Author: Margaret Cannon
Publisher: Random House
Length: 308 pages
A few years ago an African-American friend from Michigan visited me in Toronto . He was amazed at how integrated the city appeared to be: there were even people of different races standing together at the same bus stop! He later told me he aspired to live in Canada one day. While I was touched by his admiration for my country, I warned him that unfortunately racism does exist in Canada . I would hate for him to come here under the illusion it did not and then be bitterly disappointed on discovering the truth.
Many Americans, both Black and White, are taken in by Canada ’s seeming racial harmony. One (White) American who immigrated here in the 1970s with this vision in mind but who later found out otherwise is Margaret Cannon, a social worker, professor at York University , Globe and Mail columnist, and author of The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada. The book is a chronicle of her investigation into the presence of racism (and anti-Semitism, which for the purpose of this review will be subsumed under the heading “racism”) in her adopted country.
The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada was first published in 1995. While it may appear a bit outdated (Preston Manning and the Reform Party are frequently mentioned, for example), it is still relevant today in understanding racial discrimination in this country. It is written in a personable but not overly informal style. The Invisible Empire makes references to a number of well-known individuals, such as Western University psychology professor Philippe Rushton, late journalist and philanthropist June Callwood, and Catholic Archbishop of Toronto Aloysius Ambrozic. Perhaps the real substance of the book, though, lies in Cannon’s interviews with the people on the ground, so to speak: White Supremacists, police officers, immigrants, and native-born Canadians of all colours. To her credit she does her best to get feedback from all sides of the various issues she addresses. For instance, a young Black man in Toronto talks about receiving death glares from complete strangers right after the Just Desserts case. On the other hand, Cannon hears from a policeman who when describing the shootings of African-Canadian men by the police explains the dilemma officers face in trying to use as little force as possible while at the same time keeping crime under control.
The Invisible Empire begins with a description of White Supremacist organizations and their members. Cannon attempts to discover what attracts people to such groups. Her final conclusion is that many of these individuals join out of a need to belong to something larger than themselves, just as she in her younger years became part of the Young Socialists Alliance in the United States . She goes on to discuss several major players in the movement, some still famed like Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel and the late Heritage Front leader Wolfgang Droege and others who have since faded from collective memory, such as Carney Nerland, the “Fuhrer of Saskatchewan,” who was convicted in the shooting death of a Native Canadian man.
One controversy that emerges is the clash between the freedom of expression of people like Zundel and the desire to protect Jews and other minorities from hate speech. The issue gets thornier yet when it involves educators telling their students the Holocaust never occurred, as Eckville , Alberta high school history teacher Jim Keegstra did. Even individuals like myself who would, albeit reluctantly, defend Zundel’s “right” to spew any nonsense he wished in self-published pamphlets would draw the line at teachers doing the same with impressionable young minds in the classroom – though I might also agree with a trustee at the Eckville school board who said the matter should have ended with Keegstra’s dismissal, not in a court of law.
Other race-related controversies take up the pages of The Invisible Empire as well. Among them are the “Into the Heart of Africa” exhibit at Toronto ’s Royal Ontario Museum , the North York Performing Arts Centre’s decision to feature the musical Show Boat, and the resignation of social activist June Callwood from Nellie’s, the battered women’s shelter she had founded. Though Cannon refrains from taking sides in these battles, she says the side you do end up taking is literally the side of the colour line on which you fall. For example, in viewing “Into the Heart of Africa,” which displays the paraphernalia of Canadian missionaries to Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Cannon saw “an ironic look at a lot of dead white people who thought they were doing the right thing.” Black critics of the exhibit however spoke of its “false representation of African people, denigrating language and images, and perpetuation of colonialist and imperialist thinking about Africa .” Similarly while Show Boat was originally meant to be a statement against anti-miscegenation laws in the United States , Blacks in 1990s Toronto focussed on lyrics like “Niggers all work on the Mississippi .” June Callwood was forced to resign from Nellie’s following charges that women of colour were being excluded from positions of power on the hostel’s board of directors. A number of (presumably White) corporate sponsors withdrew their support for Nellie’s after she stepped down, but many non-White observers felt her accusers had some legitimate points.
The book attempts to portray how racism permeates Canadian daily life in its various spheres: education, entertainment, and even language. For instance, the word “Hymie,” which Canadian former talk show host Dini Petty used on the air to describe cheapskate husbands, derives from a derogatory term for Jews. Though Petty claimed to have no knowledge of the word’s origin and issued a public apology, the Jewish community was understandably upset. The stereotype of the greedy Jew has after all figured behind everything from pogroms to the Holocaust to the exclusion of Jews from institutions of higher learning (in Canada among other countries). At other times the racism of seemingly innocent words is more doubtful. One of Cannon’s interviewees, a Guyanese woman of mixed African and East Indian descent, says she can call a White woman “girl” but coming from the other end it would be racist because “it makes me the maid.” Here even the ultra-progressive Cannon admits this “may seem like linguistic hair-splitting to some.”
Towards the end of the book Margaret Cannon delves into the twin political issues of immigration and multiculturalism. Unlike in earlier years, most immigrants coming to Canada today are not White, a fact with which not everybody is comfortable. Canadians’ views on immigration are nuanced, however: polls show that while a majority of respondents want to reduce the number of immigrants, they also believe newcomers make Canada a more interesting place. Quebec holds an interesting position as a French-speaking province. Cannon notes that minorities report experiencing less prejudice in Quebec than in other provinces. Nonetheless, many Quebec Francophone leaders insist that those who settle in the province must learn French.
Multiculturalism is another political “hot potato.” Often described disparagingly as an orgy of singing and dancing and spaghetti-eating, the policy has been criticized by Whites and non-Whites alike. Trinidadian-born writer Neil Bissoondath believes it prevents immigrants and their children from fully integrating into their adopted nation. Black writer Marlene Nourbese Philip sees it as a way to appease non-Whites while continuing to exclude them from positions of power in this country’s institutions.
The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada is all in all a well-written and informative book. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to point out a few of its potential shortcomings. Beyond a short mention of past prejudice against the “heathen Irish,” Cannon says virtually nothing about White-on-White (“white” here in the sense of White Christian) discrimination. She is silent for example on the internment of Ukrainian Canadians during World War I. Perhaps her silence stems from her view of racism as the “conviction that the white (or White Christian) race is superior to all others [and that] all others are inferior.”
The notion of racism as a “Whites versus Others” question also clashes with her own findings that different non-White communities don’t necessarily love each other or bond together to oppose the great White oppressor. In one neighbourhood Cannon visits not only the White but the South Asian residents as well are convinced that “Blacks are committing crimes at record rates.” Even members of the same broad racial group don’t always engage in a gigantic love fest. Some Somali children speak of being assaulted by Jamaican gangs at Toronto schools.
Though Cannon’s dedication to eradicating racism is heartening in many ways, in her zeal she at times appears to see discrimination where it may not truly exist. For example, she states that “Blacks, Natives and Orientals [I have to admit being a bit surprised at her use of a ‘politically incorrect’ term for East Asians] report that they are regularly stopped by the police.” However, a couple of surveys show that while Blacks and Natives are indeed more likely than Whites to be stopped by the police, East Asians are actually less likely to be so targeted. One wonders whether if Cannon interviewed a group of young White men they too would tell her of being pulled over by the cops.
I read The Invisible Empire twice: the first time when it originally came out and the second just recently. I have tentatively come to the conclusion that racism in Canada may not be as pervasive as Cannon seems to believe it is but that she does provide a good description of race relations in this country. However, anybody wanting to challenge or confirm this conclusion should read the book for him- or herself.