Flecks of racism mar Canadian society, yet Canada cannot seriously be called a racist country. And racism here is certainly not systemic. That is clear to me after living and working in multiple provinces, towns, and cities in our fair Dominion.
From Toronto and Picton to Brandon and The Pas, from Winnipeg to Meadow Lake, and from Victoria to Parksville, Canada is a land of mostly kind and tolerant people despite a small portion of bigots among us. Bigotry is rooted not in the system, but in individuals.
What is systemic is the cycle of poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, violence, hopelessness, family breakdown, single-parent families, and crime that plagues many. Claiming that incarceration produced by this toxic soil is a product of “systemic racism” in our legal system is apocryphal and only postpones real change.
Racism is discrimination and bias on the basis of skin colour or ethnic group. The exclusion of black athletes from major league baseball until the breakthrough of Jackie Robinson in April 1947 was racism. The exclusion of Jewish people from gentile business organizations was racism. “White only” restaurants and dance halls that barred jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and pianist “Fatha” Earl Hines (whom I met about 1968 when he performed in Toronto) practised racism.
Politicians and media are among the most insistent purveyors of the notion that Canada is systemically racist, and this has only recently entered the domain of conventional wisdom.
In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada’s Gladue ruling encouraged the addition of restorative justice to the principle of sentencing, to recognize the social dysfunction in many indigenous communities. The aim was to reconcile the accused with those harmed, and to keep people out of prison if possible. This effort is having mixed results, one being that it puts criminals back into indigenous communities, which are already seeing higher-than-average crime rates, according to a 2017 brief by the Department of Justice. Still, there is merit in using more tools than just jail time, such as treatment, restitution, and counselling.
The most recent claim of systemic racism comes from the office of Attorney General David Lametti, which has unveiled a package of legal reforms to the Criminal Code and Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences and some gun-related crimes. These sentences were brought in by the Harper government to make communities safer.
Why the reforms now? Because black and indigenous people are “overrepresented,” we are told, among those convicted of such crimes. According to a Feb. 18 Canadian Press story, this is systemic racism.
No, it isn’t. The mandatory minimums exist to be applied to offenders of any colour; they don’t discriminate. The problem that gives rise to the notion of racism here is the false assumption that crime statistics should be proportionate to ethnic populations as a whole, or else the system is to blame. Actually, it doesn’t work that way.
When statistics show that certain groups are convicted of more crimes than others, it means they commit more crimes than others. For example, indigenous people make up 5 percent of the Canadian population but account for more than 30 percent of inmates in federal prisons, with indigenous women making up 42 percent of female inmates in those prisons, according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator. This is not new. Black people represent 3 percent of the Canadian population but 7 percent of federal offenders.
To explain these statistics, sociologists and others typically point to poverty, drug addiction, dispiritedness, broken families, and other dysfunctions that cause people to turn to crime. That is where the main problem lies, not in mandatory minimums.
And as the Justice Department’s brief points out, alternate sentencing isn’t the full answer either: “Sentencing may not be the appropriate means to remedy overrepresentation. … Gladue should not be regarded as a panacea for overrepresentation, but rather as a contribution to the efforts required.”
The brief adds that “Gladue may only be successful when communities are able to establish initiatives and programs that effectively deal with issues of poverty, substance abuse, family breakdown, the effects of residential schools, and other systemic causes of crime.”
Meanwhile, because personal responsibility for our actions is downplayed across the board nowadays, the “system” is blamed for individual actions, or failures to act. Because we are not seen so much as individuals anymore but as interchangeable members of groups in identity politics, “victimized” groups are appeased. This is now ingrained in policy and research—done by people taught critical theory in universities, which slams our institutions and influences media coverage when proponents of critical theory fill jobs. It’s no wonder that public officials dodge the true causes of a high conviction rate and that media parrot it.
Technically, races don’t even exist. Races are a popular fiction. According to our genome, our DNA makeup, we are all 99.5 percent the same. The real differences among people are what’s in our minds and souls and spines, not the colour of our skin. And the real answer to why we act as we do is how we responded to the life we have lived. Many a success has arisen from a childhood of poverty, a single-parent household, incomplete schooling, or a combination of these and more (Artie Shaw, Oprah Winfrey, and John A. Macdonald among them). So you never can predict in certainty who will rise and who will fall.
So let’s stop crying “racism” at every turn. All we’re really doing is raising false alarms and crying wolf.