Canada is in the midst of a reckoning. In the wake of global protests against anti-Black racism, this nation has been pushed to table the conversation about our systemic anti-Blackness. But that discussion can only go so far while Canada’s anti-Black racism myths and the history that created them continue to be ignored.
In the first post of our Black History Month series, we began to trouble the denial and erasure of Canada’s history of slavery and legalized anti-Blackness. Many of the stories and events we highlighted have been left out of Canada’s collective consciousness.
The cost of that erasure is more than ignorance. Canada’s history with anti-Black racism directly impacts the inequitable experiences Black people face in this country today. While Black activists, advocates, and organizations have fought relentlessly to challenge white supremacy and racism in Canada, and our government has made some commitment to acknowledging and addressing systemic racism, progress towards equity is slowed by the fact that Canadians simply do not acknowledge and accept how deeply anti-Black racism is engrained in our institutions and systems.
Anti-Black Racism in Canada: Myths, Misconceptions, and Misrepresentations
Canada’s denial and obfuscation of anti-Black racism, both in the past and the present, has created a number of pervasive myths and misconceptions about anti-Blackness in this country. From outright denials of anti-Black racism to downplaying the depth of systemic inequity, the erasure of Black history has spurred resistance to activism and equity initiatives.
Let’s explore some of the Canadian anti-Black racism myths and how they limit, intentionally and otherwise, our ability to address and eliminate anti-Black racism.
Myth: “Slavery never happened in Canada”
As equity consultants who specialize in racism and anti-Black racism, we often discuss the historical legacies that established white supremacy in Canada. One of those is slavery. In these discussions, It is common for us to encounter people who are hearing for the first time that Canadian settlers practiced slavery.
Most Canadians who were educated the in public schools are surprised to learn that Canada was not just a stop on the Underground Railroad. But their ignorance is the result of the way Canadian history is recounted. School curricula do not cover the subject in any depth, and even museums dedicated to Canadian history don’t often feature slavery.
This myth isn’t just common among ordinary citizens. Canadian political leaders have publicly stated that there was no slavery in Canada or shared that they were unaware of its existence. In a 2018 interview, former Prime Minister Paul Martin was quoted saying that he did not know there was slavery in Canada. Stephen Harper, another former Prime Minister, also said in an interview that there was no history of colonialism here.
Most concerningly, when the subject has been brought before the highest political offices in the nation, the response has been to deflect the conversation to present-day commitments. In 2020, when asked whether Canada would issue a formal apology for the enslavement of African peoples in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not acknowledge the history or address the question. Instead, he said, “We will continue to work with the Black community on the things we need to do.”
Whether Canadians actively deny slavery or are merely ignorant about its existence in Canada, the belief that slavery didn’t happen here erases essential context about the experiences of Black people in Canada. In the US, being able to point to slavery and the other racist practices that followed it helps to make sense of the disenfranchisement of Black Americans. However, the poor outcomes Black Canadians face seem odd in a country where one of the most violent forms of anti-Black racism ‘didn’t exist.’
Myth: “Affirmative action and equity work are unfair or unnecessary”
A 2019 survey found that more than 50% of Canadians believe that Black people in Canada no longer face discrimination. This sentiment might explain why there has been an ongoing debate about the necessity of affirmative action and equity policies and initiatives in Canadian employment. Employment equity policies are often met with complaints about reverse racism.
White (and sometimes racialized, non-Black) professionals raise concerns that Black candidates who are interviewed and hired under such policies are being given an unfair advantage. In a study on Canadian attitudes towards affirmative action, many Canadians seemed unaware of how employment equity policies work or why they’re necessary. Some described it as assisting people who are “not part of the dominant cultural/sexual/religious” group. Many of the survey respondents felt that meritocracy was preferred over affirmative action.
This myth is double-edged. On one hand, the Canadian public is largely misinformed about the state of anti-Black racism in Canada. Despite the general sentiment that Black people are no longer being discriminated against, data shows that Black Canadians are having disproportionately poor outcomes in employment (amongst other areas). They are four times more likely than their white peers to report racial discrimination at work. Despite having the same credentials, Black university graduates earn 80 cents for every dollar white graduates make.
The second problem perpetuated by this myth is the idea that Canada’s employment equity policies unfairly support Black people. The Employment Equity Act is specifically designed to “correct the conditions of disadvantage in employment experienced by women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities.” Additionally, it only requires employers to eliminate barriers for candidates from the designated groups and provide reasonable accommodations. Employers are not expected to hire or promote employees who are not qualified for a given role.
At the root of the misconceptions about affirmative action in Canada is the myth of meritocracy, which asserts that our system fairly rewards people for their intelligence, qualifications, and work ethic. By extension, the myth of meritocracy suggests that when Black people are underrepresented in corporate spaces and executive roles, their absence is because of their own inadequacies or inferiority and not because of the systemic barriers anti-Black racism creates.
Myth: “Anti-Black racism is not a Canadian problem”
A key part of the Canadian campaign to deny and obfuscate the history of anti-Black racism has been to draw attention to the historic and contemporary racial tensions in the US. In the discourse about racism in Canada, people often point out that Canada is not ‘nearly as bad’ as our neighbours to the south. Some even go so far as to name anti-Black racism an American issue that doesn’t exist in Canada.
Several politicians and public figures have insisted that systemic racism is more of an American problem. Conrad Black, for example, declared critiques of systemic racism in Canada as “an absurd displacement for other concerns,” and described Canada as “a good country compared to the 197 others.” Ontario premier, Doug Ford, expressed similar thoughts in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the world during the summer of 2020. He noted that Canada and the US differ because here, people “…get along, working and shopping together.”
There have been many other high-profile figures who have bypassed the comparisons to the United States altogether and publicly insisted that anti-Black racism does not exist in Canada. These include political commentator Rex Murphy, former Conservative cabinet minister Stockwell Day, and New Brunswick university professor, Rima Azar. Both Day and Azar were removed from their positions for their comments but received significant support from Canadians who agreed with their assertions.
This myth that anti-Black racism does not exist in Canada is less a misconception than it is an outright denial of truth. Statistics show that Black Canadians face discrimination in nearly every sector. A study on employment equity also found that racialized people in Canada were 11% more likely to be discriminated against in hiring processes than in the US. Additionally, despite Black people being overrepresented in cases of lethal force by police in Toronto, . All the data points to a system operating in anti-Blackness.
Myth: “Activism for racial justice is unnecessary in Canada”
Naturally, Canada’s anti-Black racism myths lead to the belief that activism and advocacy for racial justice are unnecessary here. This is most clearly demonstrated by the responses to movements like Black Lives Matter.
The Canadian chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted the specific issues of anti-Black racism in Canada, especially in the context of policing. When BLM Toronto briefly disrupted the city’s Pride parade in 2016 to bring awareness to anti-Blackness within the LGBTQ+ community, the media backlash was immediate. An article in the Globe and Mail described the organization as bullies and belligerent. The Toronto Sun ran an article with the claim that Black Lives Matter “should have been labelled Nobody Else Matters.” In the Toronto Star, an editorial argued that BLM’s methods were “thinly veiled expressions of racism.”
There have been other, more violent responses to Black Lives Matter and anti-Black racism advocacy. At a 2016 BLM demonstration, police gassed and beat participants. In 2020, police also broke up an Ottawa protest for Black and Indigenous rights, laying charges against 12 participants within 3 days. By contrast, the trucker convoy that occupied downtown Ottawa in 2021 went on without major police intervention for more than three weeks.
In the latest example of unjust reactions to advocacy for racial justice, it was recently revealed that the Canadian military was compiling data on the Black Lives Matter movement. The organization claimed the data was being collected as part of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to increase their understanding of the local environment.
These responses are directly caused by the myth that the kind of activism and advocacy organizations like Black Lives Matter leads is unjustified. People who speak out against and protest anti-Black racism in Canada are treated as criminal, radical, and dangerous. Because the causes they fight for are denied and downplayed, Black activists and advocates face constant surveillance, criticism, and violence.
We Cannot Fix What We Will Not Face
The anti-Black racism myths we’ve outlined here are the result of hundreds of years of erasure. By denying the reality of slavery and other forms of legalized anti-Black racism in our history, too many Canadians believe that anti-Black racism is not a problem in Canada. By extension, they see advocacy to confront anti-Black racism is misplaced (at best) or dangerous (at worse).
These myths create a cycle of erasure. Denying our history allows us to erase the truth of present-day anti-Black racism. The more this erasure happens, the easier it becomes to deny the problem, and the more difficult it is for Black activists, advocates, and organizations to work towards equity.
In a country that refuses to acknowledge that our systems are anti-Black and harmful, oppressive policies and practices continue unchecked. Equity commitments fall flat in a culture that actively denies there is any need fort that work. And Black people in Canada must shoulder the double burden of anti-Black racism and constant silencing, resistance, and gaslighting when they attempt to address it.
For Canada to progress beyond “niceness” towards real equity, we as a nation must face the realities that anti-Black racism is a key feature of our history, it continues to be a pervasive problem in the present day, we are no better than our American counterparts, and intentional and meaningful action is required to eliminate anti-Black racism.
This begins with challenging these myths and misconceptions. We encourage you to take a moment to consider how these ideas have shaped your own beliefs about Black people and Canada. Examine the ways they may be influencing policies and practices in your organizations and impacting your Black staff and service users.
Nothing will change until Canadians acknowledge that anti-Black racism is our problem to fix. Stay tuned for the final post in our Redefining Black History Month series where we’ll offer an actionable framework for addressing anti-Black racism.