HOW IT STARTED
On March 21, 1960, a large crowd of anti-discrimination demonstrators gathered outside the Sharpeville police station on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. The British colony installed a race-based class system called Apartheid by which people of colour were introduced to unequal access to education, housing, public services, medical care and jobs. Blacks were even deprived of their citizenship.
The black demonstrators were assembled to peacefully protest but the police opened fire. Seventy were killed, including women and children. More than 180 people were injured.
In 1966, the United Nations declared March 21 the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in honor of those killed in the Sharpeville Massacre.
A CANADIAN CONNECTION
It took 20 more years until a Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, encouraged Canadians to join together in "extending their efforts to ensure the rapid eradication of racism and racial discrimination and the realization of mutual understanding, respect, equality and justice for all Canadians."
"It's kind of an understood custom and practice that Canada's Indian Act came to be known as the acceptable role model for apartheid policies."
-- Shannon Thunderbird, First Nations elder
Indeed, Canada has come a long way since 1986. Brian Mulroney's government instated the Employment Equity Act, appointed a formidable Afro-Nova Scotian Senator, and, among other actions, effectively set the tone for a progressive nation. It's no coincidence that Canada soon ascended to the top of the United Nation's human development index. In fact, Canada held the first place for most of the 1990s.
WHERE WE ARE TODAY?
Despite advances, Canada placed 6th in last year's UN livability survey. When adjusted for equality -- in income, life expectancy and education levels -- we dropped to 12th place, coming in behind most of Europe.
This year, Canada has slipped out of the top ten. The culprit? Increasing inequalities. Again.
Gender inequities are ever present in the collective consciousness. There are numerous organisations dedicated to remembering those who fought against sexism, those who brought the (Caucasian) women's vote. Other institutions keep pushing the glass ceiling in gender-dominated fields or strive for an equal voice at the highest levels of government for the fairer sex. Heroines of women's rights appeared on our bank notes and are immortalized in statues near Parliament Hill.
No nation rises higher than its women.
--Nellie McClung, Canadian feminist, politician, social activist, journalist, 1873-1951.
Pointing out the few lingering gender inequities is a right and addressing them head-on is a privilege shared by all Canadians. That's probably why Canada ranks No. 1 for women's rights out of G20 countries.
WHAT ABOUT RACIAL EQUALITY?
For many Canadians, racial discrimination is a ghost they've only seen in movies or sporadic outbursts inevitably baptized "isolated incidents." While this has become a part of everyday life for most Aboriginals and Canadians of colour, there is a persistent incredulous strain that refuses to acknowledge a problem exists.
Heads firmly planted in the sand, the ideals of our youth, that everyone has an equal shot at success in our country founded on the principles of fairness, justice, and, ugh...wait. Our country was founded by a small group of European men who appropriated land, subjugated its inhabitants and stripped them of their livelihood, not to mention their dignity.
All these years later, Indian Reserves like Attawapiskat, where indigenous Canadians live in shacks without running water, are blighting Canada's reputation. Whatever the underlying issues which lead to this embarrassing state, it does not bode well in the UN's equality index.
We are consistently reminded that special treatment is all too often reserved for certain Canadians:
• Job applicants with foreign-sounding names have lesser chance for interviews: 'There's certainly an element of unfairness going on that an individual with a distinct foreign name is not being given the chance to go to the next round," writes Philip Oreopoulos, University of British Columbia;
• Uneven displays in federal institutions: Not only are Asian facial features deemed unworthy of appearing on Canadian bank notes, but also South-Asian, Black, Aboriginal and homosexual ones too;
• Unfair labeling: Citizenship and Immigration Canada once publicly labelled 23 Muslim men of Pakistani and Indian nationality as "suspected terrorists". It soon became apparent that these arrests had been based on flimsy evidence. Arab features make for good suspects;
• The MWWS has afflicted the RCMP: they chose to investigate missing women selectively. One can hardly imagine having a dozen blue-eyed women go missing without the authorities lifting a finger;
• Victims of police brutality seem to vary along racial lines;
• Police officers targeting men of colour who drive cars which do not fit their perceived financial means;
• Selective airport screenings: some airport screenings are more "random" than others;
• The nauseating citizenship-suspicion question lobbed at all visible minorities: "Where are you really from?"
So many "isolated incidents", so little time.
The habitual rebranding of these "incidents" as "isolated" provides a convenient excuse not to delve into uncomfortable conversations. It puts a collective hush on the hindrance. It provides a rug under which to sweep the persistent problem. But the tell-tale heart of the matter cannot stay buried indefinitely.
What the UN report highlights, as the Harper government blissfully whistles past the graveyard, is Canada's need to address these inequalities head on. Not with platitudes and ethnic-costume requests. Not with foreign flag days where foreign dignitaries are somehow given a spotlight at Canadian cultural events in a backwards bid to cement immigrants sense of belonging to their adoptive country. Not with quick-win ethnic vote-baiting manifestos. None of those address embedded inequality.
The federal government can play a hand in bridging Canada's equality deficit by allotting consistent, renewable funding to raise consciousness and awareness from coast to coast. Rewarding institutions who embrace the full spectrum of diversity while adjusting federal grants and contributions to for those public and private institutions which have not gotten the memo would put the issue at the forefront in the minds of the Establishment. While suffragist and eugenics advocate Nelly McClung whacked the weeds for women of her own lineage to make their way out from behind the men who ruled the nation, she was not fighting for all of us. Some Canadians still have unequal access to education, housing, public services, and jobs.
No nation rises higher than its citizens --- including visible minorities.
Despite the plunge in the world's best countries list, Canadians believe ascendance to the UN's No. 1 spot is attainable if our governments make it a priority. Will the Harper government take the path towards this noble exploit?