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Modern Racism in Canada by Phil Fontaine


The 1998 Donald Gow Lecture
School of Policy Studies
Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario

Modern Racism in Canada
Phil Fontaine
National Chief, Assembly of First Nations
during the 1998 Policy Forum
Friday, April 24, 1998
Holiday Inn Waterfront Hotel, Kingston

Thank you for your kind introduction. It is a very great honour for me to be invited here to Queen's University today to present the Donald Gow Memorial Lecture on the difficult and sensitive topic of Modern Racism in Canada. The topic, I believe, quite neatly fits your mandate of encouraging interdisciplinary analysis of public policy issues. There are few topics that are more important for the well being of our nation than public policy issues around racism, and its antidote, equality.

There is a lot of sensitivity around the subject of racism. For a person or party to be called racist in Canada today, is considered a serious slur (my lawyers will attest to that!). Many do not want to admit that it even exists. In fact many people say to me "Surely Phil Fontaine, as National Chief, you cannot possibly experience racism." But I could quote Sammy Davis Jr. who once said, "Being a star has made it possible for me to get insulted in places where the average Blackman could never hope to get insulted." (I may not be a "star" like Sammy Davis Jr., but I still like the line.)

Racism, among other things, is a contest over meanings. Canada's cherished image as a tolerant society leads even progressive Canadians to the view that racism means only overt acts by some nasty individuals against other individuals. I don't see it that way. No Aboriginal person in Canada sees it that way. What we see, experience, and understand on a daily basis, is racism interwoven in the very fabric of the social system in Canada.

In my lecture today, I will talk about both overt and covert racism. First, I will describe what racism is, second, I will describe what racism looks like from our perspective, and what its impacts are; third, I will identify the barriers to solutions for racism; and finally, I will describe our vision of what is required to achieve the future equality of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.


A basic definition of racism is, "an attribution of inferiority to a particular racial group and the use of the principle to propagate and justify the unequal treatment of this group.". It can be based on the notion of biological inferiority, or may attribute inferiority to cultural deficiency, social inadequacy and technological underdevelopment. Racism can be institutional, systemic, and individual; and it can be directly or indirectly inflicted.

But when we talk of racism, it is important to go beyond definitions and attempt to understand its complexities. There are many different types of racism, implemented in many different ways, used to accomplish many different racist goals.

Racism is generally categorised into three types:

1) Individual, direct, racism when individuals expressly espouse racist views as part of a personal credo;

2) Subconscious, indirect, or unintentional racism when individuals hold negative attitudes towards racial minorities based on stereotypical assumptions, fear and ignorance; and

3) Institutional or systemic racism when institutions such as government agencies, businesses and organizations that are responsible for maintaining public policy, health care, education, housing, social and commercial services and other frameworks of society, functioning such a way as to limit rights or opportunities on the basis of race. Institutional racism can be both direct and indirect.

A 1989 report entitled; Eliminating Racial Discrimination in Canada describes the extent to which individual racism is deeply embedded in the Canadian culture. The Report states that between 12 and 16 percent of Canadians admitted to strong intolerance based on race; 94% of job agency recruiters surveyed indicated that they had rejected job seekers based on race; and showed that 31 our of 73 Toronto landlords discriminated on the basis of race.

Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba captured the experience of systemic and institutionalized racism for Aboriginal people in its summary. They spoke of policing that is at times unresponsive and at time over-zealous, usually intensive and often abusive. They spoke of a system of laws and courts that ignores significant cultural factors and subjects them to incomprehensible proceedings and inordinate delays in the dissipation of their cases. They spoke of a penal system that is harsh and unproductive. They spoke of parole procedures that delay their release from the penal system. They spoke of child welfare and youth justice systems that isolate young people from their families and their communities. They spoke too, of historical wrongs, of betrayals and injustice, and of a vision for restoring social harmony to their communities.

A popular fallacy is that racism is irrational. It is not. Particularly in politics, racism and prejudice are always founded on seemingly rational, strategic arguments, designed to appeal to "common sense" and so-called logical thinking. As all you students of public policy know, this approach has major consequences. It makes the specific prejudices upon which the arguments are founded, seem acceptable. It could be said that racism is the idea, and discrimination the practice. But there are other ways to practice racism. In addition to overt discriminatory treatment, and covert discriminatory treatment, the tools of the racist include the use of violence and genocide, racial hate messages and threats and denial.

The choice of tool often varies with the class, position, or power of the oppressor. Lower and middle class members of the dominate group might use violence against racial minorities, while upper middle class members of the dominate group might resort to denial, in their righteous indignation against "diversity" and "reverse discrimination.". Institutions - government bodies, schools, corporations, perpetuate racism through a variety of overt and covert means.

But whatever the means, all forms of racism inflict wounds, wounds that are neither random nor isolated, wounds that can be fatal. Regardless of whether we are talking gutter racism, parlour racism, corporate racism and government racism, they all work in concert, reinforcing and perpetuating existing conditions of inequality.

Today, modern racism as an ideology, is for the most part, a covert operation. In fact, its central and most distinguishing characteristic as compared to traditional racism, is the vigour with which it is consistently denied.

An example writ large, is the front cover of the February edition of the Alberta Report magazine. In its response to the federal government's apology for the abuse of Aboriginal children in residential schools, the magazine ran a cover page with a photograph of smiling Aboriginal children at a residential school. The title emblazoned across the top of the cover was "The Holocaust that Never Happened."

To make such a cruel assertion in the faces of survivors of residential schools in Western Canada shows how strong the motivation to deny racism is. The Alberta Report and those who it speaks for, know that denial is the central feature critical to the way in which modern racism works. That is to say, if you deny that racism exists, you do not have to take responsibility for it. More importantly, if you deny racism exists, any attempt to correct it can be categorized as discrimination and the creation of "special rights" for the minority group. Using the terminology of "special rights" to describe legal protection of vulnerable groups, denies the fact that racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination exist. Even a superficial understanding of the history and current realities of discrimination in Canada reveals that such "special rights" talk is little more that the ignorance of privilege and the privilege of ignorance.

It is no accident that the hot racial issues in equality today is "reverse discrimination" challenges to affirmative action plans, that is claims by white people that they are victims of racism.

Another technique of denial is to call racism by another name. The press is very good at this. The presence of racism is often ignored or covered up with euphemisms such as "disadvantaged" or "underprivileged." This status is then subtly, or not subtly, linked to stereotypes which portray us as people who either have problems or cause problems. We are pictured as too lazy to work, failures in school and prone to substance abuse and crime. We are portrayed as less bright, less civilized, less sensitive and less human. Is it any wonder our people are treated in ways that are less friendly and less human that the ways others are treated? Such portrayals justify oppression in the minds of racists and eggs them on.

The Winnipeg Sun is a case in point. For several months, the paper ran a crime stoppers advertisement in the paper, illustrated by a photograph of two Aboriginal teenagers being frisked by police officers. The effect of the photograph was to link in the minds of the readers, that the messages and the use of discriminatory stereotypes led the public to consciously or unconsciously believe all Aboriginal youth are delinquent.

The Calgary Herald is another example. For almost a year, the Herald has repeatedly given sensational front-page headlines to alleged financial mismanagement by the administration of the Stoney reserve. At the same time, much more egregious cases of mismanagement of much larger amounts of taxpayers money by the provincial government, goes by with very little comment.

Two things are going on here. First, the disproportionate coverage minimizing the fault of the White government and maximizing the fault of the Aboriginal government effectively maintains White superiority and Aboriginal inferiority. Second, sensational coverage over such a long period of time cannot help but to create the false impression that a crisis of sorts exists, and that all Aboriginals must be incapable of running their own affairs. Another current example, is the New Brunswick furor over Aboriginals harvesting of trees on Crown land. There wasn't much public outrage about forestry management practices in the province until a court ruled that Aboriginal people had harvesting rights on crown land. Now that Aboriginals are involved, it seems that everyone has conservation concerns.

The use of negative stereotypes combined with denial of racism creates a perfect Catch 22 for native people. It says our inferiority is systemic, but discrimination against us is not.

Another high profile example of creative denial we often experience, was demonstrated in the Anita Hill case. Remember when the Senate Committee called all the other women in Clarence Thomas' office to testify that Clarence Thomas didn't sexually harass them, and therefore concluded, he could not have sexually harassed Anita Hill? This technique of denying discrimination through assumptions about sameness of treatment reminds me of a comment a particularly astute judge made in a dog barking case. It seems the judge was asked to enforce a local bylaw about barking dogs. The defendant attempted to introduce an audio tape containing complete silence into evidence to disprove the allegations. The judge disallowed the tape, on the grounds that could be anybody's dog not barking.

Another way to make racism disappear is to "culturalise" it. To make this work, racism must be characterized as a phenomenon having more to do with ethnicity and culture than with domination and discrimination. Examples of this can be found in some well-meaning but misguided "culturally sensitive" interpretations of racist practices in the administration of justice.

For example, in trying to explain the over-representation of Aboriginal youth in jail, "culturally sensitive" analyses have concluded that cultural differences affecting demeanour in the courtroom, explain why youths are unnecessarily criminalized and labelled as unreliable, remorseless, and un-cooperative. This interpretation is based on the understanding that police, lawyers, and judges administering justice on reserves, more often than not, come from cultural, social and economic backgrounds different than the majority of persons in the communities they serve, and, as a result, may misinterpret demeanour to the detriment of Aboriginal youth.

The danger here, is that under the umbrella of "cross-cultural sensitivity", discriminatory activities may be overlooked which are completely unrelated to culture. In other words, factors such as Crown prosecutors who prosecute more readily, a system of policy which is 200 to 300 percent greater than other jurisdictions, few if any support services as alternatives to jail. All these non-cultural factors contribute to over-representation of Aboriginal youth in jail, but are overlooked in a "culturally sensitive" explanation. Racism never gets mentioned.

Sometimes non-Aboriginal judges, lawyers, and other players in the justice and social services systems have been too quick to embrace "culture" in ways that fail to challenge patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, and sexism. Their notion of culture simply confines it to a static, unchangeable and timeless vacuum of values, beliefs, knowledge and customs and sometimes operates to the detriment of Aboriginal women. While cultural values of healing and reconciliation must be respected, equality and the safety of women cannot be overlooked, especially in cases involving violence. Coming to terms with women's reality at the intersection of racism and sexism is something which more often than not, can be easily lost in the rush to be "culturally sensitive."

In order to properly deal with these complex issues, Canadian courts must come to grips with the contemporary act of white supremacy in and out of the courtroom and not simply get by with a superficial reference to history, cultural biases, and social conditions. They must strive to understand how cultural differences within and between groups operate, such as the difference in gender and race status. This approach inevitably engages discussions about over differences, about control, about racism, and sexism - how Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures work to sustain them, or eradicate them. Once these understandings are obtained, there is a far better chance that substantive changes towards meaningful equality, respecting cultural differences, will take place.

It always fascinates me how I see the world so differently than many of my non- Aboriginal friends and acquaintances. Obviously, the identity of the person doing the analysis makes a difference. When something particularly horrifying and tragic happens, such as the recent shooting deaths by an RCMP officer of Connie Jacobs and her little son Ty at their home on the Tsuu T'ina reserve in Alberta, different perceptions become more stark. My reaction and the typical reaction of my people is to understand the killings in the context of an historical pattern of state behaviour directed at Aboriginal people generally, and Aboriginal women and children in particular. Behaviour which has disrespected and devalued us, seen our women as inferior mothers and grandmothers, and failed to give us the same consideration and protection White people routinely take for granted. As a result, we are alarmed, angry and are calling for immediate redress in the form of an independent inquiry by First Nations to examine all the surrounding contextual issues, including sexism and racism in institutional practices of the RCMP and other agencies.

A typical reaction of the non-Aboriginal population to the Jacobs killings, on the other hand, is to see the incident as horrifying, but as an isolated one, and perhaps provided by the intemperate action of the Aboriginal women (one can only speculate whether there would have been a greater public outcry and a greater distrust of police conduct if similar killings took place in an upscale Calgary suburb). There is no immediate connection with context - social, economic, political or historic. A further discussion of the incident from the possibility of race and sex discrimination has lead many to the logical conclusion that there is no institutional or state responsibility to respond to the incident, other than through an RCMP Inquiry into their own procedures and a Fatalities Inquiry which will examine the narrow circumstances immediately surrounding the deaths.

These differing attitudes to the same event arise from different life experience based on race. Most White people have never had their children spat upon or taunted at school or at the hockey rink, or at the park. Nor have they had their daughters subjected to obscenities as they walk down the street. Most elderly White women and men are respected as they buy groceries or attend at a health clinic. When non- Aboriginal people are in a car accident or domestic dispute, the police are respectful and attend quickly.

Even though you never know it from the press, our life experience tells us that racial violence and harassment are widespread, common and life threatening; that we cannot necessarily rely on the police to protect us when we most certainly expect respect. This week's arrest of five people in which police have described as the racially motivated killing of a 65 year old Sikh man in British Colombia clearly demonstrates that racism and intolerance is alive and well in Canada.

For us, it is very logical to link together several thousand real life stories into the interpretation we put on the Jacob's case. We similarly interpret JJ Hapers', Dudley Georges', Donald Marshalls', Betty Helen Osborne's, and the Kittynowdlok-Reynolds cases. It is also logical for us to link five attempted suicides on the Tssu T_ina reserve in the last 2 weeks to the Jacobs shootings. The despair, hopelessness, and lack of control we all feel as a result of such a senseless and brutal loss of life, leads some to the tragic belief, supported by experiences and perceptions, they do not have lives worth living.


As far as Aboriginal people are concerned, racism in Canadian society continues to share our lives institutionally, systematically and individually. The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba, the Donald Marshall Inquiry in Nova Scotia, the Cawsey Report in Alberta and the Royal Commission of Aboriginal People all agree. The questions now is, what is to be done?

Anti-racism strategies, to the extent that they exist, are all about the relative value of human lives. A negative response to racism is a statement that victims of racism are valued members of our society. Recognizing the harms of racism and the need to strengthen our dangerously fickle collective commitment to equality requires us to listen to those who suffer from discrimination... to hear their stories.

Sustainable solutions towards equality between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians can be developed, but the truth of the present and past must be told.

To paraphrase Patricia Monture, a Mowhawk woman and legal scholar, if the white society cannot bring itself to understand the pain that Aboriginal men, women and children go through, you are never going to understand anything. All the equality promises in the world will not get us anywhere because without that understanding, the theories do no reflect social reality, do not reflect peoples’ experiences. To combat racism, we must give up on monolithic, ethnocentric, reality and believe there is something to be learned and a better society to be achieved by listening to formerly silenced people. Listening to the powerless may in turn, lead to the understanding that some groups and group members have enjoyed disproportionate privilege, including the power to define, appropriate, and control the realities of others.

It must be understood that racists have no interest or desire to investigate the reality of others different from themselves nor the injustices which result when others' realities are imposed on them. Their objectives are to roll back progress through the mobilisation of fear, resentment, ignorance and intolerance. For them, difference is dealt with by making it disappear - by treating everyone the same. Non-Aboriginal Canadians must understand this never has been and never will be good enough, because it will only perpetuate racism, indefinitely. Equality requires a commitment to the proposition that there are alternative claims to the "truth."

Another prerequisite to future equality is an accounting of the past. The heinous violations of human rights which have been perpetuated upon our people for generations, merely because of our race, cannot go unmarked. Their extent should be catalogued, their detail exposed, and their causes explored. Once all this has been done, the results must be published so that society will have a lasting record and guide to avoid future repetition of the violations we have suffered. If the truth of residential schools, religious persecution, cultural destruction, mass abductions of our children, remains unexplored and obscure, I fear equality, peace and justice will elude our grasp. Only when misconduct is exposed and addressed can we begin to build a fence around it and move confidently and purposefully towards the full achievement of equality, dignity and respect.

Some progress has been made in this regard. A first step was taken with establishment of the Healing Fund and the apology for residential school abuse. Many other steps remain which will require the partnership of goodwill of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. I look forward to travelling this path with you.


Last modified :  2005-03-08 top Important Notices