July 8, 2020

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'Systemic' at heart of racism debate

Opinion

Are we still debating whether the word "systemic" should almost always precede the word "racism?"

Last week, at the urging of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, all of Canada's provincial and territorial leaders were asked to sign a joint declaration condemning racism. It was a worthy gesture at a time when many Canadians of different backgrounds are united to ask for real change.

However, some of the first ministers would not agree on including the term "systemic racism," so it was left out.

Last week, at the urging of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, all of Canada's provincial and territorial leaders were asked to sign a joint declaration condemning racism.

ADRIAN WYLD / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Last week, at the urging of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, all of Canada's provincial and territorial leaders were asked to sign a joint declaration condemning racism.

Identified as one of the dissident first ministers, Quebec Premier François Legault said he does not believe "in the existence of systemic racism in Quebec. Yes, racism exists in Quebec, as in any other society, but it is not true that Quebec has put in place, consciously or not, a system to exclude and discriminate against people."

Legault was joined by Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, who explained the declaration did not need to use the word "systemic" because it was implied. "The statement declares that 'First Ministers condemn all forms of racism', including systemic racism," Pallister said via email statement.

That's a poor example of logic by Legault, and a pretty shameless dodge from Pallister. But it does graphically demonstrate how far we are from confronting racism in a meaningful and effective way.

Why should so much importance be attributed to a single word?

The concept of "institutional racism" was first expressed by Black leaders Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in their 1967 book, Black Power: the Politics of Liberation. The authors argued there needed to be a distinct recognition of "less overt, far more subtle" forms of racism that were present "in the operation of established and respected forces in the society."

Over his long career, Murray Sinclair has maintained attention must be paid to both racists and systemic racism in order to make progress.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Over his long career, Murray Sinclair has maintained attention must be paid to both racists and systemic racism in order to make progress.

Over the decades since the idea was first cast, social science has proven systemic racism is hardly theoretical. People of colour in countries around the world are regularly subjected to race-based bias in everything from health care to financial services, education, employment, incomes and housing. The data is abundant and incontrovertible.

In the face of all this evidence, the mostly white people who dominate the "established and respected forces in society" have tried to suggest — as Legault did in his comments — systemic racism means a system where everyone in it is racist. In making that argument, Legault is trying to portray the idea of systemic racism in indemonstrable terms.

However, that's not really what it means.

Sen. Murray Sinclair, who has investigated and exposed systemic racism against Indigenous people, is, not surprisingly, a voice of clarity on this issue. Over his long career, Sinclair has maintained attention must be paid to both racists and systemic racism in order to make progress.

Quebec Premier François Legault said he does not believe "in the existence of systemic racism in Quebec."

PAUL CHIASSON / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Quebec Premier François Legault said he does not believe "in the existence of systemic racism in Quebec."

In his 2018 inquiry into the Thunder Bay Police Service, Sinclair concluded "systemic racism exists in the TBPS at an institutional level." In an interview with the Globe and Mail about the inquiry, Sinclair said it is ultimately pointless to acknowledge racism without also dealing with its systemic constructs.

"I explained to them that it’s the system itself that is founded upon beliefs and attitudes and policies that virtually force even the non-racist person to behave in a racist way. If you get rid of all the racists in every police force, you’ll still have a systemic racism problem."

That is a simple but important point Legault and Pallister — reportedly along with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney — just don't seem to be able to absorb.

The response from Pallister on the joint declaration is disappointing but hardly surprising. Throughout his career, he has faithfully clung to the language and policies of the status quo when it comes to issues of race, despite pleadings to the contrary.

Whenever he gets into trouble on issues of race, Pallister cites efforts while a federal MP to enshrine property rights to First Nation women involved in matrimonial disputes. And while that position was noble, it does not mitigate his other missteps on race and racism.

Premier Brian Pallister explained the declaration did not need to use the word "systemic" because it was implied.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Premier Brian Pallister explained the declaration did not need to use the word "systemic" because it was implied.

In response to a question at a news conference in early June about ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, Pallister uttered the phrase "All lives matter." Later, Pallister tried to clarify his statement, claiming he did not know that term had become a dog whistle for anti-BLM forces, some of them with a decidedly racist perspective.

Did the Manitoba premier know what he was saying? In the end, it doesn't really matter. As Pallister demonstrated, we have far too many people arguing while they might have said something racist, they aren't racists. Or they oppose racism, but deny the existence of systemic racism.

One of the antidotes to the persistent inequality and discrimination that afflicts our world must be accountability. We need political leaders who can own their words and actions. Leaders who can admit to a problem, then outline specific ways in which we can make things better.

Offering to address a problem while denying one of the major ways it exists is one of the last refuges of cowards. It's a pathetic attempt by political leaders to done the robes of progressives while performing the quiet work of an agent of the status quo.

Let's call things by their proper names — both the problem and the people who stand in the way of the solution.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

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Updated on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 at 7:55 AM CDT: Fixes typos

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