An Open Letter to White Canadians
Dear fellow white Canadians,
We are a friendly bunch, described as ‘nice’ by folks from all around the world. We wear toques! We own chesterfields! (Does anyone even call them that anymore?) We lay claim to Canadian celebrities on impulse, regardless of the context! We are either extremely proud of Tim Horton’s or we just don’t get why that has to be the definitive Canadian thing (and isn’t it owned by an American company now?). We talk about the intense extremes of our weather, from six feet of snow in Manitoba to ice storms off the Eastern coast to raging forest fires throughout B.C. Our national sport is hockey and even if an American team wins, most of the players will be Canadian, so Canada still always wins (Okay, sometimes Russia wins).
We have a reputation, in the great white North.
But that reputation doesn’t include how racist we are.
For many of you, that statement probably stings. I can hear the defensive arguments beginning to line up, all the reasons why that is a Terrible Thing To Say and I am an Awful Person for saying it.
Let’s pause for a moment and breathe. Take a few deep breaths. And believe me when I say: I am not calling you a bad person. I am not denying our friendly reputation. I am not saying this as an attack, even if it feels that way.
I am speaking as someone who was socialised to be white (just like you), raised in a colonial and white supremacist society (just like you), who has shifted their perspective and questioned the narratives I was given (which you can do too). There was a time, in the embarrassingly near past, when I too would have been horrified to be called racist, or have anything I said or did pointed out as racist. But I have come to understand that our resistance to looking at our racism as white Canadians is not by accident, but by design, and worth examining.
As a kid, a regular part of the curriculum, was the ‘What makes Canada, Canada?’ class. I remember this question being posed in elementary, junior high and high school. I also remember being told emphatically that we weren’t allowed to say “We’re not America” and yet, ultimately, that was the answer. It was just delivered in a different way. We were told that Canada was a mosaic, while America was a melting pot. Canada was a beautiful nation that respects difference and diversity, while America is all about assimilation. Or, to put it bluntly, Canada is not racist. America is racist.
This class was always part of our Social Studies curriculum (For folks not familiar with this, it’s what ‘history’ is called in Canadia) and always clumped with lessons about how we were the end of the Underground Railroad. We were the land of freedom for the enslaved Black folk escaping those racist neighbours to the South.
Here are some other specific things I remember being taught:
1. The Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) was a great achievement for the country because it represented unity of all the peoples across the land.
2. Indigenous people helped British and French settlers establish trade routes and build the Hudson’s Bay Company, which also helped unite the country.
3. Indigenous culture is part of Canadian culture and here’s how to make a dream catcher.
The first time my ideas about Canada as some glorious nation of radical inclusion were challenged was when I was in high school. I switched from a conventional school to an alternative school right at the end of grade ten. I went from a student body of 2,000, where I was known as a number, to a student body of 120 where I was expected to track my class hours, choose assignments, and take responsibility for my education. The teachers at this school largely taught there by choice, rather than by assignment. Just like the student body, they were there because the traditional format for education didn’t work for them.
It was one of these rebellious teachers who first presented ideas that cut through what I thought I knew about what it meant to be Canadian. We were learning about Apartheid (which I had never even heard of before) and he asked us if we had segregation in Canada. Trained well from an early age about what a mosaic we were, not a single classmate hesitated in saying that no, of course we didn’t. We were super inclusive and diverse, and yes, we had learned about Residential schools but those were long gone, and yes we had Japanese internments camps but the government apologised about that. Any segregation was in the past*.
“What about reservations?” our teacher asked.
What about reservations? The question took me by surprise because, once again, the education I’d received was that reservations were a good thing. They were places where Indigenous culture was preserved. It was land that was protected. They existed out of respect. But his question implied that this was only one perspective, and possibly a flawed one.
I have always had a strong sense of curiosity, and so I began to do research. This question opened my mind and encouraged me to seek new information outside of what the very colonial, very white supremacist, very patriarchal school system had spoon-fed me — had spoon-fed all of us.
Going back to what I learned in school, reframed with the information I have now:
1. The Canadian Pacific Railroad was used to incentivise British colonialists to unite so it would be easier to establish British rule over the land that also had French colonialists laying claim to it. Chinese people were brought over as cheap, expendable labour to aid in completing the CPR, and denied tax rights when it was completed. Indigenous and Black people were also exploited in the quest to build the railroad.
2. Indigenous people who didn’t die from diseases brought over by Europeans were exploited in order to establish trade routes and build the Hudson’s Bay Company and the CPR. Once the country was established, the Indian Act and Residential Schools were put in place to assimilate Indigenous folks into British culture through ethnic cleansing, AKA genocide. Also, the last Residential School closed in 1996, in my lifetime.
3. Indigenous culture is not a monolith. There are many different tribes and they have their own spiritual practices, ceremonies, community dynamics, and languages. Much of the exposure I got to ‘Indian culture’ as a kid was cultural appropriation — a dominant culture taking small pieces of an oppressed group out of context for personal enjoyment without regard for the heritage or meaning behind whatever was being exploited.
It took one person challenging something I thought I knew for me to start questioning the narratives I had been given and was actively participating in perpetuating. It was a gift that I am still benefiting from to this day because it has helped me see how I am a product of my culture. This is important because it is true for all of us. We are all raised in the same colonialist, white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist soup. The soup can’t exist without complicit participation. When we learn to see how we contribute to the narrative, we can also learn how to stop participating in it, and start changing it.
When defensiveness comes up because someone just said Canadians are racist — and that as a white person you aren’t the best judge of whether or not this is true — take a moment to pause. There is wisdom in that defensiveness. It is pointing out to us where we can do better because we are good people. We wouldn’t be so upset about being called out for our racism if we weren’t decent people. It’s because we care about not harming others that it feels really shitty to have it pointed out when we do. We are complex multi-faceted beings. It is possible to be kind and also cause harm. We can be both well-intentioned and also flawed. Goodness does not mean perfection. We are not and never will be just one way — we are constantly changing in response to new information and new information is constantly available.
And trust me, it’s possible to be better. I know you can do this because I’m doing it. I have a long way to go, but I also know that I have come a long way from that seventeen-year-old who thought to be Canadian was to not be racist. I know I’m waking up every day, seeing it more and able to make choices that subvert a system set up to benefit some at the expense of others.
Cultural conditioning is hard to unlearn because it’s really hard to see the thing we are all swimming in when the water confirms our identity and egos. That’s why we can be grateful when anyone names something we said or did that is racist. It’s an opportunity. An opportunity to commit to undoing the system of white supremacy, the narratives of white Canadians, and the injustice of our colonial ancestry.
Step-up to the challenge. I know you can.
In love and liberation,
*An aside on this ‘in the past’ business. Stating something is in the past is a way to dismiss the impact our present actions will have on the future. Thinking of your personal life, I’m sure you have been through some stuff — break-ups, deaths, getting let go or fired, a car accident, a house fire etc. — and I’m willing to bet that those things have an impact on who you are right now, no matter how long ago they occurred.
Immense gratitude to Ijeoma Oluo. The inspiration for this open letter came to me while reading her book, So You Want To Talk About Race.
If you enjoyed this piece, I’ve written a few others along similar lines:
A Get Woke Guide to Celebrating 150 Years of Canada
A three-step practice guide on how to Change Yourself to Change the Culture
A little creative non-fiction modelling how we can raise awareness of the need for a platform of equality from our political representatives
This blog was originally published on Medium.