of rewards. When an enslaved person fled, slave owners provided detailed racialized descriptions of the people they held in bondage, including complexion, hairstyles, clothing, languages, accents and even gestures, countenance, physical habits and bodily marks suffered from perilous labour, torture and abuse. The nature and amount of such details demonstrate that the enslaved lived under constant surveillance. These descriptions helped to conflate blackness with slavery and criminality. Indeed, to abscond from one's owner was, under colonial law, as Marcus Wood has argued, a crime of "self-theft."

slavery canada

A scene of slavery in Georgia, c1900. (Photo: Print Collector/Getty Images)

While slavery was practiced in the territory that became Canada for over 200 years, it is rarely taught in our schools prior to university, and only sparingly in higher education. As one of the few experts of Canadian slavery employed as a professor at a Canadian university, I can attest that none of the Canadian undergraduate students (mainly in their 20's) that I have taught to date have heard about slavery in Canada prior to stumbling upon my courses.

And yet, all of these students have entered my classes armed with the knowledge that "we" (again white Canadians) saved the enslaved African-Americans from bondage in the USA. The spectacular failures of Canadian education then, are a huge part of the problem in the abyss between white and black populations in the understandings of Canadian racism.

Finally, in the discussion that preceded mine with Dan Philip of The Black Coalition of Quebec, Leslie asked him to quantify the number of complaints against the police that the coalition was currently fielding. But the number of cases will never reveal the true nature or pervasiveness of the problem of racist policing, since we must consider how many valid and verifiable incidents never become cases because the victims (for a variety of legitimate reasons) choose not to pursue a course of action.

As I know from personal experience, such complaints require herculean effort to document, validate, submit, and pursue. This is not a matter of days, but months and years of commitment to battling through institutional structures (often staffed by poorly trained, unsympathetic or downright hostile employees) which were in many cases designed to delegitimize and squash such complaints. For obvious reasons (time, discipline, support, and health among them), there are very few people who are willing to devote the necessary time to such long-term fights.

Moving forward the "we" of Canada must be expanded to include the reality and experiences of black, Indigenous, and brown Canadians who understand contemporary racism to be a legacy of colonialism and slavery.

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