The Current

As Canadians experience 'awakening' on race issues, lawyer calls for 'substance over symbols'

With protests taking hold across the country, including in some rural communities, three prominent Black Canadians shared their perspectives with The Current on the movement that has gripped cities and small towns around the world in recent weeks.

'We want the substance of your commitment,' says lawyer

Demonstrators take part in a rally protesting the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in downtown Toronto, Saturday, May 30, 2020. Korchinski-Paquet, 29, fell from the balcony of a 24th-floor Toronto apartment while police were in the home. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

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Protests across Canada calling for an end to anti-Black racism and police brutality are leading to a "great Canadian awakening" on the prevalence of race issues in this country, says a racial justice and civil liberties lawyer. 

"While the denials will continue, those voices are going to be met with a bit more corrective force to say, 'Wait, hold on,'" said Anthony Morgan, who leads the City of Toronto's Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit.

"And not just from Black communities, but more average citizens who are seeing what's happening and becoming awakened." 

Three prominent Black Canadians shared their perspectives with The Current on the movement that has gripped cities and small towns around the world in recent weeks.

Poet El Jones, left, racial justice lawyer Anthony Morgan, centre, and author Esi Edugyan, right, spoke with The Current's Matt Galloway about protests over anti-Black racism and what the movement means in Canada. (Robert Short/CBC, C. J. Cromwell, Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

The widespread protests were spurred by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed last month by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. 

Across Canada, similar protests were held in support of Floyd, and also as a call for accountability in the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from her Toronto apartment balcony last month while police were in the unit.

With protests taking hold across the country, including in some rural communities, author Esi Edugyan believes the action is "really becoming a movement."

"There's just been so many lives lost. We've been watching these videos for years and years and we kept these protests afterwards ... But then in a way, it seems like we moved past that moment and things returned to how they always were," the author of Washington Black said.

"It seems like people are really waking up to the fact that this isn't just a Black issue or an Indigenous issue, but that this is something that affects everyone and that we all should be outraged about."

History of racism in Canada downplayed

But some government and police officials have questioned the prevalence of systemic racism in Canada. Quebec Premier Francois Legault denied its existence in his home province last week, while Alberta RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki said he doesn't believe racism is systemic throughout Canada's policing system, adding that "issues of racism and relationships with our diverse communities in Canada differ from our U.S. counterparts."

Too often Canadians compare themselves to Americans — with the suggestion being that racism only exists south of the border, says El Jones, a poet and professor at the University of King's College in Halifax.

"One of the fairy stories they've always told us is we're not like that," she said.

But many accounts of racism and slavery in Canada fly under the radar, she says, pointing to the "reverse" Underground Railroad, where enslaved people left this country for the northern U.S. She added that the first recorded race riots in North America took place in Shelburne, N.S., in 1784.

"White settlers burned out their Black neighbours in an act of racial violence and segregation that persisted in Nova Scotia until 1966 and the last segregated school closed in 1983," she said.

In order to foster a greater understanding of Canada's history with racism and slavery, change needs to begin in school curriculums, says Edugyan.

"When I was a kid growing up in Calgary, you know, Black history was not at all anywhere on the curriculum," she said.

"Even something that we think of as sort of fundamental to our history, like the Underground Railroad, this wasn't something that was at all covered on any of the curriculum going straight from kindergarten to high school in Calgary."

People gather on June 3 near the site where George Floyd died in Minneapolis, one of daily protests to take place in the city since Floyd's death on May 25. (Julio Cortez/The Associated Press)

'We want the substance of your commitment'

While protests have inspired people of all backgrounds to make statements against anti-Black racism, advocates are warning against "performative" actions.

"People do want to demonstrate that solidarity, and I think many Black communities welcome it," said Morgan.

"But what they really want is substance over symbols, and taking a knee, putting up a fist or holding a sign is important, but that is a symbol of your commitment."

"We want the substance of your commitment. What are you actually willing to invest, to give up, to support the achievement of equitable well-being for Black people?" he said.

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Jones, who is skeptical of politicians and police that offer gestures like taking a knee, says that while change won't come tomorrow, she believes that "we can win."

"The drumbeat of liberation goes on. Our ancestors walked us to this moment. They bled and they sweated and they died for us to be here," she said.

"It is our duty, as people said in the streets of Minneapolis ... to pick that up and continue to walk it as far as we can and continue to walk alongside other people."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Rachel Levy-Mclaughlin.