06/05/2014 12:59 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:01 EDT

Why Whoopi Was Wrong: The Myth of a Post-Racial Canada


The View co-host Whoopi Goldberg annotated Justin Bieber's videotaped use of the N-word. Ms. Goldberg attributed the then-pubescent Biebs' gaffe to his "youthful ignorance" and Canadian upbringing.

"You know -- Canadian words...N---r doesn't mean anything in Canada."

Goldberg bases her assessment of Canadian history and societal racism on the weeks she spent last year filming a movie in Toronto. Apparently, the N-word came up in the script. When Goldberg questioned it, the director pulled the wool over her eyes. Ms. Goldberg reached the absurd conclusion that the racial slur is "not a word that [Canadians] have associated with people of colour."

I'm on my way to Canada

That cold and distant land

The dire effects of slavery

I can no longer stand.

Farewell, old master,

Don't come after me.

I'm on my way to Canada

Where coloured men are free

~ Negro spiritual

Ms. Goldberg is just the latest African-American duped into believing the analogical "promised land" tale. In the eternal navel-gazing exercise of re-counting American history, Canada is relegated to a utopia where fairness and freedom reigned for black slaves -- a deceptive narrative the Canadian establishment is all too happy to assume.

Even as blatant racial segregation and discrimination in housing, employment and legal justice permeated the quotidian in Canada's largest cities, Martin Luther King marched into Toronto in 1967 with a familiar falsehood:

"Canada is not merely a neighbor to Negroes. Deep in our history of struggle for freedom Canada was the North Star. The Negro slave knew that far to the north a land existed where a fugitive slave could find freedom. The legendary Underground Railroad started in the south and ended in Canada. [...] Heaven was the word for Canada and the Negro sang of the hope that his escape on the Underground Railroad would carry him there."

Even the greatest of Americans did not bother to scrutinize the fictitious Garden of Eden. Had they done so, they would have uncovered state-sanctioned racism bearing a strange resemblance to that which plagued their own nation.

After all, the foetation of both the United States and Canada is inextricably linked to the enslavement of non-whites in some form or another.

McGill University Prof. Charmaine Nelson writes:

Slavery was practiced in Canada for over two centuries. Although ignorant about Canadian slavery, [we all] have been schooled in the Underground Railroad, which positioned white Canadians as liberators of African-American slaves. By the way, the Underground Railroad lasted from 1834 until 1865. How is it that we know about a three-decade window when enslaved Africans fled north from the U.S.A., but we know nothing about a two hundred plus year expanse of time when Canadians were slaving?

Most Americans don't know that enslaved blacks fled Canada southwards -- to the USA:

Beyond the 1833 abolition of slavery which Britain imposed on the Canadian colony, "free blacks" graduated from slaves to indentured servants. Lawrence Hill's opus, "The Book of Negroes", gives a grim description of life as a black person in 18th-century Canada. It is no coincidence that so many blacks deserted Canada as soon as U.S. President Lincoln declared emancipation.

It's been 20 years since the Canadian government certified Black History Month, yet the myth of white-gloved, post-racial Canadians persists. Black Canadians' struggle is sidelined by consistent distortions (or outright expunctions) on both sides of the border.

Even recent books, such as the Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports, and the American Dream biography perpetuate falsehoods:

"In an initial conversation with Montreal manager Clay Hopper, who came from Mississippi, Rickey told Hopper he thought Robinson was 'superhuman.' Hopper replied, 'Do you really think a n---r's a human being?'

Once the season started, Robinson found himself free of America's racism while playing at home in Montreal, a city that had little prejudice because it was located in Canada, a land that had never known slavery, the Confederacy, or separate white and black drinking fountains. Montreal, moreover, was spiritually connected to France, the chosen home of such black expatriates as Josephine Baker."

The recent Oscar-winning film "12 Years a Slave" further inflated Canada's ego and deepened its selective historical amnesia. The "white saviour" role, played by Hollywood megastar Brad Pitt, fortified Canadians' false sense of moral superiority on race.

Just as African-Americans risked their lives and livelihoods to claim their civil rights, so did black Canadians. A decade before Rosa Parks, Viola Desmond sat in an whites-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre in 1946. Before the Greensboro Four, Jamaican-Canadian Bromley Armstrong and Chinese-Canadian Ruth Lor sat at lunch counters to joist judicial operatives into prosecuting the white-only businesses in 1954. The rainbow coalition which inaugurated civil rights in Canada remain unknown and unsung, their feats are just as noteworthy as their much-feted American counterparts.

The U.S. benefits from a general willingness to acknowledge and face the ugliest chapters of its past to gauge progress. As long as Canada hides behind the cloak of compassionate caricature, Canadians will remain, as Whoopi Goldberg puts it, "youthfully ignorant."