For many people, 2020 was a year of increased awareness about injustices in our society. The outrage sparked by the death of Joyce Echaquan and the momentous Black Lives Matter protests represent a public rejection of a system where power is not shared equally, but for the advantage of a dominant group.
To confront this system, we must name it, recognize it, and understand it. La Ligue des droits et libertés, an Inter Pares counterpart, defines systemic racism as a system of oppression that favours one group at the expense of racialized groups.1 In recognizing this as a “system”, we can move away from individual accusations of racism and instead uncover underlying discriminatory policies and norms. When we understand that power structures inherited from a colonial past perpetuate these injustices, the possibilities for collective change are greater. Each person can then become open to taking individual and collective responsibility for realizing anti-racism.
Change also happens by amplifying the voices of marginalized groups as they demand respect for their rights. For example, Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) is an activist group that advocates for change in the unjust treatment of migrant farm workers in Canada. The federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program promotes a division of labour based on race, makes essential agricultural work precarious and denies the rights of racialized workers, while contributing to global structural inequalities. In resistance, J4MW launched the “Colours of Food” campaign to highlight the injustices suffered by these essential workers.
Glimmers of transformation are appearing: media coverage and analysis throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is revealing how migrant and racialized people are disproportionately affected; and Montreal established a commission on systemic racism. Each action in itself is small, but as they multiply, they foreshadow a greater collective awareness. As Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, Innu poet and activist, said following the death of Joyce Echaquan, “We must demand justice, we must demand that systemic institutional racism be eliminated so that each person is treated with dignity and humanity ... We absolutely must be able to work together, fight together, so this can stop. ... We must call for solidarity and for people to come together.2”
1Systemic racism…Let’s talk about it! La Ligue des droits et libertés. April 2018. https://liguedesdroits.ca/brochure-systemic-racism-anglais/2Racism systématique : Elisapie et Natasha Kanapé Fontaine interpellent Legault. Valérie Boisclair, Radio-Canada. 1 October 2020.
When we understand that power structures inherited from a colonial past perpetuate these injustices, the possibilities for collective change are greater.