International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

The United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed worldwide on March 21 each year. The day aims to remind people of the negative consequences of racial discrimination, and to remind us of our obligation to combat racial discrimination.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that “The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is an opportunity to renew our commitment to building a world of justice and equality where xenophobia and bigotry do not exist. We must learn the lessons of history and acknowledge the profound damage caused by racial discrimination.”

Despite progress made in past decades, racism and related acts of intolerance occur on a daily basis all around the world. Rising bigotry and prejudice continue to be challenges for all countries. We need to fight racism everywhere, every day, and on March 21, all eyes are on the issue.mosaic1

 Multicultural Canada

In Canada, many feel that our policies around multiculturalism demonstrate that we are an accepting and welcoming nation. And there may be some evidence to back this up. The Social Progress Imperative 2015 Index ranks Canada third amongst all nations for its tolerance and inclusion. The Index offers a framework for measuring multiple dimensions of social progress, benchmarking success, and catalyzing greater human wellbeing.mosaic2

 A Tainted Past

That being said, Canadian history is dotted with intolerant and exclusive practices such as

  • the Chinese head tax
  • the exclusion of black Oklahoman farmers from coming to Canada in 1910
  • the May 1914 refusal of 376 passengers from Punjab, British India, to enter Canada; 24 were allowed in but the other 352 passengers were forced to return to India
  • the exclusion of Jewish immigrants from the 1920s until after the Second World War
  • the prohibition of all Chinese immigrants in 1923
  • the 1939 refusal to let the ship The St Louis land, forcing it to return to Europe with its 930 Jewish refugees, and ultimately sentencing three-quarters of these passengers to death under the Nazi regime
  • the internment of persons of Japanese heritage during the 1940s

Race: Canada vs the US

And then there is our dismal record of treatment of our own Aboriginal people, the legacy of which has come to bear today. Journalist Terry Glavin gives some sobering statistics in an article for the Ottawa Citizen in which he challenges the assumption that, while race may be an issue in the United States, it’s not so much so here in the True-North-Strong-and-Free. Glavin reports that “the conditions that torment Aboriginal Canadians to this day are no less a disgrace than the dead-end impoundments so many African-Americans find themselves within today.”

Consider these figures:

Income and Employment


Rates of Incarceraton


High School Dropout

Report on Canadian Values

But we’re an open-minded, welcoming lot when it comes to accepting newcomers, right? We value diversity and multiculturalism, don’t we? I mean, just look at all the Syrian refugees we took in…

Well, guess again…

In its Report on Canadian Values the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) found that while Canadians value multiculturalism, we continue to grapple with its limits.

“Most Canadians agree that multiculturalism contributes to social cohesion, has a positive impact on ethnic and religious minorities, and makes it easier for newcomers to adapt to, and adopt shared Canadian values,” said Anita Bromberg, Executive Director, CRRF. “Yet when it comes to religious expression in the public sphere, there is still a question of how far Canadians are willing to accede to meet multiculturalism’s promise of integration and inclusion.”mosaic4

Acceptance… With Limits

When asked to identify their most important value from a list of 10, respect for human rights and freedoms scored highest at 21 percent. When asked specifically about multiculturalism, 60 percent agreed that it requires reasonable accommodation of cultural practices, including practices about which the respondents might feel uncomfortable.

According to 64 percent of respondents, multiculturalism appears to allow for the pursuit of cultural practices that are incompatible with Canadian laws and norms. When asked to provide examples of such practices, 28 percent identified the wearing of religious garb – hijabs, burkas and turbans – in public or security settings, as well as the wearing of turbans and hijabs by members of the police and RCMP. A further 10 percent listed religious practices in general, and 8 percent cited observance of religious holidays as incompatible.

Forty-six percent of respondents said the government should discourage these practices and 40 percent said it should be done by enforcing or imposing laws on all Canadians. Educating immigrants about Canadian society scored next at 15 percent.

These responses suggest a schism between theoretical acceptance and practical application of multiculturalism, indicating a pressing need for an ongoing, national dialogue.RDD_leaves-183414_640

Work Still to be Done

“There is still work to be done in fostering a better understanding and respect for the full expression of multiculturalism in Canada,” concluded Albert Lo, Chairperson, CRRF. “The Report on Canadian Values helps us to further understand issues that threaten to divide us, while providing essential keys to strengthening our shared core values.”

On this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we can take some pride in the gains we’ve made over the past couple of generations. But these reports and figures should serve as stark reminders that we still have a way to go. We must remain vigilant, and continue pursuing the goal of having a nation that is open, accepting, and inclusive to all.

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