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Keep expectations high for antiracism consultations

This article first appeared April 10, 2018 in Policy Options.

The Liberal government shouldn’t bend to critics of its antiracism consultations, but it should also know racialized Canadians expect meaningful change.

The federal government is about to embark on nationwide antiracism consultations. The initiative is not without its naysayers. The announcement of the $23-million plan in the 2018 budget has been critiqued by prominent Conservative MP Maxime Bernier and media pundits. Warnings to the government to “be careful” and to “keep a low profile” have cast a shadow over the process before it has even begun. If the Liberals intend to follow through on their statement of “standing up for diversity” and “building communities where everyone feels included,” backing down from the consultations and giving in to mainstream media and the right is not an option. Rather, their goal should be to ensure that the time of racialized Canadians and Indigenous people isn’t wasted by this process and that these consultations result in much-needed policy changes.

The consultations, part of a $214-million set of antiracism initiatives outlined in the budget, are meant to boost the existing efforts of the federal multiculturalism program by engaging with experts, stakeholders, community members and interfaith leaders on how to combat discrimination and “find new ways to collaborate.” But for many Canadians, antiracism consultations are neither a new nor a bold idea

Similar consultations have already occurred nationwide and in various provinces, producing myriad reports and recommendations. Ontario, for example, announced a three-year antiracism plan and the reopening of an antiracism directorate. In Quebec, consultations on systemic racismare under way, amid heat from the opposition. Two years ago, the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry began examining the history of systemic and anti-Black racism in the province; it has already issued a preliminary report on its findings. Furthermore, a six-year study by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission outlined 94 calls to action in order to redress the harms caused by residential schools. The Liberals’ upcoming consultations are not groundbreaking, but they do cover jurisdictions where other provinces and municipalities have fallen short on naming and addressing systemic racism.

Addressing systemic racism is necessary. Indigenous people and African Canadians have experienced centuries of both colonial and racist practices. Canada’s history is marked, for instance, by government-sanctioned racist laws and policies, such as the residential school system. The legacy of injustice in Canadian laws and policies is clear today: the Indian Act is still in full effect, 142 years later. Black and racialized communities continue to be violently overpoliced, and there has been a failure to introduce measures of justice and equity in our education and immigration systems.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission defines systemic racism as “patterns of behaviour, policies or practices that are part of the structures of an organization, and which create or perpetuate disadvantage for racialized persons.” Many policies and laws are racially neutral on their face but create or perpetuate harms, barriers and/or obstacles for certain racialized groups. In the absence of a guiding definition for the new round of federal consultations, a dialogue on systemic racism may default to a study of individual experiences with racism and not pose the right questions about the institutions and systems that require change.

Furthermore, the consultations should also ensure that a broad cross-section of people are convened, including those who have limited access to political power. The federal government must start its consultations by grounding them in existing research. Instead of replicating work that has already been done, it should use this opportunity to disrupt the national dialogue in a way that addresses the regional aspects of systemic racism as well our national shared experiences.

The plan to undertake these consultations deserves and requires scrutiny, but not because it may be designed to search for a racism that doesn’t exist (a possibility suggested by Globe and Mail Ottawa bureau chief Robert Fife during a CPAC interview). We should be scrutinizing the consultations to make sure that meaningful outcomes are actually achieved. We should expect to see, just to name a few examples, a ban on police carding on the federal level; targeted funding to fight Islamophobia and other forms of hate; tougher sentences for hate crimes; increased investments in housing, health and social programs; an accelerated plan for safe drinking water on all reserves; and stronger independent police oversight bodies for the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency.

The timing of these consultations is also significant. With a federal election coming in 2019, a tour to study systemic racism could be used as a ploy to engage and garner support from racialized and Indigenous communities, with no intention on acting on the information shared. The Liberals are lucky that much of the research has already been done, but that means we must set high expectations for policy changes following the consultations. If real change does not result, the time spent in consultations will be wasted and another opportunity will be missed.