ODVV interview: Efforts are needed to make...
Without reservations, Canada is one of the most immigrant-friendly nations in the world. According to the 2016 census, 7.5 million people, representing 21.9 percent of the Canadian population, were immigrants. International migration accounts for more than 80 percent of population growth in the North American country as per the 2019 data.
An exceptional mosaic of multicultural amalgamation, the federal government entrenched the value of cultural diversity in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1985, passed a Multiculturalism Act in 1988 and founded the Department of Multiculturalism and Citizenship in 1991. The government recognizes the ethnic and aboriginal minorities’ right to preserve their customs and identities and practice whatever faith they wish to profess.
In 2015, the Prosperity Index put out by the London-headquartered Legatum Institute, ranked Canada as the most tolerant country in the world for its acceptance of immigrants, minorities and tradition of free speech. The same year, a whopping 92 percent of Canadians said they believed their country was a good place for immigrants. In the subsequent years, Canada continued to be on the top five list.
That said, it is not all sunny skies in Canada. The government of Stephen Harper was believed to be supported by a majority of migrants, and the progressive government of Justin Trudeau has made remarkable headway in portraying a welcoming picture of a prosperous nation. Yet the specter of racism hangs over the multicultural Canada, and a 2020 Ipsos poll for Global News found 28 percent of Canadians have experienced racism in the preceding year, while 60 percent of them believe racism is a serious issue in the society. Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiments and discrimination against aboriginal peoples are only some of the challenges ahead of the government and the public.
Prof. Constance Backhouse is a noted Canadian legal scholar and historian. A Distinguished University Professor and University Research Chair at the University of Ottawa, she specializes in gender studies, human rights, racial discrimination and criminal law. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Prof. Backhouse has authored 10 books and won several national and international awards for her scholarship.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Prof. Constance Backhouse to discuss the challenges facing the multicultural Canada and the reality of racism, police brutality and Islamophobia in the Canadian society.
Q: Many Canadians have accepted the conviction that racism is not a serious challenge in their country and unlike the neighboring United States, Canada doesn’t suffer from systemic racial inequities. Is this assumption close to reality?
A: You are correct. White Canadians labor under a grave misapprehension that racism is not a problem in our country – particularly as compared with the US. Countries have their own racist histories and current environments, and it is true that we differ in some respects from the Americans, but it is terribly wrong to suggest that we are somehow “better.” Much of my historical research into racist laws has been designed to correct this misapprehension. My law students say they are shocked to discover the degree to which organizations like the KKK existed in Canada, the extent to which overly racist legislation was enacted, and the pervasiveness and seriousness of our racist history.
Q: People across the globe have far and wide heard the names of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery, and it is a known fact that police brutality is prevalent in the United States. However, names such as D’Andre Campbell, Nicholas Gibbs, Olando Brown, Jermaine Carby and Andrew Loku are recognized by few people, and it is an underreported detail that in the city of Toronto, Black Canadians are the target of 25 percent of police-involved shootings while making up only 8.8 percent of the population. Is police violence a worrying issue in Canada? How has the government responded to concerns around it?
A: Police violence is a historic and continuing problem in Canada, particularly vis-à-vis Indigenous and Black communities. Some governments do better in responding to racist violence than others, including the New Democratic Party and Liberal governments in particular, but none can claim a good record on this. In part, this may be due to the overwhelming whiteness of our politicians and public service. This may slowly begin to change, and the experience that the diverse politicians and public service employees bring to the table may be of assistance in marking the urgency of the situation. Part of the problem is that like in the US, our police forces have become semi-autonomous organizations quite out of control, that are proving very difficult to transform.
Q: In 2019, Canada admitted more than 341,000 immigrants as permanent residents and continues to be one of the most immigrant-friendly countries in the world. All the same, economic and social disparities cast a dark shadow over the lives of the nation’s immigrant communities. It was in the reports that in 2019, immigrant employees earned on average 10 percent less than their Canadian-born peers. Do you think the reason has to do with discrimination against minorities entrenched in Canadian institutions or there are other factors at play?
A: With the exception of immigrants from Northern European countries, newcomers to Canada have always had difficulty achieving initial economic and social stability. Immigrants who are perceived as racialized experience particular difficulties locating jobs, housing, education, and social acceptance. Some of this might be attributable to the difficulties of adjusting to a new country, but not all. We could do a great deal more to make entry to Canada more welcoming and secure. That said, I think many Canadians are proud that we have been more open to immigration than some of the comparative nations. There have been quite a number of moments in time when the crises in other countries have stirred the compassion of Canadians and their leaders, in ways that make many of us proud, and which help to reinforce the idea that we welcome immigrants. But it should be pointed out that the point system we use to assess applicants favors those with education and high-status skills, which means stripping developing nations of talented and energetic populations.
Q: How does the Canadian public perceive the immigrants and racial, religious minorities? Are politicians and political parties with anti-immigrant worldviews able to retain extensive social influence as they are in certain Eastern European countries or Britain?
A: There are always some voices who decry immigration, and some politicians who express ugly racist anti-immigrant sentiments. Historically, we barred Asian immigrants and Black immigrants in ways that were appallingly and openly racist. Vestiges of that remain here and occasionally surface through public agitators, the media, and opposition or governing politicians. So far, we have currently escaped some of the vicious positions taken in Eastern Europe and Britain, and Australia and others, but it is always on the horizon and needs watchfulness and immediate action. It resonates with some Canadians, although we have seen some explicitly racist politicians go down to defeat precisely because of their racism, which a majority of Canadians won’t tolerate. Perhaps it is safe to say that the majority of us object to overly racist comments and actions, but it is also true that the majority of white Canadians do not understand the depth and pervasiveness of racism in our country today.
Q: The killing of George Floyd earlier in May triggered widespread protests against the scourge of racism worldwide and Canada was also one of the countries in which people revolted. Now, more than 140 MPs, including 25 liberal cabinet ministers have called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to address systemic racism in Canada, particularly as it targets Black Canadians, Indigenous Canadians and other racialized groups. What are the most important reforms that need to take place and why hasn’t the Trudeau government worked on them so far?
A: Canada did indeed see widespread protests after the racist killing of George Floyd. It was heartening to see how many MPs urged the federal government to respond. Responses will be required not just from the federal government, but the provincial and municipal governments as well, so the political framework complicates things. Why has the Trudeau government been slow to move? I think they have outdistanced many of the governments that predated this one, but it is still too slow. They would respond that there are pressing competing priorities, but of course that is not an answer. I think we were poised to make some significant movement until COVID-19 broke out, which I fear may take some of the impetus out of the anti-racist movements. It’s yet another tragedy that this virus has inflicted upon so many people and programs.
Q: Why have the Canadian government and parliament hesitated to name January 29, the anniversary of the deadly shooting at the Quebec mosque in 2017, as the national day of remembrance and action against Islamophobia? Is there such a belief that designating the day would be equivalent to recognizing a problem some in Canada believe doesn’t exist at all?
A: I have no idea why the federal government has not named January 29th the national day of remembrance and action against Islamophobia. It would be an obvious thing to do. I am not sure what the holdup might be – but you may be right that they are afraid of offending Canadians who disbelieve that Islamophobia exists, and their apprehension that a national day might spark a problematic backlash.
Our complacent vision of ourselves as a friendly, welcoming, polite nation has a negative impact on this issue. We are proud of our fictious image, and don’t want to acknowledge the ways in which we fall short. I believe that we would do far better to stake our future on a new image: that Canada is a nation that has many faults with respect to racism, but that we are not ashamed of examining and opening these up to scrutiny and that our motto should be “no defensiveness, just a commitment to doing better.”
By: Kourosh Ziabari