Racism, Past: Canada's Troubling Legacy

by Renee Sylvestre-Williams

The question isn't “Is Canada racist?” It’s “When and how has Canada been racist?”

Though Canada’s reputation is that it embraces multiculturalism and tolerance, our nation’s history isn’t simply one of racial utopia.  There have been the blatant examples, such as the Chinese Head Tax or Japanese internment camps, while some have been passed off as a joke. Toronto’s Holy Chuck Burgers had burgers called the “Half-Breed” and the “Dirty Drunken Half Breed.”

That was in August 2012.

What follows  isn't just a list of racial incidents in Canada. That, quite frankly, would be depressing and not the point; Canada also has a history of doing the right thing. But there have been some major incidents of racism during our country’s existence as New France, British North America and Canada.

Code Noir exists in New France

France produced the Code Noir as a way to assert control over its colonies. It outlined the status of slaves  as property and their forced baptizement and conversion to Catholicism. [2]

Black Loyalists move to Nova Scotia - then Sierra Leone

At the end of the American Civil War, some Black Loyalists chose to move to Nova Scotia. They were promised land, but unfortunately not many received any. That, plus lower wages than whites, led to many petitioning for and making the trip to Sierra Leone.

John A MacDonald prevents Chinese and First Nations People from voting

Sir John A MacDonald was a product of his time – white, educated, privileged, drunk – and he wanted a white Canada. He introduced race into the Election Act with the intent of curtailing the rights of people of Asian and First Nations origin, saying that allowing those people to vote would mean that “the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed.”

The Destruction of Africville

Africville, home to a large number of African Nova Scotians, was the victim of the industrial revolution—and prejudice. The town initially boomed with a bonemeal plant, a cotton factory, a slaughterhouse and other factories to set up shop close to the town. In an effort to ‘prevent slums’, however, between 1965 and 1970, the town was bulldozed without any consideration for its inhabitants. The residents received an apology in 2012.

The Chinese Head Tax

Despite what the Bank of Canada might decide about Asian people not representing Canada, Chinese people have been here for more than 100 years. They came to build the railroads and after they were built, Canada wanted to discourage immigration. A tax of up to $500 was placed on people who permanently immigrated.  Chinese-Canadians received an apology in 2006 but no redress.

The Komagata Maru is turned away

In 1914, the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver carrying 370 people from Punjab, India. They were turned away and when they landed in Calcutta, many were killed.

Japanese-Canadian Internment

After the bombing of Pearl Harbour during World War II, thousands of Japanese-Canadians, some who had lived in Canada for generations, were placed in internment camps. Despite evidence from the military and the RCMP that said that Japanese-Canadians were not a security threat, they were still interned. Many of them lost their property when the government auctioned it. Famous Canadians who were in the camps include David Suzuki and author Joy Kogawa. Kogawa’s book, Obasan, documents a child’s time in the internment camps.

The government apologized in 1988.

The Indian Act and Residential Schools

Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the treatment of First Nations children who were put into residential schools with the goal of assimilating into white Canadian culture. That was in 2008. Residential schools were created in 1876.

Burning Crosses

A cross was burnt on the lawn of a Nova Scotian interracial couple. Nathan Neil Rehberg and Justin Chad Rehberg set the cross on fire on the lawn of their cousin and yelled racial slurs. It was ruled as a hate crime by the presiding judge.

Next week, we will present some of Canada's more positive history of dealing with race and racism - and give you a chance to add your own.