By Yvonne Sam
There can be no real serious talk, or discourse, about the biggest human rights issues that affect marginalized and racialized members of the society if no thought is given to the systems involved.
A recent Montreal Gazette op-ed titled “It’s high time for Quebec to launch a commission on systemic racism”, can in no way be viewed as a discovery, but rather as a misnomer or misleading at best. Plainly put, we cannot have a discourse that brings us closer to racial justice without being systemically aware.
Even media coverage far too often falls into the trap of failing to consider how systemic racism factors into the equation.
When the focus is only on individual stories it not only distorts our sense of how racism works, but also encourages us to see racism only as a product of overt intentional racist acts by individuals that can be fixed simply by correcting those individual defects.
Lost in the current translation or transfiguration, is the fact that there are four levels of racism. Internalized racism and interpersonal racism are the simplest ones to focus on, and the easiest to recognize in our day to day lives. In fact, these are the ones that individuals spend most of their average day talking about.
Once the two former-mentioned levels have been crossed, next comes systemic racism in the form of institutional racism — the racial policies and discriminatory policies that play out in schools, workplaces and government agencies. Stepping beyond that level brings into play structural racism, where unjust practices are played out across the institutions that constitute the Quebec society, such as the Quebec Human Rights Commission and Tribunal that routinely produce unjust outcomes for people of colour.
These two levels are interrelated and must be addressed.
The Quebec Bar defined systemic racism thus: “We understand ‘systemic racism’ to be the social production of an inequality based on race, which is reflected in the decisions affecting racialized people and the treatment that they receive”.
It is further stated that even if the proffered definition is incomplete and imperfect, it nevertheless provides a powerful image of what systemic racism is: a violence that is essentially detected by its effects.
Yes, institutions that actively work to push inequality, institutions that govern us, when Black individuals are guilty before and after being proven innocent, when the recourse for injustice or even a belief that injustice has been done is injustice itself. We are dealing with a phenomenon more dangerous than, or as equally volatile, as the atomic bomb, housed under the guise of the Human Rights Commission.
The mission of the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (the Commission) is to ensure the promotion and respect of the principles set out in the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, a quasi-constitutional law.
The Commission is specifically mandated to ensure that Québec’s laws, by-laws, standards and institutional practices, both public and private, comply with the Charter, which prohibits discrimination based on race, colour, ethnic or national origin and religion in the exercise of human rights and freedoms.
From the outset the Commission has been structured, and continues to function, to produce the results that are primarily advantageous to the Commission and the Commission alone. Human rights are addressed in a racially skewed manner. Systemic racism has always been present, and today is still alive and well.
Currently the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal consists of 13 members, appointed by the government, namely a President who is selected from among the judges of the Court of Quebec, three judges of the court of Quebec and nine assessors.
All members and judges are chosen based on their notable experience and expertise in sensitivity, and interest for matters of human rights and freedoms.
Within this composition, at the highest level, lies the seeds and sapling of systemic racism, as there are no Black representatives. To put the matter into its correct perspective, and its correct altitude, the court system also displays a glaring lack of diversity. Within Quebec’s legal system of the 500 or more judges operating at different levels, only three are Black.
To compound matters, many of the white judges are either unfamiliar with the Charter of equality rights, or are uncomfortable with claims of racism or Islamophobia, a finding, based on the experience of the Quebec-based Center for Research Action on Race Relations.
As far back as 1998 the Canadian Bar Association clearly stated that the Canadian Judiciary did not reflect the society it served.
Judge Daniel Dortelus, of the Court of Quebec, told a conference in 2007 that the Bench is still lacking diversity. Of Canada’s 2,000 judges, less than 20 are Black and the majority of those are in Ontario.
Only in 1999 was the first Black judge, Judge Juanita Westmoreland, appointed to the Court of Quebec. She subsequently retired in 2012.
The Quebec Human Rights Commission is independent from the government and fulfills its mission to promote and uphold the principles stated in:
• The Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms
• The Youth Protection Act
• The Youth Criminal Justice Act; for the sole benefit of citizens and in the public interest.
In addition to the President and Vice President of the Commission, of the nine members only two are Black. (Mme. Adelle Blackette and Mr. Emerson Douyon).
When talking of racism, the most common mistake made is to think of it as a problem of personal prejudices and individual acts of discrimination. It is not seen as a system, a web of interlocking, reinforcing institutions: our institutions.
Foundational to Canadian democracy is the control of certain groups. It is a structural reality, and certain institutions are built and function to protect that reality. Race supremacy is the core identity. Ignoring the reality of racism only makes the situation worse.
It is of vital importance to deconstruct the sources for both systemic and interpersonal racism to pinpoint and eliminate why such conditions still exist, and the steps that are necessary for change.
We can kick-start that first step by implementing the second step — talking. The source of systemic racism has been revealed, the facts are known, the sources shown.
We are now calling on the Minister of Justice to look at the longstanding and glaring facts, along with the life changing impact, and to set about making a noteworthy change that is well within her range.