The Canadian Racial Reality

People of color and Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to face systematic racism. However, there has been a relative absence of any meaningful conversation about the issue during this election. This is despite the fact that a racialized person is leading a federal party for the first time and that it was recently revealed that Prime Minister Trudeau repeatedly wore black and brown faces in his earlier life. Fatima Syed observes that Canadian politics continues to be dominated by white politicians. As a result, it is hard to make race a central theme of the Canadian election.

Racism is a social construct where the dominant group in society forms ideas of race based on geographic, historical, political, economic, social and cultural factors, and physical traits to justify racial superiority. All people have the potential to be racist based on power dynamics of race in society. Racism is embedded in the dominant culture and social institutions in a way that is so pervasive that it is often invisible.

I recently had a discussion with someone who tried to convince me that using the word “racism” is too strong in the Canadian context. The argument they tried to push was that Canadians are not racist but they simply “have a fear of the unknown.” Knowing that racism is a reality in Canada, I was not that easily convinced. Ritika Goel has pointed out that, in Canada, discussions about race and racism are rare. And when they do arise, Canadians often turn to a narrative of comparing the country to the United States, pointing out racism is worse there.

Whether or not that is true is irrelevant to the question of whether or not racism exists in Canada. Evidence and experience both indicate racism in Canada is indeed an issue. Calgary Mayor Nenshi notes that hate crimes in Canada between 2016 and 2017 went up 47% and incidents of divisive language are becoming more common online.

Racial exclusion against unwanted immigrants is literally foundational to Canadian identity and was codified in law and policy at the expense of the Irish in 1847, the Chinese in 1885, the Sikhs in 1914, the Jews in 1939, the Japanese in the 1940s and the Haitians in 1973.

Right now, black and other racialized people continue to be racially excluded. Earlier this year, an EKOS poll was released showing that there has been increase in opposition to visible-minority immigration. The negative characterization of refugee claimants by politicians and the media as “bogus refugees,” “illegals,” “queue jumpers,” or “asylum shoppers” creates a discriminatory public discourse. These terms are usually used to refer to the Roxham Road border crossers. Most of them originate from the black majority countries of Haiti and Nigeria – suggesting that anti-black racism might be at play.

Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins developed the intersection theory, showing that the effects of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and other attributes cannot be separated. In examining race, it is important to acknowledge that the way we experience race is shaped by gender and immigration status, for instance. These multiple layers of disadvantage intersect to create the way we experience race. As an example, the prejudice a white woman faces because of her gender is very different from the layered prejudice focused on a African refugee woman living in poverty, who is affected by stereotypes related to being poor, being a woman, a refugee, and being part of a visible minority.

Canada was founded on the colonization (that is, stealing) of land and the subjugation of Indigenous peoples who were forced into reserves, and abused through the hospital and residential school systems. First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people have endured cultural genocide, family separation and intergenerational trauma. They are also overrepresented in the prison population and the foster care system.

During CPJ’s 2019 Election Tour, we learned that in Winnipeg, which has the has the largest Indigenous population of all Canadian cities, there is friction between Indigenous people and newcomers to Canada. Canada’s support for refugees has apparently created resentment among the Indigenous communities who are already battling with poverty and racism.

In the past few years, Canada has had a good reputation of welcoming refugees. But, as Rose Gilbert asserts, to some Indigenous people in Canada, public support and funding for newcomers stands in stark contrast to their own communities, which remain socially and economically excluded.

According to an Jenna Wirch, an Indigenous community development worker, some refugees acquire prejudices against Indigenous people that are passed on to them by resettlement workers. “They’re being preordained to think negative things about Indigenous people. They don’t understand the root causes of why we are like this,” she said. Refugees’ racism toward Indigenous communities often reflects Canadian attitudes. It is encouraging to hear that Indigenous and refugee leaders are working to bring their communities together.

Racism towards Indigenous people and visible minorities is a reality, and we should not hide our heads in the sand about it. Racism is unacceptable in all its manifestations and dominant groups should not be allowed to lord it over visible minorities and Indigenous people.

During the remaining days of the campaign period, Canadians should consider whether federal parties will commit to putting in place true anti-racist policies through which the country’s reputation as welcoming multicultural society can be truly maintained.


  • Stephen Kaduuli is CPJ's former refugee rights policy analyst. Stephen passed away suddenly from COVID-19 on April 15, 2021. CPJ, along with Stephen’s family, wish to honour his dedication and passion for refugee rights by establishing a permanent fund to help enhance and deepen CPJ’s refugee work. To make a donation, visit:

Leave a Comment

Share via
Copy link