Systemic Racism

We must remember that laws and policies in colonized countries like Canada and the United States were established to benefit the colonizers.

Laws that were set up in the early years of Canada’s formation were designed to give advantages to white colonizers and, consequently, disadvantages to BIPOC people. This shows up in our justice, healthcare, education, employment, social welfare systems. Though some issues are beginning to be addressed now, these unfair systems continue to harm people.

The conditions present when a system begins (an organization, a business, a relationship, a class/training, or anything that involves multiple people) deeply impact its future trajectory. Patterns, beliefs, and practices that are present at the conception of that system build on each other and, in turn, continually shape its future path. Most people involved in creating and perpetuating the system are likely unaware of this dynamic because it is all they have ever known –“It just is what it is.”

Making changes requires thoughtful, intentional, focussed deconstruction. So when we are busy – and busyness is a high value in our dominant culture – and especially when we aren’t experiencing direct harm within a system, we don’t often stop to question what is and isn’t working within that system. As we’ve talked about in other parts of this training, we humans like predictability and certainty so we tend to avoid challenging the status quo unless we really need to. Often we don’t even notice the status quo needs changing until we are personally negatively affected by a system. One way colonization affects us today is that we get stuck in our little individualized silos, which makes it very easy to barely notice what life is like for someone who has different challenges than we do.

Shifting broken systems is really difficult because there is no one person or entity that can change all of them. Systems are complex and multilayered. All participants in a system (including us) play a small role in sustaining them. Systems continually impact one another. For example, consider the various ways the foster care system, the education system,  the judicial system and the healthcare system intersect and impact one another.

The scope of the problem doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to make changes. Though it can feel discouraging and hopeless when we start digging into these systemic issues, the only way to change them is for a strong majority of people to notice these harmful systems and begin to question and deconstruct them.

We must begin with ourselves. We must educate ourselves on systemic issues, address our own implicit biases and the ways in which we reinforce the harm within these systems. We can’t know everything about every harmful system, but what is so beautiful about working together as a collective is that you don’t have to know everything. You can focus on what you are passionate about while listening and supporting the work of others who know more than you know about other systemic issues.

During the spring and summer of 2020, mass Black Lives Matter  protests and marches began in the United States and spread around the world. One of the beautiful results of that movement is the awareness it raised and the growing intention to amplify the voices of those who have been historically overlooked. We can continue to be intentional about amplifying those powerful voices.

Small changes add up, even if we think they don’t. We must be patient and steadfast, and remember that there is a cumulative effect to these small shifts.

The University of British Columbia article Systemic Racism: What it Looks Like In Canada and How To Fight It? (2021) says:

In a settler colonial state like Canada, systemic racism is deeply rooted in every system of this country. This means the systems put in place were designed to benefit white colonists while disadvantaging the Indigenous populations who had lived here prior to colonialism. This power dynamic continues to be upheld and reinforced in our society, extending its impact on new racialized citizens.

According to a 2016 report from Statistics Canada, both Black women and men were less likely to obtain post-secondary education compared to women and men in the rest of the population in Vancouver, with a difference of about 10%. And the unemployment rate for the Black population was approximately one and a half times higher than that for [the] rest of the population. In terms of socioeconomic impact of COVID-19, around one-quarter of Indigenous people living in Canadian urban areas were in poverty, compared to 13% of non-Indigenous population in these areas. (2021)

About the Indian Act

The Indian Act was first established in Canada in 1876 and is still law today. There were amendments made to the law in 1951 and 1985.

The Indian Act:

  • Created reserves.
  • Mandated residential schools: John A McDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister said that the objective of residential schools was to “take the Indian out of the child.” “Indianness” was not to be tolerated, rather it was to be eliminated.
  • Forcibly stripped Indigenous people of their names, replacing them with new western names.
  • Restricted First Nations from leaving their reserve without permission from a government official. There was an officer at the entrance to each reserve, and people had to have the proper paperwork to be able to leave and come back to the reserve.
  • Authorized unused portions of the reserve to be taken and leased out by the government to colonizers.
  • Forbade First Nations peoples from forming government, or even voting.
  • Forbade First Nations peoples from speaking their language, practicing their religion, or any form of culture–from potlatches to wearing traditional regalia.

As we all know, land in Canada was stolen from our Indigenous people. As mentioned above , early laws were set up explicitly to benefit the colonizers. Indigenous lives were dehumanized and the laws were set up not to support their well-being but to undermine it. The DNA for how Canada treats its First Nations, Métis and Inuit people was set when the Indian Act became law.

Though the Act has been revised, it set the tone for how Indigenous people are still treated today.

Is any of this new information for you?

The last residential school closed in 1996. How does that make you feel?

The Sixties Scoop

We see the ongoing mistreatment and dehumanization of Canada’s Indigenous people throughout our history. The Canadian Encyclopedia article entitled Sixties Scoop (Sinclair, Dainard, Gallant, 2020), explains this particular era in Canada history:

From the 1960s to the 1980s, provincial governments considered the removal of Indigenous children the fastest and easiest way of addressing Indigenous child welfare issues. In many cases, the child welfare system did not expect or require its social workers to have specific knowledge about, or training in, Indigenous child welfare. They also did not have to seek the consent of communities to “scoop” newborn and young children from their parents and place them into non-Indigenous homes. It was only until the Child, Family and Community Services Act in 1980 that social workers were required to notify band councils of a child’s removal from the community. (2020)

Incarceration and BIPOC people

In December 2021, the CBC reported that “Indigenous people make up about 32 per cent of the federal prison population, despite accounting for less than five per cent of the total population. Indigenous women, meanwhile, account for 48 per cent of the population in women’s prisons.”

In May 2021 The Toronto Star reported that, “nearly one out of every 15 young Black men in Ontario experienced jail time, compared to one out of about every 70 young white men, and incarcerated Black people were more likely to live in low-income neighbourhoods, a new study of hard to come by race-based inmate data shows.”

Segregation of Black people in Canada

The Canadian Encyclopedia article Racial Segregation of Black People in Canada (Henry, 2021) shares many facts about segregation in Canada that aren’t often spoken of today.

The racial segregation of Black people in Canada was historically enforced through laws, court decisions and social norms….The segregation of Black people in Canada was justified for many years [after Abolition] by perpetuating ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to justify Black enslavement. Historically, practices of racial segregation differed across the country, often according to province or local community. (2021)

In Ontario and Nova Scotia, racial segregation of Black children in the education system was legislated. Though not legal in other provinces, racial segregation was encouraged.

The article entitled Racial Segregation of Black People in Canada – Education (2020) on The Aeolian website explores the issue of segregation in both elementary and post-secondary education.

Queen’s University (Kingston) banned Black students from admission into the medical program in 1918. Their “justification” was that racially intolerant local white residents would not want to have any physical contact with Black doctors. There was another influence pressuring the University as well: the American Medical Association (founded in 1846) that did not welcome Black Physicians until the late 1960s and wanted them expelled from American and Canadian schools. This anti-Black restriction was practiced at Queen’s until 1965 and stayed as on book policy until 2018, while not being enforced. (2020)

As recently as the 1960’s, Vancouver real estate land titles contained restrictive covenant clauses that prevented the sale or rental of property to people of African descent and other racialized groups. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, there was a clause in Vancouver real estate deeds used between 1928 & 1965 that stated, “the Grantee or his heirs, administrators, executor, successors or assigns will not sell to, agree to sell to, rent to, lease to, or permit or allow to occupy, the said lands and premises, or any part thereof, any person of the Chinese, Japanese or other Asiatic race or to any Indian or Negro.”

Black Lives Matter

In 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement began as a nonviolent grassroots protest against police brutality and racially motivated violence.

In the summer of 2020, we saw the movement gain more traction through social media, and it has brought greater awareness to the dominant culture of the layers of racism that black people continually have to deal with.

Many people who aren’t personally affected by systemic racism believed that we were living in a post-racial society. Many white people felt that the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s along with desegregation had changed western culture for the better and essentially “fixed what was broken.”

There was a popular belief that racism wasn’t as much of a problem today as it was prior to desegregation. However, we are seeing now that those who are a part of the dominant culture are simply unaware of, or ignorant to, the effects of systemic racism not because the effects don’t exist, but because they simply don’t affect them directly.

Racism feels “quieter” to those who don’t experience it on a daily basis. The Black Lives Matter movement has exposed the reality that systemic racism is far from over.

Unfortunately, these problems are not just in our past. These mistreatments continue to this day.

History does not just stay in the past. History impacts the present and the future; only when we actively unpack it and learn from it can we change course.

Additional Resources

To continue your work on being anti-racist and to learn more about systemic racism and related issues, we recommend checking out the following resources as a great starting point:

  • 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality by Bob Joseph (based on an article he first wrote for the CBC)
  • How to be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menekem
  • Building a Foundation for Change: Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy 2019–2022

White Privilege

Peggy McIntosh’s essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack was first published in 1988 and was one of the first pieces to break down white privilege into examples of recognizable, personal and tangible impacts. This is often a starting point for understanding what we mean by white privilege.

It’s helpful to understand how white privilege leads to what can be called ‘unearned advantages.’ It’s also important to acknowledge that white privilege goes beyond avoiding inconveniences. The reality is that white privilege exists because of systemic racism, colonialism and historic bias and has ongoing impacts on non-white people.

In that essay, McIntosh writes:

As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage… I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks. (1989, Pg. 1)

The concept of white privilege doesn’t mean that being white makes you immune to struggle, or that you haven’t struggled or experienced barriers; it means that these struggles or barriers you experience have not been as a result of your race as is the case for BIPOC people.

Just like awareness of our worldview and biases is vital to our work in peer support, so is awareness of the ways race, systemic racism and white privilege inform our experience.

“White privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost.”
~Reni Eddo-Lodge (author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race) 

“White privilege is about the word white, not rich. It’s having advantage built into your life. It’s not saying your life hasn’t been hard; it’s saying your skin color hasn’t contributed to the difficulty in your life.”~ Emmanuel Acho (author of Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man)

For Reflection

  • What thoughts and feelings come up for you when you consider white privilege?
  • What responsibilities do you need to take in your own life to address these inequities?


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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