Since video footage of George Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police went viral and sparked mass Black Lives Matter protests across North America last week, many residents in Squamish have been searching for a way to translate what happened into a Canadian, and Sea to Sky Corridor, context.
The Chief turned to Rachel Décoste, a Black Canadian educator, activist and pundit who has spoken nationally on issues of race, for a discussion about systemic Canadian racism and what we in Squamish can do about it.
What follows a version of that conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What does systematic racism look like in Canada for Black Canadians?
A: It looks a lot like the American one, but it is more polite. So pick any field where African Americans have lower outcomes than white Americans, whether it is being treated equally at a bank, at school — we see detentions given at a higher number to Black students — whether it is university hiring, whether it is health care. If we go to the doctor, they tend to believe that we feel less pain. Whether it is applying for a job or within the job place when applying for promotions; law enforcement, in terms of stop-and-frisk behaviours, and with sentencing, the sentence is harsher than for what a white person would get for the same crime; politics; sports — try to play hockey while Black and see how well you are treated by the fans in the stands.
Across the board, it is very similar to the U.S., and sometimes, it is worse.
Q: How so?
A: For example, a study came out last year that compared job applications by race in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and France. Canada was worse than the U.S. if you have a "funny name."
Also, when they tracked who police stopped in Ontario, Black males had a higher chance of getting stopped than they did in New York City.
The difference is there are 40 million African Americans and only one million Black Canadians. Americans in general, even the ones on the most right-wing side of politics, will admit that slavery happened in America, and that there has been problems — they may argue that it doesn't exist the same today, or disagree on how bad it is — but they don't dismiss American history the way that we Canadians systemically dismiss our own history and pretend like the Underground Railroad, which lasted 30 years, was our whole history when we had hundreds of years of slavery. That is the only thing that is taught. We are only taught the stuff that makes us comfortable.
We were taught the part that we were 'welcoming' to enslaved Africans. They let them come in, but once they were here, could they get a job? It wasn't a paradise. We know about how the Loyalists weretreated thanks to The Book of Negroes, but that wasn't exactly welcoming. Somehow our history has been warped to make us believe we were some type of Utopia that we weren't. My opinion on that is our Canadian identity has been constructed with this fairytale that we are post-racial, that we didn't have slavery. That is what we think makes us different from the racist Americans. And it is even more for the average Canadian to take a good look in the historical mirror because that means dismantling their identity — their national pride. It is going to take us a lot of time to catch up to the Americans and the reality of who we are, our checkered past. And that will lead to us acknowledging our checkered present and maybe then we can be more able to change for the future.
Q: If we want to start to dismantle racism and the systems that support it, on a personal level, does it start there, with educating ourselves on Black Canadian history?
A: So, I did a master's degree recently and I did a lot of research about this, and it has been proven that education does not solve racism. Some very educated people still believe that there is a hierarchy of race.
But I think it is a start. It is good. We need to have a curriculum that includes Aboriginal, Asian history and Black history, and not just the good parts.
That is one step, but I think the step that I would like to see is justice. That means punishment for the culprits. It is too easy to get away with racism today. You can spit on someone on the bus, you can not hire someone because they have a funny name, you can spew racist statements and there are no consequences. You need to have consequences for things to change.
Q: But how do we change the institutions?
A: I will use the "Q" word — quota.
Americans call it affirmative action. I would personally love to see no taxation without representation imported here. It means if there are 100 people who pay taxes and there are 75 who are white, two Blacks and two Asians and two Indigenous people, that has to be represented in government — at the city level, at the provincial level and the federal level when it comes to opportunities.
I can't think of a single institution in Canada that looks like the people it is meant to serve — from the Supreme Court to CBC, I can't think of a single one that looks like Canada. As Martin Luther King said, "change does not roll on the wheels of inevitability." Meaning, you have to force it to happen. Equality doesn't just fall from the sky.
That would ensure equal opportunity at the table for people who look like every Canadian.
And this includes women. We know when we add women to the table, businesses make more money, they do better, they are more inclusive. Why can't we do this with racial diversity? If we are so multicultural, why are we not that way all the way up the food chain? When that happens, Canada might live up to its full potential of being the just society that my parents immigrated to and the just society that I to this day, dream of.
Q: Can you talk about white fragility?
A: The concept is not new. Both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X talked about white liberals. I can't remember which one said it but, they said they might be worse than the racist in some ways. The racist we know. We can see them. We can steer away from them. We can not apply to work at their businesses, we can see that problem and stay away from it. The white liberal has a smile and is maybe a bit hypocritical because they say the right thing, and they may vote the 'right' way, but if you scratch the surface, you get the same attitude as the racist. The racist might admit to their prejudice whereas a white liberal may not even be willing to look at it. They have a complete blind spot, so progress is going to be slower with them. We have a lot of those here in Canada.
That is hard to break, because their identity is wrapped up in being proud of not being racist. When you attack somebody's identity, it really hits at their core and can get them wound up and offended.
So, I would encourage people to speak up — softly — to it. But sometimes no matter how carefully you bring it up, they are going to get defensive and a wall will come up.
It is such a touchy thing to say.
Sometimes the first time it is addressed the person may get offended and may cry even. But maybe a month or two or so later, I have had it happen to me, where someone has come back and said, "You were right. I didn't want to face it, admit it, or look at it. It took some time for me to reflect and I have grown from it. And I apologize or I recognize."
You have to start somewhere and I guarantee, if you don't say anything and you avoid that conversation, nothing will change. So I would challenge the white readers in Squamish to read Robin DiAngelo's book White Fragility. There are several books about this about how people behave when they are made to face their prejudice. It is a courageous conversation worth having. As a country, if we start to have those courageous conversations, especially in our white communities, our country can live up to its greatest potential. It is a patriotic act, to have that conversation.