Labour Views – Dealing with Racism in Canada

Jack Bourassa
Regional Executive Vice President, PSAC North

By now many labour organizations across the country have spoken out in condemnation of the acts that we all witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12.

Given the tight-knit and diverse nature of our own community, I feel as REVP at PSAC North that we must not only denounce in the strongest terms what occurred, but moving forward, tackle the lingering impact of that weekend.

I am optimistic that more level headedness and kind-heartedness among our people will prevail in our efforts to build a more just society. The amount of hatred and bigotry openly expressed by white supremacists and neo-Nazis from that weekend has presented a threat to our common ideals that every citizen should consider. We are reminded of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King in his “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Sadly, much has happened since Charlottesville that shows racial injustice does exist closer to home. In Quebec, far right nationalist group La Meute, took their online forum to the streets of Quebec City. Only this past weekend in London, Ont, we saw an anti-Islam, right-wing group called the Patriots of Canada Against the Islamization of the West” emerge.

In Yellowknife, recent local media outlets have reported swastikas, homophobic stickers, and spray-painted comments of “white power” in our public areas.

Such far right groups now seem emboldened, so it is important to be vigilant and to confront these issues before they spread further. In the North, we have a large representation of Indigenous people as well as of many other races, ethnicities, languages, backgrounds, colours, religions, genders, sexual orientations and cultural practices. Such a diversity of people enrichens our communities and brings new talents and perspectives that reflects the complexity of humanity. This should be encouraged and celebrated rather than resisted and oppressed. 

When challenges arise as we promote solidarity and commonality, these differences should be met openly and honestly.  But perhaps most importantly, when challenges arise, we should confront them together.

Within PSAC North we have internal structures to reduce oppression experienced by racially visible or Indigenous people. We have an Aboriginal Peoples Committee, for example, to identify and tackle unique challenges faced by Indigenous peoples within our membership and in our communities. We have a Racially Visible Committee that does similar work.
By taking a proactive stand and dealing with these issues, the daily work of unions play a strong role in reducing racial animosity and violence before it tears communities apart.

Often the history of race in Canada has been closely associated with the labour movement because those involved have commonly struggled against systemic barriers to economic rights and social equality.  In the North, we see this as we think of the negative working and social conditions that Indigenous peoples and racially visible people face in comparison to the rest of the population. High incarceration rates, language barriers, psychological legacies of white colonialism, communities with poor access to food and water, or high numbers of indigenous children in foster care are all examples of racial issues that still exist in our society.

The final point I would like to make about the impact of Charlottesville is that we are also reminded how important moral leadership from the top down is when it comes to condemning racism and racial violence. President Donald Trump’s inability to condemn the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who caused the violent death of Heather Heyer and injury to several others revealed a moral vacuum that exists in many elements of American leadership.

The United States has often historically played the role of healing divisions or offering reassurance following tragic events. It was devastating then when such sentiments fell short of what was needed after Charlottesville. The president’s weak response was condemned by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Western allies like Britain and Germany.

Leadership entails a special responsibility to offer moral clarity on how we should deal with these issues in our community. In this spirit, I look forward to working within our membership and with our partners in the North to fight racism and build a more representative and fair community for everyone.