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Hiding in plain sight

When it comes to systemic racism, a lot lurks beneath the surface
July 13, 2021
By James Roach

Systemic racism — and how it can be dismantled — is at the heart of a lot of recent activism and outreach work at Concordia. This collective effort — from the university’s Indigenous Directions Action Plan to the President’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism — is connected to a wider, global movement focused on economic and social justice for marginalized people.

Vicky Boldo is a member of Concordia’s Indigenous Directions Leadership Council and a cultural support worker at the Otsenhákta Student Centre — an on-campus resource for First Nations, Inuit and Métis students (Otsenhákta means “near the fire” in Kanien’kéha, an Iroquoian language). As a six-month-old, Boldo was subjected to Canada’s Sixties Scoop, a government program that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families and communities for adoption by non-Indigenous couples. It’s among the more painful and shameful chapters in the country’s history.

Vicky Boldo

“The fact that we have so many people who have lived violence-induced trauma and loss of land, culture and language through genocide, assimilation and other negatively impacting legislation is extremely problematic,” says Boldo.

At the time of her placement, the social workers charged with Boldo’s welfare had no qualms about including such statements in her file as, “Vicky is a very attractive child, although still somewhat Indian-looking.” “We were interested in noting the change in Vicky but she still has very dark hair and dark eyes,” read one comment. “Her skin is changing to a pink-and-white complexion.”

When Boldo was granted access to her adoption records as an adult, she was shocked and enraged by what she saw. She’s convinced that radical change is needed to provide Indigenous people with restitution and justice. And while she’s described her work as a cultural educator at Concordia as healing, she’s highly cynical of and has little faith in politicians.

“Over the years I have met many individuals from the social-services, health-care, police, justice and education sectors who work or have worked with Indigenous communities,” says Boldo. “Very few are able to admit their own errors and ingrained racism.”

‘We need to tackle the value system’ 

Angélique Willkie

Angélique Willkie, a Department of Contemporary Dance faculty member and co-chair of the President’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism at Concordia, says that systemic racism is rooted in colonialism.

Formed in 2020, the task force’s mandate is to oversee efforts to combat anti-Black racism across Concordia in order to help the university become a more diverse and welcoming place with deeper community connections. The mandate is wide-ranging and laborious, the challenges daunting. 

As Willkie notes, Eurocentric frameworks that were first used to justify the enslavement of Black people have not disappeared — they have simply evolved. “We need to recognize that our current condition is the result of a historical process that is predicated on a certain value system,” she says. “In order to produce any real change, we need to tackle the value system. We need to constantly question the ways in which we see each other and function with each other so that we create space for other stories to exist within our institutions.” 

Similarly, the recent history of Indigenous people who inhabited Turtle Island — or North America — for millennia before colonial settlers arrived, is a familiar one of racist doctrines wielded to justify cultural genocide and the violent assertion of control. 

Manon Tremblay

Manon Tremblay, BA 03, senior director of Indigenous Directions and chair of Concordia’s Indigenous Directions Leadership Council, explains that systemic racism is insidious, likening it to a hierarchical caste system.

“It’s embedded in the very institutions that we uphold as the foundation of our society,” she says. “And it stems from an entrenched colonial belief of racial, religious and linguistic superiority that favours the ideals of the people in power and puts up intentional barriers in accessing the same rights and privileges for other people based on their race.” 

Boldo agrees with Tremblay. “Systemic racism lives in legislation, policies, systems, processes, rules and regulations — spoken and unspoken — that are put in place by decisionmakers to protect their own social and political status.”

‘Generations of wealth stolen’ 

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, to name only some of the recent victims of racist violence in the United States, and Jamal Francique, Nicholas Gibbs, Anthony Griffin, Andrew Loku and Sheffield Matthews in Canada — and the grim reality of overpolicing and incarceration in both countries — have illustrated the extent to which Black bodies are viewed as disposable, threatening and criminal.

The effects of this distorted reasoning are wide-ranging, and include Canada’s brutal treatment of Indigenous children in the residential school system and its traumatic aftermaths, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and a lack of access to clean water, affordable food and adequate housing and health care on some reserves.

While the systemic racism and realities faced by Indigenous people should not be confounded with the experiences of Black people — the Canadian government enforced the displacement of Indigenous people from their traditional territories through forced relocation, starvation and tactics of genocide — there are some commonalities, including higher than average incarceration rates. 

Jason Lewis

Jason Lewis, a professor in the Department of Design and Computation Arts and a member of Concordia’s Indigenous Directions Leadership Council, explains that across time, the marginalization and limited opportunities afforded to racialized people can lead to less-than-ideal life outcomes that are then used to justify further discriminatory practices at governmental, legal, judicial and educational institutions.

“The challenge is that systemic racism doesn’t tend to ‘look’ like anything,” notes Lewis. “It is very difficult to see, usually because it is cloaked in formal and informal policies, procedures and guidelines, as well as legislation and legal codes that hide their original intent, either by design or by function of being obscured by history.”

With time, systemic racism also creates, entrenches and expands existing disparities between groups, says Lewis. “Systemic racism is often presented as ‘fact.’ People will say, ‘It’s a fact that Indigenous people have higher rates of criminality. One need only look at the data from the criminal justice system.”

The reality is that “Indigenous people have historically had their most basic cultural and political activities criminalized in ways that the white settler population has not,” adds Lewis.

A 2020 report from the Correctional Investigator of Canada, Ivan Zinger, stated that while Indigenous people account for five per cent of the Canadian population, the Indigenous inmate population has increased by 43.4 per cent since April 2020.

Comparatively, the non-Indigenous incarcerated population has declined over the same period by 13.7 per cent. Zinger noted that the numbers are even more troubling for Indigenous women, who now account for 42 per cent of the female inmate population in Canada.

“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is systemic racism in federal corrections,” Zinger remarked in a 2020 Globe and Mail interview. “They are more likely to be surveilled, stopped, arrested and convicted than the white settler population,” says Lewis. “Indigenous people have had thousands of generations of wealth stolen from them and were placed on territories that were too small, too remote or too barren for them to thrive on their own.

“What we now see is the result of a long line of historical decisions made specifically to disadvantage Indigenous people slowly, over time, transmuted into outcomes that are blamed on Indigenous people.”

The dangers of denial

Willkie invokes the Government of Quebec’s claim that systemic racism does not exist in the province, and the insistence that only a minority of Quebec’s population is racist.

“The historical implications of the structures that supported both slavery and its abolition suggest that there is, yes, perhaps a minority of racist people,” she says. “It’s without question that there’s a system of exclusion and privilege in place in our institutions that is a product of its origins and that has endemic consequences today for Black communities.”

Tremblay explains that when government authorities deny the existence of systemic racism it has two troubling consequences.

“The first is that it provides the government with a convenient excuse not to address deeply rooted systemic racism and therefore washes their hands of the entire matter,” she says. “The second consequence is that it gives licence to individuals and organizations to continue to exhibit racist behaviours and endorse racist policies and systems because of the perception that the government backs their institutional practices.”

According to Lewis, by denying that systemic racism exists, “the Quebec government discourages critical deconstruction of its problematic history around race relations and frustrates strategies for ameliorating the racism faced by discriminated groups. “Government denial also provides fuel to those who are personally racist to maintain their beliefs — as we’ve seen in Quebec, across Canada and in the U.S. — and to act violently on those beliefs.”

Tremblay explains that racism also exists in the very denial of its existence in order to protect colonial perspectives and structures. She believes organizations need to conduct in-depth analyses of institutional policies and systems to determine whether they represent barriers for racialized people. 

“They need to work in close collaboration with people who encounter these barriers to explore equitable solutions and bring about positive change. Individuals need to examine their beliefs, behaviours and reactions regarding other individuals who are not from the same racial background as they are. They need to educate themselves and embrace difference rather than reject it.” Tremblay maintains that systemic racism fails to address the internal structures that favour discrimination, preferring to blame individual offenders and calling unambiguous acts of racism isolated incidents. 

‘One symbolic gesture, not a shift’ 

Jacqueline Peters, BA 08

Another issue, says Jacqueline Peters, BA 08, a professor in the Department of Classics, Modern Languages and Linguistics and a member of the President’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism, is that many institutions do not collect and share disaggregated race-based data to understand and address systemic racism in the first place.

Peters says that many leaders ostensibly interested in anti-racism work have already determined what success should look and sound like, “and in their eyes, it doesn’t look or sound like us.” The hiring or promotion of one racialized person is often cited as evidence that institutional racism has been solved.

“When you can point to one person or two racialized people at your table, that isn’t inclusion — it’s a start,” she says. “But it’s more of a symbolic gesture, not a shift toward equity. The word for this is tokenism.

“True equity, diversity and inclusion is about providing what each person needs to achieve equality. It’s looking at new ways of being and thinking. It’s ensuring that you extend opportunities and listen to those who may not look or think like the people you have around your dinner table. Adding white women to a white male-dominated team is not true diversity.”

Vicky Boldo sees very little political will to address centuries of harm done to Indigenous people. Canada’s discriminatory Indian Act is still “alive and well,” she says. Boldo points out that the last residential school closed in 1996 — which she says was no different than a children’s internment camp — and she has seen round after round of national and provincial commissions and reports. These include the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and, more recently, the Viens Commission Report and the National Inquiry’s Final Report into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. “Then, this past May, we had the Laurent Commission’s 550-page report, which documented Quebec’s negligence, inequity and systemic racism in youth protection,” Boldo says.

In November 2020, she was appointed to the permanent board of directors of the National Sixties Scoop Healing Foundation. In her experience, commissions and reports place the burden on those who are oppressed. They compel victims to provide testimonies and recount painful and traumatic life experiences instead of holding the people and systems responsible for the trauma to account.

“For those in power, the tendency, once these reports are released, is once again deficiency-focused. They centre their attention on the trauma rather than on the systemic violence that created it in the first place.” Racialized people are expected to bear this emotional labour alone, says Peters. People in power typically offload the healing onto others instead of doing the work themselves. “Not only are you traumatized, but the institutions that have traumatized you then task you with repairing the damage they have done. Often it’s as a way of occupying racialized people with these tasks in the hopes that they won’t publicly air their grievances and that the work will eventually wear them down or simply fail. “Then we can all move on and the status quo can quietly resume.” Moreover, says Peters, if anti-racism work is done well or a person is too vocal about systemic racism, that can put a target on the person’s back.

While Peters doesn’t expect to see more than incremental improvements in her lifetime, she says that her work is largely focused on benefitting future generations of students, staff and faculty. She hopes for widespread acceptance of the need for change, the institutional will to make it happen and recognition that change will benefit not just racialized people, but society as a whole. 

‘Biases come from colonial underpinnings’ 

For Boldo, Lewis and Tremblay, it’s important that the university’s Indigenous Directions Action Plan be explored, studied, understood and applied across disciplines and departments at Concordia. Lewis maintains that it’s vital that individuals take the time to understand the history of the organizations and institutions they’re affiliated with. He encourages people to adopt a critical approach.

“Any human process presented as fact needs to be deconstructed. Who claims it as ‘fact’? What do they stand to gain? Who is most invested in upholding that ‘fact’ today? And, most importantly, who is disadvantaged by it?” Building strong relationships with the local Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) Nation is also essential, affirm the members of the Indigenous Directions Action Plan. Indigenous ways of seeing and knowing need to be respected, upheld and taught.

For Willkie, Peters and their task force colleagues, which includes Annick Maugile Flavien, BSc 13, GrDip 15, MA 18, who co-chairs the task force, the work of addressing systemic anti-Black racism as it occurs across the university — whether in policies, teaching and learning practices, or in the experiences of faculty, staff and students — continues.

“Fundamentally it’s about exposing, wherever possible, any biases that exist in the way the university functions towards its Black communities of faculty, staff and students,” says Willkie, whose work on the task force includes helping to prepare a final report with recommendations by April 2022. “Those biases aren’t attributed to individuals in any way, but they come from colonial underpinnings and absolutely need to be questioned if the university is going to be able to function according to its aspirations of equality, diversity, equity, decolonization and social justice.”

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