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Canada’s Legalized Racism

BY: Sonia Agougou

There is a myth that Canada is a free country, where fundamental rights and equality have always been protected by our laws. However, Canada does in fact have a racist history with legislation that has been implemented in the last 175 years, which is now echoing in the country’s modern policies. 

The Canadian government first introduced institutionalized racism through the Indian Act of 1876, which is the seed of the difficult relationship between the government of Canada and its Indigenous Peoples that continues to flourish today. In the five hundred years since the first contact with the Europeans, First Nations Peoples have been subject to overtly racist and assimilationist policies; from residential schools, to the prohibition from purchasing land, to the ban of traditions and ceremonies, and most importantly, to the forced relocation and segregation on reserves, Aboriginal communities in Canada have been oppressed economically, politically and culturally by racist policies and assumptions. Consequently, the socio-economic problems that are so pervasive for Indigenous communities today are a direct result of this history of racism and exploitation. Even worse, Trudeau’s government has done very little to remedy the injustices First Nations communities continue to suffer, which are exhaustively outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. Our government has also failed to address the crisis-level conditions many First Nations communities on reserves still face today.

That being said, it is surprising to know that the Canadian government did perpetrate legal racism against several other groups in Canada’s history. Slavery was legal in Canada until the early nineteenth century, and even after it was outlawed, Black Canadians faced heavy limitations on property ownership and were subject to segregation. Then, Chinese labourers, whose incredible contribution to our federation is often ignored, were subject to the “Anti-Chinese Bills”, which restricted the civil and political rights of Chinese Canadians. In a similar way, South Asian Canadians were also subject to discriminatory legislation, with the government denying them the right to enter professional occupations and not giving them the right to vote in federal and provincial elections until 1948.

Fortunately, most of these laws have been struck down today. However, the mentality which allowed these legislations to occur in the first place is still evident in current practices and attitudes. It is important to remember that most racism is implicit, and it continues to influence legislation without ever directly mentioning categories of “race”. There is a number of recent federal and provincial laws, bills, and policies that have arguably promoted discrimination against minorities in Canada.

To start, we have Quebec’s notorious Bill 21 – “An Act respecting the laicity of the State”, which was passed by Quebec’s provincial government on June 16, 2019. For more than a year now in the province of Quebec, new hires among public workers in positions of coercive authority have been banned from wearing religious symbols. While these measures have been described as promoting laicity of the state and women’s equality, it is quite difficult to believe that telling a woman what she can and cannot wear, and forcing her to choose between her religious beliefs and employment or interaction with her government, is what freedom looks like. Most importantly, it does nothing to protect Quebec’s citizens’ fundamental freedoms of religion and expression and, as drafted, it obviously targets Muslim women in particular.

Then, we have May 2015’s “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act”,which condemned practices such as forced marriages, honour killings and polygamy. However, honour killings and polygamy were already crimes in Canada, and much of the proposed amendments were arguably not very effective in fighting forced underage marriages. Yet, the main issue was that the title and rhetoric the government used in discussing the law was considered inflammatory and predominantly directed towards Muslims.

Finally, there is Bill C-24, which was passed in 2014 by the Harper government; this bill gave the federal government broad powers to remove Canadian citizenship from dual citizenship holders convicted of terrorism, espionage or treason, and to revoke citizenship in cases of misrepresentation. The problem with this bill was that it was essentially creating two classes of Canadians; those who could be stripped of their citizenship, and those whose citizenship is secure. While repeals of some sections of the law did pass, the introduction of the law in the first place sent a dangerous message: not all citizens were as safe as their compatriots.Meanwhile, the government still continues to revoke the citizenship of Canadians who misrepresented themselves in their applications. As a matter of fact, the Trudeau government in its first year in office has revoked citizenship at much higher rates than the Harper Conservatives. How true was their promise that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”? 

So, as you can see, Canada has its own legacy of racist policies too. It is important to recognize that systemic racism is a Canadian problem too, and that it also extends itself further than the examples that were demonstrated earlier. This is not a partisan issue, nor solely a federal one. When our country’s top political figures discriminate between different groups of citizens, or when they fail to stand up for the people they represent, it undermines Canada’s tolerance and normalizes discrimination. And these laws and policies, as well as the people who passed them, are responsible for creating a climate in which prejudice is tolerated and perpetuated. Overall, we cannot look elsewhere in trying to explain the overt normalization of racism that is currently taking hold. With COVID-19 exposing inequities in society that were previously ignored, we must take an honest look at how our laws have contributed to racism and what we can do to stop it. 

*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.


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