Commentary | More than a month

This February marks Canadian Black History Month. There is a common misconception in Canada that racism and the oppression of people of colour are mainly American issues. Canadians tend to point to their role in the Underground Railroad and the fact that slavery was outlawed much earlier than in the States, while stressing the obvious atrocities violating human and civil rights that black Americans have endured. Indeed, Canada didn’t even have a Black History Month until Jean Augustine, an Etobicoke-Lakeshore MP, proposed it in 1996. Augustine was the first black woman elected to Parliament, and later the first black woman in the federal cabinet.
Canadians are by no means innocent. Not only did slavery also exist in Canada (it started to be phased out in 1794; and most slaves were freed by 1834), there is also an alarming amount of systemic oppression still present in our country. Systemic racism, unlike individual racism (which occurs when a person or a small group of people participate in racist activities), is present when larger societal structures such as governments, corporations, and educational institutions discriminate based on race. Furthermore, while schools in the US dedicate sections of history classes to America’s racist past, Canada often ignores black history in its textbooks. Black history is Canadian history and although it is marked by oppression and racism, it is also a story of monumental accomplishments, made against the odds, and without which Canada would not be the country it is today.
Oppression faced by black Canadians is both institutional and systemic. An obvious example of this institutional oppression is the racial profiling by the SPVM, who continue to target people of colour.
A leaked internal Montreal police report, which took place between 2001 and 2007, revealed that out of a sample of 63,000 records of police identity checks, 30 – 40 per cent of these checks were done on black males. Only six per cent, however, were done on white males.
Another example of this systemic oppression can be found on our own campus. In 2009, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum launched the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence, and Community engagement. The goal of the task force was to produce a comprehensive report on diversity at McGill in the winter term of 2011. The report’s findings indicated that “minoritization and marginalization are endemic to the fabric of western educational practice and are a historically engrained and ongoing problem.” Furthermore, the task force noted that many argued “McGill’s record of faculty diversity – where the number of people of colour, women, and LGBTQ persons are limited and where many individuals from these groups feel excluded – points directly to a culture of institutional exclusion and racism.” Despite these findings, McGill has yet to implement any real changes that could create a more inclusive atmosphere for marginalized students, faculty, and staff.
While celebrating Black History Month is certainly a step in the right direction, we should not limit this celebration to a single month. Moreover, by talking about racism as solely a historical issue, it’s too easy to make it someone else’s problem or someone else’s past. Canadians tend to think of discrimination as a thing of the past, and that needs to change. Historicizing racism obscures contemporary problems of racial discrimination. While there’s unquestionable value in celebrating Black History Month, reflecting on the past should not be an excuse for us not to demand change now. Munroe-Blum’s task force explained that, “the structural aspects of this ongoing problem need to be addressed swiftly, dramatically, and universally, throughout the University,” and The Daily agrees.


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