I am a white male Canadian. I was raised in a white European home. My ancestry is from the UK and Europe. I grew up believing that racism existed in places like the American South, but not in Canada — and I knew that I was not a racist. While I didn’t have a lot of friends who were people of color, I never considered myself to be a racist. I had no problem judging people who aligned themselves with the KKK and other white Aryan groups. I was not like them.
A few years ago my church decided to do a series on racial reconciliation. I thought I would hear stories from people of color about how they had survived prejudice and discrimination in places like the American South, South Africa, possibly Nazi Germany, but I would not have to worry about hearing stories from Canada, or even closer to home, my own community.
The leaders of my church decided to educate the white people in the congregation (mostly everyone) on racism and what it means to be a “white supremacist”. This came as quite a shock to someone like me because the thought that I might have beliefs or values that could be considered white supremacist was simply ridiculous. As a child, I cried when Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. I cheered when Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States. The idea that I was a white supremacist was — well — nuts.
Well, not really nuts. People who identify with the KKK and white Aryan groups are definitely racists and white supremacists, but there is another understanding that is also quite valid. White supremacy can also be culturally driven. I did not grow up with the consciousness that white people were superior to people of color, but it was reflected in the literature that I read, the movies I watched, the TV that I followed, to some extent the music I listened to, and what I considered to be normal. It was the idea that the white race was the “savior” race, that my race, white Europeans, rescued people in far flung regions of the world such as Africa, the South Pacific, and other areas that were developing from their “native” cultures. I was still blissfully unaware that I could possibly believe in a superior white race.
For much of the series, I clung to the naive belief that Canada treated people of color better than most places on earth. I desperately wanted to believe that we were better than the Americans, better than white South Africans for sure, and better than the Nazis in Germany. It was so important to me to believe that my country, a country that had recently adopted a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a new constitution, treated immigrants and people of color with dignity and respect.
Prior to the series, I had never heard the term “residential school”. If someone had asked me what I thought a residential school was, I would have told them that it was very likely a place where students could live and go to school much like a boarding school. Once again, I was so naive. In fact, residential schools were started in the early 19th century in Canada by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. While they may have had many purposes, one of the main reasons they were started was to deal with the “Indigenous problem” of that era. Essentially, an employees from residential schools would patrol neighborhoods looking for Indigenous children. Often, they were kidnapped, then transported hundreds of kilometers away from their communities. Separated from family and friends, the schools would force them to wear white European fashions, learn French and English, and would be schooled in their version of Christianity. In essence, the objective was to obliterate the Indigenous culture from these children, and eventually, eliminate it from the Canadian cultural landscape. I am sure there may be two sides to this story, as there may be with any story, but in this case, it would be incredibly difficult to put a positive spin on this dark blot on Canadian history. It wasn’t just the eradication of Indigenous culture that was most egregious. Often the children, both boys and girls, were sexually abused, and sometimes killed. Similar to the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s, the children were sometimes buried in ditches, then covered up with dirt. They were not even given the dignity of an unmarked grave, let alone a proper funeral.
If residential schools happened in the distant past in Canadian history, we could possibly shrug and write it off to ignorance on the part of our ancestors, but the last residential school in Canada did not close until 1996, which brings it forward into the 20th century and the modern era. For me, I will never again be able to look at the racial violence and intolerance of another country with the arrogant belief that, as a Canadian, my country is a cut above “that country” or “those people”.
One final thought. During this series, some of my friends at church, people of color, told me personal stories about being “shadowed” in stores, or the police pulling them over for no reason, or the police “carding” them and not their white friends. One of the ministers, a man of color, asked me to imagine how it must have felt when he, as a small boy, looked up the word “black” only to find that it meant “sinister”, “evil”, “dark”, “corrupt”, and other synonyms. He then looked at his skin, and thought that was what he must be. I never thought about things like that, but now that my education, or sensitivity training has begun, I now look at the world much differently.
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