Importantly, we must acknowledge and come to terms with the more difficult parts of our nation’s history. Unlike our American neighbours, our national dialogue has not enabled us to engage in discussions about race and racism, and the way that they have shaped our nation. The fact is our country was founded on beliefs about racial superiority and inferiority. We must understand how the remnants of these ideas continue to influence our society. (from "Analysis: Why we should worry about who we’re jailing" by Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, Toront Star, March 1, 2013)
It was an Australian exchange student who, back in the 1970's, told an senior Ontario high school English class, when asked about the difference between the United Statesa and Canada, "Oh that's easy," she replied, "In Canada the prejudice is under the table, while in the States, it is on top of the table!" We have a long record that is very mixed, on race relations.
On the one hand, we are proud of our "underground railway" connections that ferreted many oppressed blacks from the U.S. to more peaceful and less threatening lives north of the 49th parallel. Individuals, like Ferguson Jenkins, whose family was one of those transported by the underground railway, and who grew up in Chatham, a mere hour north of the Windsor-Detroit border, became famous as pitchers in the National Baseball League, he for the Chicago Cubs. And he has been trotted out, along with Jackie Robinson who played for the Montreal professional baseball farm club,The Royals, when he broke the 'colour barrier' in baseball.
Yet, while we have a minor role in helping black slaves escape their lot, as we also do in helping Vietnam draft dodgers escape the draft by crossing the border to settle and raise their families in Canada, nevertheless, we have never really talked about our country's darker history of race relations.
Only recently has the tragedy of native schools and the abuses suffered by First Nations children ripped from their parental homes, and shipped off to state/church operated segregated schools where they were then also physically, emotionally and sexually abused become a topic of public discourse, and government apology and restitution. Only recently, too has the spike in youth crime in our most heavily populated cities given rise to the kind of research, uncovered only after pursuit under the Freedom of Information Act, clearly not through government approved public access, that Akwasi Owusu-Bempah
is conducting and publishing.
Reservations of First Nations people dot this vast country, most of them impoverished, inaccessible to employment, education, health care and clean water, birthing and nurturing thousands of children in conditions unfit for human dignity. And when the Idle no More movement takes to the streets, the highways and the railroads in protest, many non-aboriginal commentators push back by pointing to the interruptions to public access caused by the protests.
Governments, of all stripes, in Canada have a disgraceful record in their relationships with First Nations people and in the larger cities where there are large segments of immigrant populations from places like Haiti (Montreal) Jamaica (Toronto) the poverty rates, and the attempts to integrate these populations into the fabric of society have been, at best dismal, at worst catastrophic.
Scholars like John Ralston Saul, especially in his book, "Fair Country," attempt to bring some new light to the public discourse and public attitudes directed to the relationships between English, French and First Nation peoples, in his perspective, forming a three-legged stool of Canadian culture, perspective and ways of being, different from the European.
It is the aboriginal "circle" metaphor that Saul uses to demonstrate Canada's capacity, not always realized, to continue to open wider to welcome more people from different cultures, ethnicities and faiths into the national circle, as opposed to the top-down hierarchical "European" model that he sees in the United States.
Canada is, indeed, quite different from our southern neighbour.
And the differences, while somewhat subtle, are nevertheless somewhat more complicated by our determined resistance to bring to light our obvious and tragic and national failures.
Dominated by two "state religions" (Roman Catholic and Anglican) these two faiths have had an enormous impact on the way we communicate, including the subjects that are open and available for public discussion. We do not, for example, here much public discussion about therapeutic abortions, quietly made "legal" by the federal government, but still opposed by religious members of parliament who periodically introduce private members bills to abolish the procedure, without much success.
Similarly, the federal government, in 1977, removed suicide from the criminal code, without much public discussion or debate. There have been periodic news stories focused on the 'right to die in dignity' by patients suffering primarily from ALS, yet the issues generates little, if any public discourse around the water cooler.
While the Native Schools tragedy has produced both apologies and a truth and reconciliation commission, including reparations, the public has not dedicated much time or energy in emotional engagement with the victims, save and except for the leaders of the victims' groups and their legal counsel.
In Canada, there used to be a saying, "Never discuss politics or religion!" because both topics would inevitably lead to "hard feelings" and "hard feelings" are to be avoided at all cost.
Well, racism, when embedded in a culture living under such a rubric, almost a religious dogma, does not, in fact cannot receive much attention. Similarly, in the not so distant past, subjects like teen pregnancy, and suicide and even divorce and re-marriage were taboos to be avoided in public discourse, while nevertheless scorned in private as evil, tragic, and somehow verging on the demented.
And the subject of mental health itself, has for centuries, been locked in the closet as exemplified by the locations of our mental health facilities, far out on the outskirts of our medium-sized cities, so that public protests and outcry would be minimized. It was the political backlash that was being avoided, certainly not the re-integration of the patients back into the society from which they had been banished.
We in Canada, also have a long tradition of multiculturalism, which, on the surface, proudly introduced immigrants from many countries, without much, if any, community support for those people to integrate them into the fabric of our towns and cities. In fact, some scholars of the late twentieth century wrote about the "Canadian mosaic" as a metaphor for how these various ethnic communities were glued onto the landscape of Canadian culture, in their individual "tiles" of identity, separated by the streets of grout that prevented anything resembling the American melting pot.
Chinese people, hardworking and nearly invisible, opened and operated successful businesses, in many towns and villages, and for most Canadians represented their only encounter with people of different ethnicities. For decades, Jewish people, too, were banned from Canadian universities, and so they also entered business where they usually succeeded, as well.
After the second war, German immigrants, (of my acquaintance and knowledge) took apartments in suburban communities adjacent to our big cities, where they were spat on, sworn at and literally ostracized as evil, as if they were the incarnation of the Third Reich. Japanese Canadians were even imprisoned, and only recently have they received a long-overdue apology and reparations.
And of course, the history of the relations between French Canadians, gathered in largest numbers in Quebec and English Canadians is littered with both success and failure, the former when leaders of good will and tolerance and respect forced compromise and collaboration, the later when leaders of what they believed were oppressive measures and an oppressive political ethos.
So there is much to chew on, both in the Canadian history of race relations, and in the newly released data about prison populations in Ontario.
And we have ahead of us a long journey into the night of both uncovering our failures and our tragedies and of coming to terms with the impact of those overt and covert abuses on our fellow Canadians, whom we are eager to celebrate when they bring glory to our country by winning Olympic medals, but who shame us when they overpopulate our prisons. We have to find a middle way to integrate not only the people but a new attitude to "the other" in a world of "swiss cheese" borders with people flowing through the holes in all directions for the foreseeable future.