We’d celebrate with generosity and fervour and after the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ we’d gather round the imminent emigrant and ask . . .’so why are you going?’ and would come the same reply offered by the last heady intellectual leaving for away “. . . Just following our resources . . . following our money . . .” (our colonialism joke).
We’re approaching the end of the second decade of the 21st Century. My generation has been resident in Canada since just after the middle of the Twentieth Century. Young, optimistic and adventurous racialized immigrants we were who notched up the ‘browning’ of the demographic landscape by joining African Canadians resident in Canada since eighteenth-century slavery epoch. Our earliest days in Twentieth-Century Canada were at times, testy. For many, much worse. The process of new arrivals meeting longer-term residents with proprietorial instincts often exposed the worst in human potential. But we also met earlier arrivals who embodied the best of humanity.
If my generation are linearly optimistic, we are probably asking, so where’s the progress? What’s changed? My cohort might be revisiting that sense of adventure, and questioning. We might also be thinking more clearly about our teenage optimism and mentally checking off boxes. How specifically am I better situated in Canadian society? Not . . . ‘am I’ . . . but ‘how’ am I socially integrated and what about my rights? And, we would revisit the ‘what’s changed’ question with silent trepidation, frequency or probably disquiet. The fact that more than half a century later we’d be searching our heads for ‘progress’ is telling.
That notion of progress is a taken-for-granted phenomenon in the human life cycle. As new immigrants we cross paths with the population which calls itself ‘host’, whom are themselves descendants of immigrants. We scope their terrain, we map potential go-forward plans and nudge forward. When we embark we stumble a bit, perhaps, and then find a mutually acceptable rhythm and attempt forward again. A necessity is that we understand expectations, cultural norms and protocols of the new environment. But we too bring important human elements to the emerging coexistence. So, we share our cultural values with the prior residents, we extend cautious permission to have them scope our terrain, both past and present, and we timidly signal expectations. However, we are careful not to be cognitively seduced by their myth of exclusive ownership, prior entitlements and social and political dominance.
We are particularly mindful of the History of Canada. We never forget that those who call themselves the ‘host’ population are descendants of interlopers, perhaps from generations ago. Some arrived with good intentions, others did not. They encountered a people who inhabited this land long before it was named Canada by those who came to raid the land of whatever could be transformed into profits. In the righteous quest to claim everything, resistance was obliterated. The Indigenous peoples were subjugated and their cultural contexts defiled. Later, colonizers and historians would invent the imperious notion of ‘two founding peoples’ which neither included nor acknowledged the original inhabitants of this land.
And it was not just economic raiders who sought to eliminate and degrade Indigenous peoples. In addition to the earliest second-tier arrivals who came for adventure, with moral goodwill and human generosity, there were others: the religiously fervent who claimed to bring salvation through Christianity, the administrative colonizers who peddled their brand of ‘progress’ and the sanctimonious who preached moral awakening had among their body of change-agents, genocidal defilers and cultural obliterators. The lasting impacts of their ravages are historically unforgettable. My generation comprehends that early history because European colonizers similarly had their way with our young lives in the nations we left behind.
The silencing of Canadian Indigenous history would ultimately end and there would finally be a Truth and Reconciliation Report and discussion, more than one-hundred and fifty years later. That discussion with and apology to Indigenous peoples came after apologies to Chinese Canadians for enduring the racist phenomenon of the Head Tax for entry into Canadian labour during the late Nineteenth- and early Twentieth-Century Canadian railroad development, and to Japanese Canadians for their unjust internment during the Second World War. While my generation of Twentieth-Century immigrants to Canada are asking, ‘what’s changed’, Indigenous peoples are demanding ‘change now’.
In my 2018 book Civil Society Engagement: Achieving Better in Canada, we examined some of the ‘what’s changed’ and the way ahead. We suggest that the emergence of a system of laws and individual rights is not automatic in protecting vulnerable people from assorted violations. We show that due process has to be accessible and is facilitated by large segments of Canadians who believe in applied justice and balanced social relations. But we also examine the persistence of racial intolerance as a dominant feature of many Canadian institutions and relations in spite of that evolving framework of laws and individual rights.
I have since concluded that the intractability of racial intolerance is attributable to a peculiar and stubborn ignorance in some; an ignorance which is nurtured by fragile and under-developed intellect drowning in fear. For that segment of the population, racialized persons and Indigenous peoples, and others, must be socially constructed as less and suspect so that the fearful might fully submit to a false narrative of self-superiority. The social construction of a people as suspect and inferior is played out through a sick vigilance daily. Accusatory encounters and derogatory dialogue serve as ego boosters. We are familiar with the signs:
Where’d you get the wheels?
Why are you in this neighbourhood?
You live here?!
You’re not really hurt, you’re faking!
You people are always up to something
Are you sure you wrote this essay?
They’re from single parent families, they’ll . . . .
You need to keep an eye on her/him/them
‘Carding’ was one form of that vigilance which emerged during the last decade as a troublesome and much debated issue. Racialized persons, statistically more than others, are randomly stopped by law enforcement officers and subjected to a form of questioning which communicates and legitimates the racist might of institutions pitted against the fragile citizenship of people of color. Additionally, Carding is a system in which occupational culture supersedes individual inclination. So, law enforcement personnel are expected to submit to the portrayal of this reminder of the might of the institution notwithstanding their personal identity or social inclinations.
In 2018, a 295 page report requisitioned by the Government of Ontario . . . Report of the Independent Street Checks Review . . . . suggested that Carding (in Ontario) is not sufficiently useful as a law-enforcement tool and should be limited in its use. Scores of racialized persons had been subjected to the Carding strategy which nullified rights and assaulted human dignity. Possible rescinding of the practice will now be subject to political maneuvers and assorted forms of brinksmanship. More than fifteen decades later, we can assume that no significant change will occur. Racialized persons will continue to be situated in Canadian society as objects of dilemmatic inconvenience. We are essential but feared. It is situationally lawful to violate the freedoms, rights and humanity of those deemed to be ‘suspect’ because of their ethno-racial identities. So then, what’s changed? Law enforcement is being advised that overt racism should diminish a bit. The practice of Carding should be used with less frequency and problematic visibility. Appearances must matter! Context and intent should be impermeable.
What will not change in the near future are the populations of immigrants and refugees streaming into the Canadian labour market. They are a dire necessity for Canada. What will also be unchanged is the ethno-racial diversity of those joining the Canadian labour force. We will come from more nations with greater diversity, many with painful histories. And encouragingly, Canada is not discussing either physical or metaphorical walls to keep ‘strangers’ out in spite of the persistence of an ill-fated anti-immigration movement. Hopefully, social barriers erected between pockets of ethno-racial populations and some ‘fragile-ego host’ citizens will be deemed permeable, and over eons, diminishable. Most likely perhaps, in the longer term, many more racialized persons will construct intellectual justifications for the intractability and ignorant arrogance of racism and will cease to ask ‘what’s changed’.