Leaders like Trudeau offer only empty words about multiculturalism while presiding over a deeply racist state that continues to oppress minorities, argues John Clarke
Last summer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement proudly declaring that “Fifty years ago this fall, Canada became the first country in the world to adopt a policy of multiculturalism.” He was careful to include an admission that, “Every day, far too many racialized Canadians, Indigenous peoples, and religious minorities continue to face systemic racism, discrimination, and a lack of resources and opportunity.” However, he expressed confidence that “Together, we can make Canada a stronger, more welcoming, and inclusive place.”
After fifty years of official multiculturalism, for which Trudeau’s Liberal Party is largely responsible, his picture of a well-intentioned work in progress that still has a few wrinkles to iron out is really quite preposterous. The truth is that the ‘inclusive place’ that Trudeau conjures up has far more to do with official statements than with the realities of Canadian society. Multiculturalism was hardly one of the founding principles of the state that was established, as a project of the British Empire, through the genocidal dispossession of the Indigenous population.
It is well known that Black people escaping slavery in the United States, by way of the ‘Underground Railroad,’ sought freedom in Canada. However, this country has its own history of slavery spanning some two hundred years before the practice was abolished within the British Empire in 1833. Certainly, there was no plantation economy in Canada and slavery existed on a relatively small scale compared to the US and the Caribbean but it remains an integral part of the country’s history that has shaped subsequent developments.
A Black population was created in Nova Scotia, when thousands of so-called ‘United Empire Loyalists’ fled the newly created US republic and settled in Canada. The Black people who were part of this migration, some of them brought along as slaves, have faced especially outrageous levels of discrimination ever since. The name of Rosa Parks, who was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, is known throughout the world. However, few have heard of Viola Desmond, a Black Nova Scotian, who was arrested nine years earlier, in the town of New Glasgow, for refusing to leave the ‘whites only’ section of the Roseland Theatre where she was watching a film. In the same province, the forcible clearing of the community known as ‘Africville,’ a couple of decades later, stands out as a brutal and ugly example of ‘environmental racism.’
Such examples of deeply rooted anti-Black racism are by no means confined to Canada’s east coast. In the 1940s, rampant segregation practices in the town of Dresden, Ontario, sparked outrage, resistance and eventual measures of redress. A media report at the time commented that “The Canadian who looks down on the Southern United States for “Jim Crow” racial segregation will suffer a rude shock on visiting the sleepy agricultural centre of Dresden, Ont., 300 of whose 1,700 citizens have Negro blood.” Black people were denied access to all of the restaurants and barber shops in a town that, with considerable irony, was celebrated as a destination point for the Underground Railroad.
It must be stressed that this is no question of a mere ‘legacy’ and that these racist foundations shape the present day. Black people make up only 3% of the Canadian population but represent 8.6% of those in federal prisons. Ontario’s human rights commissioner reported last year that Black people were twenty times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white people. This extends to an increased likelihood of being ‘arrested, charged and subjected to use of force by the city’s police force.’
In 2016, Justin Trudeau officially apologised for the the exclusion of the Komagata Maru in 1914. After this ship arrived in Vancouver, the 376 passengers aboard, mainly Sikhs, were denied the right to land for some two months. The vessel was eventually forced to return to India where twenty of the passengers were killed by British troops and many others jailed, when they resisted their treatment.
Trudeau stated that "The passengers of the Komagata Maru, like millions of immigrants to Canada since, were seeking refuge and better lives for their families. With so much to contribute to their new home, they chose Canada and we failed them utterly." These remorseful words take on a hollow ring when you consider the treatment those ‘seeking refuge and better lives’ can expect from the equally racist immigration system that is in operation today.’ A healthcare worker from Nigeria, is presently fighting efforts to deport her because, on the advice of her doctor, she ‘stopped working at the beginning of her third trimester of pregnancy due to “high-risk” complications from prior cesarean births.’
The extreme exploitation that immigrant workers have faced in Canada can be seen in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1885. This involved the use of thousands of Chinese workers who, unlike their white counterparts, had to pay for their own provisions, even though the wages they received were considerably smaller. They were also deliberately given the most dangerous tasks, such as the handling of explosives and assigned to build the most perilous sections of the track. Of roughly the 17,000 Chinese workers used in the construction of the CPR, some 4,000 were killed and a memorial to those who perished stands in Toronto.
Once the need for cheap Chinese labour was over, the government imposed a head tax of $50 (an enormous sum at the time) on every Chinese person seeking to live in Canada, which was doubled in 1900. Since people still struggled to pay this crushing fee, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1923 that denied entry outright and it was not repealed for twenty four years. Entire families were separated by this racist measure.
During the Second World War, Canada rivalled the US in the internment of people of Japanese origin. German and Italian citizens were locked away for the duration of the war but, in the case of the Japanese, the criteria for internment was racially determined. Canadian citizenship offered no protection and some 12,000 were confined in camps, their homes and belongings auctioned off in their absence.
As Jewish people in Europe faced Nazi persecution and ultimately a vast act of genocide, the Canadian authorities worked to ensure that those fleeing this horror were denied entry. As this unfolded, a leading Canadian official responded to the question of how many Jews should be granted residency after the war with the now infamous comment that ‘none is too many.’
The concept of multiculturalism that governments have put into practice certainly runs counter to the racist history and present reality of Canadian society. However, there is more to the question than this. As immigrant communities have been established in the country, multiculturalism, brokered mainly through the Liberal Party, has formed the basis for the regulation and control of working class people within those communities. Networks of social agencies and business organisations have been incorporated into the system so that safe and reliable gatekeepers are able to function as community representatives.
In my work as an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), I was involved in a successful campaign to prevent the mainly elderly women who sold vegetables on the streets of Toronto’s largest Chinatown from being removed under city bylaws restricting street vending. The Chinese business associations that were leading the effort to clear out these women were treated as the authentic spokespersons for the community regardless of the class interests they served. One of the vendors told me of a Cantonese TV interview she had watched with a major restaurant owner on the question of a minimum wage increase, in which he insisted that the Chinese community felt such an increase was completely unnecessary.
As Justin Trudeau marks fifty years of Canadian multiculturalism, a wave of Islamophobic hatred sweeps the country that his government has played no small part in setting in motion. So far is Canada from having escaped its racist past, that the present pandemic is able to follow the lines of inequality set out for it. Last year, it was reported that ‘Black and other people of colour’ made up a staggering 83% of reported Covid cases in Toronto.
The abject failure of multiculturalism is even on display on Parliament Hill itself. In 2019, the Parliamentary Protective Service (PPS) was forced to issue an apology for ‘racial profiling’ that took place ‘during a visit to Parliament Hill by 150 community members who were attending the Black Voices on the Hill day.’ It seems that someone complained about the fact that so many "dark-skinned people" were present and the community representatives were forced out of the parliamentary cafeteria by the PPS. If this can occur in Justin Trudeau’s workplace, the kind of ‘multiculturalism’ that is dealt out in poor Black communities is easy to imagine.
Fifty years of official multiculturalism have not removed racism from the life of Canada and nor were they intended to. Racism will only be challenged and defeated by united struggles in our communities and on the streets and not by the duplicitous pretensions of the Liberal Party.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.
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