Racism exists in Canada – but you might have to leave your bubble to see it

Photo Credit: Huck Magazine

Growing up in rural Alberta didn’t offer much of an exercise in diversity. In my home I did have a multi-generational perspective on the matter, however.

I was raised within an environment of casual racism and discrimination. My mother would tell me that my great uncle, who lived with us after moving back from San Diego, was simply trying to get under my skin. It always worked.

But while I may have railed against it, I had no one offering me any other experiences either.

That multi-generational perspective I was given included creating an ingrained trust in the police. As a young, white, and basically attractive female, my lived experience never gave me any reason to question that.

I knew some trouble-makers who often had difficulties with the R.C.M.P. in our area but, whether they admitted it or not, we all knew it wasn’t because they were being unfairly targeted – they were angry young men who liked to drink and damage property. It made sense in my world.

I was introduced to N.W.A. in my teens. “Fuck the police” challenged my views. I was mortified when my boyfriend would crank it on his insanely well-equipped truck stereo while we made the rounds up and down the beach front in Sylvan. While I had never personally feared police, I feared potentially targeted retribution for blasting that song out in public.

I like to think I came to understand the power that police have through the words of a group I never would have heard from before ‘access to everything’ became part of our daily lives.

Rodney King’s fight for the world to see happened a year or two later. Imagine my surprise when my casually racist great uncle was immovably on King’s side. That was when he opened up about the raw deal black people were still getting in the U.S., as he’d witnessed during the many years he lived there. I remember thinking he should have included a little of that when he was trying to needle me all the freaking time.

Then came the riots. I understood the anger. I was angry too.

Still, the experiences of Ice Cube and Rodney King were a world away – until we spent a Christmas break in Los Angeles.

We landed in California after midnight and hopped onto the shuttle that would take us to the hotel. Along the way, the driver pointed out the window and said: “You don’t want to end up there at night.”

“What’s that?” I asked.


I watched as the seemingly average lights and homes whizzed by and arrived at the Disneyland Hotel with another N.W.A. song in my head.

For our vacation we did mostly tourist-y stuff; Disneyland, Universal, Queen Mary, Beverly Hills – and avoided Compton.

We avoided that area of L.A. much in the same way we avoided First Nations’ reserves at home. I was often told I didn’t want to end up there at night either. “Don’t stop, drive right on through,” I was always told.

It wasn’t until much later that I would be working with First Nations groups, board members mostly, in a professional capacity.

It wasn’t until university I learned about the disproportionate number of First Nations people in Canadian prisons. It was the first time I learned about the “Starlight Tours” in Manitoba and Saskatchewan where First Nations people were picked up in the city and driven out to rural, sometimes relieved of their coat and shoes, in winter, and left to find their own way back home. Some didn’t make it.

I learned about the Drybones case (1970) that challenged the constitutionality of a provision in the Indian Act that denied those with Indian Status equality before the law. The Indian Act is still being challenged today.

It wasn’t until I spent time giving career workshops on First Nations land that I understood the barriers too many people who live there face.

It was the first time I realized the ease with which online applications discriminate against people with low income and those whose names are not of European descent. It was also the first time I had been asked to assist a woman who both celebrated her 50th birthday but couldn’t write her own resume well because she left school in grade five.

It wasn’t until I attended a youth justice conference as a member of a local youth justice committee and signed up for the Medicine Wheel session that I learned more about systemic barriers for First Nations youth, and people, in Alberta.

As our country has gradually become more diverse, more people of colour are being targeted by racially biased language and actions.

We hopefully haven’t forgotten about the B.C. woman in a Lethbridge Denny’s who decided she could not handle being in the vicinity of a conversation that wasn’t in English.

To see where instances of hate crimes are happening in Alberta, stophateab.ca provides an interactive map of reported incidents.

Last year, the Alberta UCP ended funding for anti-racism programs – funding that had been available for 30 years. Who will be adversely affected by this in Alberta?

This week, the same government decided it would create its own parole board to “close the revolving door” of the justice system.

In Alberta, 38 per cent of those incarcerated identify as Aboriginal. For a group of people who, in total, only make up 15 per cent of the population in Alberta, who will be adversely affected by this?

Said government is also currently debating Bill 1 which provides the legislative means to quell any form of protest that blocks a street or sidewalk, and allows them to distribute fines for anyone who encourages a protest that would disrupt the same.

The Bill was set in motion earlier this year by economically disruptive blockades. That was the language being normalized – it wasn’t about dueling rights – it was about economic freedom.

As with anything else, we prefer peaceful protests we can neither see nor be inconvenienced by and language that provides that justification for our unwillingness to be so inconvenienced.

While it takes some effort to both ignore and deny that racism exists in Canada, with the right policies, we can certainly starve ourselves of the evidence.

This post contains opinion.

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Deirdre is a politically-engaged, fake-news slayer physically distancing in southern Alberta.
Connect: @Mitchell_AB, dmaclean@countersign.ca

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