Speaking of Racism . . .

29 June 2020

We are not only witnessing but experiencing a time of profound upheaval and anxiety, brought on by the confluence of several overlapping crises with broad and deep ramifications. The COVID pandemic has disrupted and inflicted suffering throughout much of the world, and in the process, it has struck a crippling blow to the global economy while calling into question how it is structured. At the same time, these two juggernauts have brought to the fore other longstanding issues, including the blatantly unequal way that wealth and power are distributed, between men and women, those of different races, religions and ethnicities, and among citizens subject to a variety of governmental regimes, from democracies to dictatorships. Sadly, military conflicts, political oppression, and the persecution of minorities—be they Uighurs and Tibetans in China, people of different faiths hounded by theocracies, or those in the LGBTQIA community, to name but a few—continue to sow discord and undermine peaceful coexistence on the finite planet whose blessings we all need to share. Closer to home, the spate of recent police killings of unarmed people of colour in the United States, especially young, Black males, has thrown into sharp relief troubling concerns about the persistent problem of racism, be it individual or systemic. Attitudes deeply imbedded in mainstream American culture are now being challenged by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has mobilized diverse communities behind a call for racial justice and a new approach to the way that society treats matters of public safety, minor transgressions of the law, and those with obvious mental health problems.

Of course, racism is not only a scourge in the United States, it has widespread manifestations, including in Canada, where Indigenous, as well as Black slaves, were kept in parts of the country before the practise was restricted in Upper Canada in 1793, curtailed entirely on Prince Edward Island in 1825, and then abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834. This history will come as a surprise to many if not most Canadians, who typically learn that Canada provided a haven for escaped slaves fleeing from the United States via the Underground Railway in the first half of the nineteenth century but are often uninformed about the existence of slavery in Canada. Although Canadians may not feel burdened by the painful legacy of large-scale institutional slavery that Americans are still struggling to come to terms with more than a century-and-a-half after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Canada has in no way been exemplary in its treatment of its Indigenous people, Afro- and Asian-Canadians, or in how it has often behaved towards immigrants from what used to be called “non-preferred” countries. Nor is contemporary Canadian society untainted by the stain of racism in overt, covert, and unconscious forms. As Ukrainian Canadians or Canadians of Ukrainian descent, we simply do not have the right and cannot afford to be indifferent to what is happening around us, in Canada, in Ukraine, or anywhere else in our ever-shrinking world.

It is true that Ukrainians in Canada know a few things about discrimination firsthand, as there was a time when we were not regarded by some as being “white” or members of a “civilized race,” notwithstanding the colour of our skin or our European heritage. By being regarded as less than “real Canadians,” it was possible for Ukrainians to be denied jobs or the possibility of advancement simply on the basis of their “foreign” origin or “funny names.” Of course, Ukrainians also know well the history of their own homeland, where their fellow countrymen who identified themselves as Ukrainians and insisted on having their native tongue and culture respected were for centuries treated as second-class citizens, even though they formed the majority of the population. It is therefore natural that as Ukrainians we should feel common cause with the oppressed and especially those who have been occupied and colonized on their ancestral lands.

This does not mean that Ukrainians are themselves incapable of harboring racist views, or that they haven’t at times been pawns in imperial projects to mould others in the chauvinist image of their oppressors. Nor does it mean that as Canadians we are impervious to the toxic influence of racist attitudes and assumptions that often seep imperceptibly into our worldview and affect the way we interact with others. Recognizing and understanding this is but the first step that we must take if we are to join our Indigenous brothers and sisters on the road to Truth and Reconciliation, if we are to march in solidarity with people of colour protesting racial injustice and inequality, and if we are to end the discrimination that many newcomers to Canada continue to feel despite their best efforts and yearning to be acknowledged as full-fledged citizens of our country.

The Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, under its founding director, Dr. Manoly Lupul, played an active and important role in the movement to have multicultural policies adopted by federal and provincial governments and to have Multiculturalism enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Human Rights. While the achievement of these goals is something that all Ukrainians can be proud of, as they have made a lasting and positive contribution to Canadian society, we cannot rest on these laurels.  Clearly, there is still much work to be done if Canada is to be an example to all people of the world of a just, inclusive and welcoming country that works for the benefit and well-being of everyone, and not merely those “privileged” by a particular bloodline.


Jars Balan



Note: To educate yourself about the history of slavery in Canada, a good place start is “The story of slavery in Canadian history,” by Matthew McRae, accessible through the website of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, at https://humanrights.ca/story/the-story-of-slavery-in-canadian-history