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How Are White People Confronting Racism in Canada?

There isn't a mass movement of anti-racist organizing by white folks here, but there could be

by David Gray-Donald

How Are White People Confronting Racism in Canada?
How Are White People Confronting Racism in Canada?

[This article was originally pubished in The Tyee on October 5, 2016 and was updated February 17, 2017, to reflect recent events.]

We’re hearing more about racism in Canada, and seeing more ugly examples, from KKK flyers on Fraser Valley doorsteps to the murder of six people at a Quebec mosque in what appears to have been an act of white nationalist terrorism, to allegations of sexual abuse of Indigenous women by police.

Conversations are popping up across the country.

But where are the white people? Comprising 77% of Canada’s population, those who do not identify as visible minorities have been mostly silent, and discussions have rarely focused on what white people are doing to address racism here.

Which is perhaps not surprising.

Coty Zachariah, from Tyendinaga First Nation near Kingston, Ontario, says white people in Canada bring a “sweep it under the rug, deny it” mentality to racism.

“Canadians are very proud of this narrative of being kind, of being a gentle people,” says Zachariah, former host of Indigenous Waves radio show in Toronto. The desire to appear polite and avoid conflict can result in subtle racism or “micro-aggressions, like denying people jobs.”

But, Zachariah adds, “settler-colonialism and land theft — that’s not that subtle.”

Going back to at least the 1960's, when Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton noted white people could help the cause by forming an anti-racist White Panther Party, there has been an understanding that white people have a role to play in ending white supremacy. After all, white people are the primary perpetuators of a white supremacist culture.

So, what are white people doing to address racism now?

Not enough, says Carla Wallace of Louisville, Kentucky, a founder of the organization Showing Up for Racial Justice. The organization, founded in 2009 in response to the racist backlash accompanying Barack Obama’s election, organizes in white communities around racism. It sponsors discussions, disrupts racist rallies and — recently — Donald Trump campaign events, and produces resource materials like its “Holiday Placemat for Racial Justice.”

Wallace says the organization’s philosophical underpinnings predate Obama’s election. “Many of us at SURJ believe our work has its echo in the call from the civil rights movement for white people to ‘organize your own,’” she said in an email.

“White people are the main barrier, through our collusion, impassive acceptance and silence, to racial justice,” Wallace says. “People of colour have always carried the leadership of this struggle, and still do, but it is critical for us to get more white people to defect from the support of racism, especially as a system of oppression.”

“What holds white people back includes passive acceptance of the way things are, being unsure as to what to do, and the fear of not doing it perfectly,” she says. A group like SURJ can provide support that “helps white people move past these barriers and get involved in racial justice” while ensuring they are accountable to people of colour.

Showing Up for Racial Justice has more than 100 chapters and affiliate groups in the U.S. and Wallace estimates it has engaged more than 100,000 people.

And in Canada? One chapter in Brampton, Ont. [Update: a SURJ chapter formed in Toronto at the end of January and has since attracted 463 Facebook likes, and a similar group is forming in Vancouver]

Chris Dixon, a social movement journalist and adjunct research professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, says he’s not aware of any Canadian group doing similar work. “I can’t think of any organization in Canada doing white anti-racist work on a membership model the way SURJ is in the U.S.”

So why isn’t there a similar type of effort in Canada? And what is happening here?

In Halifax, a white anti-racist group, the Metro Coalition for a Non-Racist Society, was active from 1989 until 2008.

“We held events” says Jackie Barkley, a founder of the group, “gave talks in schools, did education on Indigenous treaty rights — including while there were conflicts on the high seas — and we showed NFB [National Film Board] films.”

The coalition also published a book in 1998, Racism, Whose Problem: Strategies for Understanding and Dealing with Racism in our Communities and distributed it to Nova Scotia MLAs. Barkley refers to Nova Scotia as “the Mississippi of the north,” noting the last segregated school closed in 1983.

“We worked in collaboration with black and Indigenous folks, consulting with who we knew were activists,” Barkley recalls. Some people were skeptical of a group of white people doing this work, she notes, and trust-based relationships within the community, built over time, were essential for the Metro Coalition to become a respected presence.

But in 2008, the organization shut down. After 17 years, members had become less active, burned out or ready to turn their energies to new commitments. Some members, including Barkley, subsequently became involved in building Solidarity Halifax and bringing an anti-racist analysis to complement the group’s economic justice perspective. This type of structure is popping up in other locations too, like Solidarity Winnipeg

A different organization, the Anti-Racist Canada Collective, says its mission is to “fight hatred, bigotry, intolerance and violence.” It researches racism in Canada, focusing on the activities of organized groups, and shares the information online. The collective claims “members primarily in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick.”

White people are in the collective, but “the membership is multi-racial,” said a spokesperson who asked to remain anonymous, citing the “almost daily death threats” the group receives.

There have also been anti-fascist (aka antifa) groups who show up to disrupt hate-fuelled events.

Although there aren’t large white anti-racist groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice (which isn't quite considered an antifa group) in Canada, “there are lots of white anti-racist organizers tucked into anti-racist organizations.”

For example, white people have been active in No One Is Illegal chapters in many cities, including Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, and in a solidarity group for Black Lives Matter Toronto. White people have also been part of organizing efforts working in solidarity with Indigenous struggles across Canada.

A few big, mostly-white, member-based NGOs in Canada like the Council of Canadians and Leadnow, though they do not mention racism or decolonization in their mission statements, take on campaigns in those veins. The Council of Canadians has supported the Black Lives Matter movement and Leadnow has been campaigning in solidarity with First Nations to stop the Site C dam. Leadnow also produced the interactive Skills for Solidarity series to help Indigenous and non-Indigenous people share experiences.

Coty Zachariah of Tyendinaga notes youth groups like Canadian Roots Exchange and the 4Rs Youth Movement as bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth to “talk about bridging the gaps between the communities and the respect for both sides.”

But why aren't more white people aren't involved in anti-racist and decolonization work?

Dixon points to Canada’s policy of multiculturalism, adopted in 1971. Governments, especially Liberal governments, have “been able to recruit well-meaning racial-justice types to do state-funded multiculturalism work,” he says, an approach that tends to avoid explicitly confronting racism and its structural foundations.

U.S. tax rules governing charities and non-profits also give groups south of the border greater freedom to take on issues that could be seen as “political,” while in Canada organizations have been threatened with the loss of their charitable status for the same kinds of advocacy and organizing activities.

Different economic histories also play a role. Slavery existed in British North America until it was outlawed in 1834 — James McGill, founder of McGill University, owned six slaves, and in the late 19th century escaped slaves sought refuge south of the border. But slavery was not a foundation of the economy and society in the same way it was in the U.S. “The economic basis of the country didn’t rely on chattel slavery the way U.S. did,” says Dixon. In America, millions were enslaved. In Canada, it was thousands. (Though this is certainly not to say white Canada was any less racist than their southern neighbours, or that the lived experience of racism was any better here.)

And another difference, as Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Janaya Khan told me in a Briarpatch interview, is there simply aren’t as many black people in Canada. “We’re never going to have — in at least the next 100 years, maybe more — a massive mobilization [of black people] in Canada in this part of Turtle Island because we don’t have the populations to support it.”

There is also complacency around racism in Canada, says the Anti-Racist Canada Collective spokesperson. “A challenge in Canada is the rather smug attitude that too many Canadians have regarding racism. Too many believe that racism doesn’t exist in Canada. That it’s something found in the United States or elsewhere. We as a society don’t want to accept that it exists and is far more pervasive than they want to believe, particularly systemic racism.”

Dixon notes that white people, who seek it out, receive some education on racism and colonialism in “universities, public interest research groups and unions.”

But, he notes, “there is very little in the way of movement training or centres to gather in Canada.” Canada does not have the equivalent of America’s Training for Change or Highlander Research and Education Center, which provide skills in fighting for social, economic and racial justice.“Training is not the be-all, end-all, but it can be helpful,” Dixon says. 

The changing discourse in Canada, he says, may have left many white people confused, wondering how they fit into anti-racist work.

Jackie Barkley, who has been organizing since the 1970s in Nova Scotia and who wasn’t even allowed to use the word “racism” in her master’s thesis, is optimistic.

“It has been my experience as an old person that there are now more young people willing to address their own racism and privilege.”


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