Most Canadians would deny that theirs is a racist country. Scholars refer to the White Paper (1976) on multiculturalism and the Multiculturalism Act (1988) as proof that Canadians “celebrate diversity.” But there are many sides to this story. While the idea of race has officially been dispelled since geneticists working on The Human Genome Project found as much genetic variation between members of the same ethnic group as between different groups, the idea of difference persists. The Multiculturalism Act encouraged people of every ethnic group to retain their own languages and cultures while integrating into their lives in Canada. Yet there are constant barriers to this in practice.

Structural and institutional racism

Canadian banks may no longer practice mortgage redlining, but there are plenty of other examples of structural and institutional racism in our society. Carlos Teixeira, an Associate Professor at UBC (Okanagan), did a study in 2006 comparing housing trajectories of Portuguese immigrants from Angola, Mozambique and the Azores. He found that black Portuguese immigrants faced significant racism in the housing market compared to white Portuguese immigrants. Robert Murdie, who has now retired from York University, found similar results in his comparison of Portuguese and Somali housing trajectories (2002). There are many studies documenting the difficulties immigrants to Canada face in the labour market: employers will not hire anyone without “Canadian experience.”

While most Canadians with anglo-sounding names would probably urge incoming immigrants to keep their names, in everyday life it is often just easier for Chinese immigrants to go by their English variants, like Josephine for Ji Ling. Indian immigrants often shorten their names to anglo-sounding equivalents: I recently met a Kal who had shortened the considerably lengthier Kalvinder, and a Dee whose full name was Deepali. Indeed, my adolescence and young adulthood was peppered with anglo-ethnic hybrid names. While we were often criticized for “wanting to become white” (by our co-ethnics) or “losing our roots” (by our white friends), in practice it is just annoying to have your name mispronounced and misspelled on a daily basis.

Philip Oreopolous’ study at the University of British Columbia suggests prejudice against ethnic names may be more than just an annoyance. A Professor of Economics at UBC, Oreopolous created 6,000 mock resumés to represent recent immigrants and Canadians with and without non-English names. They were tailored to job requirements and sent to 2,000 online job postings from employers across 20 occupational categories in the Greater Toronto Area, Canada’s largest and most multicultural city. Applicants with English-sounding names got almost 40% more callbacks from employers than those with Chinese, Indian, or Pakistani sounding names. All applicants had at least a Bachelor’s degree, plus any additional qualifications specified in the job ad, and each applicant listed three previous jobs. Changing only the location of the applicant’s job experience, from Canadian to foreign, lowered callbacks by 5-10%. Employers valued Canadian work experience far more than a Canadian education. Oreopolous concluded that there is considerable employer discrimination against ethnic Canadians and immigrants; even when the person evaluating resumes spoke with an accent or had an ethnic-sounding name, they still preferred English-sounding names by a factor of 1.42. Oreopolous points out that this type of discrimination is illegal under the Ontario Human Rights Act. In this case, both the employer and the potential employee lose; the employer has purposely overlooked a potential employee with the appropriate skills and education. Oreopolous’ results cannot help but highlight institutional racism, which is more than a little surprising in the GTA, which is 46% foreign-born; China, India, and Pakistan are the three top source countries for immigrants. In a city and region so multicultural, that has been an immigrant reception center for over a hundred years, there is no way for employers to tell whether a person is a first-, second-, or third-generation immigrant, solely by looking at their name.

Modern racism

While Oreopolous points out the obvious legal implications of this discrimination, many scholars would call this modern racism rather than institutional or structural racism. Modern racism is a slippery concept: the Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a policy in 2005 stressing the subtler forms of discrimination. Examples of modern racism in the workplace are:

  • Exclusion from formal or informal networks
  • Denial of mentoring or developmental opportunities such as secondments and training that was made available to others
  • Differential management practices such as excessive monitoring and documentation or deviation from written policies or standard practices
  • Disproportionate blame for an incident
  • Assignment to less desirable positions or job duties
  • Treating normal differences of opinion as confrontational or insubordinate
  • Characterizing normal communication as rude or aggressive
  • Penalizing a person for failing to get along with someone else, e.g. a co-worker or manager, when one of the reasons for the tension is racially discriminatory attitudes or behaviour of the co-worker or manager

Differences in name, accent or manner of speech, clothing and grooming, diet, beliefs and practices, and leisure preferences can bring out subtle acts of racism. Because of language differences, member of various ethnic groups communicate in different ways. For example, in some cultures it is normal to wait several seconds after a person is finished speaking before responding; in anglo-North American culture the pause time is under one second. Those with the longer pause time would think they were being constantly interrupted by those with the shorter pause time. Underlining, or repeating the last few words of a person’s sentence at the same time as they are speaking, is common in some cultures but considered rude by North Americans.

Another common form of subtle racism is co-opting part of an ethnic culture: it is considered fashionable for a white person to wear a sari or practice yoga, but not an Indian person. I would add that in Canada we have the practice of “celebrating diversity” by having silly cultural festivals, yet we do not tolerate difference on a daily basis. A few years ago, a friend of mine told me his daughter was asked to return one day from school because she had henna tattoos on her hands. My friend, a Canadian of Indian ethnicity who is married to a white Canadian, said the school official told him the school did not allow tattoos at school. A few months later, the same official asked if his daughter could bring some sort of Indian food to a school multicultural festival.

Assuming that members of the same ethnicity are all the same is another example of subtle racism. Most of my Indian friends fend off questions about where the good Indian restaurants are, if we like Bollywood movies, and whether we have been to India; yet in most cases, we would have been teased mercilessly for liking Indian food, movies, or culture during our childhood and adolescence. In Outliers (2008), Malcolm Gladwell addresses the assumption that Asians are better at math. We even find examples of racism in terminology: what groups fall under the heading of “Asian”, and can they be grouped together as if they are all similar?

Joe Darden, a Professor of Geography at Michigan State, argues that denial of subtle and institutional racism allows Canadians to avoid changing legislation or monitor practices that discriminate against non-whites. Along with most other scholars, Darden points out that Canada has a long history of racism in immigration policy (The Significance of White Supremacy in the Canadian Metropolis of Toronto, 2004). He suggests that changes in the economy, and not changes in attitudes among white policy makers, were responsible for the removal of discrimination in immigration policy. In the post-war era, the need for skilled workers opened up immigration to non-European countries, while racist attitudes have remained. Like many African American scholars, Darden believes that there has been a transition from overt and institutional racism to subtle racism. Although significant Aboriginal populations have lived in Canada for thousands of years and British Columbia had small Chinese and Sikh populations around the turn of the century, Canada’s racist immigration policies only began to change in 1952. Most non-Europeans in Canada entered the country after 1967 changes to the Immigration Act. Fifty years is not a lot of time to eliminate racist ideologies.

The idea of racism in Canadian society may seem impossible, but various studies have proven there are subtle forms of racism in the housing market, labour market, and in social interactions. Oreopolous’ study shows that racism is present in the most multicultural city in Canada, therefore it must exist in cities with less cultural diversity. Many believe that cross-cultural education is the key to breaking down preconceptions about other cultures, understanding how different communication styles and values. In a multicultural society, cross-cultural training should be offered for all ages, from kindergarten to university, in schools and in the workplace. But Oreopolous’ study, as well as the earlier studies by Murdie and Teixeira, indicate there is also some legislative work to be done, as well as monitoring of employers, housing agencies, real estate agents, and landlords to ensure discrimination is not a factor in hiring, promotion, renting or buying a home in Canadian cities.

This post is now closed to comments.

26 Responses to “Modern racism in “the most multicultural city in the world””

  1. stena says:

    Very well written. The issues discussed resemble a lot like in europe than anywhere else.

  2. S Zachariah says:

    I would say racism is very much alive and kicking in Toronto and in many cases are not even subtle. We immigrated six months ago and during our desperate search for a house to rent, were told by a rental agent over the phone that he does not rent to people from India. Having travelled extensively all over the globe and having worked in several countries, I was dismayed that I had to hear this in the country I chose to immigrate to. Am still trying to decide whether to stay or leave. The “white supremacy” will make this decision easy as my resume has not got me even one interview. Should have changed my name before I came over.

    • J12 says:

      We can’t really generalize racism with only one person. Of course, there will always be racist idiots everywhere but we can’t include everyone just because of them.

      As for employers, you know, they aren’t necessarily white… I doubt everyone of every ethnic origin prefer necessarily hiring people of white colour.

      • ghardy says:

        actually racism is systemic not just an individual attitude, and canadian social structures not only affirm white individual racist opinions, but protect white individuals from the consequences of their racist actions….when was the last time anyone in canada was taken to court for human rights violations against any person of color? and yet i, as a first nations person, know of many many egregious violations of basic human rights committed against people of color by white people over and over and over again. the courts are only as effective as the individuals controlling them and when those individuals are racist and are driving an institution like the justice system, then it is, in fact, a racist vehicle since it is tainted by their individual racism. thats what systemic racism is and how it works.

        • cath says:

          Actually people of color in Toronto do discriminate against others as well, men against women right across the board, white Canadians against white immigrants or white ethnic Canadians and so on. I’ve lived here for the last 23 years and I have experienced prejudice personally or witnessed it from every single group with no exception. Ethnic groups also discriminate against each other withing the group. Personally I have dealt with a manager of Indian origin from Guyana that was probably the most racist man I ever met. Never mind his incompetence and lies – employed by the Ontario government – he only hired people who were from the Caribbean or brown and not from Europe.

  3. Africano says:

    Let em star by saying, sorry about my poor english.
    I am from Oslo, Norway and I have to say Canada is multicultural country. The reason I am saying this is just tske a look at how the canadia. Schools build identities among their kids. Here in Canda when I am with somali speaking kids I hear them saying I am canadian and u can see how proud they are about their multicultural identity. In norway when you talk to somali speaking kids , they will tell u that they are somali even though they have never been seen African continent. In other words yes they are challenges that Canadians are facing but they are building the foundation of multiculturalism. And that is multicultural identity. That starts from school.

    • ghardy says:

      well, no…they say they are canadian because canadian-born-canadians are discriminatory against people from other ethnicities maintaining a hyphenated identity. ive lived here pretty much my whole life and in many different provinces and its the same racism across canada.

  4. Aria says:

    I’ve lived in Toronto for my whole life and I must say, I haven’t been racially divided. I may have been, but it was subtle enough not to offend me. The key to fighting racism is not to make everyone feel the SAME; but for everyone to embrace each other’s DIFFERENCES.

    People asked me if I liked Indian music. I’m nowhere near Indian, Pakistani or any cultures of that sector of the world – my nose makes me look as such. I kindly said that I haven’t listened to it nor know anything about it and moved on. Many people would have taken this as ‘racist’, but it was actually people saying they accept other cultures and that they were interested in it.

  5. Pat says:

    Racism is in Edmonton but it is a different type of racism than straight racism. If you are oriental in Edmonton you have it made as a colored person. But if you are a person with dark skin then be prepared to experience some very smart racism that may mess up your life in important ways. Most likely you will experience racism in employment and very few white people will associate with you outside of work.

  6. passerby says:

    Uhh…you used the word “ethnic” in the wrong context. Sheesh…please North AMericans..revise yuor English skills before attempting an article on multiculturalism. Ethnic does not mean non-white.

    And this article does not tell the entire story of immigrants & discrimination. Even non-Canadian whites face discrimination when it comes to obtaining jobs. Also, non-English speakers & people from cultures/religions that are hostile to women etc often face “discrimination” due to their unwillingness to integrate into Canadian culture.

    • admin says:

      Yes, that’s why I used the word ethnic to refer to Indian, Chinese, Pakistani immigrants as well as Portuguese. At the time that Canada’s Multicultural Act was developed, some our largest ethnic groups were in fact “white”: Greek, Italian, and Jewish. These groups, by the way, were largely discriminated against on religious grounds rather than the colour of their skin. Since 1976 the Canadian Census has taken a broad view of ethnocultural identity: in 2006 there were almost 30 groups with which a respondent could identify, including a number of Aboriginal groups, French, English, Jewish, and Canadian (these won’t appear in the 2011 Census since the long-form questionnaire has been discontinued). In the U.S., the Census asks both the respondent’s race (e.g. American Indian, Black, White, Asian as defined in the U.S.) as well as ethnicity (Hispanic/Non-Hispanic Other).

      I doubt that any one article could tell “the entire story of immigrants and discrimination”, but the section on pause times is particularly illustrative of how non-English speakers might fare in an English-speaking workplace.

  7. passerby says:

    Sorry for the typo…should have been: “revise YOUR English skills..”

  8. John says:

    I live in Toronto for 20 years and racism has always been present and everywhere we go. In many medical offices and hospitals, I figure racism is the strongest, especially a white doctor will give more care and attention to white patients or a black nurse will not help an Asian patient. The diversity model fails to function well under the conservative government.

  9. Patrick says:

    When you live in a country and carry its citizenship and people keep asking the conventional question…”where are you from?”, this can be looked at by alot of people as one form of racism of let’s put it mildly a means to single out someone.

    When you’re told that you’ve been admitted to come to Canada for your skills and qualifications and on starting the job hunting process you’re faced with the fact that you cannot be hired because you have no “Canadian” experience, this raises so many question marks. I certainly think that they only need to people to come and do all purpose general labour work and that is it.

    I love this place for its provision of safety, stability and protection only. Professionally and socially, you have to strive and struggle to become “acceptable” by the society more than any other part of the world.

    • Patrick says:

      Apologies for the typo:

      looked at by alot of people as one form of racism or let’s put it mildly a means to single out someone

  10. DB says:

    This is a one sided blog by people who either weren’t born here, or have dual citizenship and try to devalue Canada because they spent most of their life somewhere else. Try to make sure they get the Canadian citizenship as insurance though. Citizenship of convenience its called. What a bunch of hypocrites, as we Canadians say if your don’t like us go back to where you came from since it was so great that you left it to come to Canada in the first place. Do you see how you look (transparent and full of BS). You are so insulting and Canadians can spot you a mile away.

    • admin says:

      This blog is written by one person, Ren Thomas, who was born and raised in Canaada. “We” do not say go back to where you came from. “We” also appreciate the diversity that makes this country so great, and don’t believe that spending several, or many, years of our lives in other countries diminishes “us” as Canadians. Once you’ve lived in other countries you realize what a rare example of integration and acceptance Canada is, despite the fact that racism is still present to some degree.

      • Mark says:

        There are many varieties of racism or prejudice in Toronto. What about every white immigrant with a non anglo sounding name? Since those groups are not “visible minorities” according to the common understanding of the term, I suppose they are “invisible minorities”. And that is much worse.
        I also witnessed personally prejudice coming from those “visible minorities” in their hiring processes. Ontario Provincial Government for example has a very large groups of people from Caribbeans and there is no chance in hell they would allow anyone else joining their teams. The hiring process goes along the lines of belonging to the same group – unionized hiring managers will take care of it appearing “legal” etc. There is no need for professional qualifications, education, etc. Just being one of the pack is enough to be hired.

  11. Jane says:

    I am mixed white race whose family came around 1610. I lived in toronto from 1989-1995, but I would not live there now for any price. I started to feel overwhelmed with all the different cultures which caused anxiety for me as where I grew up its all white, christian and everyone only speaks english (canadian culture). I do not like how canada is changing. For ex. we just ordered food for canada day and the foreign lady did not trust our credit card (although she took the money( and started we would a have to show a photo ID plus do other paper work just to get a food delivery! Then the guy who shows up is around 60 a new immigrant with very limited english. He passed the food and keeps saing ADD TOTAL ADD TOTAL ( I did not get what he was meaning then I did- he was asking for a tip! so we left him not a PENNY and he stormed off.

    Then last week I was on the bus and it was not that packed so I placed my grocery bags on the seat beside me. More got on and a moslem college girl came and asked me to move the bags to sit and I said im not moving them (as there was no where to put them). So then she proceeded to placed her heavy white purse on top of my groceries and she left it there! I had cream in my bag and also bread which she squished. I was ripping mad!

    Then u get foreign cab drivers here who if your a single woman they take u on a day trip and pretend to go a better way and charge u three times the amount they should. This happens especially if they know u are new here but even when u live here. Why is it in my province the drivers are white and they never do this- they dont rip off people and they also help u if u have bags to take them out of the car or help old people…….

    • Tammieq says:

      …If you’re on a bus, it is plain and simple, very rude to keep your things on a seat where a person has to sit. You keep the groceries on your lap or at your feet, or get a lift from a friend if you have no car. Granted the girl didn’t need to put her purse on your things, but you were the first one at fault.

      If you think that it’s great everyone speaks English, I have news for you. China is rising, and the world isn’t going to be pure English anymore.

      In an increasingly globalized world, the space and tolerance for views such as yours is rapidly shrinking.

  12. Hi, interesting reading all your comments, I was born in London 50 yrs ago, to Sri Lankan parents. Had a hell of a lot of racism inflicted growing up,seems a bit better now, but deep down, and not that deep, its still a difficult place if you have a different look to the English.

    Saying that,their taste buds have changed from fish and chips to Chicken Tikka Masala, guess that’s a start?

    Lets see what the next 50 yrs will bring about.

  13. […] for a black Portuguese immigrant to find housing than it was for a white Portuguese immigrant [Ren Thomas]. One of the major issues with implicit and concealed racism is that the racism isn’t […]

  14. […] racism have been conducted with respect to the Canadian context, some of which are outlined by Ren Thomas with regard to immigrant and refugee experiences, and also by a report to the United Nations by the […]

  15. […] hurtful, try to understand the situation as a whole. Ren Thomas, M.A., Ph.D (Planning), discusses Modern racism in the “the most multicultural city in the world”.  Taking a active approach to informing yourself is not only a relevant immediate skill to foster, […]

Leave a Reply