"Post-racial" US and Canada, Part 2

Despite a Canadian tendency to see ourselves as self-abasing and polite to a fault, there’s an ugly self-righteousness in Canadian culture, perhaps most visibly embodied by the likes of Rick Mercer, whose fame is largely based on televised antics to make Americans look stupid. Too often, too many Canadians force-feed an undernourished patriotism by bashing Yanks; witness Molson’s “I am Canadian” ads, an entire advertising campaign based on our alleged superiority to our southern neighbours.

That very arrogance serves as cover for a vicious fact about Canada in 2005: racist attitudes are widespread, and racial profiling across Canadian life is both widespread and destructive.

According to an Ipsos-Reid poll published in time for March 21, the United Nations Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, nearly one in six Canadian adults--around four million people--has been the victim of racism. And one in ten Canucks wouldn’t want someone from another race living next door.

Charlene Hay, Executive Director of the Northern Alberta Alliance on Race Relations (NAARR) for the last eight years, isn’t surprised. “Most of us would not come out and use a racial slur or say a racist joke in public,” she says, “but the prejudices we have are very subtle and often we’re not aware of them. This poll gets down to what people really think of people who are of another colour--and when I say ‘people,’ I’m talking mainly of White, mainstream Canadians, although there probably are in this one in ten people who are, say, from India, who wouldn’t want to live next door to somebody from Africa.”

Both B’nai Brith and the Canadian branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations cite an increase in bigoted attacks against members of their communities, from intimidation and property damage to assault. Anti-racist academics and activists agree that racism isn’t simply a problem of thoughts, attitudes, or hurtful comments. According to Dr. Malinda Smith, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta, such a definition doesn’t express the vast and measurable damage of a system of racial privilege on people’s lives. Those who believe the effects of racism are merely interpersonal rudeness miss what she calls “the political economy of racism.”

“People who are perceived as different also have social disadvantages,” says Smith, “in housing, in employment, in income. So people who are, for instance, Black--primarily Black--are paid less, even though their qualifications are similar. Those are important indicators of the consequences of racism in our society today.”

The consequences to which Smith refers are the results of racial profiling in housing, law enforcement and employment--and according to numerous studies they’re drastic. The Canadian Race Relations Foundation 2000 report Unequal Access says that “after accounting for education level, unemployment rate is highest among Aboriginal peoples, followed by foreign-born visible minorities, and Canadian-born visible minorities.”

University-educated Aboriginal peoples are four times as likely as White Canadians to be unemployed, with foreign-born “visible minorities” at least twice as likely as White Canadians to be jobless, says the report, and foreign-born Canadians of colour also experience a gap between their education levels and their occupations, with less than half of them finding highly skilled jobs. Even after adjusting for education, people of colour are still less likely to be hired or later promoted than people of colourlessness.

A March 10, 2004 Globe and Mail story revealed that although African-Canadians between 24 and 54 were just as likely to be university educated as all other Canadians of the same age range, their average income was around $7400 lower than the average of $37,200. Clearly, keeping the wages of any group of workers artificially low is exploitation of that group--but by definition, such suppression also lowers the average for all workers.

Racial profiling enters also into housing. Charlene Hay says NAARR receives many complaints of Edmontonians denied rental accommodation on the basis of race, a contention mirrored by a 2003 CBC investigation by Stephane Alari who performed his own Black Like Me experiment. Donning Blackface make-up, Alari hunted for an apartment and then for a job, first appearing as Black, the next day as White.

He said, “As a Black guy I asked who I should talk to for the job offer and they said it’s full.... And when I went back the day after as a White and I said, ‘Do you still need people?’ they said, ‘We always need people.’” Even White people who “sound” Black find they face discrimination. Torontonians Joan and Richard Davidson are White and Jewish, but they maintain the accents of their native Jamaica.

A July 3, 1999 Toronto Star story on them reported that when the couple arrived in Canada in the 1970s, they faced difficulty securing jobs and housing any time they made inquiries over the telephone; suspecting racism, Joan had a neighbour with an Anglo accent call a landlord who’d just refused her; the landlord invited the neighbour to come view the apartment immediately.

Despite extensive studies proving who is the true target of racial employment profiling, it’s still common to hear the lament in conversation that “White males need not apply,” while even a cursory visual inspection of typical Canadian police and fire services, not to mention board rooms, academies and government offices, show an over-representation of White males. Who needn’t bother applying seems obvious.

As destructive to quality of life as is discrimination in employment and housing devastating, racial profiling by police is uniquely frightening because victims can be publicly humiliated during stops and searches, injured during arrest and even unjustly jailed.

In 2003, Ontario’s highest court claimed there was “significant” evidence that police racially profile; IMDiversity.com describes a landmark Toronto Star analysis revealing that “people of African background who make up 8.1 per cent of the city's population accounted for 23.3 per cent of the arrests, while [W]hites with 62.7 per cent of the population had 58 per cent of the arrests.

"The most glaring evidence of racial profiling was in the number of [B]lacks charged in after-the-fact offenses. More than a third (34 per cent) of all drivers charged with [offenses such] as failing to make a change of address on a license, driving without insurance or valid license, or driving while under suspension, were [B]lacks.

"[M]inor offenses, like simple drug possession, which ordinarily netted the offender a ticket to appear in court resulted, more often than not in the case of [B]lacks, in arrests and booking at the police station. Blacks were also twice as often as [W]hites to be held overnight for bail hearings.”

Prior to the 9-11 attacks, Star journalist Vernon Johnson reported on Niagara Falls border authorities discriminating by race. “Over a 90-minute period on June 5 [2001], I observed that 46 per cent of those visible minorities crossing into Canada had their cars and/or passports searched by Canada Customs and Immigration officials,” wrote Johnson. “Only two per cent of [W]hites crossing the same border, over the same time, were subjected to that search.”

In light of such conditions, on Monday MPs from all three opposition parties called on the federal government to place a legal ban on racial profiling. It’s unclear whether the Liberals will heed this plea, especially given the government’s use of Security Certificates, secret detentions, secret evidence and what the United States calls “extraordinary rendition,” the practice of deporting alleged terror suspects to states which practice torture.

To date, the primary target of such policies has been Muslims, including cause celebre Maher Arar. But according to a survey Canadian Race Relations Foundation, racialised policing has substantial public backing; 46.9 per cent of Canadians stated the government should impose no ban on racial profiling.

Unquestionably, given the systemic nature of racialised privilege, profit and punishment in Canada, uprooting it entirely may be next to impossible, but most anti-racist activists stress education and public relations campaigns as a start. Clearly, though, without legal sanctions, and with such widespread backing from Canadians, perpetrators of racial profiling will find little reason to end their practices. Their victims will find even less comfort.


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