Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Race Problem In Canada

I have heard horrifying stories from Americans about how badly black Americans are treated. I have heard of blacks being killed by police and vigilantes, and parents having to teach their black sons to be wary of the police. These stories have horrified me, and I've told myself 'at least Canada isn't like that'.

I have since realized how silly it was for me to say that.

Oh, sure, we don't treat blacks like that. We have very few blacks, and those few get met with very little prejudice overall. The most I've encountered myself is a bit of complaining about hard-to-write/pronounce African names (most Canadian blacks I know were born in Africa or have parents born in Africa, though we do have a few American blacks and Caribbean blacks as well). Plus, a Zambian friend of mine once worked with a senile woman who said she didn't want 'that nigger looking after her', apparently oblivious both to my friend's very dark skin and her obviously African accent. My friend seems to have found that more amusing than hurtful. I wouldn't be surprised if there's some racism against blacks here, but most Canadians probably don't have very strong feelings about black people.

Similarly, we don't have much discrimination against Hispanic people here. The only person I've met who is openly anti-Hispanic is an American with dual citizenship. I've met very few Hispanic people, and haven't heard any complaints about Canadian racism from them. Doesn't mean it doesn't happen, of course, but I haven't heard of it. Some with strong accents might get annoyance from people who dislike or have trouble figuring out what they're saying, but even the anti-immigrant racism is mostly not directed at Hispanic immigrants (or African immigrants, or white immigrants). Our biggest immigrant population is Asian immigrants, and they're the ones I tend to heard anti-immigration complaints about. (You know, 'they're taking our jobs, they don't want to fit in, etc, etc').

Although they're rarer, Muslim and/or Arabic immigrants get treated even worse, because many people stereotype them as terrorists. Probably we do so less than in the US, because we didn't get any direct terrorist attacks, but there's been so much news coverage of 9/11 here that many people are pretty freaked out about it even now. Recently, we had our previous prime minister (Canadian version of president) try to win the election by pushing for banning hijabs in the civil service - despite no one actually working in the civil service who wore a hijab! Anti-hijab comments are pretty common, so my guess is women wearing hijabs get the worst of anti-Muslim attitudes, but I've also seen people treat people who look Arabic, have Arabic names or are speaking Arabic in a public place with fear. And, as an innocent kid curious about languages, I also saw a couple of Arabic speakers act apprehensive about telling me what language they'd just been speaking.

But the worst racism in Canada is directed at Aboriginal people. And here, we really see that Canada can be just as bad as the US.

In Saskatoon, we had what we called 'starlight tours'. Despite the innocent-sounding name, what this consisted of was police picking up Aboriginal people out late at night in the middle of winter and leaving them a few miles out of town, knowing that they had little chance of making it back before they froze to death. In some cases, they also stole clothing from the victims, such as shoes, greatly increasing the risk of freezing. When the bodies were found, of course, their deaths would be blamed on alcohol, but a few survivors and many people who'd last seen their loved ones being taken by police raised awareness. I don't know if these tours are still happening - the police insists they've stopped - but the fear is very much still alive.

There's also the 'stolen sisters', missing and/or murdered Aboriginal women whose deaths or disappearances have not gotten enough attention by investigators. Aboriginal women make up 10% of female homicide victims, but only 3% of Canadian women. One notorious case was the case of Robert Pickton in Vancouver, who murdered almost 50 women, mostly Aboriginal, while the police refused to investigate his farm. One of his victims even escaped and pressed charges, but the charges were dropped. There is probably another serial killer targeting Aboriginal women hitchhiking on what's been dubbed the 'highway of tears', a 720 kilometer stretch of Highway 16 in British Colombia. In addition, media coverage of missing Aboriginal women is generally much less than with missing White women.

I knew all of that. So why did I feel proud of Canada for 'not having the same issues' with racism as the US? It seems to be a form of Canadian denial. Rather than face what's wrong with our country, we just point to the US and say 'they're worse than us'. Granted, US is worse than Canada on many measures, such as education rates, infant mortality rates, and per capita violence, but that's not because Canada's a great country. It's because US does worse than pretty much every other 'developed' country on those measures, and even worse than some 'developing' countries on some measures.

Both Canada and US have higher infant mortality rates than Cuba, most of Europe, and large chunks of Asia. Between Canada and US on the rankings lie Greece (which has terrible debt), several Eastern European countries, and Guam. So both of us are rich countries whose standard of living is deplorable compared to similarly-prosperous countries. Just because we do better than the US doesn't mean we're doing well.

And in both countries, standard of living is strongly linked to ethnic background. My Zambian friend, who I mentioned earlier, once visited a reservation (reservations are all-Aboriginal community created by the government and given a special legal status) and said it reminded her of a Zambian village. Zambia is not a prosperous country - it's one of the many desperately poor African countries. This is not a flattering comparison. I have also visited a reservation once (I think my Dad was buying car parts from someone there), and the comparison was apt. It's like Port-au-Prince without the earthquake damage.

I also saw the link between race and poverty firsthand, in Saskatoon, Regina and Vancouver. In Saskatoon and Regina, the beggars in the street are almost all Aboriginal, and are clustered in neighborhoods where many Aboriginal people live. In Vancouver, walking along a single street, you can go through the poorest neighborhood in Vancouver (which appeared to be over 90% Aboriginal), through a Chinatown, and then into one of the richest neighborhoods in Vancouver (where I did not see a single non-white person). These are just the towns where I've personally seen race-poverty linkage - to my knowledge, it's a cross-Canada phenomenon.

And in both Canada and US, the statistics match these observations. Looking at infant mortality again, in the US, around 5 out of every 1,000 white, Hispanic and Asian infants die before their first birthdays, while 11 out of ever 1,000 black infants die, and 8 out of every 1,000 Aboriginal infants die. A black baby is therefore over twice as likely to die as a white baby. Even the white/Hispanic/Asian rates are higher than most developed countries (in Finland, for example, only 3 out of every 1,000 babies die).

In Canada, meanwhile, 6.4 out of every 1,000 Aboriginal babies die before their first year, compared to a national average of 5 out of 1,000 Canadian infants dying. While this is not nearly as dramatic as in the US, on average, 22% of Aboriginal babies who die would have survived if they were white. That study also confirms the comparison between reserves and 3rd world villages - 98% of houses in reserves lack adequate running water.

So let's not be too smug. We may be doing better than the US, but we're certainly not doing well.


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