By Courtney Betty
During the days of slavery in the United States, the Underground Railroad guided slaves to freedom in Canada, “the promise land.” Canada was always seen as a beacon by many others who immigrated to the country in droves. My parents were among the many immigrants from the Caribbean who came to this land of opportunity. They were inspired by many, but none more than former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau.
Lest we forget, it was Pierre Trudeau who in 1982 gave Canadians, against all odds, the Constitution Act which included a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This included the many protection of legal rights and freedoms as well as the enshrinement of multiculturalism as the foundation of Canadian society. This simple fact is one that his son, Justin Trudeau might have used during his time of silence when asked about the protests in the United States and the death of George Floyd. The fact that he was silent for so long is the same problem that the majority of white Canadians have had for many years.
As a young Black lawyer, I was inspired by Pierre Trudeau and the hope he offered in our new Charter of Rights. I dedicated my life to playing a role in helping to bring it to life. I had no idea it would be such a long and difficult journey. I remember my first job with the Federal Government developing a crime prevention program for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I was told by the Officer in charge that being Black would be a challenge to get the officers in Ontario to be part of the change. My response was “give me an opportunity to speak to them”, and he did. This turned out to be an incredible experience for my personal development and an important step for the many police officers who welcomed me into their communities throughout Ontario. I thank you!
My next step was the Department of Justice Canada as a Crown Attorney continuing my search for justice. However, for many Black lawyers, the great halls of justice unfortunately at the Department of Justice as well as Bay street law firms and the legal profession are littered with many stories of racism and discrimination. Even Black police officers, some of whom I have had the opportunity to represent, tell the horror stories of the racism and discrimination they face. That was then; this is now.
This is not the time, as we have tried for decades, convincing White Canadians that racism and discrimination exists in Canada. The ignited spontaneous combustion of Floyd’s murder is a wake up call for Canada and Canadians. For one, it has taught us that a little spark and a little fuel combined with pent up anger, injustices, hatred, and poverty is a recipe for massive destruction.
What can each of us do is the big question. Canadians must first understand that Corporate Canada and other institutions have had a knee on the neck of many members of the Black and Indigenous communities for a long time. Let us begin by first shining the ethnic lens on our own society to see systematic racism that exists from our boardrooms to our courtrooms.
If you are the head of a major Canadian corporation and Institution, you have a legal and moral responsibility to ensure that diversity and inclusion are not simply a checkbox within your organization. Start your next leadership meeting by saying, “Black Lives matter” All research shows that diversity and inclusion bring economic returns to your organization which is the goal of all companies.
You can also begin by helping to break the glass ceilings on Bay Street which stifle many young Black professionals and others. Let us also work to change marginalized communities to opportunity zones by investing in these communities that are most burdened by systematic racism and lack of opportunities. Many corporate leaders are thinking “I can’t do that”. Fortunately for you, Human Rights legislation, Employment law and the Canadian Charter of rights already mandate many of these areas.
Governments also have a role to play. All levels of government are legally and constitutionally required to defund institutions that contribute or play a role in maintaining systematic racism, even in our cherished arts sector. It is time to stop blaming the victims and recognize that how Governments spend their budgets is the best way to start achieving change.
A public statement by our leaders along with a national action plan to achieve economic opportunities for Black and Indigenous Canadians, rather than piecemeal projects here and there, will send a strong message to all Canadians and the rest of the world. The photo opportunities and same old rhetoric will not satisfy the universal cry “ No Justice No Peace”
There are some who will say these are just the rantings of another angry Black man. To them, I say I am an angry Canadian. My question to them, however, is how could I not be? And more importantly, how can you not be?