Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canadians can't be smug about racism

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Americans are celebrating the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. this week and they are commemorating the justice and equality the civil rights movement gained for black people in the United States.

Canadians were aghast back in the 1960s when they learned about black men being lynched and black women being raped without any form of justice or redress, how freedom riders were being pulled off buses and beaten severely, and how children died while they knelt in prayer in black churches that were firebombed.

So we were deeply moved when King gave his I Have A Dream speech to a crowd of 250,000 people who joined the "march on Washington," and we rejoiced with Americans when their Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

At that time, Canada was predominately "white" and relatively untested by racial strife. But we were pretty sure we wouldn't have behaved like Americans if the situation was the same here.

Or would we?

It wasn't public knowledge, but the 1950s and early '60s was the same time the worst of the cultural genocide of the Indian Residential School system was taking place. Horrific physical and sexual abuse was being afflicted on children who were taken away from their parents under a policy to remove "the Indian" from the child.

And there were rumours that incidents of homeless Indians who died because they happened to fall asleep on railway tracks outside place like Kenora and The Pas most every Friday night didn't just happen that way.

And now Canada is experiencing nationwide civil rights demonstrations by the Idle No More movement.

Could it be, as Malcolm X once said, "The chickens have come home to roost?"

Is the question of civil rights in Canada simply late coming to the table? Do we need to go through the same thing the U.S. did so many years ago?

According to Idle No More, we do. Fortunately, they seem to want to follow in the footsteps of Dr. King with peaceful, non-violent demonstrations. Canadians who find their way home from work slowed for half an hour by a round dance have been wise to welcome that approach.

There are some who would say there is little difference between the disappearance of 600 aboriginal women nowadays with the disappearance of many black men and women down south in the past. And while First Nations people are now more likely to end up on railway tracks in a deliberately planned protest, there are also those young men who were taken on "starlight tours" by police in Saskatchewan to consider. And too many aboriginal people dying during what were supposed to be overnight stays in our jails.

The worst thing connecting Canada with the American experience can be found in the words we hear spoken too often and in too many places today, words we never thought we would ever hear a Canadian say.

I recall how smug Canadians were when we heard racist comments spewed by southern rednecks that were always punctuated with the N-word. But more and more, we are being exposed to mean-spirited venom from Canadians on Internet sites throughout Canada.

Have we gone backwards here? I certainly hope not.

But it is something to keep in mind as Americans celebrate the birth of a civil rights leader and his movement while we grapple with human rights issues on our streets.


Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2013 A11

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