As a visible minority in Canada with young male cousins across the border, the recent news stories out of the United States regarding Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, etc. have been difficult to hear. Due to the sad deaths of these men of colour, it makes me think of how my family members may similarly be at risk of being treated unfairly with fatal consequences. Although I have now spent more of my life in Canada than Trinidad, where I was originally born and lived till the age of fourteen, I have a great deal of experience with being “the other” as I am clearly not part of the dominant group now nor was I in the past, with respect to race, sex, age, etc. My ability to grasp race relations while growing up as a female of Indo-Trinidadian descent was likely limited by my young age because my understanding of societal imbalances relied heavily on the adults around me who espoused convictions that the race of the political leader in power had significant positive impact on those of the same background and vice versa. This was likely due to the country’s demographics which were almost evenly split between individuals like myself, whose ancestors were indentured labourers from India, and those who descended from individuals originally from Africa who had been enslaved, which also represented the races of the leaders of the two major political parties during much of that time. What adds to my frustration when confronted with marginalization on any level is the outright denial that experiences of oppression can be remotely related to personal characteristics by members of the dominant group, likely due to their own discomfort with accepting that these atrocities still happen today.
Statistics regarding the overrepresentation of First Nations and Black children in care illustrate similar patterns of marginalization as information on the disproportionate numbers of Aboriginals and Black individuals in prison; both are examples of oppression in Canada that can easily be compared to the outrage of residential schools from the past, the consequences of which extend to the present. According to the Toronto Star, 41% of individuals in the care of Toronto CAS are Black, yet only 8.2% of the city’s population under the age of 18 is Black, meanwhile 37% of children and youth in the care of the Toronto CAS are White, although more than half of Toronto’s population under the age of 18 are White. According to Global News, nearly a quarter of all inmates are Aboriginal despite only making up 4% of the population, while 4 in 10 of the federal inmates are non-Caucasian offenders, as Black individuals are over-represented, especially in maximum-security institutions. Far less than ideal cultural competency is evident in calls to CAS from school and police staff which illustrate hypervigilance around any factors outside of the societal norm even in matters of food, while corrections staff similarly held systemic imbalances by making black inmates read racist words aloud when discussing Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a prison literacy group. Eventually some individuals refused to participate due to the “degrading” and “demeaning” material. These articles shed light on longstanding patterns of systemic injustice that negatively affect the outcomes of these oppressed groups, from childhood into adulthood, conceivably funneling individuals directly from the child welfare system into the corrections system, especially given the loss of identity that can occur in care.
Especially as we enter a new year, I hope that in future we can incorporate more progressive approaches into publicly funded services like child protection, corrections, etc. to adequately address over-representation. The benefits of cultural competency are likely to extend far beyond the experiences of these marginalized groups to the general public, towards a more socially just Canada, which should be the ideal goal for our taxpayer contributions. By collecting demographic data related to child welfare, and providing culturally appropriate family counselling services alongside CAS involvement, these societal imbalances can be identified and addressed. Similarly, by working on an action plan to meet the diverse needs of Canada’s multicultural population including hiring and training staff to challenge systemic injustice while building supportive networks between the judicial levels and cultural groups in the community, there would likely be improved outcomes for the general population as well as marginalized groups. At times like these, I reflect on this insightful quote from a leader who was instrumental in ending apartheid, Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Written By Krystal Kavita Jagoo, MSW, RSW