The Year in Review: Institutions slow to adapt in response to demands for racial justice
(Warning: This article is far longer than what normally appears on media websites.)
The B.C. premier’s words were heard around the province during the only pre-election televised leaders debate.
After being asked to reflect upon how he, as a white political leader, personally reckoned with privilege and unconscious bias against people who are Black, Indigenous, and from other racial backgrounds, John Horgan replied with a tale from his youth.
He looked back to when he played lacrosse with people of Indigenous and South Asian ancestry.
“For me, I did not see colour,” Horgan declared. “I thought everyone around me was the same.”
It was a tone-deaf answer that neglected to acknowledge the pain that racialized British Columbians have endured for decades.
June Francis, cochair of the Hogan’s Alley Society board of directors, told CBC News that Horgan’s response indicated that “he can walk through the world and never confront racism”.
After the debate ended, Horgan took immediate steps to address the gaffe by apologizing and conceding that he never fully understood the lived reality of systemic racism.
One of Horgan’s chief lieutenants to racialized British Columbians, Ravi Kahlon, immediately tweeted a message of support for his boss’s record on race relations. After all, Horgan had reinstated the B.C. Human Rights Commission.
Following the election, Horgan appointed another racialized MLA, Rachna Singh, as the parliamentary secretary for antiracism initiatives. And the media moved on to other issues.
But the perception persists in some quarters that Horgan still doesn’t fully comprehend systemic racism.
For example, when the cabinet was appointed, a Muslim friend sent me a message declaring that Horgan still didn’t see colour.
This came after only two caucus members of South Asian ancestry, Harry Bains and Kahlon; one caucus member of East Asian ancestry, Anne Kang; and one Indigenous MLA, Melanie Mark, were given cabinet positions with their own deputy ministers.
Three of the four junior ministers of state were MLAs of colour, compared with just one white minister of state—and as ministers of state, they do not have their own deputy ministers.
Meanwhile, members of Vancouver’s Filipinx community were in an uproar over veteran MLA Mable Elmore’s exclusion from cabinet. She’s the only person ever elected to the B.C. legislature with a parent born in the Philippines.
A more troubling picture emerged after Straight contributor Martyn Brown examined the composition of all-important cabinet committees and the roster of deputy ministers. Only seven ministers—all white—were on four or more cabinet committees.
In addition, the Deputy Ministers’ Council of British Columbia showed a stunning lack of diversity.
“Not exactly an A-effort in reducing the institutionalized discrimination that has mostly prevented persons of colour from being fairly promoted within B.C.’s civil service,” Brown noted.
Even though MLAs elected a peer with lived experience of discrimination as the legislature speaker, Raj Chouhan, those wielding real power to affect the day-to-day lives of British Columbians were recruited, for the most part, from the white world.
City ignored Black leaders' call to cancel meeting
This was the year that many young people mobilized to fight discrimination.
In the wake of the police killing of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis, racialized Canadians and their white allies came out in the streets in huge numbers, despite a pandemic, to drive home their demands for equality.
Vancouver witnessed its first Juneteenth Freedom March, celebrating the end of official slavery in the United States. It was organized by Black-justice activists Nova Stevens and Shamika Mitchell.
The Black Lives Matter movement forced leaders and staff at organizations across society to reexamine their own privileges, unconscious biases, and racism. Yet our institutions have been slow to adapt.
This was demonstrated when the City of Vancouver ignored a demand from Black leaders to abandon a planned town-hall meeting about racism.
“It is time for white people in power to take up the work necessary to address anti-Black racism instead of constantly demanding that we perform our trauma for your education,” their letter stated. “In light of hundreds of years of consultation, we do not feel a Town Hall is appropriate or necessary.”
Sure enough, social-media channels at the town-hall meeting were filled with racist comments, leading to a subsequent apology from the city.
How does institutional bias play out on the ground?
Here’s one example. Municipal elections continue to be held on an at-large basis, which privileges those with anglicized names.
This ensures that the dominant culture continues to have a better chance of being elected municipally, because candidates are chosen on a citywide basis.
And being a local politician is sometimes a helpful stepping stone to being elected to provincial or federal office.
Because people with nonanglicized names are so rarely elected to municipal councils—and particularly those not of Chinese ancestry—they rely on the goodwill of provincial parties to nominate them as candidates for the legislature.
They often need a hand up from white people to enter a very privileged club.
In Vancouver, for instance, 10 of the 11 members of city council are white. The 11th, Pete Fry, has a name that could be construed as being from the dominant culture.
That helped him avoid discrimination from voters that has been demonstrably meted out in the past to candidates with surnames like Dhaliwal, Sidhu, and Purewal. Their vote totals fell short of others with anglicized names on their slates, leading to defeat as their white colleagues in their parties were elected.
The park board is also full of white faces. The only elected civic body that comes close to resembling the demographic reality of Vancouver is the school board.
Is the cabal of white power brokers in the B.C. and City of Vancouver governments conscious of the pain that this institutionalized discrimination has created—or its consequences?
Will they be willing to invest the political capital necessary to create a truly level playing field for municipal candidates with nonanglicized names? Not likely, which will make people from minority communities less likely to put their names forward.
That’s what institutionalized racism looks like in our town.
Police chief irritated racial-justice advocates
But it’s not just in politics where colour blindness was on display in 2020.
Vancouver police Chief Adam Palmer brazenly declared to the Vancouver Sun that there was no systemic discrimination in Canadian policing. He went so far as to say it was “offensive” to even suggest that.
That drew guffaws from some and outrage from others.
After all, this is the same department that came under fire in B.C. Human Rights Tribunal rulings filed by Indigenous and transgender people who alleged they were on the receiving end of police discrimination.
What makes Palmer’s statement a real howler, however, is that this year his officers handcuffed an Indigenous man and his 12-year-old Indigenous granddaughter and put them in the back of a squad car.
This came after they showed their status cards as identification at a BMO branch in downtown Vancouver.
Here’s what Mayor Kennedy Stewart said: “I am sad for the long-term impacts this may have on the child, her family, and the broader community. BMO needs to do right by this family, take full responsibility for their actions, and ensure this does not happen again.”
There was not a word of criticism for the cops, even though Stewart chairs the Vancouver police board.
A month earlier, a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruling had found that police were “not trained to understand or recognize problematic features of the relationship between police and Indigenous people, or their role in that”.
Then there’s the judiciary. In a recent tweet, immigration lawyer Veronica Cheng highlighted the lack of diversity on the bench of the B.C. Supreme Court. It featured a smorgasbord of anglicized surnames.
We can move onto academia. Recently, the University of British Columbia cancelled a search for a new faculty of education dean. This came after a petition objected to the search committee eliminating a department head of African ancestry from the shortlist. People were outraged.
Over at Simon Fraser University, scores of faculty, students, and alumni signed a petition objecting to the violent arrest of a Black alumni member on campus.
Are local governments doing enough?
Earlier this year, I interviewed Ginger Gosnell-Myers, an Indigenous specialist in decolonization and urban Indigenous planning at SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.
A member of the Nisga’a and Kwakwaka’wakw nations, Gosnell-Myers spoke bluntly about how the City of Vancouver and Vancouver park board have lost good Indigenous staff.
Perhaps even more troubling, Gosnell-Myers said that Vancouver is not exerting nearly as much effort to Indigenize the city as has occurred in the past.
“A lot of people who should be engaged at the municipal level aren’t because those doors are being slammed,” she said. “I look at Vancouver today and I don’t see a lot of doors open.”
She also didn’t see a lot of interest in this area with the governments of the District of North Vancouver and City of North Vancouver, notwithstanding their existence on the traditional territories of the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations.
In contrast, Gosnell-Myers said that much more was being done at the local level in Burnaby and New Westminster.
Another one of society’s institutions, the media, is sometimes reluctant to draw attention to systemic racism for a bunch of reasons. First of all, it’s a hard story to tell if there isn’t a report to rely upon.
Secondly, it’s difficult to tell if a person is racialized simply from their surname or their photograph.
Thirdly, journalists of colour sometimes engage in self-censorship when it comes to highlighting issues of this nature because it may affect how they’re perceived by news directors and assignment editors.
Fourthly, the vast majority of journalists at mainstream Canadian media outlets were born in Canada, attended Canadian journalism schools, and don’t have direct experience immigrating to this country.
Some may have seen their parents discriminated against because their foreign credentials weren’t recognized. But if these journalists are over the age of 40, they likely didn’t hear much about the residential-school system when they attended schools in Canada.
Just because Canadian-born reporters (or police officers or judges or anyone else) may come from minority communities doesn’t mean that they, too, haven’t absorbed biases that have washed over us repeatedly through the media, school system, and popular culture.
And, fifthly, individuals who rise to high positions in the bureaucracy or political world are often quite capable people. So to single any of them out for rising due to their privilege can smack of mean-spiritedness even when institutional racism is so pervasive.
But in 2020, we have to move beyond that if we want to build a truly inclusive society. We have to admit that we’re all capable of committing racist acts even on those occasions when we may not feel racism in our hearts.
A tale of two public-health officers
Earlier this year on Straight.com, communications consultant Paromita Naidu wrote a thought-provoking column about the different popular and media responses to two women essentially doing the same job: Canadian chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam and B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
One is of Chinese ancestry; the other is white.
After Henry was given glowing reviews and honoured in song and fashion, Naidu wondered why there hasn’t been a similar collective celebration of Tam.
Naidu pointed out that Tam also received a far rougher ride in the media and over social media, including for her speaking style.
“Why are we rewarding and recognizing one and not the other?” Naidu asked. “Why are we more forgiving toward one and not the other? Why is one more harshly criticized than the other? Why is appearance, voice, and delivery judged at all? And is any of this tied to the anti-Asian vitriol deeply entangled within this pandemic?”
She wondered what impact this would have on her 17-year-old daughter.
Now let’s move to the U.S. election. It offends many that Donald Trump—who urged NFL owners to fire Black athletes who took a knee to protest police racism—could attract 74 million votes.
The vast majority of those votes came from white people who didn’t see Trump’s racism as a deal-breaker in the voting booth.
Were it not for the turnout of Black people and people of Latin American ancestry, Trump would be enjoying his next swearing-in ceremony on January 20.
Then there’s the term BIPOC, which has become a catch-all for including Black and Indigenous people and people of colour together. Not everyone likes it.
Equity consultant Kike Ojo-Thompson recently told Chatelaine magazine that “using the acronym BIPOC suggests an interchangeability in being Black or a person of colour (i.e. South Asian Korean, Chinese, etc.). There is no interchangeability.”
Black people and Indigenous people are incarcerated at far higher rates than people of Asian ancestry. They were also far more likely to be stopped by the police in random street checks in Vancouver until the VPD halted this practice in January. (This remains a hot issue in New Westminster.)
Instead, Ojo-Thompson prefers the term “racialized” because it describes what’s happening to people who aren’t white.
“BIPOC is passive,” she said. “It’s missing the piece that articulates a process of racialization.”
White privilege in journalism
If you’ve gotten this far in this essay, I’m going to share something about myself to demonstrate that I have been the beneficiary of white privilege.
First off, I walked into a postsecondary journalism program, whereas a friend—a person of colour—was rejected for what I now suspect could have been linked to cultural or racial bias. There was only one person of colour in the entire program when I attended. He had an anglicized name, unlike my friend.
My first media job came when a white friend from school recommended me to another white employer. I didn’t have to compete for this job, let alone formally apply.
My second media job came when a white assignment editor invited me to work for his organization. That time, I went through a fairly rigorous interview but I don’t think anyone else was considered for the position.
My third media job came when a white employer from a previous job reached out and hired me. There was no competition and no application process.
My fourth media job came about in the same way—I was called up by a white manager, someone I knew from school, and asked if I wanted a job.
The same thing happened with my fifth media job. Someone I knew phoned me out of the blue.
And I received a college teaching job because a white colleague in the media recommended me many years ago. As far as I know, there was no competition for that position either.
So there you have it: six jobs, all handed to me on a platter, and only once did I have to make a case for why I was the best candidate. In each of those positions, I learned a great deal, enabling me to advance to the next level.
As a result, I’ve been able to pay my bills through life, keep a clean credit record, and craft a self-image of being a “responsible” citizen.
I suspect that there are very few people of colour, Black people, or Indigenous people in Vancouver who have been so fortunate as to have six desirable jobs given to them in this way.
This lucky walk through life has taught me about the need to raise awareness of institutional racism to the broader public.
In a similar manner, elected officials who have benefited from white privilege should think about leveraging their advantages to level the playing field in ways that are within their reach.
One day, our history of systemic discrimination could conceivably lead me and people like me to be obliged to pay reparations for our white privilege, depending on how the political winds blow in the future. We shouldn’t be scared of this.
We should simply consider this the price of living in an unequal society in which too many people—for far too long—have chosen to be colour-blind.