Turn Down Your Collar and Look. Is it Red? Stamping out Racism in Canada

From Jim's Blog Changing Winds

I’ve always taken pride in how my four “kids” have embraced racial diversity (they’re now between 20 and 30, three daughters and a son). We moved to Ottawa, the country’s capital, in 2000. I remember well the friends my middle daughter and son used to bring home when they were in high school. One night I recall a United Nations in our home. One of their friends was on the phone speaking to his mother in Arabic, another friend was from Somalia (his mother was part of the refugees who came to Canada in the early nineties) and several other friends were of East Asian descent. It was pretty cool. Great kids.

Canada has what I’ll call an undeserved reputation for racial tolerance. Sure, we like being perceived as the world’s Boy Scouts, do-gooders who wag the finger at America for its deep-seated racial problems and at France, the UK and a variety of European countries which are facing escalating tensions among various racial and ethnic groups.

A recent incident drove home again the thin veneer of racial acceptance that is present in Canada. My youngest daughter is a college student in Kingston, Ontario, home of the renowned Queen’s University and St. Lawrence College. Last week on a Friday night she was returning home with several friends. Another group of young males and females approached who were acquaintances, so Liz (my daughter) said hi.

A moment later, a White male in his twenties came out of his house across from them and yelled “Hey Nigger!” at a young Black fellow in the other group. The Black fellow replied “That’s not cool, man” and tried to ignore the taunt. A few seconds later a fight started, with the Black male being kicked while on the ground by the person who threw the epithet. When Liz saw that no one was going to stop the assault, she stepped in to try to pull off the assailant. For her efforts she got punched in the head twice by one of the female friends of the White male, while another female friend of my daughter got punched in the face.

Liz did the smart thing by retreating and calling 911. After she gave her information to the police when they arrived, both Liz and her friend went to the hospital, fearing that the one who had been punched in the face had a broken nose. Fortunately that wasn’t the case, though Liz was told she had a mild concussion.

Liz, whose goal is to become a police officer, got a quick lesson in the types of problems that police deal with and how quickly violence can start. And by the way, a big thanks to the Kingston Police for its professionalism and quick response that night.

When it comes to hurling racial epithets, Canadians’ reflex is to duck and pretend that racism doesn’t exist in Canada. That’s the burden that Americans must carry, is the popular stereotype north of the border.

I recall a visit to my inlaws a few summers ago. They live in Saint John, New Brunswick, an industrial city of some 100,000 on the Bay of Fundy. I like Saint John and its people, but you don’t have to turn down a collar very far to find a lot of red neck among segments of the city’s population.

The University of Brunswick (one of my alma maters) has a satellite campus in Saint John, and it’s a wonderful campus. Indeed, its International MBA program is well regarded. The campus has worked hard at attracting international students, with many coming from China and Taiwan. During my visit that summer, Asian students were incurring a lot of racism. It wasn’t enough that red-neck Saint Johners drove past these students insulting them, they also had to throw tomatoes at them. I felt pretty disgusted with this, considering I lived in New Brunswick for 27 years before moving to Ottawa. Here’s a province of a mere 750,000 people that wants to attract immigrants to foster economic growth. Dream on.

I remember a revolting incident shortly after I moved from Fredericton, New Brunswick, to Ottawa. A male university student from the state of Oregan, and who happened to be gay, was savagely beaten for his sexual preferences. And Canadians are tolerant? Don’t tell me these are isolated incidences because they are not. They happen every day.

Very recently I was doing some volunteer work at a music festival, which involved driving musicians around. At one point, while driving a couple of musicians from New England to their destination, I cursed because of the heavy traffic and street construction (I never said I was an angel). One of the guys laughed and said to me: “I didn’t know that Canadians swore.” My reply was: “We put on a good act in Canada,” at which point both fellows broke out laughing. Sad but true.

My point in sharing these anecdotes is to stress the need for we Canadians to align our Espoused Theory with our Theory in Use. Drawn from Harvard psychologist Chris Argyris, what I’m talking about is that if a citizenry wishes to be taken seriously and respected internationally, then it must align its words with its actions.

I despise hypocrisy and the accompanying baggage. For Canadians to vicariously beat up on Americans, or other nationalities, because it feels good, somehow muting their own sins and inconsistencies, puts one in the camp of those who we should really condemn.

Racism has NO place in any civilized society. True leadership is about not just espousing a set of values, which is very easy to do; what’s much more challenging is to practice them day in, day out, whether you work for a corporation, government agency, non-profit organization, or in the world of politics.

Finally, today is Canada’s 143rd birthday. Canada has come a long way since Confederation in 1867. However, when it comes to how people of various races and ethnic groups are treated, the country can do better–MUCH better.

Never spend time with people who don’t respect you. (Maori proverb)

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