To get to the “Good Stuff” I would skip ahead and read a little further down. – Alim

On February 16, I was present at a well attended event hosted by the McGill Debate Union, McGill Black Students’ Network, Women of Colour Collective at McGill Law School, Media @ McGill, and McGill Department of History entitled Discourses of Race: The United States, Canada, and Transnational Anti-Blackness. The event was paneled by Dr. Charmaine Nelson (McGill) and Dr. Darryl Leroux (St. Mary’s) with the final addition of journalist Frank Mackey as a replacement for Ta-Nehisi Coates who was unfortunately unable to join the panel due to a family emergency. I’d like to divide my thoughts on this session in two parts, the first dealing with my general impressions of the session and the second dealing with ideas that germinated stemming from this conversation.

To begin with, the session tried to bring to light issues of race in Canada, with the argument that race is not often spoken about within discourses on social issues in the country. The argument that was made was that the term race is almost “dirty”, or one that is not appropriate when discussing issues in Canada. The panelists, especially Dr. Nelson, made a point to remind those in the audience that Canada, contrary to general belief and what’s taught in schools was complacent in the slave trade and in the oppression of blacks for long periods of its history. While Canada has established a narrative as the savior of franchised blacks and escaped slaves, the truth is far more complex. Dr. Nelson also pointed out that our records and archives point to this fact in Canadian history but that few have tapped into this evidence to retell the stories of the early black experience in Canada

Dr. Leroux presented a rather dry reading of a written statement divided in three parts. To be honest, the monotony of his elocution made it hard to follow. Had he posted his article beforehand or been willing to engage more deeply in the actual conversation before the panel, then his points might have been easier to comprehend but his desire to speak extempore was non-existent. However, he did speak about the slave trade between France, New France, and St. Dominique (present day Haiti) and Canada’s complacency in this process. He did bring up rather contentious points around the role of language in this process but when an interesting question about a recent incident of blackface in Quebec emerged, first answered by Dr. Nelson before Dr. Leroux was asked to jump in, he veered the discussion in an unfortunate longwinded discussion of St. Dominique in an attempt to respond to this question.

Mr. Mackey brought in a very important role as a non-academic and as someone with a lot of on-the-ground experience on matters of race. His many years in journalism and the criticality that comes with his profession actually made for a great last minute addition to the overall discussion. The panelists were joined by Rachel Zellars as moderator who shared an impassioned introduction and opened the discussions with a well developed and thought provoking speech that started the session with great momentum.

Overall, the session was good but perhaps not great. The level of engagement between the panelists could have been better (perhaps through facilitation or if the panelists had met in advance, assuming they hadn’t) but the ideas that each panelist brought was meaningful and added to my awareness of the topic. I’m not sure if I could categorically assert that the panelists addressed the session title fully as the comparison between the US and Canadian experience was not greatly nuanced. The session was also rather dry mostly due to Dr. Laroux reliance on prepared statements that didn’t allow for an organic conversation and exchange to take place. I still think that the session left people in attendance with great points of contemplation as they certainly stirred deep thoughts that I shared with a colleague as we walked back home in the frigid, unbearable, brutal cold of that evening.

(Where the “Good Stuff” begins)

I started thinking about the notion of race and “blackhood” as it is distinguished in Canada and the US. Interestingly, when talking about race, ideas of language and the distinct experience of Quebec grounded the panelists dialogue. Specifically, the thesis that was presented by one of the panelists (which one, I can’t clearly remember) and reiterated by others was that because of the Frano-Quebecois experience as people who have historically seen themselves as subjugated (an interesting and complex idea), there is, they argue, a sentiment that they themselves could not oppress others as they themselves are victims of oppression. It was a rather interesting if not problematic thesis, one that perhaps needs to be further thought about. It also means a deeper understanding of the unique history of Quebec as a society is necessary. The example that was brought up was the recent issue at the Rideau Vert, a theatre company in Montreal, painting one of its actors in blackface to represent the incomparable P.K. Subban, the Montreal Canadians star defenseman, and the significant response by the theatre director that she felt that she was being attacked and insulted for the insinuations that what her theatre company had done was racist (I don’t think there is a possible counterargument to the claim of racism on the part of the Rideau Vert; what the theatre company did was completely unacceptable).

I did have some other thoughts that emerged from this discussion. Mainly, I was thinking of the idea of race as it’s understood across borders. While the title of the session would have led one to believe that comparative discussions between Canadian and American experiences of race would be at the forefront of the discussion, this wasn’t truly the case. There certainly were discussions about the interlinked histories of the two countries but the ways in which distinct notions of race are treated within each country was not really debated. However, in this gap emerged a deeper fascination with this concept. As I walked home I was ruminating about what these differences look like across our two countries. I think that the idea of race in Canada isn’t necessarily swept under the rug per se, but it is subsumed within other typically Canadian notions within which race can fall under. The idea of race and especially blackhood as it is understood in the US I would argue exists in a standalone category of cultural and social experiences. From a sociological perspective, the black experience is unique within the American social/cultural fabric hence the expression of this through “Black culture,” “Black history,” “Black movements,” etc. So the idea or experience of being black is separate from the experiences of other ethno-cultural communities (i.e. the Black experience is different form the Latino experience, the European experience, the Asian experience etc). This doesn’t seem to be the case in Canada.

In Canada, the black experience, I would argue, is subsumed within a larger discourse of multiculturalism so that blackhood is not a standalone phenomenon as it is in the US but is part of the larger ethno-cultural experience of visible minorities. This is an important distinction and I found it interesting that this point wasn’t one that was raised by others in attendance at the panel. I believe that the Canadian context doesn’t differentiate or delineate these cultural experiences for an important reason. While definitely problematic, I believe that the reason that this experience and history isn’t validated as uniquely different is because in trying to create a cohesive country through multicultural policy, the negative experience of cultural communities within Canada has to be largely whitewashed. Take for example the Chinese head tax, aboriginal residential schools, our treatment of indigenous Northern communities, the Komagata Maru, the treatment of early European settlers (e.g. the Irish and Italian communities) and you have a slew of racial issues in Canada that does not manifest itself in the cultural and political awareness of Canada’s history. The truth is that these issues are not really part of the Canadian zeitgeist nor are they necessarily addressed in depth within Provincial school curriculums across the country. Residents of British Columbia might learn about the Komagata Maru as it has direct links to the Sikh community of BC, but would students in Quebec know about this event?

I would argue that Canada, in trying to create a sense of national identity, one that is predicated on the rhetoric of multiculturalism and inclusiveness, has effectively removed from its political and social discourses issues around race. When the panelists asked the question why doesn’t the word race come up in academic and lay discourse, I would answer that this is very much based on the desire to rebrand ourselves in the post-Pearson era as an inclusive country. That Canada is an inclusive, pluralistic, and tolerant country sparks of truth in my opinion as a first-generation Canadian, but I think the suggestion that Canada is so inclusive and multicultural can only be made about contemporary Canada. Canada’s history is far more complex and nuanced than we’d like to think – or perhaps even admit.

Edit: I came across this interested series on BBC News called “Black in Canada: 10 stories” which I thought was pertinent to the above discussion. Take a look and let me know what your thougths are. 

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Alim Fakirani