Stephen Dorsey is the principal at The Fractional CMO, a strategic management consultancy based in Toronto, and a community leader writing a book on the societal changes needed to address diversity, inclusion and systemic anti-Black racism.
Since the killing of George Floyd this summer in Minneapolis, there has been a broader reckoning on the depth of systemic, anti-Black racism. For many white Canadians, this has spurred a desire for deeper understanding.
As a Canadian born to Black and white parents, I have a unique perspective on both the Black and white experience in Canada. I grew up in a white family, in white neighbourhoods, and attended schools with only a handful of Black students and people of colour. But even though I was immersed in all aspects of white society, the colour of my skin has defined my racial identity. I am a Black man.
This summer, I’ve had countless conversations with white friends, neighbours and colleagues, and many have gotten defensive when I’ve brought up white privilege. “I’ve worked hard for everything I have,” some said; “I came from nothing and built my business from the ground up,” others declared.
The chorus of defensiveness is enough to make me realize there’s a communication problem at play.
Part of what we’re talking about with systemic racism is “white advantage”: racially biased institutions and policies that over time have given white Canadians unearned advantages at the expense of non-whites. This can be hard to see, as I experienced first-hand in the early 1990s, when I moved back to my hometown of Montreal to live with my white girlfriend and started looking for an apartment together. Every day, we’d peruse the rental section of the newspaper classifieds, circled places of interest and set up in-person appointments. But when we showed up to meet the landlord, we were told that the apartment in question had just been rented; it took us nearly a dozen rejections before we finally found a hospitable landlord. I was disappointed but not surprised, based on the racism I had faced in my formative years. For my girlfriend, though, it was a shocking revelation that was difficult to process: This was the first time she had encountered racial discrimination by association.
So consider this a useful metaphor for the real-life inequalities Black Canadians face in almost every aspect of their lives, simply as a result of the colour of their skin. Imagine a 100-metre Olympics final. Usain Bolt is still the fastest man in the world, and the field is stacked with seven other world-class racers who happen to be white. But race officials, who have the power to make and change the rules, have unilaterally decided to significantly stagger the start.
Mr. Bolt is set in his blocks at the start line. The rest of the racers are moved up to the 10- to 30-metre lines. Even he wouldn’t be able to overcome the head start given to the other athletes.
It’s part of our Canadian mythology to point at the United States and note our positive differences and overall superiority when it comes to democratic principles and racism. Many find comfort in rallying around our national constructs of multiculturalism and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But the reality is that slavery was legal in Canada until 1834, and embraced within a colonial framework of oppression and exploitation. Post-slavery, Black Canadians were forbidden by law to buy or rent homes in neighbourhoods of their choice, largely barred from entering educational institutions, or aspiring to professional careers including medicine, finance and law. Infamously, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Montreal Forum tavern’s right to refuse service to a Black man in 1939; it took until 1975 for Quebec to finally ban discrimination on the basis of race. And Indigenous Peoples in Canada have been fighting their own painful fight for equity and equality for centuries.
To get to the change we need, Canadians must let go of our historical mythology and accept the realities that systemic, anti-Black Canadian racism and white advantage are real. Willful ignorance and lack of awareness are no longer an excuse for supporting the status quo.
Reforming Canadian systems will require the support of white Canadians who hold the levers of power. These are the people who have the ability to effect positive change.
In 2017, a United Nations expert panel recommended that the Canadian government “issue an apology and consider providing reparations to African Canadians for enslavement and historical injustices.” That is the scale of the action needed, and white Canadians will need to support such reform. Instead of doling out individual cheques to Black Canadians, though, Canada should instead establish a continuing stream of investment in Black-owned businesses and startups, offer financial assistance for postsecondary education and subsidize the purchase of residential and commercial real estate. This could be transformative in breaking the institutional and systemic patterns that have led to these uneven starting lines.
For its part, the federal government committed up to $93-million over the next four years to launch Canada’s first-ever Black Entrepreneurship Program last month. It’s a small step in the right direction.
We are a long way from achieving Pierre Trudeau’s goal of a “just society,” which he called “a united Canada, united because all of its citizens will be actively involved in the development of a country where equality of opportunity is ensured.” But I remain hopeful that with continued momentum and leadership, anti-racist, white Canadians and Black Canadians can achieve the changes we need together, and arrive at the more just society envisioned by many.
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