Canada’s Racist Ladder

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.

Children’s shoes outside a residential “school” where 215 children, who had been kidnapped and taken there with thousands of others over generations, were found in a mass, unmarked grave (Photo: NY Times)

            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.

Canadian Slavery

It’s time for Canadians to grow up. Whether living in a big city or a one-Tim’s town, too many Canadians seem to share a warped vision of our past that allows us to press our noses against the shop window that is the United States and tsk, tsk away with smug condescension. Forget it. Let’s take one of many points that could wipe the smirks from our faces – slavery.

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photo from http://www.bccns.com

Slavery is as old as humanity itself. Slaves built the pyramids. The ancient Greeks, who gave birth to our western civilization, owned slaves. The idea of enslaving Africans is credited to a Catholic priest who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. The priest was sickened by Columbus’ ongoing slaughter of Haitians who had been enslaved to search for gold. He believed that Africans would be better able to do the job.

The first Africans arrived in the West Indies on Portuguese ships in 1518. They had been ripped from their homes and stripped of their families, religion, names, and humanity. Fifteen million followed. The Portuguese word for black is negro.

European notions of inhumanity soon found their way to what would become Canada. The first slaves were Native people. Explorer Jacques Cartier even kidnapped Iroquois chief Donnaconna and several of his people and toured them through France like a circus act. Most died of European diseases and none saw their homes or families again.

The first African slave to be settled in Canada was a six-year-old from Madagascar. He arrived in 1628 as a cabin boy on a pirate ship captained by the ruthless English rogue David Kirke. Kirke captured Quebec City in a violent raid, and then sold it back to France four years later with the boy part of the bargain. He was purchased by a French clerk and then a Jesuit priest who renamed him Olivier Le Jeune.

Despite the fact that slavery had been abolished in France, Quebec governor Jean Talon pressured King Louis XIV to continue the practice of slavery in Quebec. Slaves were purchased in Africa, the West Indies, and the United States, and were owned by nearly all of the business and political elite as well as the leaders of the colony’s Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican Orders.

The Seven Years War – French Indian War if you are American – led to the fall of Quebec to Britain in 1759. The articles of capitulation guaranteed the continuation of slavery in the colony. With the world war finally over and Britain stuck with Quebec – it had unsuccessfully tried to swap it for Guadeloupe but that’s another story – the newly appointed British governor James Murray sent a message to New York asking for more slaves to become fieldworkers and domestic servants.

Slavery was also common in the Maritime colonies. They were used to build Halifax in 1749. The growing city became a centre for the Maritime slave trade, with public auctions turning tidy profits. The only known opposition to slavery came from Halifax’s small Quaker community, but it was ignored.

The American Revolution brought thousands of Loyalists northward. The British government offered them and war veterans land, assistance, and permission to bring their slaves. About 10% the Loyalists fleeing to Nova Scotia were slaves or free Blacks. Slaves also moved with their owners to what would become Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario.

The powerful Mohawk leader Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) had fought for the British. He was rewarded with 30 African slaves. He brought them when settling his people on a huge land grant along Ontario’s Grand River. Slaves helped build the settlement that is now Brantford and then a handsome home near what is now Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington. Other slaves constructed many of the fine stone buildings that still stand in Belleville, Kingston, Montreal, and elsewhere.

The War of 1812 saw the United States, as it had during the Revolution attempt to take British North America. Towns were burnt and civilians murdered in what became a brutal war. To disrupt American invasion plans, Upper Canadian Attorney General John Beverley Robinson declared that any slave arriving from the United States to Canada would be freed. An all-Black regiment was formed and Black soldiers joined a number of other British regiments. About 50 Black soldiers served at the decisive battle at Queenston Heights. About 2,000 escaped slaves fought their way to Canada during and in the years following the war.

The British government banned slavery in 1833. Nearly all British North American slaves had already been freed. However, racist laws and segregation practices remained. Segregated churches, schools, restaurants and public services were commonplace in Canada until the 1960s. Segregation laws died in Canada at about the same time as in the American South with racist attitudes, of course, more difficult to kill.

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Canadians deserve to feel proud of their history that, despite the despicable way in which too many of us learned it teems with fascinating stories and colourful characters. However, in looking at how the United States and other countries are still dealing with race and being shocked when a disturbingly racist event occurs in our backyard, it would serve us well to remember that while we have come a long way, there’s a long road before us. On our journey toward becoming the type of people we like to think we have always been, we would be well served to recall that our hands are not clean.

If you enjoyed this, please share it with others. You might also be interested in my book Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism – find it at Amazon or Chapters or at http://www.johnboyko.com