Martin Luther King Day: Canada a World Leader in Racial Justice, Says Expert

January 17, 2017 Updated: January 18, 2017

OTTAWA—Although certainly flawed when measured against the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr., Canada today comes closer to fulfilling the American Civil Rights leader’s dream of racial justice than most other nations in the world, according to an expert on the African diaspora in North America.  

“Dr. King’s message resonated in Canada,” said Dr. Kalenda Eaton of Arcadia University, Pennsylvania, the keynote speaker at the City of Ottawa’s Martin Luther King Day celebration on Jan. 16.

Eaton emphasized that despite some ugly chapters and incidents in its own history, Canada has upheld its reputation as a promised land or “north star nation” for countless people fleeing oppression and injustice.

Referring to the Underground Railroad—a network of secret routes established by anti-slavery advocates in the 19th century to help black American slaves escape to Canada where slavery was illegal—Eaton said that “the north” represents a new direction and freedom for many.

“Canada as the ‘north star nation’ was a haven in the 19th century, a refuge in the 20th, and it now stands for hope and promise in the 21st,” she said.

It was King himself who first referred to Canada as the “north star” in the Massey Lectures recorded by CBC in 1967.

“Deep in our history of struggle for freedom, Canada was the north star,” he said. “The legendary Underground Railroad started in the south and ended in Canada. The freedom road links us together.”

Eaton and other speakers pointed out, however, that despite the image of racial harmony, Canada’s record of recognizing and honouring human rights was flawed in the past, and still today, there is room for improvement.

She said that in 1967, when King delivered his Massey Lecture, he was vocal about police racism and the destruction of Africville, an African-Canadian community near Halifax that was destroyed by the municipality to make room for newer development.

Challenging the audience to take action against racism and social injustice, Eaton said: “This is what we can take away from Dr. King’s teachings. We have the power to take action, a lesson that King learned from studying the work of Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi.”

Another speaker, Imam Zijad Delic, noted that unlike in the days of the Underground Railroad, there were no “conductors” (volunteer guides) to help the millions who are adrift in the world today as a result of war and conflict. “But Canada is an exception,” he said, referring to the help and support received here by refugees.

In an interview with Epoch Times, Eaton took up the theme of Canada’s exemplary role in creating unity out of diversity.

“As a multicultural nation, known for its multicultural policies and the way it implements them, Canada is a leader,” she said.

She added that during her four months as a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at Dalhousie University in Halifax last year, she was highly impressed by the pathways and supports with which new immigrants are welcomed to the country.

Susan Korah is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa. She has a Master of Journalism degree from Carleton University, and writes on Canadian and international politics as well as travel and lifestyle.