Commentary by: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver, BC
Over its 132-year history since incorporation as a city, Vancouver has had 39 mayors. All of them have been white men.
Change seems to be coming, however, and suddenly.
Two of the Vancouver’s leading municipal parties will be running mayoral candidates from diverse backgrounds for the upcoming 2018 civic election now only four months away.
Recently, Ken Sim, the second-generation Canadian-born son of Chinese immigrants, won the nomination for the city’s right-of-centre Non-Partisan Association (NPA). This party, which was founded in 1937, has traditionally been aligned with the interests of the city’s business community.
In a surprising result, the entrepreneur and cofounder of Nurse Next Door and Rosemary Rocksalt bagel shops, beat out the establishment candidate John Coupar, the two-time NPA Vancouver park board commissioner who had the support of other establishment figures like former councillor Suzanne Anton and former mayor Philip Owen.
Meanwhile, the currently ruling Vision Vancouver party has confirmed its mayoral candidate will be Squamish Nation hereditary chief Ian Campbell.
Internet entrepreneur Taleeb Noormohamed—who drew comparisons to Calgary’s wonder-mayor Naheed Nenshi—had been bidding for the Vision Vancouver leadership until recently, when a health matter forced him to drop out of the campaign.
On the sidelines, former federal Conservative MP, Wai Young has indicated interest in running as an independent but hasn’t confirmed her candidacy yet. Raymond Louie, the five-time Vision city councillor who would have made a strong candidate for mayor, has also declared he is not running. There is some uncertainty about why he wasn’t recruited by his own Vision party for the mayor’s nomination (or if he pre-emptively declined the possibility).
It seems 2018 may be the year when Vancouver—one of the most left-of-centre cities in North America, Canada’s commercial and cultural gateway to Asia, and the metropolis that was early to embrace Indian yoga and in gratitude paid the world back with lululemon yoga pants—finally elects a nonwhite mayor.
Leaders, activists, and entrepreneurs from smaller diverse communities have increasingly participated in Canadian politics over the past two decades. It has now become the norm to see the country’s diversity represented among its politicians, whether that be in cabinet in Ottawa or the legislative backbenches in Victoria.
But at the municipal level, and particularly in Vancouver, they have struggled to break through, or perhaps a better term is "break out" from their ethnic silos and gain a voice on a broader citywide stage.
So far, however, the run-up to the 2018 election is proving to be an inflection point in this narrative. Hollywood had its #OscarsSoWhite reckoning two years ago, so it seems apt for Hollywood North to also have its own #VancouverSoWhite moment, though one would think progressive Canadians would have beat their American counterparts to this milestone.
While there is an immigrants-coming-of-age story here, there is also a perfect storm of political conditions that have triggered the backroom players and eminences grise behind the major parties to seek out diverse candidates.
For the NPA, Ken Sim’s nomination effectively counters any potential candidacy of Stephen Harper-era conservative Wai Young, who has significant support from within the Chinese community.
Sim’s family roots go back to Hong Kong and he will pull votes from this segment of the Chinese community (he may have less of a connection among Mainland Chinese immigrants). His last-minute entry—or recruitment—into the mayoral race looks to be an efficacious use of inclusiveness by a party that has been out of power for a decade.
For the progressive left-leaning Vision Vancouver, Campbell’s nomination provides a clean break from the past and a chance to rebrand a party that many believe has much to account (or some would say atone) for after the past decade in power.
For political watchers, this greater-than-usual interest in standing for public office from qualified diverse candidates makes this year’s election intriguing.
But for the average citizen all of this may go unnoticed if it all turns out to be business-as-usual and the 40th mayor of Vancouver—like the thirty-nine previously—once again is another white person.
There are still many twists, announcements, and deals to unfold before that forecast becomes clearer. But it is worth a look to see how various local and Canadian laws, policies, and practices of exclusion over the past century-and-a-half have led to this much delayed point, where diverse candidates—in a city where half the population is not white—finally have a real shot at becoming mayor.
In four months time, this election may be remembered as the moment Vancouverites finally said “Yes We Can” instead of the usual “Yes We Can’t”.
Lack of profile exerts a high price
Among the jigsaw pieces that comprise the map of Lower Mainland municipalities, Surrey is the fastest growing city in the region. Ten thousand new people move into Surrey every year.
Barinder Rasode, a former two-term Surrey city councillor, has come the closest among nonwhite candidates in the Lower Mainland to winning a coveted mayor’s seat.
There have been a small number of nonwhite politicians who have won mayoral races in B.C., but all have been outside the Lower Mainland: Jamese Atebe in Mission, Alan Lowe in Victoria, Akbal Mund in Vernon, and Colin Basran in Kelowna.
Naranjan Grewal of Mission was the first nonwhite mayor in all of B.C. when he was elected in 1954. He died under suspicious circumstances three years later.
Despite late entry to the race, Rasode garnered an impressive 21 percent of the votes in the 2014 Surrey municipal election. She has been one of the few individuals to cross over in appeal to the broader community, a feat not easily achieved given the tendency of potential candidates from diverse communities to remain in their comfort zones, or even self-segregate, when encountering barriers of entry to mainstream political organizations.
“When it comes to municipal elections, if a candidate hopes to compete or have any chance at winning, they must have a profile beyond their own community,” explained Rasode, who served on board of directors for Fraser Health and served as a Surrey city councillor from 2008 to 2014. “This is evident in electoral results. Even when minorities run for council seats as part of recognized slates, they tend to be the ones who fall short or to the bottom of the slate.”
Rasode’s observation holds true whether in Surrey or in Vancouver. In the 2014 Vancouver election, only two Vision Vancouver council candidates out of eight on the slate failed to win seats: Niki Sharma and Tony Tang, candidates from South Asian and Chinese backgrounds.
In 2008, the lone Vision councillor out of eight on the slate who failed to win a seat was Kashmir Dhaliwal, the former president of the Khalsa Diwan Society (Ross Street Sikh Temple). Despite being a power broker within one of B.C.’s biggest Sikh temples, and one with a very politically active congregation, Dhaliwal still fell short of being elected—he just lacked a wider profile beyond his South Vancouver neighbourhood.
Fast forward 10 years and back to the upcoming election. This lack of profile is still an Achilles heel for both the NPA nominee Ken Sim and Ian Campbell. Both will be hampered by being relatively unknown to broader sections of Vancouver’s voting public (Sim likely more than Campbell).
Unlike previous diverse candidates, however, who have in the past ran as independents, both Sim and Campbell will have the party machines of the NPA and Vision to help remedy some of this lack of profile.
But there is a caveat emptor here, particularly for Vision. Ian Campbell will first have much work to do in rebuilding a damaged Vision brand before he hopes to reap any of the rewards of membership.
It is clear the 2018 version of Vision does not have the potency it once did circa 2011 or even in 2014. It looks to be sinking ship with neither Mayor Gregor Robertson seeking re-election, nor three of its councillors. One veteran city hall reporter has even suggested the party may want to consider disbanding for a dignified end to its political life.
For these two newcomers, the mission will be to "get their names out there" into a congested daily news cycle. Bonus points if they edge out other candidates.
This, however, is much more easily said than done.
Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline was meant to deliver oil to offshore tankers for lighting up cities abroad. In actuality, the pipeline has pumped media exposure to antagonistic local politicians and lit up their approval rating numbers.
The fight against Kinder Morgan—the news story of the year in Vancouver—has been a gift to the other anti-pipeline mayoral candidates like NDP member of Parliament Kennedy Stewart, and SFU professor of public practice Shauna Sylvester. It would have also helped popular Green party city councilor Adriane Carr but she has recently decided not to run for mayor. Still, if Vancouver doesn’t elect its first nonwhite mayor, it may be due to voters electing Sylvester as their first woman mayor, no less a milestone-in-waiting.
Depending on how the Kinder Morgan narrative unfolds, the pipelines and oil tankers debate could end up overshadowing other hot-button issues, possibly even housing affordability. This would be a boon particularly for Stewart, who was recently arrested in March for contempt after he marched to British Columbia’s frontline and deliberately breached the five-meter exclusion zone buffering "The Fence" that safeguards the Kinder Morgan’s tanker farm on Burnaby Mountain.
His act of civil disobedience against a heavy-handed Trudeau government bulldozing ahead with now their pipeline project has transformed the staid NDP politician into a sort of Gandhi-of-Burnaby.
No doubt this act will add some swagger to Stewart’s campaign. When it counted, he could be counted, standing among those lined up against the carbon-spewing machinery of Big Oil. Stewart’s chances of winning will increase further if the muscle of B.C.’s local NDP machine gets behind him.
Given the vocal opposition to the pipeline by the Squamish Nation, and Vision Vancouver, Ian Campbell also stands to gain on this issue. But he will need to find a way to "out-activist" Stewart, who has gotten to the front of the line on this issue.
Getting arrested and having a record, however, isn’t always a viable strategy for most candidates to gain the profile necessary to win a municipal election—or to stay if office, given they usually have day jobs and other real-life entanglements. Besides, historically speaking, getting arrested for most people, and notably for people of colour, has never been an ideal path to career advancement. Ultimately, diversifying Vancouver city politics is not the same thing as integrating an Alabama lunch counter.
But the real obstacle for diverse candidates seeking to gain name recognition runs deeper than being able to generate viral hashtags, or skillfully jockeying for media airtime.
It is a more permanent and seemingly intractable structural barrier at the heart of Vancouver’s municipal electoral system.
No wards led to more exclusion from power
A ward system divides a city into neighbourhoods with each electing one councillor.
Virtually all major Canadian cities have implemented a ward system to ensure individual neighbourhoods are represented at the council level by an individual who has ties to or lives in that neighbourhood.
These cities include Calgary, Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Toronto, Windsor, Ottawa, Hamilton, Halifax, and so forth. I think you get the point.
Vancouver, however, is the largest Canadian city that uses an at-large system. It is based on a "to-the-victors-the-spoils" approach to city politics.
Vancouver city council is comprised of the 10 candidates who receive the most votes from across all the neighbourhoods of the city. It is a system that has some benefits as it requires candidates to see the bigger picture and know all of the issues in the city, but it is a system that has also been criticized as been exclusionary, even racist, for blocking out candidates of diverse backgrounds.
There have been a number of cases in the United States where at-large systems were found by the courts to be discriminatory toward minority black and Hispanic populations.
Unlike the at-large system, wards allow more localized neighbourhood candidates a channel to access the bigger citywide stage.
Vancouver is a city that is simultaneously diverse but ethnically siloed—it is a place where people from different backgrounds peacefully co-exist but don’t necessarily coalesce. A ward system makes the difference between a candidate from a diverse background getting heard or getting crowded out. It ameliorates the "lack of profile" issue for diverse candidates.
In 2004, the city held a referendum asking Vancouver voters about moving to a wards system. The No side rejected the proposition by a small majority of 54 percent.
Given the momentum currently building for British Columbia to adopt a proportional-representation electoral system, it seems likely that a referendum on ward system would receive more support today than it did 14 years ago.
RJ Aquino, who has previously run for council in 2011 for COPE and in 2014 for the then-nascent OneCity party, believes a ward system would have altered the outcomes of his previous campaigns.
Aquino, who was born in the Philippines and has lived in Vancouver for the past 20 years, serves on the board of Collingwood Neighbourhood House. He is active in various initiatives in his part of Vancouver.
In 2014, Aquino was among the top vote-getters in Collingwood-Renfrew, Vancouver-Kensington, and the Fraser Street and King Edward area, all neighbourhoods with a significant population of Filipinos, the fastest growing ethnic group in B.C.
According to the recent census, there are 94,000 Filipinos living in the Metro Vancouver region, yet there has never been anyone of Filipino descent on Vancouver council, or the Vancouver park board.
“For people from diverse communities, we really have to work that much harder to get our name out there,” said Aquino, who is seeking a OneCity nomination for council this year. “Every time I encounter new people, there is always that extra step of explaining my background, how I fit into Vancouver, and how my values connect with the city’s values.”
But there has always been that extra distance to make up for diverse candidates. For this current generation, this means a "lack of profile" problem. Two generations ago, it was a matter of lacking the requisite language skills.
But going back even further, it was a matter of being barred from participating in the political process altogether.
Institutional racism plays a role
Amid Vancouver’s picturesque surroundings and its generally polite daily exchanges between its multicultural residents of all backgrounds, it is easy to forget the city was once the gateway to enforcing the country’s "white Canada" policy that deterred non-European immigration until the mid 20th century.
This policy was best articulated by former Canadian prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whose face has been featured on Canada’s five-dollar bill.
In a parliamentary debate on Asian immigration in October 1914, he said: “The people of Canada want to have a white country, and certain of our fellow subjects who are not of the white race want to come to Canada and be admitted to all the rights of Canadian citizenship . . . These men have been taught by a certain school of politics that they are equals of British subjects; unfortunately they are brought face to face with the hard facts when it’s too late.”
It was this racist vision for the country that led to the Canadian government refusing permission to the Komagata Maru to dock in 1914 when the infamous Japanese tramp steamer arrived in Burrard Inlet with 376 would-be immigrants from India. The Vancouver Sun reported on the incident with toxic headlines like “Hindu invaders now in the city harbour on Komagata Maru”.
During that time other publications, like the Vancouver World, routinely railed against Chinese and Japanese residents with their poison pens and the World openly bragged that it was the “the one daily paper in Vancouver which has consistently set its face against the Orientals”.
While this "white Canada" policy blocked non-European immigrants from entering Canada for much of the 20th century, those who were already living here were not granted the full rights of citizenship.
It wasn’t until 1947 that Asian Canadians from Indian and Chinese backgrounds were permitted to vote and participate in the political process.
Meanwhile, in terms of its treatment of the Indigenous population, when the Canadian government wasn’t tearing Indigenous children away from their families and sending them to odious residential schools, it was also maintaining the ban on status Indigenous people from voting in elections, finally repealed only in 1960.
While that may seem like a long time ago for some too quick to dismiss the institutionalized racism of Canada’s past, consider this: some of the community elders who may be advising Squamish Nation hereditary Chief Ian Campbell on his mayoral bid were in their own lifetime once prohibited from voting in civic elections.
It doesn’t take much digging to unearth the artifacts of Vancouver’s racist history. According to local journalist Francis Bula, the covenant on NPA nominee Ken Sim’s house in the Arbutus neighbourhood on the West Side of the city prohibits someone of Chinese descent from owning the property. Many houses in the city’s elite neighbourhoods still have similar racist clauses in their covenants though they are no longer enforced.
It is understandable for Vancouverites to want to move on, or to forget, Canada’s own Jim Crow-like era. But it has not been as easy for those disenfranchised communities. Even after these race-based antivoting acts were repealed, it would take decades before nonwhite Canadians began putting their names forward to participate in politics.
It would take 25 years after the repeal of Canada racist voting legislation until the first resident of South Asian descent would win a seat on Vancouver council. Since V.S. Pendakur’s lone two-year term ended in 1974, no other person of South Asian descent has been on Vancouver council.
For the Chinese community, the wait was even longer. It would take 35 years before the first resident of Chinese descent, Bill Yee, won a council seat in 1982.
Three decades on, seeing diverse candidates come forward for elections has become normalized. But that doesn’t mean they still don’t encounter the racial slurs and broadsides of yesterday.
In 2016, when Niki Sharma, the former park board commissioner and Vision candidate for council, ran for the Vancity board of directors, someone trolling her Facebook page posted: “We don’t want packys (sic) in politics you people are taking over our country”.
Rather than deleting the comment, Sharma responded to it. Readers shared and commented on her post hundreds of times.
“I was going to delete your comment. As my hand went over to the delete button, something stopped me,” she wrote in the middle of that sleepless night. “As much as we both might want to, you and I cannot delete each other.”
Where diverse Canadians have been under-represented on municipal councils, it has been the reverse for white Canadians. Generation upon generation of white politicians have benefited from an under-acknowledged privilege of being allowed to vote, stand for elections, and get ahead thanks to a wielding a disproportionate voice in the political sphere.
This has created its own adverse consequences, such as encouraging ethnic pandering where white politician seem to show up at temples, and mosques every so often, often in ethnic garb, to hit up vote banks or follow the instructions of cooked up "Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plans".
It also led to cringing moments of white paternalism. This white-on-nonwhite crime was most recently witnessed in 2015 when the current Vancouver mayor thought he had a "teachable moment" and tried to educate a prominent local Chinese-Canadian professional about what is and isn’t racist.
Andy Yan, then an urban planner with Bing Thom Architects, produced a study that looked at the names of buyers of homes on Vancouver’s tony west side. He found that buyers with non-Anglicized Chinese names were purchasing the majority of the homes in that neighbourhood.
Gregor Robertson publicly dismissed Yan’s work as racist, failing to see the irony of his criticism of Yan, given his great-grandfather was forced to pay the actually-racist Chinese Head Tax that was designed to keep Chinese immigrants out of B.C. As a social scientist, Yan was just looking at the data and sharing his observations, which were in plain sight.
The irony of the mayor’s response, however, was not lost on Brandon Yan, who is currently seeking to run for city council on the OneCity slate. He countered the mayor’s misguided comments in a line that should be quoted in a Dear White People racism primer, “Let’s leave it to the rich white dudes to decide what’s racist, right?”
This kind of paternalism is a natural outcome of a long history of exclusion. Out a total of 1,080 council and mayor’s seats across 102 administrations, 98 percent have been occupied by white politicians—like Andy Yan, I ran my own name analysis, through of all the city councillors and mayors over Vancouver’s history.
And of the seats occupied by councillors from diverse backgrounds: half have been won only in the past two decades since 2000.
When 98 percent of "leaders" in Vancouver’s brief history have been white but the population has steadily diversified to point of being 50 percent nonwhite, there is bound to be a disconnect between city hall’s perception and the reality on the ground.
Diversity: an optical illusion?
Because of their low turnout rates, municipal elections are notoriously difficult to poll. This is a point that Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, stressed repeatedly in our recent conversation.
“Compared to provincial and federal elections, turnout rates for municipal elections are around 30 percent. The X-factor is turnout, and it’s more exaggerated in city elections,” explained Kurl, who heads the public opinion polling organization.
In the 2017 by-election when Hector Bremner from the NPA was elected to city council, only 11 percent of voters turned out to vote.
“Just look at the recent example in Calgary. The polling for that election was not close to the final results. The polls had (Naheed) Nenshi running neck-in-neck. In the end, Nenshi won extremely comfortably for his 3rd term.”
In the 2014 council election, Vision candidate Niki Sharma placed 17th out of 49 candidates, receiving close to 50,000 votes. She fell short of winning by only 8,000 votes.
From her perspective, every percentage increase in turnout has the potential to reverse a loss into a victory, “In an election with low voter turnout, it doesn’t take many people deciding not to vote for you to be the difference between getting elected and not getting elected.”
The NPA may be hoping Ken Sim can trigger this X-factor in his favour and lure more voters from the Chinese community to participate. It could be all the difference he needs to win the coveted mayor’s gavel.
But as in the case of Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, the three-term Muslim mayor at the head of one of the more conservative cities in the country, the success of an ethnic candidate is not determined by the strength of his support from within his ethnic base, but rather from beyond it.
Nenshi, the only nonwhite mayor of a major Canadian city, has become a celebrity politician in Calgary, and across Alberta, because of his competence and ability to engage with the electorate.
But this does raise a question about diversity and politics—is there a causal link between Naheed Nenshi’s skills as a politician and his ethnicity?
Consider this hypothetical: if Nenshi had been a white Protestant instead of a brown Muslim, and still produced the same outcomes for Calgarians, then wouldn’t "celebrating diversity" only be emphasizing difference and fostering identity politics? In other words, shouldn’t Canadians focus their "celebration" solely on the actual achievements of their leaders instead of also on their "diversity"?
RJ Aquino, the aspiring city council candidate for OneCity, addressed this criticism often levelled from the right through a personal anecdote.
“In 2011, when I first ran for office, I started getting local university students from my community contacting me because they recognized my last name as Filipino. These were students who otherwise weren’t paying attention or engaged in civic politics, but when they learned I was from the same background, they looked me up and inquired about me.”
“Because I looked like them and because I was in the public eye, it showed to younger generations that it was possible to do this, that we can be represented.”
Where there is under-representation—whether in terms of race, gender, or sexual orientation—it does not invite wider participation from all citizens, ultimately at the expense of our democratic institutions.
This segues to the other potential benefit of diversity: that diverse candidates bring unique experiences and insights, which may in turn lead to solutions and policies otherwise overlooked.
This claim is also open to some scrutiny given second- and third-generation Canadians—regardless of background—end up sharing common experiences. Or in other words, eventually all Canadians, if you live here long enough, end up being different but in the same way.
A diversity of faces may make for good optics—as in the current Trudeau’s cabinet—but may still be little more than an optical illusion when it comes to actual diversity of ideas.
To be fair, it is a reasonable conclusion that looking "different" does not necessarily translate into thinking differently.
But—and this is the crucial point—this flattening of Canadian diversity over time doesn’t mean that people from different backgrounds don’t empathize differently.
Let’s bring it back to the Vancouver context.
Should either Ian Campbell or Ken Sim become mayor, it is reasonable to conclude neither may have novel approaches to age-old issues facing the city. And as complete outsiders, particularly for Sim, they will likely struggle to learn the in-and-outs of city hall management and governance conventions.
But that does not mean they wouldn’t bring much-needed new empathy on age-old issues that, if nothing else, prevent these issues from being ignored.
Some examples to illustrate.
The past decade have been halcyon years for developers who have made more profits than ever while recasting Vancouver into an Eden of gleaming glass towers. Out of the billions flowing through Vancouver’s real estate market, a tiny infintesimal fraction could have been diverted to provide a lasting and sustainable solution to the city’s chronic problem of homelessness.
Yet 10 years after Vision took power having promised to end homelessness, the issue remains as chronic as ever.
It is a fitting metaphor for what Vancouver has become when one encounters its homeless residents trying to sleep in the cold-concrete nooks and doorways of its half-empty, but ecofriendly LEED skyscrapers.
It seems unlikely Campbell, someone from an indigenous background, would only pay lip service to this homelessness issue given that 40 percent of homeless people in the city are from an indigenous background, a staggering 20 times greater than their actual percentage of the overall population.
And perhaps it will require a Vancouver mayor from an Indigenous background like Ian Campbell to advance the reconciliation agenda and create new community initiatives that go beyond declarations of recognizing Vancouver as the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
In the case of Ken Sim, he is a second-generation Canadian who witnessed firsthand the struggles of his immigrant parents. He took menial jobs, worked as a janitor during high school, and like other second-generation Canadians found a way to sacrifice and forge ahead.
Would Sim not be more empathetic to Vancouver’s affordability issues than the current mayor, even if he is representing the right-of-centre NPA?
I worked as a janitor during high school and I had immigrant parents who struggled like others in a similar position. Back then it seemed inconceivable that those sweeping up the offices could one day be the ones sweeping into them.
For me, the candidacies and civic participation of Ken Sim, Ian Campbell, RJ Aquino, Brandon Yan, and a growing number of other diverse candidates in this coming 2018 election has piqued my interest in civic politics more than ever.
These candidates represent the other half of Vancouver that rarely gets to be heard in our city affairs, and the half that historically has been discouraged and once even banned from participating.
It may turn out that 2018 is still not the year a nonwhite candidate becomes mayor of Vancouver, but it seems 2018 will be the year that finally shows it is possible.
And that is an inflection point when truly "diversity becomes our strength", not just for half our city residents but for us all.
Jagdeesh Mann is the executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post. Based in Vancouver, he is also an active contributor to a number of publications and a member of the NCM Collective.
Commentary by Farid Rohani in Vancouver
We don’t blame all Arabs every time OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) pushes up (or down!) the price of a litre of gas. We don’t blame Mexicans if fruit prices go up or the Japanese when B.C. lumber mills close for lack of demand. We accept the free market principles of supply and demand and we deal with price fluctuations as best we can.
So why do we blame immigrants, and specifically the Chinese, for spiking real estate prices when the real problem is lack of supply and increasing demand?
It’s a dangerous tendency, and one that threatens to undermine the very ideals of citizenship and plurality that have made Canada so admired around the world. Our country’s heritage includes every ethnicity on earth. The principles that define us as Canadians include those of dignity and kindness, tolerance and compassion. The elements that underpin our democracy include a respect for liberty, for freedom of movement and for the potential of a market driven economy under the rule of law.
But these principles and values are not guiding the current discussion. Instead we see outbursts of ignorant emotionalism and incipient racism.
It’s important, first, to define the immediate problem. The economic power of recent immigrants and foreign purchasers has showcased excessive economic advantage while denying many the ability to be part of a vibrant, growing cosmopolitan city. Many of the young people and professionals who make up our city’s core are feeling frustrated by our failure to find a solution to affordable housing.
Yet, instead of working together to address the challenges of inequity, many are retreating to the more familiar ground of racial accusations. They use the seeming intractability of these problems to build scapegoats. Even people who may have been acting in goodwill have been guilty of launching dubious studies that rely on selective facts and the dangerous sweep of ethnic stereotyping.
In an age when terrorism is also a serious social issue, and when certain people have chosen to target ethnicity or religion in that conversation, this raises a risk that I feel personally. I, who have been proud to call Canada my home for more than four decades, have an Arabic name — one that might easily become part of a database of potential security targets, not for anything I have done, but merely because of my heritage.
This is a perversion of the Canadian experiment, and one we must deal with quickly, and together. We cannot promote prejudice against any racial or ethnic group without betraying ourselves. The vitriolic accusations against “others” can lead only to hate and a division that will harm us all.
We need a solution, of the sort that can only be found through joint action. We cannot continue to speak from both sides of our mouths, on the one hand promising economic hope and jobs, while at the same time isolating recent immigrants and visitors from normal social intercourse based on mutual respect.
Certainly, government must be forceful in addressing issues such as the disruptive influence of laundered money. At the same time, we must all stay focused on the economic principles of a liberal democracy, of supply and demand. We must remember the values of immigration and the benefits of building a progressive society in which people of diverse backgrounds can live and prosper together as members of one city and country.
This responsibility rests upon all levels of government, as well as upon community leaders and the media. All must work together to refresh the spirit of optimism, while rejecting any narrative where facts are manipulated to become food for racist agitators or dismissive special interest groups.
The only way to resolve deep social and economic problems is by forging a unity of purpose.
Racism has deep roots. Without a conscious, deliberate, and sustained effort, we are all at risk from its destructive influences. It can only be overcome through open dialogue and close association among those of opposing points of view.
So, I address this appeal to all — politicians, pundits and community leaders: the realization of our collective potential depends on the character and initiative of every individual. No action plan can succeed if leaders fail respond in their own capacity. I respectfully and urgently call upon my fellow Vancouverites of whatever background to look at current real estate situation with new eyes and with a new resolve to set ethnicity aside — to embrace all of your neighbours, new and old, in the search for a lasting solution.
Farid Rohani is a life member of The Laurier Institution.
Published under arrangement with the Asian Pacific Post
by George Abraham in Ottawa
I must confess that I came to Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone) and Kamal Al-Solaylee’s thesis as a skeptic. Growing up in India, everybody around me was brown – some lighter-skinned than others – but brown-ness has been a lifelong given.
Moving to Canada, I developed an appreciation for the tension between “white” and “black,” and then a little later, consciousness about indigenous people. Recently, #Blacklivesmatter and #Nativelivesmatter became popular Twitter hashtags, emblematic of a struggle for equality and justice.
The author of this book adds another group to the list of the aggrieved, perhaps calling for a #Brownlivesmatter movement.
Picking up Brown I asked myself, why does Al-Solaylee have to harp on yet another colour distinction?
He seemed to be calling for a new consciousness, “a challenge to white and black hegemony.” What baloney, I told myself. I sensed yet another author adept at milking victimhood for all it’s worth.
That would have been the essence of my take but for happenstance.
I read the main sections of Brown during a visit to India, which at the time was roiled by a rather bizarre series of attacks on African nationals staying there for university studies or business. While the political class appeared to be in denial, the national media were unsparing, labelling the attacks “pigment-based discrimination” and brazen racism.
I was shocked to read an African diplomat in New Delhi quoted as saying, “I realized after a while that the taunts of ‘monkey, monkey’ were aimed at me . . .” He was recounting how a group of youth would make primate-like sounds while he was jogging at a public park.
Not just black and white
The exhaustive reporting and commentary in India around these widespread attacks told me that we “brownies” were also capable of racism.
Secondly, it opened my eyes to the possibility suggested by Al-Solaylee: “[W]e are not as privileged as whites but not as criminalized as blacks.” There might be an in-between.
There is no denying that if whites form the top-tier of the world economy, browns and blacks occupy the bottom rungs. However, there is not enough in this book by the widely-published Ryerson University journalism professor to clearly distinguish between the fates of those born brown or black, although he goes to extraordinary lengths to support his basic point that skin colour is destiny.
Brown, he says, serves as a metaphor for a distinct political experience that might include the following: a hyphenated immigrant identity (unlike the Irish and Italian, for example); suspicion at border crossings (perceived as “shifty”); a feeling of disenfranchisement and belonging to a new “global servant” class.
As an immigrant himself, Al-Solaylee pays particular attention to the internationally mobile brown folks who wish to leave the developing world, thereby “browning” the population of countries such as the U.S. and Canada.
The Yemen-born author is at his best when he hews close to the journalism for which he is most known. He cites data to show income disparities based on skin colour in societies such as Brazil (where browns or blacks earn 42.2 per cent less than whites), Sri Lanka and Trinidad.
This book also took him to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Qatar, the U.K. and the U.S. – all in an effort to demonstrate how being born brown inevitably means a life of modern slavery, dim economic prospects, and an endless effort to appear fairer through whitening creams and lotions.
There is, though, no effort to explain brown-on-brown discrimination in countries such as Qatar, where the Asian labour class and local Qataris share a common skin tone. Similarly, the notes from Britain most certainly discount the possibility of a Muslim brownie of Pakistani heritage being elected mayor of London.
The author applies the same woe-is-me-because-I’m-brown outlook to Canada. Jumping off some of the overheated rhetoric from the Conservative campaign during the October 2015 federal election, the author infers that “an anti-brown feeling has been gaining momentum, even in liberal Canada.” This, when he himself concedes that immigration to both Canada and the U.S. is predominantly brown.
Al-Solaylee’s observations and conclusions throughout his travels can be rather facile and foregone, and lack the rigour one expects from a stellar journalist. This one stuck out in particular: “Two black friends have suggested to me that the relatively light skin tones of Syrian refugees explain why Canadians have opened their wallets and homes so generously.”
I’m not sure if the author proves what he set out to demonstrate – that being brown predicts your life trajectory more than any other circumstance.
My own career has taken me to some of the very same countries that Al-Solaylee visited. I know first-hand that skin colour can be defining and shorthand for a “pigmentocracy,” in which white and fair is viewed as competent, while everybody else falls short.
I’d say Brown is a good read for those who are convinced they will never catch a break because the deck is forever stacked against them.
For everybody else, it is yet another thesis in search of a convincing argument.
George Abraham is the founder and publisher of New Canadian Media.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
by Florence Hwang in Regina
Vivek Shraya does not mince words. In even this page is white, her language is visceral, and even the form of her poetry helps to draw attention to the sensitive issue of racism.
Most of the poems in even this page is white are written in the style of spoken word poetry, and as such, the words can be quite shocking and blunt. Shraya’s debut collection of poems focuses on the physical entity of skin and racism, centring on the idea of being white and drawing upon current events and modern poetry.
Conforming to racial roles
She begins with her “white dreams,” describing how she was raised in a society that is predominantly white and how she tries to fit in. In exploring the idea of identity, Shraya includes the perspectives of a white person.
She explores the word “skin,” its physical element, and its function. She points out that within “white,” there are a range of colours, such as fair and talc.
The text hints at how Shraya must also conform to white society’s expectations before her views on racism can be heard.
In the poem “You are so articulate,” she explains that there is a standard she must meet in order to be considered normal in mainstream society. The poem is a checklist of steps that minorities are expected to follow in order to be considered successful in North American culture.
In another checklist, Shraya reveals the things she, her mother, and her father had to do so that she could become a poet and express her thoughts in writing. Her father, for example, worked three jobs and sacrificed time with Shraya as a child to pay for her post-secondary education.
The more the world makes her aware of her brownness, the more she focuses on how race and racism are connected to every aspect of her life. She writes about the ways her race intersects with her desirability, her desires, her gender, her religion, and how she connects or doesn't connect with others.
Deciphering popular messages
Shraya questions the actions of celebrities who have also confronted the topic of race through their work. In one poem, she lists reasons why Kanye West should be banned from performing at the Pan American Games closing ceremonies, which took place in Toronto, Ont., in 2015.
Most of her reasons attack West’s character with words like “selfish” and “childish,” but also attack his talent, describing him as a terrible musician. The most interesting accusation against West is that he “will turn the games into a racism issue.”
It seems ironic that Shraya critiques him this way, when she seems to view most things through the lens of race as well. Shraya says her goal was to highlight how seemingly inoffensive and dismissible pop culture moments speak to systematic racism.
In “Oscars So White,” she draws on the controversy of celebrities boycotting the Academy Awards for not nominating more non-white actors. In this poem, she points out contradictions, questioning whether the Academy should start nominating more non-white actors simply because of their skin colour.
In another examination of miscommunication, Shraya describes the sounds heard at a Gay Pride event on June 24, 2015 – the voices of protesters, police, the main speaker, and those who were trying to silence the message.
The main speaker’s message makes up the bulk of the text, but there are other voices present in the margins. Imagine the main speaker being talked over by the police, while listeners are shushing and trying to compete with the authorities to listen to the message.
Working together against racism
In the middle of the book, Shraya records a discussion she has with four white women regarding racism, focusing on their white privilege, their awareness of other races, and their reaction to racism. One admits she recognizes that she is undereducated about anything outside “the white gaze” and “under-practised in talking about racism.”
The interview is interesting because most stories about racism are shared from the perspective of those who are targeted. These white friends of Shraya recognize there is a disparity between races, but admit they are sometimes afraid to do anything about it or not sure what to do in response.
The author asks her friends to make an “allyship towards people of colour,” suggesting the need for white people to support the idea of eliminating racism or racist attitudes, rather than being divided against people of colour.
In the end, Shraya says the most important thing is that a person listens and takes action against racism. She doesn’t indicate what kind of action, but that people should start by communicating to come to an understanding of the problem of race-based discrimination.
While Shraya starts with discussing white dreams, she ends with brown dreams – the need to justify the pigment of her skin. In her note at the end of the book, she states that she wants this book to act as a catalyst for discussions about anti-black racism, as well as racism towards indigenous people who continue to face racial violence.
Florence Hwang used to work as a print journalist before becoming a media librarian. These days, she is also a freelance writer, whose work has been featured in several publications, including New Canadian Media. Outside of work, Florence spends her time making short films about her family history.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
Governments and bureaucrats need to focus less on numbers and more on starting real conversations that tackle critical problems, like race, in ways that engage immigrants rather than shaming them.
“A lot of time when it’s about race, we are afraid to talk about it,” said Yolande James, one of four speakers from the government and legal system who presented at the “Identities, Rights and Migration: A Session on the Intersection of Gender, Race, Class and Sexuality” session at the 18th National Metropolis Conference held in Toronto last week.
“There is a way to have a conversation involving everybody, to be respectful and constructive. Everybody has something to give and we should have an equal life.”
James, a former provincial politician, was the first Black female cabinet minister in Quebec history, serving as Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities & Minister of Family between 2007 and 2014.
As a former provincial government minister, and child of immigrant parents herself, James knows about how inefficient all levels of government are in engaging newcomers into their host country.
“Do we engage immigrant populations? Do we have engaged dialogue?” she asked. “We haven’t done enough.”
She said the lack of society-wide conversations that engage with immigrants sends the message that they do not matter.
“I feel the whole nation, in terms of why the issues touching immigration and diversity [are] important, is not engaged,” she said. “It’s all about being able to engage people to connect with other people’s experience.”
As an example, James pointed to the current challenge of accepting Syrian refugees to Canada. She said that the government needs to pay attention to more than just the number of refugees being accepted.
“Should it be 55,000 or 50,000?” she asked. “There is so much emphasis on the numbers, but it’s not important. It’s about their journey,” she said.
Case in point: Iran sanctions
Another contemporary example is the government’s inefficiency in communicating with immigrants about the sanctions against Iran in 2010 by the former Conservative government.
Theoretically, sanctions against Iran were not meant to target Iranian citizens or Iranians who immigrated to Canada, but instead to put pressure on the Iranian government.
However, a large number of Iranian Canadians were caught in the crossfire and penalized by Canada, said Iranian Canadian lawyer Negar Achtari who practises in Ottawa.
“The impact of the sanctions on Iranian Canadians is everywhere in the ordinary Iranian immigrant’s daily life,” she explained.
“The federal government restricted money wiring from Iran to Canada. Manitoba and Quebec announced they were not accepting Iranian immigrants under [the] investment category. CIBC and TD banks proceeded to close Iranian Canadians' bank accounts, sweeping their assets from chequing accounts to credit cards and mortgages, frozen without notice.”
She also mentioned another resulting impact – the Canadian Border Services Agency seizing Iranians’ belongings upon their arrival to Canada for a time-consuming scrutinization.
“We believe governments are our guardians. What they’ve done is simply wrong,” said Achtari. “When and to whom do these [sanctions] apply? There is only silence from the government. What they tried to say is, ‘figure it out on your own!’”
Despite laws in place, discrimination persists
Avvy Go, human rights lawyer and clinic director at the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, shared her experience of asking for redress and compensation from the Canadian government for the Chinese Head Tax victims and their descendants almost 10 years ago.
She was one of a dozen activists who mobilized many community activities asking the Liberal government at the time, led by Prime Minister Paul Martin, for redress and monetary compensation.
Along with an official apology, the Harper Conservative government gave $20,000 to direct victims who paid a $500 head tax in the early 20th century in order to come to Canada.
According to Canada’s Colour Coded Labour Market report, racialized men are 24 per cent more likely to be unemployed than non-racialized men.
Racialized women have it worse: They’re 48 per cent more likely to be unemployed than non-racialized men.
This many contribute to the fact that racialized women earn 55.6 per cent of the income of non-racialized men.
Go used these figures to highlight that although anti-racism and anti-homophobia laws are in place, discrimination continues to exist.
by Rubin Friedman in Ottawa and Anita Bromberg in Toronto
Posters promoting a "White Student Union" appeared on campus at a number of Canadian universities recently.
What are we to make of such a student group and the use of the term “White”?
Those behind the union seem to see it as a natural response to groups focused on marginalized and racialized communities. Their website postings suggest that the union is merely a way to protect what it describes as “values of western civilization.”
The students using these terms should be clear about what they are defending. Are they putting forward the idea that values such as democracy, parliament, human rights, equality, and habeas corpus are important to discuss and defend, or that these are exclusively linked to one colour?
The power of words
The word "White" is itself a loaded term.
It is in fact an exclusionary term that has been used to oppress based on notions of racial superiority.
The history of Europe, like the history of Canada is a reflection of stories of migration of large groups of peoples of varying backgrounds.
Forming a group to discuss ‘western civilization values’, and what they might mean moving forward, could conceivably have some value. However, to form an exclusive club for “Whites only” based on skin colour rather than a willingness to discuss important issues of the day is a serious flaw.
It leads to the logical supposition that the union’s real purpose does, in fact, lie in the loaded word "White” as an expression of exclusion and false superiority.
Let's not forget that similarly named groups such as those that have cropped up in the United States have been linked to white supremacy movements as have other efforts claiming to be in the name of “European pride”.
Is blaming one race racist?
These days, the term “White” also pops up in discussions led by anti-racists in the context of “White privilege”, or “White attitudes”. These phrases are used as a kind of blanket condemnation of western or European civilization.
While such terms are used to explain racism, are they not themselves inherently racist? Is not blaming one race, as would be inherent in the term “White privilege”, racist in and of itself?
Surely such terms prevent us from confronting the reality that individuals of any colour or origin can themselves be racist in their attitudes and behaviour.
Indeed, the whole framework for such terms depends on using racial classifications to distinguish between people, based on sweeping generalizations and without regard to any needed nuance.
In the end, such uses of the term “White” – no matter what side of the coin you are starting from – are dangerous and negative. Such divisive tactics cannot build cohesion within a state of equality for all.
Mutual respect and responsibility
The challenge is to find a broader approach to dealing with racism and discrimination as they are practised in any group.
In the Canadian context, the way forward favoured by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation is to build a shared understanding of the current state of race relations and how we got here.
At the same time through initiatives such as our 150 stories, workshops and symposia, we would seek to include the broad range of Canadians in a dialogue about the non-racist values we want to guide us towards a common future based on mutual respect and responsibility.
Rubin Friedman is a member of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation board of directors. He has extensive experience in dealing with issues of community, integration, prejudice and discrimination.
Anita Bromberg has been the Executive Director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation since June 2014. Prior to that, she served as National Director Legal Affairs at B'nai Brith Canada.
by Lucy Oneka in Toronto
There is an ever present bias in the historical theories of racialized people being more susceptible to disease, and these theories have been perpetuated by modern day media, say some Canadian researchers.
Goldameir Oneka, University of Toronto PhD candidate and author of Extra, Extra, read all about it!: Toronto print news media coverage of type 2 diabetes, says the idea of race being linked to disease has long standing historical roots in biomedical research and practice.
“If you look at the bio-medical literature – historical bio-medical literature – racialized peoples’ were constantly presented as individuals who were inherently diseased,” explains Oneka (full disclosure: she is the sister of this article’s author).
“So we see theories that mainly linked the presence of diseases in racialized peoples to their so-called race. If they were sick it was because there was something in their DNA that made them sick. While there are some diseases that are linked to race/ethnicity there are many more that are not, and here is where the problem lies.”
It is this school of thought that has fuelled the idea that non-White people are more susceptible to disease than White people.
Dr. Margery Fee, professor of English at University of British Columbia and author of the “Racializing Narratives: Obesity, Diabetes and the ‘Aboriginal’ Thrifty Genotype” in the journal Social Science and Medicine, indicates that until recently it was generally accepted that race was useful in predicting disease – without examining intersection of ethnicity, race and socio-economic status.
“There was very little connection to economic circumstances or changes that happen when people immigrate to a new country,” Fee says. “There was very little understanding of those social factors which is hardly surprising because scientists are educated in a very narrow way – with very little in the way of humanities education.”
Rooted in idea of racial hierarchy
The racialization of disease can be traced back to Darwin and social Darwinism, Fee explains, a theory that stated there was a kind of racial hierarchy with the White race being at the top, and the so-called ‘fittest’.
As Oneka points out there are several examples of where this theory has come into play when looking at diseases within particular communities.
“If you look in South Africa for example, they had this thing that Blacks who had TB (Tuberculosis) had it because their bodies were not used to civilization,” Oneka recalls. “When they got civilized, their body couldn’t handle it so that’s how they got TB. They needed to go back to the primitive ways of living and doing things.”
Or, Oneka adds, “In the North American context, there is a lot of talk about the Aboriginal population, Aboriginal peoples have a higher rate of type 2 diabetes because they have a gene – the thrifty gene theory.”
The role of the media
In order to counter such ways of thinking, the existence of such schools of thought must first be acknowledged.
Oneka looked at how what was going on with type 2 diabetes was covered by Toronto print newspapers by conducting a content analysis. She examined things like the language used.
“Racialized peoples once again are presented as being ignorant for having the disease,” Oneka says of her findings. “They don’t know how to take care of themselves type of thing, and they are inherently diseased too,” she explains, adding articles would at times imply “their genes make them more predisposed to developing this disease compared to the White population.”
There is often a part of the story missing in news reports, Fee explains, pointing out that while the research she looked at years ago did show that White people seemed to have a better track record when it came to diabetes, this couldn’t necessarily be attributed to their race.
“… [They] were demographically better off. As a result, they had a better diet, got more exercise and lived in better neighbourhoods,” Fee explains, adding they, for example, might be able to walk to the grocery store instead of having to drive.
“Yes, it’s true that everybody but White people has a higher risk factor for obesity and diabetes,” Fee says. “But, it’s connected to poverty. And it is that fact which doesn’t turn up in the warnings.”
Reporting should ‘reflect reality’
Oneka recommends that the media give more thought to how it reports on health. This is particularly important since generally people learn more about disease from the media than their doctor.
When it comes to diabetes Oneka’s research shows that the media represents it mostly as a lifestyle or individual or genetic issue.
“These kinds of reporting attributes blame, and makes the individual think it’s their fault that they are sick,” she explains. “If a person does not have a good job, they can’t afford to eat well, and the media needs to cover a more accurate account of the causes of diseases – reflect reality.”
Part of the problem, Oneka adds, is that reporters are not specialists, and therefore rely on interviews with scientists who mainly have bio-medical backgrounds for their news coverage.
Oneka insists the media should reach out to social scientists that can shed insight on how environmental factors such as the economics, poverty, racism, prejudice and ageism play into the development of disease.
Fee agrees. “People don’t like to talk about economic disparity,” she says. “Public health is not very popular. People want to find cures for cancer in any way, but [not fix] the environment [which is] a huge systematic and ideological barrier. It’s much more fun to go after a kind of gene or a drug where you can kind of narrow the problem.”
by Priya Ramanujam (@SincerelyPriya) in Scarborough, Ontario
With October’s federal elections inching closer, there will be a steady stream of coverage in mainstream newspapers across the country of the candidates vying for a seat in Parliament. As journalists and newspaper editors put together these stories, Canadian researcher Erin Tolley is calling for them to give careful thought to how they depict candidates of visible-minority backgrounds.
Tolley, an assistant professor in political science at the University of Toronto, is the author of Framed: Media and the Coverage of Race in Canadian Politics, a book-length study set for release in November, which examines how race factors into news stories about politicians and political candidates.
The book includes empirical data she collected during the 2008 federal elections after studying and comparing a sample of over 1,000 news stories from 18 mainstream Canadian daily newspapers on both visible minority and white candidates, as well as candid interviews with political candidates, others working in politics, and journalists.
While Tolley maintains the book’s message is not that the media are racist – she finds absolutely no examples of blatant racism in her analysis – what Framed does is use media coverage of Canadian politics to underline the fact that race still matters in Canada.
Likely candidate or a long shot?
One particular area of focus Tolley spends a lot of time analyzing is how a candidate’s viability in the election run was framed. Were they considered likely to succeed or more of a long shot?
If the candidate was an incumbent (currently holding the seat in Parliament), no matter whether he or she was a visible minority or not, Tolley finds the coverage to be relatively the same. If the person was a non-incumbent, however, the differences in coverage become apparent.
“What I found is if you’re a visible-minority non-incumbent you’re portrayed as a long shot, an unlikely winner – basically you don’t have a hope,” explains Tolley. This wasn’t the case for white non-incumbents.
This finding speaks to a certain level of skepticism that exists around visible-minority candidates, she adds. They tend to have to “prove themselves” in ways their white counterparts do not.
“When I talked to political strategists from the party, people who worked on the campaigns, they said, ‘Yes, they need to meet a higher bar,’” explains Tolley. “They’re going to be met with skepticism – they’re going to have to be better and to be stronger in order to get nominated and in order to win.”
Pigeonholed on the issues
Where Tolley also finds stark differences in coverage is in the types of issues visible minorities seem to be most connected to. While they are often quoted in stories on immigration policy, multiculturalism or poverty – all “so-called minority issues,” as Tolley refers to them – their voices are often absent from stories about more “pressing” issues like the economy and the environment.
“Some people said to me, ‘Well, that makes sense because probably visible minorities don’t care as much about those issues,’” recalls Tolley. “[But] when I talked to visible-minority candidates about their issue priorities, many of them talked about the economy – things like taxes, finding good jobs, having credentials recognized, that sort of thing – and that doesn’t come out in their media coverage.”
Tolley finds the notions of visible-minority candidates only being able to serve people from their own ethnic group and unable to understand the issues of other Canadians concerning. White candidates, she says, don’t face this challenge, as they are often positioned as having broad reach and the ability to “woo” or “court” the ethnic vote.
“No one ever talks about the fact that white candidates also appeal to white voters. I mean, no one would write that,” Tolley says. “No one even describes white candidates as ‘white candidates’ or really talks about where they were born. Whiteness is basically put forward as the default and therefore not worthy of being mentioned, whereas minority or immigrant background is something that is covered because it is seen to be outside the norm or atypical, and therefore newsworthy.”
With the upcoming elections, there is still time for media outlets to consider Tolley’s research in their approach to the stories that they run. Everything from picture and headline choice to inclusion of socio-demographic background and whether a “diversity” angle is relevant to a story or not should be considered, she advises.
But most importantly, Tolley says, people – not just the media, but all Canadians – need to be open to the idea of talking about race, a subject she found during her research many are still uncomfortable with.
“Some of my interviewees talked about the fact that they are colour-blind – they don’t see colour,” she explains. “I said instead of talking about ‘colour-blindness,’ we should think more about the fact that we’ve been mute in conversations about race. We haven’t had mature discussions about it.”
by Patrick Hunter (@pghntr) in Toronto
A huge wave, represented by about 50 high-profile Canadians, rocked Mayor John Tory’s proverbial boat this week. The “wave” consisted of a former chief justice of Ontario, three former mayors (one of whom is a former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission), several former politicians and business leaders.
Identifying themselves as Concerned Citizens to End Carding, they held a news conference steps away from Mayor Tory’s office at City Hall to denounce the controversial police practice.
The result is that the mayor has changed his tune, reversing his position on “carding,” the controversial practice by the Toronto Police Service (TPS) of collecting and retaining information about individuals with whom they engage, but who are not being detained or under suspicion of committing a crime.
In his announcement, the Mayor said: “The issue of community engagements, or carding as it has become known, has eroded public trust to a level that is clearly unacceptable.As mayor, it is up to me to do whatever I can do to restore that trust . . . And so I am announcing today my intention, at the next meeting of the police services board on June 18, to seek the permanent cancellation of carding once and for all.”
It is not often that political leaders reverse their positions so openly. Early reaction has been mostly positive. The damage, however, may have already been done. That will become clearer when Tory faces the electorate in another three years.
The Use of Carding
The carding practice was revealed in a Toronto Star investigative report in 2012 under the banner headline “Known to police.” It uncovered the fact the majority of persons stopped by the police whose information was taken were young black males, and their information was being kept in a database, apparently for future reference when a crime is committed.
Earlier this year, the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) had approved a policy on community engagement, which required police officers to inform individuals who are not under suspicion of any criminal activity that they have the right to end the engagement. If officers took a person’s information, they would also be required to provide a “receipt” indicating why the person was stopped.
William (Bill) Blair, then the outgoing chief of police, had a problem with the requirement and managed to get a watered-down version – without the above requirements of the policy – approved. The reaction and subsequent heat from the black community increased.
Desmond Cole: A Catalyst
In May, Toronto Life published a cover story by Desmond Cole, “The Skin I’m In.” It catalogues his experiences with the police, and outlines the emotional impact that they had and have on him – an impact that is shared by many black men, young or old.
The article became a sensation and was, indeed, a catalyst for the Concerned Citizens group to declare its opposition to carding.
In its statement, the group notes: “We all need to oppose carding vehemently … We are offended by the notion of casually and routinely stopping citizens, outside of police investigations of actual criminal acts that have occurred, to question and record, and then store personal data in police files … We believe carding violates the human rights of citizens, it goes against the principles of our Charter Rights ..."
Last Friday, the chair of the TPSB, Dr. Alok Mukherjee wrote an op-ed piece in the Toronto Star: “We are at risk of turning into a surveillance society” in which he also declared a change of heart.
“I believe the Toronto Police Services Board must now declare unequivocally that information generated from informal contacts with members of the public, which are not related to any criminal investigation or likelihood of a criminal investigation, must not be recorded in any police database,” he wrote.
Where the Police Chief Stands
Mark Saunders, who is black, is the recently appointed chief of police, succeeding Bill Blair. He has picked up the ball, voicing support for carding as a legitimate investigative tool. He has tried to cushion this support by suggesting that there would be changes in implementing the policy by eliminating random stops.
The community is not buying it.
His stance, if continued, will certainly erode any goodwill he may have earned from the black community, and the wider community, as demonstrated by the Concerned Citizens group.
Adding to the community’s concern about Chief Saunders’ position, a recent report in the Toronto Star that revealed an internal memo prepared by Saunders while he was a staff superintendent.
In the memo, he essentially tried to debunk the notion of racial profiling and carding, suggesting that analyses did not support “notions or activities of racially biased policing practices.” According to the Star, his then-superior officer, Deputy Chief Peter Sloly, also black, took issue with Saunders’ analysis and conclusion.
Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, in the wake of Mayor Tory’s conversion, has also reaffirmed the association’s position, and that of the chief’s: getting rid of carding would have a negative impact on “community safety.” Exactly how is unclear.
It would appear that both Chief Saunders and the police association fail to make the connection that their defence of carding’s use and the fact that the majority of the carded residents are black imply that they believe that members of the black community are responsible for most of the crimes and criminal activities in the city.
If the black chief of police believes that, what chance do we have to change relations between the police and the black community?
Patrick Hunter is a communications consultant and a columnist for Share Newspaper. He is a former communications director at the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and has worked in government and the news media.
PEEL Regional Police Detective Sergeant Baljiwan (BJ) Sandhu has alleged in a discrimination case before Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal that he was denied the opportunity for promotion to inspector in 2013 because of his race. But the force denies that, noting that two of the eight inspector promotions were given to “racialized minorities.” But how […]
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