Our reputation for tolerance deserved?

We in Qualicum Beach take pride in attracting many visitors and new residents from across Canada and around the world, including international students who have attended Kwalikum High School from countries as far afield as Germany, Mexico, Norway, Korea, Portugal, Chile, Japan and Brazil. International students enrich our community, financially, socially and culturally. One of the reasons we attract such attention is our country’s reputation as a beacon of decency and fair play. We like to think of ourselves as “nice,” as welcoming and tolerant. Yet racism remains an undeniable stain on Canada’s reputation today.

Last week the Vancouver Police Department reported that, in the past year, racist incidents have greatly increased, from 69 hate-associated reports in 2019 to 155 reports for the same period this year, “including those targeting Vancouver’s Asian communities.” Much closer to home, a Qualicum Beach man admitted to an act of racism on June 2, 2020 against a First Nations family at their home on the Tseshaht Reserve near Port Alberni. The man was arrested, and released but charges are being considered, according to the RCMP.

As Socrates is reported to have said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” With that in mind, our newest contributor, Qualicum Beach resident, Rachel Enns examines Canada’s record and reality of racial intolerance.


If one was to rate countries based on how they treat their most disadvantaged citizens, Canada would not be number one. Although from the outside, Canada appears to be a utopia of diversity and tolerance, by taking a deeper look into the past one can see that the media and the government have been very good at concealing a darker history of racism.

It has been so from the beginning when Europeans first arrived at the shores of the North American continent and laid “claim” to the land, to the opening of the first residential school, the Chinese head tax, and turning away at-risk immigrants trying to escape their war and deprivation in their home countries. Today, one can see that Canada’s racial issues mimic those of the past, the bias in public schools against young coloured children who are seen as aggressive, still standing Chinatowns reflecting earlier racist attacks, and the gentrification of poor neighbourhoods that had been populated by people of colour. Objectively, Canada is a racist country that was built on stolen land.

Chinatowns built to protect against racist attacks

The novel coronavirus plaguing our society now has allowed racism towards citizens of Asian descent to bubble to the surface. In all of Canadian history, Chinese people were the only group of immigrants who were required to pay a special tax to come to live here, it was designed to exclude such people from the country.

The so-called “Chinese head tax” was “introduced in 1885 and scrapped in 1923, [it] started at fifty dollars, and by 1903 it was five hundred dollars” (Unknown, Canada’s History, 1990). The head tax was a direct attack on anyone from Asian countries looking to make a better life for themselves. During the years the tax was active the Canadian government collected “$23 [million dollars] … through the head tax between 1885 and 1923” (Unknown, Toronto Star, 2016). The Chinese immigrants that did make it into Canada congregated in what are now fondly referred to as Chinatowns, in an attempt to avoid anti-Chinese attacks.

Parks Canada describes the development of Vancouver’s Chinatown as “a self-segregated enclave, due in part to racially-motivated hostility elsewhere in the city prior to the Second World War, and its ongoing use, reflect the many contributions and struggles of Chinese Canadians throughout most of their history in this country.” (Parks Canada, Vancouver’s Chinatown 2017). The existence of Chinatowns today emphasizes the segregation of an immigrant population, something that many Canadians either don’t know about, don’t acknowledge, or just accept as a normal practice of “civilized” society.

Children often bear the brunt of racism directly and indirectly through schooling

This, of course, brings to mind residential schools. The existence and experience of “Indian” residential schools is the largest, and until recently, the least talked about tragedy in Canadian history. At the time that residential schools were introduced, Canadians such as politician Nicholas Flood Davin “praised these schools and said, ‘If anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions.’” (Graf C., A Dark Chapter in History, 2019). Held as prisoners of residential schools, indigenous children lost their families, their culture and their individuality, devastating generations.

But it is happening, still, today. Desmond Cole says, “When Dalton McGuinty took over [as Ontario premier] in 2003, there weren’t a lot of statistics and the Toronto District School Board, for one, said, Okay, we’re going to start collecting some statistics. Their preliminary statistics showed Black students were being disproportionately suspended as early as primary school—so little six- and seven-year-old Black kids… For every white student suspended, three Black students were suspended.” (Cole D., Being Black in Canada, 2020). Desmond Cole states that “viewing little black kids as more aggressive than their white counterparts only proves his point further, children are being penalized by a racist system that constantly contributes to the lack of education and crime in poor black communities that have been pushed out of the city.”

Media played role in cultivating racist views

Until relatively recently, Canadian citizens were generally not very aware of our country’s racist history. Why is that? One obvious answer is that they weren’t taught these things in school. Starting in public school, today students still are taught very little about the horrific racist past of this “great” country. However, a closer examination of our society reveals that the media has played an important role in the public’s political and personal positions on a number of subjects including racism, by either withholding crucial information from the public or masking a paramount topic with fluff pieces.

For example, there is evidence of the media controlling the public’s view of historical events as well as current acts of racism. In 1914, Canada denied entry to 376 immigrants who arrived in Vancouver on the Komagata Maru seeking refuge. The University of Calgary did an analysis of the news articles published at the time about the Komagata Maru “incident.” In their analysis, they found that “193 newspaper articles published between May 5th and July 30th, 1914 … emphasize[s] the political implications, followed by race, and then by economic competition.” (Pansear et al, Canadian Ethnic Studies, 2017). Pansear also suggested that “portraying the passengers as radicals and threats to the fabric of the British Empire the media delegitimized the migrant’s claims to move freely.”

The SS St. Louis is another example of Canadian racism. During the 1930s depression, Canada had yet to make a distinction between asylum seekers and immigrants. This policy “proved especially tragic as the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe generated a new wave of refugees. In 1939 the SS St. Louis, carrying more than nine hundred Jewish refugees from Germany, was turned away … by Canada. The ship returned to Europe to face the Nazi terror, and hundreds of its passengers died.” (George M., Canada’s History, 2017).

Multiculturalism just another word for racist bias?

Today, Canada serves up half welcomes to people from other lands and cultures, and to people of colour. For example, celebrated as a multi-cultural city, Toronto has become a victim of the gentrification of ‘urban’ neighbourhoods, ultimately pushing out poor people who cannot afford to live in certain areas anymore. Black author and activist Desmond Cole explains that “there’s been an exodus … They call it a revitalization.” [He] call[s] it “sending Black people to the fringes.” David Hulchanski, an urban geographer at the University of Toronto, talks about what he calls the three cities of Toronto. “City No. 3,” the outer suburbs, is the poorest and has the least access to transit. People living there [many of whom are recent immigrants] have the longest commutes, lowest incomes, the worst schooling, etc. [He] do[es not] have time for people who want to call that multiculturalism.”

By digging a little deeper and reflecting on our actual history, it is plain that Canadian media and the government must share a substantial responsibility for the racism that still permeates our society. The Great White North may have as racist a culture as the United States, just not as widely publicized, taught, or talked about. This, however, does not excuse each of us individually from taking an active stance against racism. It’s time to turn the page.