Canadians increasingly pessimistic about progress on racism and equity, survey finds

A growing number of Canadians say the state of race relations in the country is poor, according to a new survey, with Black and Indigenous people the most likely to say issues around racism are worsening.

Only 1 in 4 Black Canadians say their opportunities have improved over the past decade

Protesters calling attention to anti-Black racism and police brutality demonstrated around the world last summer, including in Toronto, as shown here on June 19, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

A growing number of Canadians say the state of race relations in the country is poor, with Black and Indigenous people the most likely to say issues around racism are worsening.

Those findings are among the results of a nationwide survey released today by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF), a Crown corporation dedicated to the elimination of racism.

The survey, conducted in partnership with the Environics Institute, found that 23 per cent of respondents chose "generally bad" when asked how well people of different races get along in Canada, up from 17 per cent when the CRRF conducted the same survey in 2019.

But a clear majority of respondents still maintain a more positive outlook: 64 per cent of respondents said the state of race relations in Canada is "generally good," down from 71 per cent in 2019.

Thirteen per cent of respondents said they could not say if relations were good or bad.

"When we looked at the awareness around racism, we've seen that there's a dramatic jump," said Mohammed Hashim, executive director of the CRRF.

But increased awareness also means more people are confronting hard truths about the state of racism in Canada, he said. "There's a greater sense of disappointment and pessimism that exists — and I think that's reflective of the times that we're seeing."

The CRRF report says the shifting public perception of racism in Canada is "undoubtedly the result of high-profile incidents of racial injustice in the U.S. and Canada that have prompted renewed scrutiny of policing, institutional policies and the historical record."

Since the last survey was conducted in 2019, Canadians have experienced global protests following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, a rise in anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic and the discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools in Canada.

The online survey was conducted between May 13 and June 11, 2021, with a sample of 3,698 Canadians.

Canadians possibly more open to discussions of racism

"There's been a real awakening to the realities, and I think there's more permission to talk about race, especially in a post-George Floyd protest context," said Shakil Choudhury, an author and co-founder of the racial justice consulting firm Anima Leadership.

"I think it's just taken off the veneer — the polite Canadian veneer — that has been around for a long time."

The report also found that Canadians as a whole did not report more occurrences of racism and discrimination compared to 2019, suggesting it is the perception and dialogue around racism that has undergone the greatest change.

Mohammed Hashim, executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, says there's been a 'dramatic jump' when it comes to awareness around racism. (Shanifa Nasser/CBC)

There were some exceptions, however, as reported incidents targeting Chinese and South Asian people increased.

The report should signal to leaders that Canadians want to see changes that reduce inequities and combat racism, said Hashim.

"The time to act is now.… People are a bit sick and tired of just talking about race and they really want to see policy-makers take this seriously and drive change," he said.

The Liberal government pledged to tackle anti-Black racism last year, but a CBC News analysis found about half of its promises have yet to be fulfilled.

Black Canadians, Indigenous people have worst outlooks

While events of the past two years are believed to have shifted larger public opinions on race, the CRRF survey suggests the effects are strongest among the groups most likely to be targeted by racism.

Among Black Canadians, just under half of respondents (49 per cent) said race relations in Canada are generally good, down from 72 per cent in 2019.

Only one in four Black respondents said "opportunities for everyone to succeed" have improved over the past decade, indicating most Black Canadians believe progress on racism and equity has either worsened or stagnated.

The response was similar among Indigenous people: 51 per cent said the state of race relations are generally good, down slightly from 56 per cent in 2019.

"What I see in this report is that optimism has subsided and that pessimism is growing," Hashim said.

The perception of Black and Indigenous people is, in some cases, starkly different from those of white respondents to the survey, who were generally offered a more positive assessment of the state of racism in Canada.

Fifty-seven per cent of white respondents agreed that people of different races have a chance to succeed — a higher figure than any other group named in the report.

White Canadians were also most likely to say their local police are doing an "excellent or good job." The report notes this was "much less apt to be the case" among Black or Indigenous respondents.

"It's not surprising that you would find those being affected by [racism] are going to believe it's worse — because it's real. They're experiencing the full impact of it," Choudhury said. "For white people, it is harder to see."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.