Mark O’Neill is president and chief executive of the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum.
In the 1980s, as a young program officer in what was then called the Department of the Secretary of State of Canada, I worked in the race-relations unit of the department’s multiculturalism program. Several events, in particular, were formative in my understanding of the state of social cohesion and the institutional response to the diversity of Canadian society at that time. These included the fatal shootings of young Black men in Mississauga (Michael Wade Lawson, in 1988) and Montreal (Anthony Griffin, in 1987) by police officers, and the final report of the Marshall Inquiry, released in 1990, which concluded that Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq man in Nova Scotia, had been wrongly prosecuted and convicted of murder in 1971.
A critical milestone during this period was the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement of 1988, the first time a Canadian government had formally acknowledged and apologized for a historic injustice against a group of Canadians – in this case, the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.
Collectively, these experiences formed the beginning of what has essentially been my lifelong learning of Canada’s history of systemic and institutional racism and racial discrimination.
The entire concept of Canada as a racist society is antithetical to the mainstream notion of Canadian identity and values (as expressed, most fundamentally, in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). In an interview with the Canadian Press, journalist and activist Desmond Cole talks about the need to overcome Canada’s self-mythology as a country that doesn’t have the same forms of racism as the United States.
Recently, and in previous decades, Canadian politicians have quipped that a point of distinction between our country and the United States is Canada’s lack of a history of slavery, which has exposed an unawareness of, or unwillingness to acknowledge, the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade that benefited pre-Confederation Canada.
The late Gord Downie was inspired to create his Secret Path multimedia project when, as an adult, he learned of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy who died of hunger and exposure in 1966 after fleeing a residential school in Ontario. Mr. Downie made it his purpose to bring the story to Canadians because, like him, there were so many people in Canada who didn’t know the dark history of the schools.
Academic and author Lubomyr Luciuk, instrumental in the long campaign for redress for Ukrainian-Canadians interned as enemy aliens during the First World War, was initially told by government officials, “That never happened.”
Canada’s racism, both past and present, is a well-documented and undeniable fact. But many Canadians, sadly, do not know their history, so it stands to reason that they don’t know the darker chapters of it. It is profoundly important that we learn our history – and be acutely aware of our individual and collective wrongs – if we are to move ahead as a society, let alone judge others.
The Canadian History Hall, unveiled at the Canadian Museum of History in 2017 and developed by content experts in collaboration with community representatives, aims to bring Canadian history to life in a comprehensive, artifact-rich visitor experience grounded in the historical record of the events and people that comprise our history. In many respects, it lays bare our history. Not surprisingly, not everyone approves.
Examples of Canada’s history of racism abound. Our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, when presented in his complex entirety, is the architect of both Confederation and the Indian Act (the two historical realities are inextricably bound – and critical to understanding both him and our country).
McGill University, one of Canada’s most respected postsecondary institutions, has a history of anti-Semitic admissions policies that were not lifted until after the Second World War. The historically Black town of Africville, N.S., was expropriated in the 1960s; homes were torn down without warning or process, and the community was displaced. The Chinese head tax, first introduced in 1885 and increased several times thereafter, discouraged and penalized Chinese immigration to Canada. It was superseded by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, which forbade Chinese immigration altogether.
The persistence of systemic racism and racial discrimination in Canada is a part of our contemporary history. As recently as 2017, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent released a report on its mission to Canada. The Working Group found that “Canada’s history of enslavement, racial segregation and marginalization of African Canadians has left a legacy of anti-Black racism and had a deleterious impact on people of African descent, which must be addressed in partnership with the affected communities. Across Canada, many people of African descent continue to live in poverty and poor health, have low educational attainment and are overrepresented at all levels of the criminal justice system.”
Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls have painstakingly documented Canada’s long and devastating legacy of racist policies and practices against Indigenous people.
In April, an article by poet and columnist El Jones in the Halifax Examiner explored the serious impact COVID-19 will have on Black communities, noting that “racism and structural inequality shape who is affected by this illness and its economic fallout. Systematically ignoring that reality makes Black people even more vulnerable.” The article goes on to describe the disappearance of “Blackness” from the reporting of the pandemic, despite the fact that many Black people are on the front lines and that, like the U.S., Canada is not keeping race-based data on testing or infection rates.
It has been a long time for me, personally, since the shootings of Mr. Lawson and Mr. Griffin, the Marshall Inquiry’s report and the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement. But along the arc of the moral universe, they are recent events in Canadian history.
The Department of Justice reports that although Indigenous adults represent just 4 per cent of the adult population in Canada, they account for 26 per cent of admissions to correctional services.
Political leaders at all levels have acknowledged the existence of anti-Black racism in Canada. In 2016, Abdirahman Abdi died during his arrest in Ottawa, and Dafonte Miller lost an eye after an alleged assault by an off-duty police officer in Toronto. Andrew Loku was killed by Toronto police in 2015 in what was deemed a homicide.
Canadians have much to be proud of in their quest for social justice, including the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; the introduction of the Employment Equity Act to guarantee every Canadian equal access to work; the Government of Canada’s apology for the Chinese head tax; and many other stories of leadership on human rights and international aid and development. In 2019, the federal government unveiled its anti-racism strategy, a key pillar of which is the establishment of an Anti-Racism Secretariat that will lead a “whole-of-government” approach in addressing racism and racial discrimination. This is a welcome approach, but there is still much work to be done.
The final panel in the Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History reminds visitors that “Canadians have inherited a contested past. Like their forebears, they face conflict, struggle and loss alongside success, accomplishment and hope. They steward an acclaimed but imperfect democracy, a beautiful but threatened environment, a revered but relative civility. Their vision and generosity, wisdom and compromise will be their own legacy – for Canada, and the world.”
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