Premier Brian Pallister seems to be struggling to understand what is meant by the term “systemic racism” (Premier coy on ‘systemic racism’ stance, June 30). In this country, under our law, systemic discrimination, including systemic racism, has been recognized as a violation of our constitutional equality rights since 1989. It is the law of the land.
The premier’s comments betray a narrow, moralizing understanding of how discrimination and racism persist, one that suggests that only deliberate bias toward racialized people or other disadvantaged groups counts as racism, and that only “a few bad apples” are responsible for the terrible inequalities in our province.
But it is not just a few bad apples; we are all responsible for the systems and structures that perpetuate centuries of colonial violence. Systemic racism goes far beyond the intentional attitudes of white supremacy, to include the many ways we have structured our society that advantage some of us while leaving others behind. A couple of examples will illustrate how this works:
Few, if any of us, would admit to wishing ill for our children or our grandparents; we are quick to affirm that we want the best for them. Sadly, the structures we have created to care for vulnerable kids and seniors have a harmful effect on many, and that effect is disproportionately felt by those who are already marginalized by gender, race, income and age.
On July 3, the Royal Society of Canada released a report showing that 81 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in Canada have occurred in long-term care homes (Long-term care system failed elders, July 3) and stating that “systemic and deeply institutionalized implicit attitudes about age and gender” were at root of this failure. Both residents and staff in these homes are overwhelmingly women.
The privatization and profit-seeking in many homes has led to chronic and severe understaffing. Workers, many of whom are racialized, are poorly paid, lack benefits and often have to work in several homes to accumulate full-time hours. This is systemic discrimination and racism.
In Manitoba in 2014, the final report of the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair was published. Titled “The Legacy of Phoenix Sinclair: Achieving the Best for All Our Children,” it documented extensive evidence of systemic racism within the systems that are intended to protect and promote the best interests of every child.
Last month, a new study showed how these same systems have a disproportionately negative impact on Indigenous children, their families and their communities (Indigenous youth issues rooted in structural racism, June 9). Manitoba has one of the highest rates of children in the child welfare system in the world, and close to 90 per cent of those children are Indigenous.
The study shows that children who have been in the child-welfare system are more likely to end up charged with a crime than they are to finish high school. This not because anyone wants them to fail; it is because we have systems that, as noted by the TRC, destroy the family and community supports children need to thrive. This is systemic discrimination and racism.
Our constitution should protect us all from actions of the state that are discriminatory. The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Richard Wagner, recently reaffirmed this in his annual press conference on June 18 in Ottawa. He said, “Confronting injustice, wherever it shows itself, is a good and necessary thing to do… The (Supreme]) Court in a decision last year noted that racialized communities have disproportionate levels of contact with police and the justice system, and they are more likely to have their rights violated or to be injured or killed in interactions with police.
“These are hard facts, but they are facts…. We also know that the Indigenous community has long suffered stereotyping, bias, and systemic discrimination….”
If we cannot recognize, and name, systemic racism and discrimination, we cannot begin to address the structural changes that are necessary to create a more just society. We need our leaders to understand this. It does not matter how well-intentioned we are if some of us are adversely impacted by our laws and institutions.
We must look at how we provide care for our elders, and we must figure out how we can “achieve the best for all our children” and do better. Until we do, we will live in an unequal world that benefits some of us at the expense of the most vulnerable among us.
Lorna Turnbull is a professor in the faculty of law at the University of Manitoba.