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The Contemporary Dilemma: Canada’s legacy of white supremacism

By Aymen Sherwani, July 1 2021—

For Canadians, the news has been marred with tragedy and heartbreak as news broke of multiple mass graves of children found in the grounds of residential schools — 215 bodies found in Kamloops, BC, 104 in Brandon, MB, and 751 in Saskatchewan‘s Marieval Indian Residential School most recently. While the nation was already grieving over the horrors of Indigenous genocide, Canadians again received news of the murder of a Muslim family in London, ON, by 20-year-old Nathaniel Veltman, who intentionally drove his car into them while they were on a walk, killing all but their 9-year-old son. 

As a response, many Canadians have been quick to remove their national identity from the equation, and have jumped to say this is not Canada and this is not what this country represents.” The unfortunate reality that many simply refuse to face is that this is Canada, and saying such statements is an erasure of the pain and humiliation that minorities have faced at the expense of building Canada’s economy and international reputation. It is an erasure of the fact that Canada was built on the ethnic cleansing and exploitation of Indigenous groups. It is an erasure of the Canadian government’s active involvement in fueling a lasting Islamophobic rhetoric post 9/11 that they are just now beginning to distance themselves from. Most importantly, it is a refusal to admit that the legacy of Canada is one of white supremacy and such a refusal to admit that there are deep-rooted problems in one’s country is the opposite of a solution.

I grew up in Canada, and it’s all I’ve ever called home since 2001. While I am proud to call myself a Canadian, I cannot ignore the fallacy of how Canada heralds itself as a nation of equality and international peacekeeping while minorities have simultaneously been hurt at its expense. For years, governments have enabled hate and the scapegoating of minorities for the problems of working-class Canadians, and then like to position themselves as part of the solution in order to remove themselves from any responsibility when there are consequences. From the way I see it, Canada’s recent performative humanitarianism in response to these tragedies is almost like a slap in the face to the groups that it has given lasting harm.

When I say this, I think about Justin Trudeau vowing “concrete action” after the discovery of 215 bodies at the Kamloops Residential School site, but continues to fight Indigenous compensation claims in court for the lasting harms of genocide and intergenerational trauma that the community continues to face. I also think about Ontario Premier Doug Ford, receiving cheers during a speech in which he called the London tragedy an act of terror and Islamophobia, but openly stated just last year that Canada does not have deep roots of systemic inequality in response to the trauma of Black Canadians. 

The speechwriter of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stated that residential schools were a “bogus genocide story,” while the premier himself said that changing the name of Langevin Junior High School was “cancel culture,” despite acknowledging the namesake’s involvement in the Residential School system. There are consequences for this type of behaviour — the most unsettling one being that every day Canadians begin to take out their frustrations on their fellow people of colour while, at the same time, claiming that they aren’t racist and regurgitate an indoctrination of Canada’s image of peace and love. 

To put it into perspective, when I used to work at a Calgary-based non-profit organization that worked to provide aid in the Global South, my white coworkers would criticize the fact that I was a Muslim woman, and would ostracize me for practicing a religion that supposedly promotes terrorism and violence against women. My coworkers had completely bought in to the idea that, as Canadians, they were for peace and were the harbingers of humanitarianism to countries that they believed to be destitute — at the same time, they also lacked the critical thinking skills to grasp Canada’s involvement in senseless wars fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how for many Muslims, Canada was directly involved in the destruction of their homeland. These same coworkers would make racist jokes against Indigenous groups in Canada, almost always starting with the phrase “I’m not racist but,” and followed with a disgusting display of ignorance and white liberalism. 

At this point, it would also be important to remember that these notions of peace and equality associated with Canada are novelties in this country’s history. They were created alongside the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, introduced by Pierre Trudeau, who was ironically the same Prime Minister that attempted to assimilate Indigenous Canadians and end their treaty status, directly coinciding with the Sixties Scoop — the systematic kidnapping of Indigenous children and their placement into foster care and white families. Before Canada’s human rights revolution in the ’80s, there is the less tasteful history of eugenics, the enslavement of Chinese immigrants to build the Canadian Pacific Railway and Japanese internment camps during World War Two. Many would like to say that it’s all in the past, but that’s hard to believe when minorities in Canada continue to mourn in the present day. 

While hindsight is 20/20 and the Canadian government is quick to show remorse for the horrors of its past, the present and its future does not look so bright either. Minorities in Canada are spoken over, tokenized, exploited and then used as props of humanitarianism when it’s time for a politician to show their solidarity in light of a tragedy. If Canadians continue to say “this is not Canada” when Canada shows its true colours, then they are enablers. White supremacy is woven together with Canada’s history and is on clear display when white Canadians deflect national responsibility from these tragedies. The reality is that Canada has not been a country of peace, love and equality. Not now. Not ever. 

There are thousands of strong and fearless men, women and children all over the world. These are the people that wake up, despite the atrocities they are facing, and push forward without looking back. These are the people that sacrifice everything so their families will have a better future. This is what The Contemporary Dilemma highlightsThis column is part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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