Where Race Does Not Matter: The New Spirit of Modernity

by Cecil Foster
ISBN: 0143017691

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A Review of: Where Race Does Not Matter: The New Spirit of Modernity
by Martin Loney

Cecil Foster's book is his third on the subject of race in Canada. The title suggests a sea change in Foster's thinking about his adopted country, an optimistic vision in which Canada will be a world leader in creating a society where, as the jacket tells us, "race does not matter." If this is a fundamental conversion, and Canada has now become a beacon to the world, how is it to be explained?
In 1991 the Barbadian-born writer's Distorted Mirror: Canada's Racist Face bemoaned the widespread discrimination faced by visible minorities. Foster found that "Canada is a racist country and always has been." The discrimination was so dire that minorities had become disillusioned about breaking into the professions: "They have given up trying." Curiously, Foster had no difficulty securing work as a journalist and once he finished his PhD immediately found employment at Guelph. Not that this was unusual; Statistics Canada data indicated that at the time, visible minorities were in fact much more likely to be in professional occupations than other Canadians.
Foster returned to his numerous grievances in A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada, published in 1996. Foster condemned Canada's brand of racism: "Racism with a smile on its face as Canadian Blacks like to call the brand they live under. A racism that nonetheless still saps dreams and leads to despair about the future. Such is the current reality of being black at the end of this millennium." Interviewed on CBC by Peter Gzowski, Foster claimed that whether you looked in politics, the arts, radio and television "you [saw] very little representation of minorities." Ironically, when Garth Drabinsky's Showboat was produced in Toronto, Foster was one of a number of black activists who decried it as racist', a view not shared by the black American press when Showboat, which addresses American not Canadian history, opened in the U.S. to rave reviews.
Now, barely five years into a new millennium, Foster is hailing Canada as a world leader. Unfortunately, readers looking for an explanation for this dramatic shift in the author's thinking will be disappointed. The title and publisher's description jar with what seems to be the writer's myopic obsession with race. Much of the first part of the book appears, without any obvious reason, to be preoccupied with establishing that Canada in the early decades of the twentieth century saw itself-at least in the eyes of its leading statesmen-as a white man's country. The interminable references to the views of South African politician, Jan Smuts, colonialist author James Froude and sundry Canadian politicians contribute nothing new. Is there anyone interested in the subject who doesn't know that Canada discriminated not only against non-whites but also had a clear hierarchy of preferences when it came to European immigrants?
Foster is noticeably silent on the latter question, whether because he is unfamiliar with the evidence or because it detracts from the simple model of Canadian history so beloved by the race industry-a history in which a homogeneous white society is suddenly faced with those who are visibly different and reacts with prejudice and hostility. In reality, whatever the adjustment difficulties that were faced by immigrants who arrived in the last thirty years, they pale in comparison to the experience of earlier immigrant groups. Today it is extraordinarily difficult to deport non-citizens who commit heinous crimes. In the 1930s Canada enthusiastically deported those deemed subversive or simply indigent, though the British-born were largely spared. Between 1930-35 some 26,000 were deported. Prejudice was widespread: at McGill and elsewhere, Jewish students were required to secure higher grades than others to gain entry. In Toronto of 1929, regulations were passed prohibiting non-English-language public meetings "and disorderly and seditious utterances." Removed from this wider context Foster's contribution is history as caricature.
Turning to modern times, Foster's focus seems to be less on the disappearance of race as a marker of social and political behaviour than on its presence. In his last foray into the field, Foster berated Canadians for such prejudiced folly as the election of Ed Broadbent (a white male) as leader of the federal NDP over neophyte black politician Rosemary Brown. According to Foster, this was an example "of how integration does not work, of how the best often doesn't win when race becomes the ultimate factor." In his latest volume Foster turns his attention to the roles of Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell in the Bush administration. Much might be said about what this means politically: Powell once touted as a possible presidential candidate for both Democratic and Republican parties had an uneasy relationship with George W., while Rice is perhaps Bush's closest adviser and an intimate friend. A black, conservative, powerful woman, she defies all the stereotypes. She may indeed be a testament to the claim that race doesn't matter. What does Foster conclude from this? "The world's most dominant country must now show to the world at least one Black face as part of this power complex." In the real world Powell and Rice have done little to increase support for the Republican Party or to enhance its standing among black Americans. The Clinton administration had no similarly powerful black politician yet its international legitimacy and its support among black Americans were of a different magnitude.
Foster is clearly enthusiastic about Canadian multiculturalism, though he fails to offer any critical assessment of the policy, simply taking it at face value. He claims to be having "a conversation with all academics and intellectuals studying Blackness and multiculturalism in Canada." In his extensive list of writers, Foster makes no mention of Neil Bissoondath, whose scathing critique of multiculturalism, Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, argued, inter alia, that far from ushering in a colour-blind society, official multiculturalism sanctioned an ongoing embrace of the enduring claims of race and ethnicity. Foster's discussion of the history of blacks in Canada makes no reference to the major scholarly work in the field, Robin Winks's The Blacks in Canada: A History. Is Foster unaware of the book or is he uncomfortable with Winks's more nuanced view of black Canadian history, which reveals that bigotry in one area did not necessarily occur elsewhere? Blacks could join the YMCA and Boy Scouts in Toronto but not Windsor. In 1923 the Knox Presbyterian Church in Toronto invited a black American minister to preach for a month. In Halifax the Presbyterian church barred black parishioners.
Foster claims that Canada "developed the prototype" of the "white-state model Black-skinned people should be kept out physically or if they were already within the borders of the territory of the state, held in rigid subjugation." How then to explain the election of William P. Hubbard as a Toronto alderman in 1892? Hubbard, the son of black Americans, served as the city's comptroller, between 1904-7 filling in during the mayor's absence. There is no shortage of narrow-minded prejudice in Canadian history but the task of scholarship is to analyse not simplify.
Foster's apparent dramatic change in view may be little more than illusory. The author remains as myopically obsessed with race as ever, but now, in an uncritical embrace of Canada's patronage-driven, multicultural policies, he detects a moment in history when the claims of some races will indeed be rewarded. Government policies do indeed emphasize race; those exhibiting the requisite characteristics will find their access to a range of goodies, from cultural grants to public sector employment, eased by the possession of the right group membership. The end of race? If only.

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