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Senator Plett condemns the presence of racism and discrimination within Canadian institutions

June 25, 2020 (Ottawa, ON) - The Honourable Don Plett, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, issued the following statement:

Honourable senators, I rise today to launch an inquiry into the presence of racism and discrimination within Canadian institutions.

Colleagues, many of us in this chamber have not personally experienced racism. For that reason, we are often blind to what visible minorities continue to face on a regular basis. It is easy for us to recognize blatant expressions of racism, however, we are far less perceptive and aware of the subtle ways many in this country face oppression. It is frankly tragic that it would take the senseless murder of a man in the United States to bring this conversation to the forefront.

Colleagues, we have a duty to represent minorities in this chamber. As parliamentarians and policy-makers, I believe it is imperative that we are part of the ongoing conversation on racism in Canada. It is for this reason that I raise this inquiry with you today. Last week, we had an emergency debate brought forward by Senator Moodie. I took great interest in the debates that occurred within that forum. Today, we had a Committee of the Whole on the same problem.

The issue of racism and discrimination within Canadian institutions is one that requires a thorough review. My hope is that this inquiry will allow us to build upon last week’s debate, as this issue is complex. I believe it is important that we allow for extensive dialogue within the parameters of an inquiry. This will provide us with time to reflect on what we have heard, and more importantly, will allow all members of this chamber to take part in the days, weeks and months ahead, if that is the will of this chamber.

Unique regional perspectives will be critical to understanding the scope and prevalence of racism and race-based discrimination in Canada. As parliamentarians, we are afforded a platform. More importantly, we are given a responsibility to give a voice to the under-represented groups. That responsibility does not include speaking in platitudes, offering condescending lectures or producing another report to collect dust on a shelf.

Around the world, people are encouraged to have the difficult conversations, even when they are uncomfortable. The freedom to have those conversations is absolutely essential. It is the only way we can learn from one another and ultimately grow as a society.

Sadly, in the past few weeks, this is not entirely what we have seen. We have seen a peak in cancel culture, calling for the firing and dismissal of individuals who do not strictly adhere to an identity politics philosophy.

Colleagues, when one disagrees with the removal of statues of imperfect historical figures, when one questions the validity of the concept of privilege based solely on group identity, when someone questions the level of systemic racism in an institution or disagrees with the particular style of protest, that person should not be dismissed out of hand. How can we expect to educate one another and learn from each other when we pre‑emptively remove individuals from the conversation?

The Senate is one place that must be permitted to have the difficult conversations. It was designed precisely for the purpose of thinking soberly, which means entertaining all sides of the debate and a diversity of opinions. As we take part in this important discussion, let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt. Let’s be gracious. Let’s be permitted to have the difficult conversations. As public speaker Peter Bromberg stated:

When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short term discomfort for long term dysfunction.

Colleagues, while there are many things we can acknowledge in our history with pride, Canada, like all nations, has its own dark history, full of divisions and struggles for equality since its conception. What makes Canada exceptional, however, is growth, progress, a willingness to learn, a willingness to admit when we have wronged and a willingness to change.

Prior to Confederation in 1867, many people were drawn to this new country, seeking freedom from persecution and a chance to pursue a better life. The arrival of the European settlers and the subsequent displacement and assimilation of Indigenous peoples, followed by the struggle between Catholic France and Protestant Britain for political control of Canada are tensions that are well documented. There was bound to be a long road ahead with respect to mending divisions and achieving unity, fairness and equality.

The establishment of treaties, the abolition of the slave trade, the suffragette movement granting women the right to vote and hold elected office were some of the early steps toward bridging the divide. The rights of workers started to come to fruition during the First World War, where protests in the streets ultimately led to the right to safe working conditions and a living wage.

The pressing issue in conversations around the world today is racism. While it is impossible to capture the entirety of the lived experience of racism in our history, allow me to walk you through a few examples of historical policy and decisions that were rooted in antiquated, racist beliefs and that have been subsequently acknowledged by Canadian governments.

The Chinese head tax was imposed from 1885 to 1923 as an explicit effort to reduce immigration from China. Prime Minister Harper, on behalf of the federal government, officially apologized on June 22, 2006. The Komagata Maru, a boat carrying 376 prospective immigrants from India, was prohibited from making port in Vancouver in May 1914, only because the passengers were Sikh. People of Ukrainian descent were designated as enemy aliens during the First World War and were interned in camps.

The MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 907 German Jewish refugees that arrived in Canadian waters in 1939, after being denied entry into Cuba and the United States, was also denied entry into Canada. The ship returned to Europe, where at least 255 of its passengers later died in the Holocaust. There was the internment, relocation, property confiscation and deportation of Japanese and Italian Canadians between 1939 and 1945.

As for our Indigenous populations, we should note that the Indian Act was only changed in 1960 to allow First Nations people to vote in federal elections without losing their legal Indian status. And we all know the impact of the Indian residential school system on Indigenous populations.

Clearly, colleagues, this is not an exhaustive list. To look back at these very moments paints a grim picture. Yet it also paints a picture of a culture of reparation. I believe this context is important as we embark on this critical discussion. As has been said before, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

So, where are we now? According to Statistics Canada, in 1871, the year of the first Canadian census following Confederation, about 20 origins were listed within the population. As of 2016, over 250 origins were reported, with more than 41% of the population having recorded more than one. More than 2 million people have reported being of Aboriginal ancestry.

Colleagues, these figures matter, as they paint a picture of who we are as a nation. Canadians are proud of their unique Canadian identity, including their individual, personal heritage. The promotion and celebration of multiculturalism is one of our many great attributes.

In 2020, I would say that Canadians feel fortunate to live in a country that is overwhelmingly welcoming, tolerant and inclusive. That said, on May 25, 2020, exactly one month ago today, the world’s eyes were opened and remain open as to the work we still have to do, including here at home.

For example, the Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde expressed his frustration last week regarding a series of violent, sometimes fatal, confrontations between police and members of the First Nations across Canada. He made a plea for real action, saying that the lack of action when it comes to different recommendations is what is “killing our people,” adding that this was not the time for another report.

I agree with him on this. As I said before, this is not the time to add another report to an already overstocked shelf.

Last week, I briefly mentioned the mistreatment of Canadians of Asian heritage in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is hard to comprehend that this level of ignorance exists within our borders. However, it is undeniable. There were reports in Toronto and Vancouver of people shouting racist remarks and spitting on individuals of Asian descent on the street. The Vancouver police department noted a 600% increase in reported hate crimes targeting the Asian community.

There is no place for this kind of intolerance in Canada.

According to a Canadian Press article, the number of police-reported hate crimes reached an all-time high in 2017, largely driven by incidents targeting Muslim, Jewish and black people. Statistics Canada indicates that hate crimes have been steadily climbing since 2014 but increased by an alarming 47% in 2017. The latest data show that the numbers have remained elevated.

In the same article, it is noted that 2,073 hate crimes were reported this 2017, and this number only reflects reported crimes. How many more hate crimes have occurred without having been reported? It is devastating to consider that for those crimes, Canadians have been targeted because of their colour, race, religion or sexual orientation. Too often the victims of discrimination and racism suffer in silence.

Unfortunately, while our current government talks a good game on equality, they have not instilled any confidence in the Canadian public that real solutions are on the horizon.

There have been many Calls to Action and promises made by the Trudeau government with respect to Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, but many of these promises have not been fulfilled.

As Jody Wilson-Raybould said in a special to The Globe and Mail this weekend, as much as she wants to be optimistic that our current government has the will, understanding and courage to make foundational, transformative change to address systemic racism, including through new laws, policies and practices, based on her experience she has no such optimism. She stated:

Time and again my experience was symbolic inaction and ineffective baby steps were privileged over transformative efforts to address Canada’s colonial legacy, systemic racism and the challenges with our criminal justice system. Too often, political expediency triumphed over bold and necessary action.

As for the Prime Minister’s latest symbolic demonstration, Ms. Wilson-Raybould stated:

The Prime Minister choosing to “take a knee” and “listen” on June 5 is a sign of cynical practices we should condemn and reject. It is, once again, merely symbolic inaction.

The words of Jody Wilson-Raybould.

With respect to symbolic inaction, we need to look no further than this government’s sentiments toward the removal of historic statues and the renaming of places and street names.

Last week, Prime Minister Trudeau would not even rule out changing the name of the Laurier Club. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, colleagues, has long been lauded as one of Canada’s great Prime Ministers. Jean Chrétien called him, “A visionary who opened Canada’s doors to the world and who settled the West. A pioneer of Canadian independence. . . . I often found myself wondering, when facing the difficult questions of the day, how to apply his lessons and wisdom.”

I have countless other examples from former Liberal and Conservative leaders and prime ministers about his profound contribution to Canadian history.

Colleagues, historical figures should be assessed on the whole of their contributions and not solely on their worst moments. If the Prime Minister supports the removal of Laurier’s name, what’s next? The Famous Five? What about Pierre Elliott Trudeau? If the greater contribution to history is not relevant, and we are to judge individuals by today’s standards, the goalposts will continue to move until we have no one left to commemorate. Is that progress, colleagues?

I would agree with French President Macron that these types of gestures do nothing to stamp out racism and are tantamount to a false rewriting of history. Perhaps, instead of pontificating about the knocking down of statues, the Prime Minister could have listened to the most powerful Indigenous voice at the table, his Minister of Justice, when she pled with him for criminal justice reform.

Colleagues, now is not the time for symbolic gestures, platitudes and pandering. As hate crimes continue to climb, our country needs leadership. Without meaningful action, there is no meaningful change. While we consider how we can do better as a society and how we can move forward, it is important to view Canada in a global context. As Rex Murphy stated in a recent column, “Most Canadians, the vast majority in fact, are horrified by racism and would never participate in it.”

I believe it is safe to say that around the world, most would look at our institutions, our schools, the overwhelming emphasis on tolerance and acceptance, our immigration policies, our promotion of multiculturalism, and would look upon us fondly as an example even.

Colleagues, in no way am I mitigating the bigotry that exists within our society, as it does in all societies. However, to view Canada as a racist country does not paint a complete and accurate picture.

As to whether racism is systemic in some of our institutions, I believe it is worthy of further examination. But Prime Minister Trudeau has not offered a single meaningful solution on how to address issues of racial inequality, and yet is proud to stand publicly and denounce our country as a racist one, one we should be ashamed of. This is Canada, the country lauded historically by Liberal and Conservative Prime Ministers alike as the greatest country in the world. In these challenging moments in our history, our Prime Minister should be our biggest champion, and instead he has used this opportunity to be our biggest critic.

So, colleagues, where do we go from here? We would be remiss if we did not explore the issue of police brutality in the context of this discussion. While the data is unclear on how race plays a factor in fatal interactions with the police, I think the historically tumultuous relationships between law enforcement and certain communities cannot be ignored.

For example, in 2019, a YouGov poll in the United States demonstrated that black people are far more worried about being the victim of police violence than being the victim of a violent crime.

Washington Post contributor Radley Balko, in a powerful column, also made the point that in the United States, white people can compartmentalize police brutality while black people do not have that luxury. He states:

When white people see video of unjust police abuse of a white person, it may make us angry, sad or uncomfortable, but most of us don’t see ourselves in the position of the person in the video. If we’re polite and respectful, we think, and don’t put ourselves in scenarios that lead to confrontations with police officers, there’s little chance that we’ll ever end up like Daniel Shaver. When black people see video of Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, their reaction is much more likely to be that could have been me — or my son, or friend or brother.

Colleagues, these issues are layered. There is a historical context to consider when understanding why certain communities have developed an overall mistrust of law enforcement. Both in the United States and here at home, meaningful action will be required to make effective reparations.

However, I still say that defunding our police services is not the answer. I find it truly frightening that our Prime Minister would not rule out whether he would defund the RCMP when asked recently by the media. If the goal is to mend the relationship between police and the communities they serve, how exactly would defunding the police achieve that?

The idea that most RCMP officers or most police officers, for that matter, are racist, dangerous or malicious, with anything other than the intention to protect and serve in mind, is simply not rooted in reality. Our approach to these issues cannot be reactionary or made out of anger. We need to remain united in demanding improvements like increased transparency and improved de-escalation training to start to rebuild trust in these fractured relationships. When we see horrific cases of police violence against a visible minority, the easy answer is that the police officer is a racist. But I suspect the issue at hand is much more complex than that.

In preparing for this inquiry, I went back to the report from the other place, prepared by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage from February 2018 entitled “Taking Action Against Systemic Racism and Religious Discrimination Including Islamophobia.” The report delves into systemic racism. I found Senator Murray Sinclair’s explanation quite interesting. Allow me to read just a portion:

People have a hard time understanding what systemic discrimination is and what systemic racism is. This is because it’s not the kind of racism that comes necessarily from the behaviour, words, and actions of individuals, other than the fact that they are guided by the system in which they are functioning. The phrase that I always like to use is that systemic racism is the racism that’s left over after you get rid of the racists. Once you get rid of the racists within the justice system, for example, you will still have racism perpetrated by the justice system. This is because the justice system follows certain rules, procedures, guidelines, precedents, and laws that are inherently discriminatory and racist because those laws, policies, procedures, processes, and beliefs—including beliefs that direct individuals on how and when to exercise their discretion—come from a history of the common law, which comes from a different culture, a different way of thinking.

I would like to thank Senator Sinclair for his thoughtful explanation. While we examine whether systemic racism exists in certain institutions — and if it does, to what extent — it is helpful to be on the same page with an understanding of the concept.

That said, we need to consider the comments of systemic racism made by the RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki. Regardless of whether you agree with her about the level of systemic racism entrenched in RCMP policy and procedures, she too admitted that the concept is difficult to define. She said she had heard 5 to 10 different definitions of the concept, as I’m sure we all have. After struggling to define the term, the commissioner later expressed her belief that there is systemic racism in the RCMP.

The Prime Minister’s chastising comments on this matter, once again, demonstrate the glaring hypocrisy of his government. In October 2018, Minister Pablo Rodriguez questioned the very existence of systemic racism. He did this while being the Minister of Heritage and Multiculturalism.

Honourable senators, how is it unacceptable for the RCMP commissioner to acknowledge that she struggles with a definition of a concept that is notoriously difficult to define before conclusively acknowledging its presence in the organization, and yet to the Prime Minister it’s no big deal when his Minister of Heritage and Multiculturalism questioned its very existence. I do not recall anyone asking for the minister to resign at the time, and he certainly was not the subject of a Trudeau public scolding.

Honourable senators, the objective of this inquiry is that together in this chamber we can collaboratively examine the presence of racism and discrimination within our Canadian institutions. We first need to determine where it exists before we can focus on solutions. We still have a long road ahead of us, but I believe that the wide range of regional and cultural perspectives in this chamber will add tremendous value to this conversation.

Some of the questions we need to consider are: Where are the racial divides in this country? How do we rebuild relationships of trust between law enforcement and some of the communities they serve? Is there unconscious bias that we need to address? Are racism and race-based discrimination present at the executive level of our institutions? Is it present in all Canadian institutions? Is there room for improvement in our hiring processes? What factors have led to such a profound disparity in income between races in this country? Are there systems in place that guide us toward inadvertent discrimination of individuals? These are just a few of the questions I hope we will explore throughout the duration of this inquiry.

What I take solace in is this: With vastly different political philosophies and ideologies governing how we in this chamber view the world and approach solutions to the problems we are faced with, we have come together to debate how — not whether — we can achieve equality in Canada. That, colleagues, is what makes a country like Canada unique on the world stage. The fact that we are constantly striving to do better is what makes Canada a country to be proud of.

Honourable senators, it has been 57 years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. This speech still resonates today around the world. Today the most quoted lines of that speech are:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. . . .

I have a dream today. . .

Why did these words resonate so powerfully? Because it pointed out an uncomfortable truth. There are deeply ingrained ignorant and racist beliefs held by some in our society that will undoubtedly impact the way visible minorities will move through this world. The reason these words are still powerful today is because, while we have made significant strides, this is still a reality.

Honourable senators, it is tragic that it would take a horrific example of police brutality to blow the doors open on this long overdue conversation. However, there are parallels to be drawn with the Harvey Weinstein case, which subsequently led to the #MeToo movement. There were many discussions that took place at the time and that continue to take place. These conversations were uncomfortable, full of disagreements, and yet these conversations led to learning and ultimately to meaningful change.

Similarly, we have the opportunity now to listen and to hear groups in our society who feel undervalued and disrespected. The fact that there are those who are still fighting for equal treatment under the law and who feel they are not full and equal members of this society simply because of the colour of their skin means that there is much work to be done. It is my sincere hope that we can continue the legacy of progress that Canada is known for on the world stage and seize this critical moment in history.

Let me conclude with this, colleagues, a scripture from Psalms 34:18, which says:

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

That, colleagues, is our obligation to stand up for the brokenhearted and the crushed in spirit. Thank you.


Senator Plett's speech on this issue can also be found here

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