New Issues of Race

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Canadian Identity/Allan Smith

If demographic change, ideological consolidation, and a good deal of persistent lobbying had done much to enlarge the significance accorded the multicultural idea after World War II, a no less potent mix of elements in the same period – revulsion against naziism, a new, relativist anthropology, and the dissolution of the European empires – worked to transform the concept of race in ways that fundamentally altered the shape of Canadian pluralism and diversity. In some societies, it must immediately be said, the new view seemed simply to reinvent white hegemony. Liberal, individualist polities were especially likely to be implicated in this process. In them the overthrow of racist conceptions of colour and its meaning took the form of a categorial denial that colour had any meaning at all, the practical effect of which was to diminish the significance of what was often a principal attribute of visible-minority identity, to define members of visible-minority groups as individuals like any others, and to encourage them to move towards acceptance of the values of the dominant majority.

The efforts of the civil-rights movement in the United States to make race “disappear” as a factor affecting the citizen’s position certainly had these results. Minimizing the importance of that citizen’s sub-group affiliations, leaving his or her relationship to the social whole unmediated, and positing “integration” as the hoped-for outcome, those efforts in fact promoted a movement towards the values and norms of the larger society in the clearest and most explicit of ways. In Canada, less “liberal” but initially animated by an American-like understanding of how racism was to be remedied, several initiatives of a broadly similar sort were undertaken in the twenty-five years following World War II. The Canadian majority first moved to extend the franchise to Asian Canadians, then acted to dismantle racial barriers to immigration, and finally proposed the assimilation of aboriginal peoples in a white paper of 1969. It thus showed very clearly that it too could act on the assumption that the proper recognition of members of racially distinct groups consisted in looking past colour, seeing the individuals behind it, and securing to them the rights to which they were entitled.

Yet, as this American and Canadian action was unfolding, theorists of race were beginning to define an approach that would permit the rejection of racist thinking to work in more subtle, identity-affirming ways. Mindful of the assumptions underlying the notion of “negritude” and familiar with the work of Frantz Fanon, they pointed to the importance of distinguishing between racist modes of thinking and quite different lines of argument which contended that physical attributes such as skin colour had a role in the complex process by which identity and culture were created. The first, they stated, plainly had to go, but the second could be – indeed, had to be – allowed if the integrity and meaning of lives lived within communities bounded in part by their members’ possession of these “racial” attributes were to be properly grasped and recognized.

Thus, one was obliged to reject “racializing” links between race and culture, and with them the process by which those in positions of power ascribed characteristics to members of visible minorities on the basis of their physical attributes. But one was equally compelled to see that persons who perceived themselves to share physical markers with others might experience solidarity with them, feel themselves to be members of a community, and consider their relationship to the larger society to be mediated by the sense of “belongingness,” shared experience, and common culture that these perceptions both defined and generated. Seen from this perspective, the theorists concluded, “race” was plainly a constituent of identity, and attempts to remove it from the social equation were at least wrong-headed and perhaps harmful to those whom it helped delineate. The recognition that, as Janet Helms wrote, there existed a “sense of group or collective identity based on one’sperception that he or she shares a common racial heritage with a particular racial group” was essential.

The pivotal role which this argument gave to the idea that the individual’s relationship to society at large was mediated by sub-group affiliations meant that it would find little support, and less understanding, in places where that idea had never had much currency. Certainly, American advocates of the concept were for many years confined to the quite marginal areas occupied by advocates of black power, and even so anodyne a form of the idea as the term “Afro-American” had some difficulty establishing itself. In Canada, by contrast, familiarity with social definitions of precisely the sort that allowed group affiliations to stand between the individual and the whole ensured that the argument would get a hearing here. This country, of course, had experience with the notion that recognition of an individual’s worth and integrity could not in practice be distinguished from that of the group to which he or she belonged. Consequently, Canadians could hardly resist assertions that such recognition would require, not an ignoring of racial markers and the identity and experience bounded by them, but an acknowledgment of those markers and the heavy significance that they might bear.

Withdrawal of the white paper of 1969, abandonment of the assimilationist notions behind it, and response to the First Nations as collectivities involved recognition that, in their complicated case, particularity was defined not only by the complex interplay between “race” and “culture” and claims to the land, but by increasingly insistent demands for autonomy and self-government. In the case of racially marked communities that had no territorial base or aspirations towards self-government, recognition was complicated by quite a different set of factors.

The First Nations, however marginal their status, had never been excluded from depictions of the national history and experience, but blacks and Asians very largely had. Making plain their role in the process by which the national community had been shaped would therefore require that these depictions be restructured in ways that would quite literally “re-vision” the national epic that they purported to depict. The creation of institutions intended to recognize the multiracial fact at the level of policy and remedial action, among which the addition in 1981 of a race-relations unit in the Multiculturalism Directorate was among the most important, was therefore only part of what was required. If the multiracial character of the country was to be “seen,” nothing less than a basic change in the portrayal of its public face would have to come about.

Of the several expedients adopted in pursuit of that objective, some, such as the ending of television’s virtual monopoly by whites and the occupancy of public office by members of visible minorities, were more clearly expressive of the intended message than others. But even innovations in public architecture had their effect. Metis architect Douglas Cardinal’s Canadian Museum of Civilization, for example, put a First Nations imprint on the federal capital. And the decision to permit Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers to wear turbans dramatically demonstrated that even the oldest and most venerable of national institutions was now to be seen as accessible to and the property of Canadians from all racial and cultural groups.

The reallocation of symbolic resources involved in these and other initiatives did not alter the fact – patently clear in statistics concerning poverty, income, education, and health – that members of visible minorities were disproportionately represented in certain sectors of the population. Still less did it signal an end to discrimination and prejudice. If, however, building the idea that Canada was multiracial had not yet resulted in recognition for all groups by the others, its utility as a tool that encouraged the meeting of at least some claims of racially bounded groups allowed it to maintain and even extend its reach. Quebec nationalists themselves began to abandon their commitment to the nineteenth-century style of nationalism based on “people” and “culture” that had so long characterized their attempts at self-definition, and especially after the arrival of immigrants from Haiti and Vietnam, they moved towards a sense of their society as racially, as well as ethnically, diverse. And when, in 1980 Prime Minister Joe Clark pronounced Canada to be a “community of communities,” racially bounded entities were among the many groups that he meant his broad and capacious definition to include.