A Brief History of the Social Construction of Race in Canada

A Brief History of the Social Construction of Race in Canada

Like the United States, Canada is a nation that was built on the genocide and forced removal of Indigenous peoples who had been living on the territory for several thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans (Dickason, 2002; Thobani, 2007). The Indigenous peoples of Canada (also referred to as Aboriginal) were living in all regions of the territory when first contact occurred in the 15th century, and had very well-developed social, political, and economic structures. Today, Canada recognizes three main groups of Indigenous peoples: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. In the 2006 Census, one million people self-identified as Aboriginal— approximately 4% of Canada’s total population (Statistics Canada, 2006a).

There was a very complex relationship between French and English colonial powers and the various Indigenous communities during the process of colonization. In some cases the colonizers forced relocation and even genocide, while in other cases colonizers pursued strategies to coexist. These strategies included “civilizing” processes whereby the government and religious organizations set out to reform the “savage Indian” and help him assimilate into colonial society (Milloy, 2000). A major part of this strategy was the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857, and one of its mechanisms was the system of Residential Schools (Haig- Brown, 1998; Hare, 2007). The mission of these schools was primarily to “civilize” Indigenous children. By the late 1800s, attendance in residential schools for Indigenous children aged 7–15 was compulsory. These children were forcibly removed from their homes, taken to residential schools, forbidden (and punished) for speaking their native languages, forced to convert to Christianity, and prevented from seeing their families for long periods; in many cases they were physically, sexually, and emotionally abused. The mortality rate at some schools was over 50% (Milloy, 1999). Most of the schools were closed by the 1960s, but the last school didn’t close until 1996. The psychic trauma is still a part of the Indigenous community’s collective memory and has resulted in a generational gap within Indigenous communities. Scholars who study the history and legacy of residential schools contend that this trauma is deeply connected to the higher rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide among Indigenous people (Haskell & Randall, 2009; Kirmayer & Valaskakis, 2009).

The race science being conducted and disseminated in the United States was adopted into government programs and policies in Canada as well. Blacks and Indigenous people were enslaved (Winks, 1971/1997), Chinese workers were excluded from citizenship (Li, 1988; Mar, 2010),


and extremist hate groups have long flourished in Canada (Lund, 2006). But since the 1970s one of the key strategies for managing racial diversity has been the policy of multiculturalism. The “melting pot” ideology of the United States was not useful in Canada, in part because it pressures the so- called two founding, colonizing nations (France and England) to assimilate. It would have meant an end to official bilingualism, on which Quebec would not compromise. The ongoing challenges to sustain the Canadian federation (and prevent Quebec from seceding) required an ideology that represented Canada as a tolerant, pluralistic, multicultural society. For these reasons, the “mosaic” (rather than “melting pot”) became the dominant image used to describe Canadian racial and ethnic diversity (Joshee, 1995, 2004). In 1985 the Government passed the Act for the Preservation and Enhancement of Multiculturalism in Canada. These policies promote the idea that all groups are positioned equally in Canadian society (the colonizer nations of England and France and their respective languages, people of Aboriginal heritage, and the multitude of immigrant communities in the nation) while leaving structural inequality unaddressed.

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