Many Americans are arguing about critical race theory. It is the 40-year-old academic notion that race is a social construct. The theory contends that race is not an aberration rising at times in a country’s history but a constant that shaped its development. Racism, the theory contends, is embedded in legal systems and policies.
Canadians are not debating critical race theory. We can’t. Not today. With the discovery of mass grave sites containing the remains of Indigenous children who were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered, we are being reminded of all we have known or should have known for years. We are being invited by our grief to consider who we are and have always been and, if we have sufficient courage, to begin active redemption.
Our first step in that wrenching process involves a clear-eyed consideration of Canadian racism. It is perhaps helpful to consider racism as a ladder. The racist ladder’s first rung is stereotypes – characteristics attributed to a particular group. They are created and perpetuated by popular culture. Stereotypes are cemented by racist jokes that would fall flat if the stereotypes were not understood.
The second rung is prejudice – a belief that the stereotypes are accurate and so all members of a particular race have the characteristics that are popularly attributed to it. A betrayal of prejudice is a sentence that begins: “They are all…” Prejudice allows no individuality for those of a particular race.
The racist ladder’s third rung is discrimination – an action taken based upon prejudice. An employer, renter, or banker, for instance, may refuse to hire, rent, or provide a loan to someone of a particular race because their negative appraisal of the person before them is based on that person’s race.
State-sanctioned racism is the natural next rung. With prejudice and discrimination widespread and accepted as normal, prejudiced people are promoted and elected and so discrimination becomes embedded in laws, practices, regulations, rules, and commonly understood behaviour. Racism becomes self-perpetuating as it becomes engrained into all facets of social activity and all social institutions. A systemically racist society overlooks or condones the actions of racist individuals, groups, and incidents in the house because the house itself is racist.
The next step up the ladder is seen with exclusion and expulsion. Laws are passed to limit or end the immigration of those of a particular race or to stop them from expressing their uniqueness through dress or religious symbols and observances. A particular race may be forced to live in areas reserved for them that are apart from the general population. In times of war, those of a particular race may be rounded up and deported or placed in detention camps.
The final step on the racist ladder is genocide. Genocide may involve the physical murder of a particular group of people within a country as was done in Germany, Ukraine, Rwanda, and more. According to United Nations Resolution 96, genocide can also involve the killing of a societal group’s soul through the systematic theft of its religion, customs, and language.
Canada’s racist ladder is white, Christian, and French in Quebec and British in the rest of the country. It’s propped against a wall of suspicion, fear, pride, and hatred. Without those emotions, and the ignorance from which they grow, the ladder would fall. The stirring and exploitation of those emotions for economic and political advantage, affords it strength.
We must begin our personal and national reflection and redemption by finding all murdered Indigenous children and honouring their spirits. We must hold to account those people and institutions responsible. We must stop calling residential “schools” schools. We must listen and respect – all of us. We must quickly and faithfully act upon the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Report and the Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
If our horror and grief at the discovery of the mass graves of children is not a turning point in our history, and the incentive to finally descend and abandon the racism ladder, then what the hell will be?
John Boyko is the author of 8 books including The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.