We read a lot about American exceptionalism. But Canadians confronted with American news, especially white Canadians like me confronted with news about racism in the U.S., are often quick to condemn our neighbour.
“Wow, that country is broken,” we’ll say when talking about the States, or “That wouldn’t happen here,” or “At least we’re not as bad as they are.”
I’ve said all those things, too. It’s comforting to feel our problems are less significant than other people’s; that in some small way, we’re superior.
On Friday, as Black Americans reeled from the injustice of George Floyd’s death, Canadians on Twitter attempted some levity by getting “Meanwhile in Canada” trending. If only racism could be contained that way, if only it simply didn’t exist here. But it’s not helpful, because it’s false.
High-profile Toronto case
A few days after Floyd died after being pinned down by a white officer who kneeled on his neck, a Black woman died under mysterious circumstances while police were in her Toronto home. Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s mother said she called the police, hoping her daughter would receive mental health help. Instead, Regis fell to her death from the balcony of her 24th floor apartment.
The family of the 29-year-old do not believe she would hurt herself, reported CP24. They were all in the hall when she returned to her unit to use the bathroom, her family told CBC News. Several officers followed her in. A few minutes later, her mother heard her call for help. Seconds later, she was dead. Video on social media showed Korchinski-Paquet’s mother and cousin alleging that police officers pushed her from the balcony.
Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, which examines death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault involving police, is investigating the case.
UPDATE - May 31, 2020: The family released a statement through lawyer Knia Singh that they’re waiting on evidence from the investigation “before any further conclusions can be made.” They also said anything stated by family members before a May 28 press conference “are not part of the official Korchinski-Paquet statement.”
And yet, Meanwhile in Canada ...
“Not our problem”
“Growing up, people always talked about racism like: ‘It’s over there. It’s in America,’” Black Toronto writer and educator Barbara Yebuga told me. “But that’s just not true. Don’t let a border fool you.”
The story of Amy Cooper, the “Central Park Karen,” spread quickly. She called the cops on Christian Cooper, a Black man who asked her to follow the park’s rules and put her dog on a leash. The video started to circulate Monday evening, and by Tuesday, the woman in the video had been identified and fired from her job as a portfolio manager at an investment firm. She surrendered her dog to the rescue centre where she got him, given that in addition to endangering an innocent man’s life, the video also shows her choking the dog.
This is one of many, many stories in which white Americans have called the police on Black people who are just living. It happened in in 2018 in Oakland, Calif., when a white woman got suspicious of a Black family having a barbecue. That same summer, in nearby San Francisco, a white woman called the police on an eight-year-old Black girl selling water without a permit. Two Black men were arrested in Pennsylvania for asking to use a Starbucks bathroom before ordering anything, also in 2018. In 2019 near Detroit, a white woman called the cops on a Black man who was looking for parking, because she “felt threatened.”
As Canadians, many of us hear these stories and we shake our heads. It’s awful, but it’s their problem, not ours. We can empathize, and we can condemn, but we’re absolved of any guilt ourselves. After all, we say, racism like that doesn’t happen in Canada.
But, that isn’t how it works. There have been reports that Amy Cooper, who faked distress when she told the 911 operator that “an African-American man is threatening my life,” is actually Canadian. The news site Heavy reported that her Instagram account indicated she grew up in Canada, and that her LinkedIn said she got a degree in actuarial science from the University of Waterloo, graduating in 2003.
She’s since deleted her social media accounts, so we don’t know for sure if that’s true. I reached out to the University of Waterloo, but haven’t yet heard back. It’s probably not the kind of alumni story any school would rush to confirm.
But, those details are less important than the bigger picture. We don’t want her to be Canadian, because we want to think of this as an American problem.
Canada’s “angel complex”
On an episode of “Colour Code,” a 2016 podcast about race in Canada, co-host Hannah Sung speaks to someone at a party who gives name to the way so many Canadians approach racism: the “angel complex.” Comparing ourselves to the U.S. is a consistent part of our Canadian identities, the show posits, and we can use that to our advantage when we don’t want to face our own problems. This can be very convenient when it comes to racism: we can excuse our own history because we think it’s “not as bad” as theirs.
“There’s this sense that here in Canada, ‘Thank god we’re not like our neighbours south of the border,’” Yebuga said. “We’re all about equality, and getting along, and there’s no racism here. And that is not the case.”
Canadians grow up learning about slavery and segregation in a purely American context, as though these things didn’t happen here, too. We like to uphold our role in the Underground Railroad as saviour against American brutality, but don’t often talk about the fact that only a few decades before, wealthy Canadians were slave owners, too. John Graves Simcoe, the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, was a proponent of abolition, but nine members of his advisory legislative council owned slaves. The Slavery Abolition Act didn’t officially become law in Canada until 1834, just 27 years before the American Civil War.
“Colour Code” makes a similar point about anti-segregation activist Viola Desmond. Before it was announced that her face would be on our $10 bill, she wasn’t a household name. She’s been described as “Canada’s Rosa Parks,” even though her stand against segregation in a Nova Scotia movie theatre happened in 1946, 10 years before Parks’ historic bus ride in Alabama. Even our civil-rights heroes have to be described in reference to American ones, because we’re so out of touch with the racism in our own history.
And, our celebrations of Desmond sometimes erase the hardships she faced from Canadian laws. I didn’t know until Yebuga mentioned it that Desmond had to travel to New York for beauty school, because as a Black woman, she wasn’t allowed to attend school at home.
The idea that Black Canadians sometimes had more options in the U.S. than they did here doesn’t fit with the ideas we like to have about ourselves, but there are other examples. Black students were accepted into McGill University’s medical school in the 1930s, for instance, but they were usually barred from getting residencies at Montreal hospitals. Instead, Black McGill students would do their residencies via Howard University in Washington, D.C.
It’s true that Canada did not have the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in the U.S., But the absence of a law doesn’t mean segregation wasn’t rampant here too, Yebuga points out. In Nova Scotia, where Viola Desmond is from, anti-discrimination laws weren’t put into place until 1959.
“No, we didn’t have Jim Crow laws, but you had the prerogative to choose who you wanted to serve,” she said. “You were allowed to say, OK, Barbara, you’re a Black woman and we don’t serve Black people. I will serve Amy Cooper because she’s white.”
The distinction is simply between racism that’s commonly practiced and racism that’s enshrined in law. “Maybe that speaks to why in Canada, it’s not so advertised that we have these deep-seated racial issues,” she said.
“We didn’t have an official law. Instead what we did was we brushed it under the rug. We turned a blind eye.”
Part of our reluctance to examine that part of our history is connected to the reluctance so many Canadians have in acknowledging the Indigenous people who lived on our land before European colonialists murdered them and tried to stamp our their way of life. The impact of colonialism is clear in so much of our recent history — residential schools, the “Sixties Scoop” — and the contemporary landscape.
But many Canadians, including political leaders, still won’t call the treatment of thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women a “genocide,” even though that’s what experts, who spent three years working on the inquiry, found.
Police brutality is another thing we often frame as an American problem, Yebuga said. The average Canadian probably knows more about George Floyd or Eric Garner than the many Black Canadians who were killed by police, she said, like Andrew Loku, or Jermaine Carby, or Abdirahman Abdi.
It happens here, too. We just don’t talk about it as much. But, the recent events in the U.S. have prompted our prime minister, who has been plagued by his own racist mistakes from his past, to make a rare statement.
“Anti-Black racism, racism is real,” Justin Trudeau said Friday. “It’s in the United States, but it’s also in Canada. And we know people are facing systemic discrimination, unconscious bias, and anti-Black racism every single day.”
“But, I’M not racist”
Aside from fringe groups and literal white supremacists, just about no one considers themselves racist. “Am I a racist? Yes or No” is much less helpful than really thinking about what racism means and how it functions. Amy Cooper herself said she’s “not a racist,” but she was quick to punish a Black man who was asking her to follow the rules. She was willing to exploit her place in a racial hierarchy to get what she wanted, in a way that endangered another person who isn’t afforded the privilege she is.
As American University professor Ibram X. Kendi puts it, “the denial of racism is the heartbeat of racism.” In his view, we shouldn’t define people or actions as racist or not racist, but rather as racist or anti-racist. If we aren’t willing to look at our own behaviour, we’re not actively working against racism.
“When a racist is called racist, they deny it, they refuse to talk about their own racism, they shut down the conversation, feeling offended as if they were personally attacked,” Kendi told the Washington Post. “When an antiracist is called racist, they assess whether what they said or did or did not do was racist based on clear definitions, and if they did say something was wrong with a racial group, if they did support a policy that was leading to racial inequity, then they admit they were being racist.”
Maybe the question to ask yourself isn’t whether you’re a racist, but how you benefit from a system that subjugates other people. How comfortable or uncomfortable you are when non-white people are in a position of authority over you, and where some of those attitudes comes from. What kinds of interactions make you feel threatened, and what kinds of threats, inadvertent or not, other people might feel from you.
A responsibility to self-educate
What we as Canadians should be doing, and white Canadians in particular, is looking long and hard at our own reluctance to examine ourselves. We need to address our unconscious biases, the ideas we buy into that allow freedom to white people at the expense of others.
I’m a white person who has done inadvertently racist things. I didn’t grow up in a world that forced me to be hyper-aware of how my skin colour or my ethnic background would affect the way people saw me. So, I had blind spots. I’m sure I still do.
Yebuga said she’s sick of having to think and talk about racism so much. “I would love to talk about how great Black people are, and all the amazing things we’re doing in the community,” she said. “Racism is not our problem.”
If the rest of us want to ease that burden, it’s up to us to look critically at ourselves. The resources are out there — the world is full of information to help us do that, and they’re just a Google search away.
Yebuga graciously provided a very comprehensive list, including newspaper and magazine articles, podcasts, novels, nonfiction books, movies, resources for kids, TV shows, anti-racism organizations, and many more resources. Some are academic, but most are very accessible. Now that so many of us are staying home due to the pandemic, it’s a great time to check some of them out.
She also added some of her own personal favourites to the list: the novel “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and anything by the late American writer Richard Wright, whose most famous works include the memoir “Black Boy” and the novel, “Native Son.”
The next, most important step: start listening.
CORRECTION - June 1, 2020: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Toronto police ruled the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet as a suicide. In fact, the investigation by the Ontario Special Investigations Unit is ongoing and Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders has asked the public to “wait for all of the facts regarding this case so that we can move forward once we establish exactly what happened.”