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Two weeks ago, Regent Park bore witness to possibly the most candid public discussion on racism with high level decision-makers in Ontario’s history.

With racial tensions bubbling to the forefront, it was both appropriate and timely for the province’s fledgling Anti Racism Directorate to hold a public forum on systemic racism.

One by one, top politicians from Premier Kathleen Wynne, to Mayor John Tory, to the new Ontario Minister of Anti-Racism, Michael Coteau sat silently while listening and taking heat from the emotionally charged crowd. 

As was expected, the atmosphere at the meeting was a complex amalgam of pain, frustration, but also of hope and opportunity — particularly with respect to a coordinated government strategy addressing systemic racism.

In this respect, the new Anti-Racism Directorate aims to tackle systemic racism at a broad level through policy, research, public awareness and community collaboration. However, the Directorate’s work, and in effect its very existence, will always be resisted and threatened by some unless common underlying myths about racism are first addressed in the public sphere. 

Myth #1: Systemic racism in Canada has already been eliminated, or at the very least, is getting better.

In a 2012 Angus-Reid poll, the majority of Canadians, some 55 per cent, said that they believed racism was no longer a significant problem in Canada. This view is, at best, wishful thinking and, at worst, wilful blindness. It ignores the fact that racism is a structural problem and severe racial disparities can take shape in Canada even in the absence of any intentional or explicit discrimination.

The data shows us that systemic racism is not getting better. If anything, it is getting much worse, particularly for the most vulnerable and marginalized in racialized communities.  

In Toronto, for example, between 1980 and 2000, poverty rates among racialized families increased an astounding 361 per cent, while falling 28 per cent for non-racailized families. Data from our last Federal long-form census indicated that after-tax poverty rates among racialized families in Canada were some three times higher than non-racialized families. For certain communities, that number further increases to four, five and even six times the non-racialized poverty rate.

These statistics speak to the widening chasm that exists in quality of life along racial lines in our country.

Myth #2: Systemic racism primarily occurs in policing.

While racism in policing is often the area that gets the most attention and press because of heated and frequently violent interactions, it is part of a larger and more complex systemic issue. This is why reforming the police and criminal justice systems in our province alone cannot hope to solve significant racial inequities, whose root causes reside further upstream.

Numerous studies over the years have shown that racial inequities persist and in many cases are widening in a whole host of different arenas including education, employment, health, housing, as well as policing and criminal justice.

This is one of the reasons why an institution, like the Directorate, which can serve as a centralized authority on racism, mandate the collection of race-based disaggregated data, and co-ordinate and execute a targeted anti-racism strategy, is, in theory, an excellent idea. How well it will work in practice remains to be seen. 

Myth #3: The race problem will just go away if we stop talking about it.

Canadians are enamoured with the narrative that this country has already found the “winning formula” when it comes to race relations and is an oasis of racial harmony in the world, particularly with the concurrent rise of racist and xenophobia movements in America and Western Europe.

So ingrained is this view in the very core of our national psyche that people who challenge it are often dismissed as ungrateful whiners, troublemakers and threats to society.

This denial has resulted in an atmosphere where people are bringing to the race discussion enormously different assumptions and understandings of what the reality on the ground is. The discussions that take place in such a space are poorly informed, polarizing and ultimately not constructive.

We need to create a space in public discourse to talk about racism and racial inequities without all the baggage that the rose-coloured multicultural narrative brings with it. We need to be able to have a mature, evidence-based discussion about race which leads to concrete, sustainable, and effective government action. This can only occur when we shed these preconcieved myths, acknowledge that systemic racism is a real problem, and work together collectively and collaboratively to solve it.

The Regent Park meeting was a good start to this discussion. Let’s make sure that it does not end there.

Vince Wong is a Staff Lawyer with the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.


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Image: Flickr/Wissotzky