Chris Hall: Senator says Canada has its own 'pandemic of racism' to deal with

A Nova Scotia senator says Canada must confront its own "pandemic of racism" as demonstrators continue to flood city streets around the world to condemn the death of another unarmed black man in police custody in the United States.

We asked black politicians how Canada should confront racism — here's what they had to say

A protester holds a sign calling for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women at a protest in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A Nova Scotia senator says Canada must confront its own "pandemic of racism" as demonstrators continue to flood city streets around the world to condemn the death of another unarmed black man in police custody in the United States.

George Floyd died after a white police officer in Minneapolis pinned him to the ground for more than eight minutes by kneeling on his neck.

His death touched off a wave of demonstrations around the world, including many in Canadian cities.

"Many of us have been waiting and pushing for action for generations," said Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard in a panel discussion with two other black politicians on this weekend's edition of CBC's The House.

Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard: 'The pandemic of racism has pushed them to the point of rage, pushed them to the point of action.' (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The former Dalhousie University professor of social work said the anger sparked by Floyd's death is so intense that people are risking their own health by demonstrating in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic

"The pandemic of racism has pushed them to the point of rage, pushed them to the point of action," she said. "And they are hoping that action will push people in this country who are in positions to really lead fundamental change for the people of African descent and other racialized groups who experience racism all the time."

Quebec Liberal leader Dominique Anglade, Nova Scotia Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard and Alberta MLA David Shepherd reflect on their personal experiences and what steps must be taken to address racial disparities in the weeks and months ahead.

Physical, emotional, psychological 'violence'

Canada doesn't experience anything like the United States' rate of civilian fatalities in police custody. But David Shepherd, an NDP member of the Alberta legislature, said that doesn't mean systemic racism against blacks, Indigenous people and other racialized Canadians isn't real.

"They experience that violence physically, emotionally, psychologically every single day," he said. "And to deny its existence is another form of violence visited on the individuals in those communities."

David Shepherd, an NDP MLA in Alberta, said that to deny the existence of racism in Canada is to visit a kind of violence on its victims. (Supplied/CBC)

The Ontario government implemented an anti-black racism strategy in 2017. And according to the government's own website, stigma and stereotypes contribute to leaving black Canadians with fewer opportunities.

Black children, for example, are more likely to be placed in foster homes or enrolled in lower academic streams. Black women are more likely than white women to be unemployed or underemployed, even when they have higher levels of education.

The question is what to do about it. Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said working with employers to overcome stereotypes is one thing governments can do. Governments also should be recruiting more black people into the public service, she added.

Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said the problem of racism in Canada needs less talk and more action. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

She acknowledged there's more pressure on politicians like herself now to push for change.

"I think we have a responsibility to take action and to really build bridges with all Quebecers," she said.

"What I really want to see is action at this point, because we've been talking about it for so many years."

The Trudeau government has announced a $45 million strategy to tackle racism in both the government and in federal policies, and promised in the last election to doubling federal funding for diversity and anti-racism programs.

That money has yet to be committed as Ottawa continues to grapple with the pandemic and its economic impact.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes a knee during an 8 minute and 46 second silence as he takes part in an anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, June 5, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Still, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other federal leaders responded to the outrage following George Floyd's death in Minneapolis by promising to do more than just talk.

Sen. Bernard said politicians like Trudeau, who don't have a personal experience of living with racism, need to listen now and apply to the problem the same commitment they've shown to issues of gender equity.

"We need people to listen with humility, and then to act with purpose," she said. "And for politicians, one of the ways of acting with purpose would be to bring a race-equity lens and a social justice lens to all of our discussions, to all of our deliberations, to all of the policy development formulations. That's an immediate action we can all learn to integrate into our work."

Don't compare us to the U.S.: Lewis

Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis is far less willing to accept any parallels between the black experiences in Canada and the United States.

Federal Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis said it's wrong to compare anti-black racism in Canada with the virulent version at work in the United States. (Greg Bruce/CBC News)

In a separate interview with The House, Lewis said she's never spent a day in the U.S. without being "conscious of my blackness" — but she insisted the reality in Canada is very different.

She also said she believes the phrase "systemic racism" is thrown around too easily to describe isolated examples of bias rather than documented cases of racism in, for example, the criminal justice system.

Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis outlines why she wants to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and what she would do if elected as prime minister.

"I want to define it so people understand what systemic racism is and so that we don't fall into the Liberal trap of labelling everybody in the country a racist."

But the other three said they believe George Floyd's death, combined with the singleness of purpose shown by governments and Canadians in the fight against the pandemic, offers an opportunity to confront racism in all its forms.

"We're all this together," Anglade said. "We're using that slogan to talk about the pandemic ... We need to use it when talking about the pandemic of racism. We are all in this together."