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Canada’s ‘whitewashed’ history of discrimination

By Linda McKay-Panos
Executive Director
Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre

October 31, 2011

CALGARY, AB, Oct. 31, 2011/Troy Media/ – Many of my ‘new Canadian’ friends and acquaintances tell me that one of the reasons they chose to come to Canada (or were content to come to Canada as refugees) is because of the very positive reputation that Canada has internationally with respect to multiculturalism and human rights.

Unfortunately, these same individuals also report that it usually did not take them a long time to learn about and even absorb the discriminatory attitudes of the ‘mainstream’ with regard to our First Nations peoples.

Also, to the extent that Canada is deserving of its glowing reputation, much of the responsibility for any success we have had is in spite of the barriers that existed and continue to exist. Any positive outcomes of our multiculturalism policies exist largely because of the attitudes and actions of our racialized and religious minorities, not because of any vigorous support of the concept of multiculturalism.

Examples of racial and religious discrimination

If you’ll forgive the pun, in many ways, Canada has whitewashed its history of direct and systemic discrimination. With respect to immigration and citizenship, we have several examples of direct discrimination against racial and religious minorities.

Canada had Chinese ‘head tax’ legislation passed in 1883, which required all Chinese men arriving in Canada to pay a tax and to leave women and children behind. The Continuous Passage legislation, 1908, which had the intended effect of discouraging immigration from Asia and the resulting Canadian maltreatment of a group of Asians who found a way to arrive by boat in the Komagatu Maru in 1914, are other examples of blatantly racist policies and laws. As well, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, banned Chinese immigrants from entering Canada, except under very limited exceptions. This legislation was not repealed until May, 1947. In 1939, the ship St. Louis left Germany carrying more than 900 European Jews seeking refuge and protection during World War II. They were refused entry everywhere, including Canada. The ship had to return to Europe and most of the passengers later died in Nazi concentration camps.

Other historical examples of discrimination and racism include the establishment of residential schools for First Nations children, which denied the children their language and culture, and the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Many Canadians did not learn about these incidents until Canadians (or their descendents) who were victimized by these policies sought redress from the government. Sometimes the sought-after remedy includes education about these incidents and about racism in Canada.

It would be comforting to believe that these are past incidents, never to be repeated. Yet, we have a number of current challenges for minorities in Canada:

  • The lack of representation of minorities in major corporations and senior institutions, such as Parliament;
  • The glass ceiling faced by professional women and persons from ethnic minorities;
  • The overrepresentation of racialized minorities in prisons and jail;
  • The ‘discovery’ by some Canadian police forces that they have been relying on racial profiling;
  • Canada’s reactive refugee and immigration policies, often which seem to regard potential new Canadians with suspicion; and
  •  The lack of recognition of professional credentials received in other countries, thus resulting in underemployment of new Canadians.

The strength in multiculturalism

Thus, it may be considered quite remarkable that, despite these historical and current challenges, Canada has garnered a reputation of being a shining example of positive multiculturalism. Perhaps because of the importance to Canadians of democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression, racialized and religious minorities have been able to achieve redress for some of the worst offences, but they have done this in spite of our historical and current laws, policies and attitudes. Multiculturalism is truly a wonderful concept; there is strength in diversity. Our multicultural communities have demonstrated this in Canada.

Linda McKay-Panos is the Executive Director of Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre. Over November 10-11, 2011, Canadian and European experts in cultural diversity issues will meet at the University of Calgary to discuss these and other related issues.  For more information, please visit: www.regonline.ca/ACLRCEURAC.