In my childhood, I never heard the word ‘racism’, but in the past ten years, I have heard it used continuously. Does that mean that racists didn’t exist when I was a child? Not at all. My grow- ing up years were rife with racism.
I lived in a white community. Most of the people were of European descent, mainly British. We had a small number of Chinese people. I had no idea back then how communities were estab- lished. I think I simply assumed that they appeared out of thin air. I now know that that was not the case.
We owned property on the edge of town and there was a structure in our yard made out of poles. It was an Indian teepee, weathered, and very old, but it captured my imagination. I recall seeing a covered wagon driving down our road, which at that time was unpaved. Three Indian children were sitting at the back dangling their bare feet over the end and giggling with glee. My sisters and I chased it down the street begging for a ride. I had no idea where it came from nor where it was going.
My mother said that the Indians lived on a reservation. At one time they had lived on the street where I now lived, but then they had been relocated. The children didn’t attend school in town. The only Indians I saw were the men who regularly wandered into town to drink at the hotel and then staggered back to the reservation at the end of the day in a drunken stupour.
We had no black people living in our town either, that I knew of. But when I was about eight- years old, for the first time, I saw a black man walking down the street. I remembered stopping and staring. The only black person that I had seen up to then was in picture books about Africa, and even those were rare.
I now believe that my community in Canada was racist, but the word was never used. Canada didn’t adopt slavery, but I believe that was because the slave trade was driven by the need for cotton, sugar, and tobacco, and we were too far north to grow those crops.
North American native Indians were not used as slaves the way Africans were. But a man by the name of Richard Henry Pratt in 1902, coined the phrase, “Kill the Indian – save the man.” He was an American, but his philosophy was quick to be amalgamated into Canadian politics. The principle behind the statement was that Indigenous children must be separated from their parents in order to make them like white people, because it was assumed that if you were to live suc- cessfully as an adult in the dominant culture, then you must assimilate. Children were forcibly taken from their parents as early as the age of four, and placed in residential schools, most of them run by religious organizations. They were not allowed to speak their native language, and they were forced to cut their hair and dress like white children. I read a story of a native child in Canada who was taken by authorities at the age of four, and she didn’t see her parents again until she graduated from high school. She effectively had no idea who they were, and her native cul- ture had no meaning for her.
The same thing happened to black children during the slave years in America from 1619 – 1865, the difference being that black children were sold as the property of their owners, and many of them never saw their parents again.
White domination was not just a North American issue. Britain also supported the black slave trade. Britain was the first nation to become highly industrialized. They had invented the Cotton Gin, and they needed cotton to make it financially viable. The climate in the southern U.S.A. was ideal for growing cotton, but unlike Britain, the U.S.A. was in its infancy. It simply did not have a strong labour force, and Africa supplied that need. It was this white triangulation – Cana- da – Britain – and the U.S.A., which kept people of color in subjugation and bondage to the white man for hundreds of years. But economic domination was at the heart of it. Sugar, cotton, and tobacco were in high demand in the western world.
The truth is though, that unless you were directly affected by the assimilation of Indigenous peo- ple, or you lived in the southern U.S. states, and were a family that owned slaves, you may not have even been aware that racism existed. Such was the case with me. I am a Canadian, and yet it was not until I was an adult in my 50s, and took a University Canadian History course that I became aware of the government-sanctioned kidnappings of native Indian children in northern Canada, and their incarceration at residential schools. I didn’t know that much about slavery either.
That doesn’t mean, though, that I was unaware of racism. I was born after WWII, and in North America, prejudice against Germans, Japanese, and Italians was rife. Germans were called jer- rys. Japanese were called japs, Italians were called WOPs, and Chinese were called chinks. Then, of course, as others began to emigrate to Canada, names were found for them also. East In- dians were ragheads, Mexicans were spics, and anyone who came as a refugee was a DP or dis- placed person.
Today it puzzles me, that if we have left slavery and residential schools behind, and East Indians and Japanese and Chinese have been citizens of our nation for many, many decades, that sys- temic racism should still exist in our communities; in our police forces, schools, universities, and workplaces. My personal belief is that the problem of systemic, inbred racism is just not being taken seriously enough. But George Floyd’s death has changed that.
Canada has enacted human rights laws and hate-speech laws, and these have helped to keep the peace in what could be a hotbed of ethnic uprisings; but it seems as if police forces in Canada, the U.S.A., and Great Britain, regularly incorporate racial profiling into their policing routines.
Here is an example. Recently, I read an internet article about a young black couple (Olympians) in Britain. The police pulled them over because it was claimed that they appeared to be driving suspiciously. They were both pulled out of the vehicle. The young woman was separated from her three-month-old baby who was in the back seat. The entire episode was captured on camera.
According to this young couple, they were doing nothing wrong but said that police will ran- domly pull over black drivers in Britain. The young man said he had been pulled over many times, and that it was his normal. The same scenario is repeated over and over again in Canada and the U.S.A. as well. Do you think that the furor over the killings of four black people in the US in the past 3 or 4 months is unjustified? I believe that it is just the tip of the iceberg……to be continued.
Wendy Bryce – Bio
I was born and raised in British Columbia, Canada but I presently live in Calgary, Alberta. I have been writing for many years. I am a wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. I believe that if racism is to be conquered, we need to understand its history and the hold that that history may still have on a large segment of western civilization. It is my desire that this hold will be broken in the lifetime of my great-grandchildren.
This is a two-part personal essay, that I hope you will consider it for publication in your online news.