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Ending Racial Discrimination in Institutional Settings

Nearly half of all First Nations and Black people in Canada experience racial discrimination, according to the 2019 General Social Survey (GSS) on Canadians’ safety. According to Statistics Canada, GSS findings state that “Experiences of discrimination were more common among Indigenous people in 2019 (33 per cent) than they were in 2014 (23 per cent)”.

The report also states that “A considerably higher proportion of Black people experienced discrimination in 2019 than in 2014 (46 per cent versus 28 per cent)”.

These interactions often occur institutionally. Ending racial discrimination on a systemic level relates to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16: peace, justice and strong institutions. It highlights peaceful and inclusive societies as a necessity for sustainable development. SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 4 (quality education) and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) are also affected by institutional racism.

The Ontario Human Rights Code states that every person has the right to be free from racial discrimination and harassment.

Racial discrimination is the act of singling persons out based on their race and limiting their access to opportunities or services that are otherwise available to members of society. As a belief that one group is superior to another, systemic racial discrimination can be found in the standard policies and practices of organizations and establishments. These can disadvantage racialized persons at work and school and in housing, healthcare and other institutional settings.

According to Statistics Canada, one in five Indigenous people who reported discrimination said that it was during interactions with police.

The Ontario Human Rights Code states that systemic racial discrimination can also be experienced in the form of excessive probing from law enforcement officials, a lack of adequate care from healthcare professionals, or being denied a residence due to skin colour or ancestry.

These injustices are reinforced by societal norms and biases that are deeply ingrained in white supremacy and have been instilled into society on a systemic level since the country’s conception. These attitudes and beliefs aim to oppress one group while benefiting the other with societal privileges.

According to a study from the University of Manitoba, “Health disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are rooted in Canada’s colonial history”.

Brenda Gunn, the author of the study, notes that a significant pillar of colonialism in Canada was creating a healthcare system for Indigenous people based on a legacy of segregation.

Gunn states, “There is ample evidence showing that the healthcare system often serves Indigenous people poorly”.

Similar examples can be seen in cases such as residential schools and the Indigenous community’s confinement to reserves. This further perpetuates the jurisdictional and bureaucratic barriers faced by First Nations people when it comes to receiving the care to which other members of society readily have access.

These institutional settings did more harm than only obstructing access to healthcare services for Indigenous people. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) asserts that the entire residential school system was a case of cultural genocide.

Since the initial finding of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. in May 2021, over 2,000 more remains have been found across Canada at residential school sites.

The TRC estimates that a total of 3,200 Indigenous children in residential schools died of malnourishment, poor living conditions and tuberculosis. At least 150,000 children were forcefully taken from their families and sent to residential schools between the 1870s and the late 1990s.

Furthermore, Canada’s child welfare system continues to perpetuate the harmful legacy that residential schools began. According to Statistics Canada, 53.8 per cent of children in foster care are Indigenous, even though Indigenous children accounted for only 7.7 per cent of the population in the 2021 census.

In addition, “Results from the 2011 National Household Survey also show that 38% of Indigenous children in Canada live in poverty, compared to 7% for non-Indigenous children”.

The death of Joyce Echaquan in 2020 was a horrific example of how far racist practices and negligence can go in an institutional setting. The 37-year-old mother of seven was admitted to a hospital in Joliette, Quebec, with stomach pains. She filmed her last moments on Facebook Live, which show her screaming to nurses for help as they taunt her with slurs. The coroner determined that racism played a significant role in her death, according to BBC.

This is a brutal example of the power of deeply ingrained racist views and beliefs that affect the lens through which racialized people are viewed by frontline workers and others in institutional settings.

There have been further reports of institutional racism on multiple levels across the country. In Toronto, the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Indigenous-Ukranian-Black Canadian, is considered by her family to be murder. They have since filed a CAD 10 million civil lawsuit, according to CBC. On May 27, 2020, police were called to the family home for a wellness check, and Korchinski-Paquet ended up falling to her death from her 24th-floor balcony while officers were alone with her.

The Special Investigative Unit cleared officers of any wrongdoing, leaving the family mourning and in search of justice.

Canada established an Anti-Racism Strategy for 2019–2022, which invested CAD 30 million in projects that aimed to end discrimination and racism in Canada in terms of employment, social participation and justice. Some of the initiatives focused on reducing barriers to hiring and promoting participation in community sports and arts, while also investing in public education on the issue at hand.

The strategy took an Indigenous-focused approach and included 231 calls for justice directed at governments on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

Other initiatives include the First Nations Housing initiative, Youth Justice Services Funding Programme, Indigenous Justice Programme, Addressing the Challenges Faced by Black Canadians, Indigenous Skills and Employment Training Programme, and the Youth Employment Strategy.

Institutional racism perpetuates systemic inequalities and disproportionately disadvantages certain groups. Eliminating institutional barriers will promote the wellbeing of all Canadians, unleash the population’s full potential for economic benefit, and help create a just, respectful, inclusive and egalitarian society.

Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha

Photo by Adrian:


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