Commentary | The fight to end racism isn’t over

This coming March 21 will ring in the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (IDERD). For many skeptics, the day is nothing but another cliché, feel-good event that does little to correct or address injustices in a substantive way. For ordinary Canadians and recent converts like myself, however, it is an important day to reflect on the progress that has been made in a civil-rights context over the last 50 years, as well as the work that remains largely unaccomplished.

It’s hard to believe that as recently as 50 years ago, segregation was a widespread policy in the land down south, otherwise known as the United States. Whether it was separate entrances, drinking fountains, or anything else, segregation was a routine part of life. It was taken as self-evident that people should be subject to differentiated treatment on the basis of their race. It was only thanks to trailblazers like the Little Rock Nine, Martin Luther King, Junior, and Rosa Parks that full suffrage was extended to all black voters and that legislated forms of discrimination were gradually repealed in the United States.

Perhaps the best example of institutionalized racism is the apartheid regime in South Africa, which lasted for nearly five decades. The system, which came to colour so deeply South Africa’s identity on the world stage, had its foundation in the notion of white racial superiority. Black South Africans were forced to live in segregated, self-governing areas and stripped of any meaningful political power. Those who dared to speak out against the regime, like Nelson Mandela, were imprisoned, or worse still, murdered, like Stephen Biko. Uprisings were brutally suppressed by the government. It was, in fact, the government’s shooting of black protesters, in what came to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre, that led to the UN’s creation of the IDERD.

And yet, one does not have to look as far as South Africa and its legacy of apartheid to find the vestiges and current expressions of racism – the reality is that it happens right here. Recent cases, including the fatal police shooting of Fredy Villanueva in Montreal North and racial profiling in the public transit system, serve as a powerful reminder that racism is still alive. It reveals itself in the continued discrepancies in local home ownership, poverty, unemployment, incarceration, and education between minorities and the rest of the population. Tellingly, a Consultation Document on Racial Profiling released March 10 by the Quebec human rights commission shows that the unemployment rate for individuals born in Canada with a secondary degree is 14.7 per cent among black people and 19.2 per cent among Arab people, compared to 6.6 per cent for non-racialized persons.

The sum of these findings should not be taken as a denial of the real progress that has been made in the civil rights arena and more generally the extension of political power to formerly disenfranchised groups. After all, at the very least, there is now a degree of transparency and dialogue about racial inequality – something that just a few decades ago would have seemed impossible. The most recent data on social and economic inequality are, however, an important indication that we must continue to fight racism in all its forms, especially as the public debate on religion and reasonable accommodation in Quebec has given rise to a growing us versus them sentiment. We cannot afford to become complacent about an issue that is very much alive. Visionaries and dreamers are still needed to combat racism.

Accordingly, to celebrate the first IDERD of the new decade, the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), in cooperation with 15 other groups, will hold an interfaith commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre this Saturday, March 20 at the St. James United Church (463 Ste. Catherine O.). The event starts at 7 p.m. and will run just over two hours; it will include speeches from South African High Commissioner in Canada Abraham Nkomo and Justin Trudeau, MP.

For more information, visit or call 514-939-3342.

Ryan Birks works in the CRARR Communication Office. Write him at