An editor at Douglas & McIntyre asked Judy Rebick to write a book on new strategies for the Canadian Left. She is the former president of NAC (the National Action Committee on the Status of Women) and now a CBC personality.
Rebick demurred. Instead she proposed an intergenerational dialogue, and chose as her interlocutor Kiké Roach, a law student at Queen's University (and daughter of the prominent Toronto lawyer Charles Roach). Roach is black and Rebick white; the dialogue, Rebick tells us, quickly became one that was preoccupied with the differences assumed to flow from race. This, we are assured, should end any illusion that race is not a "central determinant" in the way we see the world.
The conversations are focused on particular themes, but the treatment of issues reflects little familiarity with the wider literature and little evidence of careful reflection. In the first chapter we learn that the New Right are simply repackaging the ideas we have "seen over thousands of years.handing power over to a tiny elite group of super-rich men who lord it over the rest of us." The Liberals have introduced "the most regressive immigration laws we've seen in years.... All immigrants are being treated like they're criminals." By the third chapter, we learn that in Canada, "there's still a caste system in terms of who gets to do what kind of work."
Only the details of racism change. In the "early 1800s" (sic), Chinese men were brought in to work on the railroads, only to face a head tax when they were no longer needed. Today the government "lures" wealthy Chinese immigrants because it wants their money.
Rebick supplies a beginner's guide to spotting racism: "Just look at the House of Commons, any newsroom in the country or any place of power, like the stock exchange or academia.... Where are the people of colour?"
Yet five out of the ten wealthiest people in the world are "people of colour". There is enough wealth and power in Vancouver's Chinese Canadian community that when proposals to compel taxpayers to reveal their offshore wealth were aired, representatives swiftly secured a meeting with the finance minister, Paul Martin, at which they warned of a West Coast Asian exodus. In the federal government, members of visible minorities include the multiculturalism minister, Hedy Fry, who was formerly the president of the powerful British Columbia Medical Association, and the prime minister's parliamentary secretary, Rey Pagtakhan, a former university professor. Fry first won her seat in Parliament at the expense of the then prime minister.
It is true that visible minorities do not appear in proportionate numbers in every area of Canadian life, but as 1991 census data indicate that 83 percent are first-generation immigrants, this is not surprising. Analysis of census data shows no pattern of contemporary discrimination against visible minorities.
Monica Boyd's analysis of 1986 census data, the year the federal government legislated preferential hiring for women and visible minorities, demonstrated that visible minority women, born in Canada, earned more than their white counterparts. Boyd, a preferential hiring advocate, tried to adjust for every possible factor that might explain their advantage (such as area of residence and qualifications), but visible minorities still earned more than similar white women, born in Canada.
What is now the wealthiest group in Canada, the Jews, experienced extensive discrimination in Canada before and after the Second World War. The second-ranking group, the Japanese, suffered war-time internment, property confiscation, and deportation.
The two interlocutors in this book's dialogue are ignorant of such basic facts as the number of visible minorities in the country. Roach, who, we are told, "has led numerous anti-racism workshops," declaims against the lack of visible minorities in newsrooms. She suggests they are "at least" 15 percent of the population. 1991 census data provide a figure of 9.4 percent (including those in the country on a temporary basis with no right to work). This figure is based on the "one-drop" rule, which includes in the total anyone with any visible minority origin, as well as groups of doubtful "visibility" such as Lebanese Canadians and some Latin Americans. Many of those in the count do not share Statistics Canada's view that they are members of a visible minority, and they are unlikely to be picked up on any self-report questionnaire, or by Rebick's visual inspection. Others are fluent in neither English or French, which is still a prerequisite for work in most newsrooms.
The conversationalists see racism everywhere, even in the botched police investigation into the Bernardo rapes and murders. This issue is first raised by Rebick, who is concerned at the opprobrium heaped on Karla Homolka, a product "of the same patriarchal power relations that create violent men." Roach quickly steps in to assure her co-conversationalist that the police failed to apprehend the murderous duo not because (on the evidence of this investigation) they would be hard-pressed to organize a booze-up in a brewery, but because the Bernardos "look like a nice, white, middle-class couple, which translates into `normal'." Roach contrasts this with the fact that "police routinely stop Black men on the street because they fit the description `Black male'." (Readers not familiar with the etiquette that governs such exchanges may not notice the shift from small case to large case with the change of colour.) Rebick then draws on the authority of the Toronto Star columnist Michelle Landsberg: "Michelle said to me, `If that guy had been Black, they would have been on it in a flash. Racism helped kill those girls.' " If the Ontario police have such finely honed racial antennae, why have been they been less than flashily effectual in their response to Jamaican posses and Chinese triads?
Racism is also advanced to explain the downfall of Zanana Akande. There was inevitable political fall-out from charges that the minister responsible for social welfare, in Ontario's first NDP government, had violated tenants' rights as a landlord. Akande resigned from the Cabinet but went on to serve as parliamentary secretary to the premier (Bob Rae) while the case was being processed. In Roach's reconstruction we are advised that the hapless premier "did not defend her or support her or invite her back into cabinet."
Roach boasts of her success in overcoming the opposition of other visible minority women to the formation of a racially segregated student group at McGill. One South Asian student was particularly critical but was finally persuaded of the need for racial exclusion. The problem, Roach divines, is "she had grown up surrounded by white people, and she had always tried to gain their approval."
Noting the decline in media coverage of NAC between 1988 and 1995, Rebick concludes that this was because NAC played a major role in the defeat of the Charlottetown Accord: "We overstepped the bounds of what social action groups are permitted." Even to conspiracy theorists this might seem far-fetched. A more credible analysis would point to a growing disenchantment with NAC's racial obsessions and a dawning realization that NAC spoke for very few Canadians of either gender or any ethnic background.
Federal funding of women's organizations had been encouraged in the hope that they would help to sustain national unity, offsetting the divisive force of history and language with the unifying force of gender. But NAC's highest profile was in opposition to the Charlottetown Accord. When the authors talk about the future of Quebec, readers will find little evidence that those who cheerfully helped to sink the accord have any viable alternatives.
NAC took no part in the efforts of English Canada to encourage Quebeckers to vote "no" in the 1995 sovereignty referendum. Tens of thousands of Canadians gathered on the streets of Montreal, in an eleventh-hour appeal, but NAC, like its allies in the CLC, was not among them. Judy Rebick explains why: " `Please stay', was like the last-ditch effort of a neglectful husband who respects his wife's announcement that she's leaving him by bringing home flowers and saying, `I'm going to be good and I'm going to come home every night and take care of the kids.' "
Canada's success in building a dynamic, diverse society, in a variety of hues, stands in marked contrast to the ethnic, racial, and religious tensions that characterize Europe, Asia, and Africa. History has not bequeathed us the legacy of structured inequality faced by black Americans, with devastating social consequences. The ethnic problems that threaten the country's continuation have little to do with the supposedly unique claims of "women of colour" or of all "people of colour".
There are many issues that would benefit from thoughtful contributions by those on the Left, including increasing income polarization, rising unemployment, and the dismal prospects of many young people, not least young males. But the loudest noises on the Left come from those who combine a myopic focus on the divisive politics of group grievance with a staggering economic illiteracy. This is well illustrated by Rebick, who observes that in the last two years people like herself, "to the left of the NDP", have come to recognize that the deficit and the debt may be problems. Her comment confirms that, over three decades, the failure of successive Liberal governments to match revenues with expenditure, the Mulroney government's doubling of Canada's debt, and the spiralling deficits run by provincial governments, never caused any concern to those who claim to speak for Canada's social programs. The accumulated debt is now eviscerating those programs, but those who did not predict this blindingly obvious result expect to be taken seriously.
Martin Loney is a consultant in social, economic, and community development, who lives in Manotick, Ontario.