The intolerance industry is working overtime in Canada. Our universities are full of tenured professors who make a comfortable living denouncing the sins of the ruling class and organizing conferences on the evils of White Privilege. Governments and corporations employ consultants to administer anti-bias training to their employees and root out hidden prejudices people didn’t even know they had. Things are so bad that the Trudeau government has launched a “national consultation” on systemic racism to set Canada on the path to virtue.
To be sure, reasons for despair aren’t hard to find. Last year’s mosque massacre in Quebec City reminded us how deadly prejudice can be. The justice system doesn’t always deliver justice. Too many Indigenous Canadians, especially, are being left behind.
But let’s get a grip. In the past 60 years, Canada has evolved almost beyond recognition. When I was a kid, racial and ethnic slurs and epithets were common. Jokes about gays were common. Jews faced quotas in medical and law school, and couldn’t join the country club. Women couldn’t get a credit card or a bank loan without their husband’s signature. Until 1960, Indigenous people couldn’t vote without losing their treaty status.
Since then, a rights revolution has swept the Western world. In many ways (such as same-sex marriage,) Canada has led the way. Yet to hear progressives talk, nothing has changed. As Harvard professor Stephen Pinker writes in his wise new book, Enlightenment Now, “An axiom of progressive opinion ... is that we continue to live a deeply racist, sexist, and homophobic society.”
But that’s just wrong. Each generation in modern times has been more progressive than the last. Attitudes on gay rights, women’s rights and racial issues have steadily become more liberal. The poverty rate among African-Americans has been cut in half since 1960, while racist violence has plummeted. Violence against women has plunged, too. Crime victimization surveys cited by Mr. Pinker show that “rates of rape and violence against wives and girlfriends have been sinking for decades and are now at a quarter or less of their peaks in the past.” In Canada, women, people who are openly gay, and visibly ethnic people serve at the highest levels of public (and, increasingly, corporate) life. Indigenous Canadians are also making gains, especially in education. Another sign of liberalizing social values is our treatment of children. Corporal punishment is no longer tolerated, and rates of physical and sexual abuse against children, as well as violent bullying at school, are in decline.
This progress is reflected all across the developed world, where public opinion has shifted dramatically. A major survey by the World Public Opinion Poll, cited by Mr. Pinker, found that large majorities of people in the 21 nations “say that it’s important for people of different races, ethnicities, and religions to be treated equally.” The most highly developed Western countries are the most tolerant of all.
Still, nobody can accuse Canadians of complacency. An Ipsos poll conducted last year found that nearly half of all respondents – 48 per cent – believe racism to be a serious problem. Millennials are more likely than Boomers to think so. One in four people say they have personally been a victim of racism, and two in 10 say the colour of a person’s skin makes a difference in the way they are treated in the workplace. The good news: 82 per cent say they would “welcome people, without reservation, from other races if they moved in next door to me,” and only 16 per cent say they “would never marry or have a relationship with someone of a different race.” (Interestingly, immigrants are the most likely to say they’ve been victims of racism and also the most likely to say they would never intermarry.)
Personally, I find these numbers reassuring. We should take racism seriously. We should also be able to distinguish between an occasional racist or sexist outburst and the type of overt discrimination that is truly harmful. We should also think carefully about how to tackle the challenges posed by our remarkable diversity. Should we split each other into a bunch of identity groups squabbling over the spoils? Or should we stress our common values and do our best to make sure that everybody has a fair shot? Must we claim, as lots of people do, that Canada is rotten with every kind of “ism” and phobia? Or can we acknowledge that we really are a pretty fair and just society that’s trying to do better? Maybe I’m prejudiced. But I believe the way forward should be rooted in pride and confidence, not accusations and shame.