On Jan. 24, about 250 Mount Allison students, professors and university staff listened to author Robyn Maynard speak about how, after more than 400 years, racism still prevails in Canada in spite of the country’s self-image as a beacon of tolerance, diversity, equality and human rights.
“Canadians are trained, in fact, to identify anti-Black racism as something that only occurs in another place, the United States, or in another time, the past,” Maynard said.
“I mean that very literally when I say ‘trained’ in terms of schooling and media continually passing on this message.”
Maynard, who is the author of the 2017 book, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, said blacks still suffer from the dehumanizing effects of the slavery that was widely practised in what is now Canada for more than 200 years.
“Many widely held beliefs around blackness forged under slavery, that black people are pathological, more animal than human, less sentient and able to feel pain, dangerously criminal, these have very much carried forward to the present day and continue to inform many of the ways that black people continue to be treated in this society,” Maynard said.
The title of her talk, which was part of the Mount Allison President’s Speakers Series, was: “Making Black Lives Matter in Canada: Reflections on Race, Gender and Social Justice.”
Maynard argued that Canada’s public institutions — including the police, prison and immigration systems, schools, and child welfare agencies — treat blacks as though their lives matter less than the lives of others.
“In the criminal justice system, for example, a study just came out from the Ontario Human Rights Commission showing that black people are 20 times more likely to be killed by the police than their white counterparts,” she said. “In Montreal since 1987, black people were 15 per cent of deaths at the hands of the police even though we are eight per cent of the population there.”
Maynard added that such racism extends to the child welfare system.
“Black youth are disproportionately pulled from their homes and placed in state care,” she said, referring to recent figures from Ontario.
“Has anybody here heard about carding?” Maynard asked her Mt. A. audience. A number of hands went up showing that many were aware of the numbers of black people routinely stopped by police.
She mentioned reports from several cities across the country where racial profiling has become an issue.
Maynard said police surveillance of blacks stretches all the way back to advertisements for “fugitive slaves” offering rewards for the capture and return of those guilty of the crime of “self theft” in seeking to free themselves from bondage.
“Black people moving freely in public space were seen as suspect, were seen as possibly criminals, possibly escaped criminals, which created a kind of intensive scrutiny that has been part of the fabric of the place we now call Canada for centuries,” she said.
Blacks in jail
Maynard added that the abolition of slavery didn’t free black people from past practices and white suspicion.
“In 1868, you have John A. Macdonald who justified actually the need to maintain the death penalty in Canada because of, I quote: ‘The frequency of rape committed by Negroes’ who, he argued, were ‘prone to felonious assaults on white women.’”
Maynard referred to recent statistics showing the over-representation of indigenous and black people in Canadian jails.
The figures show that in federal prisons, for example, black people are over-represented by more than 300 per cent in relation to their population, while indigenous people are over-represented by almost 500 per cent.
Maynard said migrants — who are often black — seeking asylum in Canada are also subject to indefinite detention, some for years.
“According to figures released by the CBSA, the Canada Border Services Agency, just in 2006-2007, more than six thousand migrants were detained, over 400 of them for longer than three months including 162 minors,” she said.
“We often talk rightly about the incarceration of migrant children in the United States without thinking about those realities as they persist in this country,” she added.
Maynard mentioned segregation in Canadian schools, neighbourhoods and even cemeteries.
“Whenever I’m giving a talk about this, I generally ask people if they learned about, for example, segregated schooling in the United States and the civil rights movement,” she said.
She added that while most Canadians know about American segregation, few have learned, for example, about segregated schools in Canada. The last one in Ontario closed in 1965, while in Nova Scotia the last segregated school closed in 1983.
In today’s schools, she said, black students face more severe disciplinary measures than their white counterparts. In Toronto, for example, almost half of the students expelled from schools between 2011 and 2016 were black, while only 10 per cent were white.
Maynard said segregation was also practised in at least one orphanage, the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.
Before it closed in the 1980s, the segregated orphanage received a government subsidy of $27 per day, per child while other orphanages in Nova Scotia received $55 per day.
Maynard pointed to other racist practices affecting black children.
“In the 1940s, children of what was called ‘Negroid blood’ were deemed non-adoptable and in the 1950s, Toronto’s Children’s Aid Society had children of what was called ‘Negroid appearance’…put right into institutions instead of foster care.”
Maynard suggested that in Canada, the word “racist” has become a kind of insult.
“People want to say, ‘I’m not racist’ because that’s a bad thing to be,” she said, adding that it would be more helpful if people recognized that racism is structural, embedded in institutions and that it continues to exist in Canada.
“It’s easy to say ‘I’m not a racist,” she said.
“Instead say, ‘What am I going to do about it?’”
Bruce Wark is a journalist based in Sackville, NB.
This article was first published on The New Wark Times.