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Racism in Canada


Management students at McGill University in Montreal hold an annual dress up winter carnival. This time round the theme was cowboys and Indians and Rastafarians. To get the look, students donned feathered headgear and fake dreadlocks.

The culturally insensitive use of the word “Indian” was just the start. The event made light of conflicts that culminated in genocide. By dressing up as a First Nations person or Rastafarian, in whatever capacity they meant this, they reduced entire groups of people to headdresses, to their attire.

After coming under criticism in the left student newspaper and by the First Peoples house and African students association carnival organizers published a half-hearted apology. It became clear that the apology was just for show a week later when the Management students association decided to suspend a student Senator, Nathan Chan, for a letter to the student paper titled “blame the corporate attitude.” In it he criticized the Management department’s anti-social teachings and students for their insensitive Rasta and First Peoples costumes.

It is maddening that these students felt they had the right to impose their ideas of what constitutes these groups of people. What does it mean when a costume is meant to represent an entire group or race, what is this saying? This is how we see you, this is who you are – some feathers and a mop.

Are these events surprising? Are they isolated? In thinking about racism on campus, one has to consider the beginnings of our universities, who started them and who they were meant to educate? Modern universities began as places to educate the elite, and more specifically wealthy, white Christian men. And, for example until 1960 at McGill there was a quota on entrance for Jewish students, while even more marginalized groups did not stand a chance at all. And still today, the University remains structured in a way that reproduces racism.

Starting with the curriculum. While significant improvements have been made, the university educational system is still quite biased; humanities courses focus largely on advances made in Western societies, neglecting advances made by other, non-Western, non-white cultures. This breeds conclusions that western civilizations are the only ones deserving of study and therefore somehow superior to other, non-Western, non-white civilizations. An education that is biased toward Western white culture ignores the fact that racial tolerance is encouraged when students have the opportunity to appreciate non-white cultures.

Certain faculties relevant to students other than rich, white, Christian males, for example, African Studies, Hispanic Studies, East-Asian studies amongst other have been won over the past 35 years. Yet many other non-Western studies proposals have so far been rejected always ostensibly due to a lack of finances even though the University has a large endowment and continues to expand in other areas. Why not open more representative departments you might ask. Look at who is in power at these schools.

Where are the people of colour? They are few in teaching and administration roles and negligible on the Board or Governors (BoG). At universities in Canada the highest decision making boards are made up predominately of white males. A look at the BoGs at Canadian universities gives frightening insight into where the loyalties of our schools lie. Usually chosen for their “remarkable ability to bring in money” the vast majority of BoG members are representatives of corporations. People of colour are less likely to head big corporations or be wealthy individuals so (public) universities where the ability to raise money is the criteria to join the BoG reproduce racism. Likewise, our universities are dependent on donations, and certain departments bring in more money than others, namely those that serve the interests of the status quo. We therefore see that faculties relevant to non-white people are too often under-funded or non-existent.

These institutions will remain racist unless a conscious effort is made to resist and to provide education that is relevant and beneficial to all students. But universities’ institutional racism and the racist acts of students are also a reflection of the wider society. And considering a slew of recent reports on racist police practices directed at First Nations and Black people it shouldn’t be surprising that management students have little sensitivity to these groups.

3 weeks ago tapes, which were obtained through an access to information request by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, recorded a conversation between two Ontario Provincial Police officers posing as a media crew during the 1995 Ipperwash standoff over a land claim dispute. A day after the taped exchange, one of the native protesters, Dudley George, was shot and killed.

The following exchange takes place:

“Is there still a lot of press down there?” one officer says. “No, there’s no one down there. Just a great big fat fucking Indian,” replies another. “The camera’s rolling, eh?” “Yeah.” “We had this plan, you know. We thought if we could get five or six cases of Labatt’s 50 [beer], we could bait them.” “Yeah.” “Then we’d have this big net as a pit.” “Creative thinking.” “Works in the (U.S.) South with watermelon.”

With this kind of sentiment it’s not surprising that Police – pushed by the governing Conservative Party – killed one and beat a handful of unarmed protesters.

At the end of January the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission ruled that “Halifax police discriminated against [Black] heavyweight boxer Kirk Johnson by pulling over his car five years ago” and leaving him and his brother stranded on the side of the Highway. (CBC.ca) CTV reported “Johnson, a 31-year-old former Olympian, told the inquiry he was stopped in his sports car by local police 29 times in a three-month period spread over 1997 and 1998.” (CTV.ca)

In Ottawa ten days ago, a minor confrontation between a handful of white and Somali men led one of the white men to call the police claiming he’d seen one of the Black men with a gun and another a hammer. Within minutes 25 police officers arrived to the Somali owned restaurant where the men returned to and arbitrarily arrested everyone in the place except for the lone white person. Then the police allowed the white men, who had been participants in the earlier conflict and who weren’t handcuffed, to the Restaurant’s door to point out the alleged wrongdoers. The Somali owner became enraged by this double standard and the police responded forcefully. The Ottawa Citizen reports “officers threw him against the bar, choked him and wrenched his arm behind his back.” 8 men, all of them black, were taken to jail. “Some of them were released after five hours and some were freed early the next morning. None of them was charged.” (Citizen Feb 5) And no weapons were found.

A little over a year ago an extensive Toronto Star investigation reviewed records in the Toronto police force’s Criminal Information Processing System (or CIPS), going back to 1996. “The Toronto Star inquiry focused on two statistics. It scrutinized 10,729 arrests for simple drug possession, and found that black people arrested on this charge were released at the scene of their arrest 61.8 percent of the time, while white people arrested on the same charge were released 76.5 percent of the time. The Star also found that blacks are twice as likely to be held overnight for a bail hearing (15.5 percent vs. 7.3 percent.). Simple possession is a so-called “high-discretion” charge-one where the individual attending police officer has a large amount of leeway as regards to how the case proceeds.

“The Star also found that blacks were disproportionately charged for offences that could only be discovered after a traffic stop-so-called “out-of-sight offences,” including failing to update the address on one’s drivers license. Thirty-four percent of drivers charged with out-of-sight violations were black, although the black community represents just 8.1 percent of the total population. The discrepancy was even more severe for black men between the ages of 25 and 34, who received 39.3 percent of the out-of-sight tickets for their age group, despite representing only 7.9 percent of the population in that age group.” (wsws.org)

In British Colombia (BC) at the end of January the police complaint commissioner called for a public inquiry into the case of the 1998 death of a Native man, Frank Paul, who froze to death in a Vancouver alley. After having been picked up for being “drunk and lying on his back on a vegetable stand” Paul was brought to the police station. Then “the jail video shows the police wagon driver and a provincial correctional guard ‘dragging a still rain-soaked, motionless Frank Paul from the elevator to the police wagon,’ the report says.” “Mr. Paul was placed in a nearby alley.” (Canada.com) It was 2C (35F) that day and Paul’s clothes were wet so he froze to death. His case is not an isolated one in B.C. The Province newspaper reports that “preliminary figures gathered by the Native Courtworkers and Counselling Association of B.C. show that at least 12 aboriginals have died since 1993 during arrests or while in police custody.”

Neither is what happened to Paul isolated to B.C. Canada.com explains how “police in Saskatoon have come under fire recently after five incidents involving four deaths and one near-death of aboriginal or Metis men who were found frozen in the remote outskirts of the city.” There, where winter temperatures regularly drop to minus 30C (-20F), the practice was to drive Native men far outside the city and make them walk back.

On top of being more likely to die at the hands of the police “adult Aboriginal people are incarcerated more than eight times the national rate [11 times according to some stats]. In Saskatchewan, the adult Aboriginal incarceration rate is over 1,600 per 100,000, compared to 48 per 100,000 for adult non-Aboriginals.” (gov.mb.ca) A study titled Aboriginal Peoples in Federal Corrections by the Ministry of the Solicitor General “showed that Aboriginal inmates waive their rights to a parole hearing more frequently than do other inmates. Parole is also denied at a higher rate than for non-Aboriginal offenders, and when parole is granted, it is usually later in the inmate’s sentence. In addition, the revocation rate for Aboriginal offenders on conditional release is higher than for the general offender population.”

Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism and a comparatively pro-immigration population, for all its good, should not obscure the reality that racism is alive and well in Canada today. And why would it be otherwise with a (less publicized) history of slavery and segregation or land theft, genocide and residential schools?

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