Lesson 6: Race and Representation
Are we Racist in Canada?
Recently in Canada, there have been a slew of news reports about racial profiling by the police. Watching the
response to these accusations and events is interesting.As Canadians, many of us feel rather righteous about our
world reputation as a peace loving nation. We have defined ourselves in contrast to the racially charged history
of the United States. Our national discourse holds to the theory that we have little racism, little violence and
fewer social problems than our neighbours to the south.And yet...we do have a history replete with brutal
examples of racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism all combined.
Himani Bannerji's take on what defines the type of racism found in Canada is one that she has coined in the
phrase "common sense racism". Why is this? Well it goes back to our ability to make invisible the problems
found in our history and perhaps of greater concern, our ability not to see how we as individuals function to keep
in place injustices in our daily lives. Or more directly, Bannerji holds us accountable for our behaviours as
individuals that continue to hurt other groups identified by their ethnicity or race.As Bannerji, contends racism
in Canada is everyday living. Even feminists, who are attuned to rooting out all forms of domination, can find
themselves engaged in maintaining attitudes and behaviours seeped with racist undertones. Racism can be so
difficult to see and so difficult to define in ourselves (we generally hate to think of ourselves as hurting others).
What is Canada's History in Terms of Race ?
1. Slaves were permitted in Canada most notably on the East Coast but also in Ontario and Quebec.
2. The government sponsored segregation/ colonialism of Canada's indigenous people principally through
the IndianAct that forced native people to relinquish their traditions, their culture in favour of a white British
conception of land and society (along white ideas of roles for men and women) on reservations. This resulted in
a tremendous loss of rights for native women in particular.
3. Immigration policies that sought to secure certain groups of people for work in particular industries.
Chinese men on the railway, Irish, Native andAfrican descent women into domestic service.
4. The government forbade entry visas for the wives of men who came to work on the railway or in other
industries in order to keep various racial groups from settling permanently in Canada.
5. Provincial governments denied certain groups entry into the education system or into higher paying jobs.
6. Local municipalities denied some groups access to housing in areas dominated by "well to do" white
7. Federal and provincial laws forbade relationships to be consummated between white women and men of
colour or forbade white women from working for men of colour (i.e. Chinese men). (See James Walker, "Race,"
Rights and the Law in the Supreme Court of Canada. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 1997).
One response to the above might be that Canada has changed dramatically in the last one hundred years. Yes, it
is true that Canada has changed, but if we look to current events we see widespread racism indicated in our
major institutions (police forces). Look at recent race riots in a high school in Cole Harbour Nova Scotia, or the
shootings and arrests by police of Black and Native men and women, the difficulties in getting promoted to
better paying jobs in companies, the kind of treatment many people of colour experience from retail workers
when they shop (held suspect that they are potential shoplifters). These are just the more glaring examples of
how much has remained the same. But the questions must be deeper than this. We need to ask in what ways was
Canada's early development as a nation formed with racist overtones.
Racism is not just about overt acts against an individual, it is also how racism is engrained in our policies and in
the practise of laws. Racism determines who gets access to resources and under what conditions, who is blamed
for problems or assumed to be a little less capable or human and therefore undeserving of privileges. Visibly
who dominates most of Canada's professions, governments, law courts and our education systems?
Racism quite simply is embedded into our political and social landscape.
Why is it at a local school with a student base of over 50% from countries other than Canada there are no
teachers of colour? If you are white, imagine shopping, working and learning in an environment where you
almost never meet someone in a position of authority from your own racial or ethnic group. For Your Consideration:
Take a few minutes to consider the article by Peggy McIntosh "White Privilege and Male Privilege: APersonal
Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women's Studies." Do McIntosh's comparisons
allow you to see racism in a distinct light? What would you add to her list? What is suggesting about the
everyday practises of racism?
When JohnA. MacDonald was envisioning a nation from one coast to the other he saw as he said "a white man's
country." Women of colour were denied entry as immigrants.And only those men judged as proficient in some
industries were allowed to enter Canada under the provision that they would eventually return to their home
countries. There was a great deal of concern about "race contamination."
In the 19th century, science of course was replacing religion as a tool to explain the world. In the 19th century,
eugenics as a field of science was all the rage. "Researchers" (I use this term with reservation) were able to take
their ideas on race and have them heard at the highest levels of decision making. What scientists in this
discipline did was rank the "higher and lower breeds of men" into a typology of value, that just like the binaries
we discussed in earlier lectures, determined which races were intellectually superior, which were lower and
therefore suited to what kind of jobs and ultimately what kind of treatment from whiteAnglo Saxon society.
At the bottom of this typology were men and women ofAfrican descent.At the top were whiteAnglo Saxons.
Because this typology came out of "science" those who held privileged status believed in the absolute "truth" of
these kinds of studies. Science was presented as fact and therefore was not contestable, justifying the decisions
of politicians to deny rights to native peoples,African Canadians, and other immigrants. Politicians feared that
whites would be overtaken by other "lower" races.
Below I have included some quotations from leading early politicians so that you can glean just how important
whiteness and power were to developing Canada as a nation state.
"There is in the world a hierarchy of races — some will direct and rule the others, and the lower work of the
world will tend in the long run to be done by the lower breeds of men. This much we of the ruling colour will no
doubt accept as obvious." Gilbert Murray
"We are there because under the Providence of God we are a Christian people that have given the subject races
of the world the only kind of decent government they have ever known...and you and I must carry our portion of
that responsibility if we are to be the true imperialists we should be... An imperialist, to me, means a man who
accepts gladly and bears proudly the responsibility of his race and breed." R.B. Bennett 1914
For Your Consideration:
What was Bennett implying in the above statement? What assumption was he making that fed into racist
practises? And what were the features of the dominating group according to him?
As you answer these questions hopefully you can begin to see how these ideas become embedded in the actual
building of Canada's institutions as well as our social and political systems.
*Even Sir Wilfrid Laurier believed thatAsians were so vastly distinct in intellectual and social behaviours from
Anglo Saxons that any form of assimilation or "amalgamation" could not be "possible nor even desirable."
*"Asians andAfricans" were seen as a threat to the development of a civilized country. Therefore, politicians
sought ways to limit the citizenship of those they viewed as less advanced through evolution.
*Here are some additional facts. The British Columbia legislature actually disenfranchised Chinese, Japanese
and East Indians in 1895 and 1907. Other provinces removed similar rights to various groups in later years.
*Indigenous peoples in Canada, at both a provincial and a federal level were denied the right to vote. *In some places in Canada,Asians and indigenous peoples were prohibited from drinking or holding drinking
licences for any establishments that they might own.
*At a federal and provincial level there was elaborate legislation detailing where certain groups of people could
work or not work.
*Nova Scotia and Ontario had segregated school systems for black children in the late 19th and early 20th
century. Nova Scotia went further by passing laws that dictated that black school teachers could only have an
elementary education themselves. This meant, of course, that the children who learned from these teachers
would never advance in the work place or compete with whites. In a non-legislated form, segregated schools
also existed in New Brunswick, Saskatchewan andAlberta. Indigenous children, if you recall from the
Residential school scandals faced by the Catholic andAnglican churches in Canada, were taken from their
families, placed in schools where they were given little education, but were abused emotionally, culturally,
physically and sexually. For the most part Native children were made to learn trades that were low paying (for
girls, domestic work).
Stunningly, Canada was so impressive in its ability to pass legally discriminatory legislation that the Nazi
government of Germany in 1938 sought the Canadian government's advice. During this period, Canadian
scientists were still intrigued with eugenics as a way of seeking a stronger breed of whiteAnglo Saxons.
Canadian, British,American and German scientists were all discussing their ideas and planning conferences up
until the Second World War was clearly on the horizon.
As you may know from your own reading of Canadian history, life did not improve for Japanese Canadians
during the Second World War. The government removed people from their homes and interned them in camps
meant to keep Canada safe! MacKenzie King, our prime minister at the time, approved such actions most likely
because he like his predecessors, believed people of colour were less evolved than whiteAnglo Saxons. Even
when news of the genocide of Jews and gypsies broke toward the end of the Second World War in Germany,
Austria and Poland, Canada chose to keep its borders closed to those desperately seeking refuge.After the war,
Canada continued to limit the number of Jews allowed into the university system. Private clubs could legally
deny Jews memberships (this apparently still happens at some exclusive clubs in Toronto --- this made the news
We still experience waves of incidents that are both anti-Semitic, and anti-Arab in Canada. Discrimination by all
accounts is not abating but growing as more violent actions against minority groups are on the rise.
Canada brought in men of colour from other parts of the world only when British men refused to work in
industries they considered beneath their status. Women were generally denied entrance for two reasons: because
then the men would stay and because if women were here with their husbands they would certainly have
children. Denying the immigration of women allowed Canadian politicians a certain modicum of control over
reproduction (the goals was to discourage reproduction among immigrant groups and encourage more from
white middle class women).
When the railway was completed, the federal government in 1885 instituted a head tax on Chinese men to deter
their arrival to Canada (they were no longer needed to build the railway). Many of the men, who continued to
arrive for other subcontracted work, were already paying off debts owed to middle men who facilitated their
arrival to Canada, so the additional tax that began at $50 and rose to $500 by 1903 only added to the slave like
conditions under which manyAsian men lived and worked. In 1923 Ottawa passed the Chinese Immigration Act
that banned admission to Chinese immigrants until after WW II.
Historically the most marginalized peoples have been women of colour who were and are the most exploited in
our labour force. Immigrant women in particular have been restricted into even narrower choices in terms of
work than men of colour. African Canadian women were kept to domestic work in Canada until the middle of the 20th century. They
worked in white people's private homes or in hospitals and local hotels. When workers were needed during the
Second World War, Black women were finally hired into factories. To this day it is women of colour who are in
the lowest paid jobs and this is not because they "choose" to work for indecent wages under oppression
Take a few mi