With the rise of the alt-right and violent clashes in places like Charlottesville, Va., there can no longer be any doubt that Americans are facing a rising tide of racism and white supremacy.
In Canada, we cannot afford to be complacent. Our country has a history — and a bad habit — of looking south of the border to absolve itself of its sins. The divided United States should not obscure the fact that racism is alive and well in Canada too.
Indigenous Canadians, African Canadians, Chinese Canadians, Jewish Canadians and Muslim Canadians — just to mention a few— have all experienced extended waves of injustice in this country at the hands of our federal government and citizens. Many still do.
Consider Quebec City, the site of January’s horrific mosque killings and a demonstration by far-right group La Meute this summer. With a quick Google search, one can easily find many more far-right protests planned across Canada, spreading like spores thanks to a growing number of Canadian alt-right groups. Often met by counter-protesters, we’re looking at a recipe for violence. We’ve seen it happen already.
The consequences of this spiralling situation go deeper than confrontations in the streets. Understandable dissatisfaction with increasingly strident enforcers of political correctness has led some down the path to blatantly racist thinking. This eruption of hatred — and with it, disregard for law and order — puts in jeopardy decades of policies aimed at protecting oppressed communities. We’ve only begun to understand the psychological impact this can have on targeted groups.
It is within this context that the Canadian Caucus of Black Parliamentarians met for its third annual summit this summer in Ottawa. As a voice for a people with a long history of struggle against oppression, it is our intention to play a leading role in how Parliament responds to this crisis. In the fall, we’ll be looking at how effective hate crime policies have been, for instance, as we focus on how best to reform the justice system.
But for real progress to be made, we’ll need more than what politicians can accomplish alone.
Unfortunately, the tenor of reflection on these trends has generally taken an “us versus them” dimension. While it is important to condemn the frankly evil philosophy of extreme right-wing hate groups, it is important to understand the underlying forces that have given rise to this poisonous hatred.
Globalization, and the decrease of Western manufacturing jobs, has arguably weakened the middle class — the very foundation of our post-war democratic consensus. The result has been growing inequality, increased cynicism and the seductive temptation of zero-sum political thinking. A community under economic pressure and without hope for a more prosperous future risks falling prey to scapegoat politics in the search of someone or something to blame. What were known as civil rights in Martin Luther King’s time are instead smeared as “identity politics.”
As Canadians debate what to do with asylum seekers flowing through the Quebec border or whether to rename buildings and roads named after architects of the residential school system, it is all too clear that similar fault lines exist here in Canada.
But Canadians are different too. We also have a history of coming together, of compromise and of defending human dignity. In the face of global uncertainty, we mustn’t drift too far from this heritage. Far more unites us than divides us — focusing on what we hold in common is the first step away from the ugly present.
When these bonds are strengthened, those messengers of hate are exposed as the true outsiders, weak and desperate for attention. When the storming protests and talk of “fire and fury” clear, the waves calm and we can chart a course forward, together, on placid waters.
Wanda Thomas Bernard is a senator representing Nova Scotia. She is a member of the Senate Committee on Human Rights, the Canadian Caucus of Black Parliamentarians and is vice chair of the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association.
This article appeared in the July 7, 2017 edition of the Toronto Star.