The term ‘BIPOC’ is a bad fit for the Canadian discourse on race

Joseph Heath’s piece questioning the prevailing wisdom of Canadian diversity discourse and its reliance on American language and context struct a nerve and provoked a debate that earlier articles had not, including his defence of the term visible minorities rather than separating Blacks from other visible minority groups.

While I agree with his focus on Indigenous peoples and visible minorities, and use of those terms until the employment equity act terminology is changed. We also need to recognize the differences and the similarities with the USA, both overall and with respect to specific groups.

I am less convinced by his arguments of French as the other group, given constitutional guarantees and a provincial government with extensive powers (nationalist currents in Quebec might agree on the “oppression” aspect but would likely bristle at being lumped together with visible minorities):

One of the biggest problems in Canadian politics is that large segments of our population seem to think they live in the United States. How else can one explain the fools running around in MAGA hats and holding demonstrations in support of former U.S. president Donald Trump? Sometimes, I feel like I should shake them by the shoulders and shout, “You live in Canada!”

Unfortunately, I am beginning to feel the same way toward people who talk about “BIPOC issues,” as though it were normal for Canadians to use that expression. After all, BIPOC (“Black, Indigenous and People of Color”) is an acronym developed in the U.S. to discuss domestic race relations, just as BAME (“Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic”) is used in Britain.

Rather than developing our own acronym to reflect the reality of race relations and multiculturalism in Canada, far too many people have chosen just to use the American term. This cognitive capture by American social-justice discourse is, in many ways, just a left-wing version of what’s been happening with MAGA on the right.

All three components of the acronym, B, I and POC, are problematic in a Canadian context. Let’s start with “Black.” In the United States, there is good reason to put the B first, because Black people are by far the most important minority group in that country, making up more than 12 per cent of the population. Furthermore, as descendants of slavery, most can trace their ancestry in the U.S. back hundreds of years.

The situation in Canada is quite different. When I was born, in the 1960s, Black Canadians made up 0.2 per cent of the population. This number has grown to more than 3.5 per cent today, but the consequence is that the Black population in Canada consists almost entirely of immigrants and their immediate descendants. Furthermore, Black Canadians are not the largest group of recent immigrants, as they are outnumbered by both people of South Asian and East Asian ancestry.

Because of their distinctive history in the U.S., it makes sense to treat Black people as a separate category in that country. And because of their demographics, it may make some sense to put them before Indigenous people, who make up only 1.6 per cent of the U.S. population. In Canada, however, where Indigenous people make up almost 5 per cent of the population, it makes no sense at all to put the B before the I, or even to treat Black people as a separate category from other ethnic groups. Indeed, it is in many ways offensive to the distinctive status of Indigenous peoples in Canada to put the B first. From the perspective of many Indigenous people, the Black population of Canada are settlers, just like white Canadians – that is, part and parcel of the continuing colonial project.

As far as discrimination is concerned, comparative victimization claims are difficult to assess, but only someone who was confused about the differences between American and Canadian history could think that the suffering of Black Canadians outranks that of Indigenous peoples.

This brings us to the “POC” part of the acronym. This is slightly less important, but the term traditionally used in Canada is “visible minority.” And apart from being American, “person of colour” is not very popular among those it used to describe.

Finally, it is worth noting that the largest group of people in this country who were victimized by British colonialism, subjugated and incorporated into confederation by force, are French Canadians. This is why the status of the French language has served as the major flashpoint for conflict over minority rights in this country.

And so, if there is the need for an acronym to identify the most important minority groups in Canada, I would propose “FIVM”: Francophone, Indigenous and Visible Minority.

For all those who have enthusiastically adopted the BIPOC acronym – along with the American habit of analyzing social conflict through a racial lens – it is worth keeping in mind that the U.S. approach to race relations has been a recipe for conflict. Why anyone would want to import this way of thinking into Canada is a mystery to me. When people around the world look for models of pluralist integration to emulate, Canada’s federalism and multiculturalism policies are generally pointed to as among the most successful.

An important feature of these policies, traditionally, is that Canada has not sought to racialize what amount to ethnic differences among peoples. The idea that a recent immigrant from Ethiopia has something important in common with a descendant of African slaves whose ancestors have been on this continent for 300 years is not just a fiction – it is pernicious misrepresentation. Even the suggestion that all Black communities here face the same racism is likely to obscure more than it reveals.

The idea that we should continue with the failed American BIPOC model instead of using the far more appropriate FIVM acronym is difficult to understand – except as a consequence of American cultural imperialism. How else could anyone get the wild idea that it might advance the cause of social justice to import American racial politics?

Source: The term ‘BIPOC’ is a bad fit for the Canadian discourse on race

More neutral and less controversial question of the term BIPOC is seen in this piece by Azra Rashid:

On April 20, a jury in Minnesota found Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd. Following the verdict, Canadian media was filled with extensive coverage and endless analyses of the story.

Many Canadians watched the racism unfold in the United States with a sense of moral superiority and relief that “this kind of thing does not happen in Canada.” The Canadian response to racism south of the border can be described as an Americanization of Canadian history. The media’s lack of coverage of racism in Canada, in its historically accurate context, is a cause for concern.

Different histories of racism

Canada’s history of racism is different than the United States.

In 1619, the first slave ship docked on North American shores, bringing 20 enslaved Africans. This was the start of the transatlantic slave trade that saw at least 300,000 Africans brought to and sold at U.S. ports. Historians estimate that in Canada, between 1671 and 1834, there were 4,200 slaves – about two-thirds were Indigenous and one-third were Black.

Outlawing the slave trade and restrictions on non-European immigration later slowed down the growth of the Black population both in the U.S. and in Canada.

Immigration regulations introduced in 1962 in Canada eliminated preferences for immigrants of European origin for a points-based system, prioritizing skilled labour. As a result, the immigrant population became more diverse in Canada. Similarly, in the U.S., the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Refugee Act of 1980 and the Immigration Act of 1990 have helped to increase the number of immigrants in the country.

Immigrants today account for 13.7 per cent of the U.S. population compared to 22 per cent in Canada.

The history of slavery and immigration provides an important context to contemporary conversations on racism. But an increase in immigration does not automatically lead to more or less racism.

In a country like Canada, it’s important for us to acknowledge our differences in history from the U.S., account for racism within a particular historical context and reflect on what racism actually looks like here.

Difference can provide a space for understanding the implication of race in defining the various experiences of racialized groups, instead of a universalized representation of race and racism.

Racism towards Indigenous people

Canada has a long history of racism towards Indigenous people – from the colonization of their land and enslavement to the violation of treaties and policies that led to residential schools and the ‘60s Scoop.

Abuse and racism suffered by First Nations, Inuit and Métis people at the hands of the government continue to take a toll on Indigenous lives. Many remote communities face challenges accessing basic necessities like clean drinking water.

Indigenous people in Canada also experience the highest levels of poverty: 25 per cent of Indigenous people live in poverty while 40 per cent of Indigenous children live in poverty.

Accessing health care has also been a challenge for many First Nations people. Several months ago, Joyce Echaquan died in a hospital in Joliette, Que. Not only did she not receive the help she needed, but hospital staff told her that she would be better off dead. Meaningful action to fight the systemic racism Indigenous people are experiencing is yet to come.

In the U.S., genocidal policies aimed at Indigenous people changed when legislators passed a number of laws, most importantly the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, which resulted in the U.S. government’s recognition of Indigenous statehood.

In recent years, some policies, especially those implemented by former president Donald Trump’s administration, have been diminishing tribal land rights, sovereignty and resources. The Keystone XL Pipeline project, approved by the Trump administration and cancelled by U.S. President Joe Biden, was met with strong resistance from Indigenous people in Canada and the U.S. The project had the backing of Canadian government.

The American influence

The U.S. influences Canadian lives in many ways – from the economy to culture. Canadians often mindlessly consume U.S. media and politics without thinking twice about how those issues manifest themselves in Canada and what the differences are in the history of race and racism between the two countries.

The Americanization of Canadian culture is not new. In 1926, in an essay titled Is Canada Being Americanized?, journalist and philosopher C.H. Bretherton offered reflections on Canada’s movement toward American models of social and economic life. However, Americanization of Canadian history is a rather new phenomenon.

About a decade ago, a national survey of 18- to 24-year-olds found that only 46 per cent of respondents knew Sir John A. Macdonald was the first prime minister of Canada, let alone the racist policies he implemented in the country. Polls conducted more recently by Historica Canada show a similar lack of knowledge of Canada’s history.

The blame falls not only on our education system, but also on our news and media that continue to lead with American stories and fail to report on what is historically important and relevant in Canada. In the last 100 years, immigration reforms have made Canada more diverse, but the systemic racism faced by Indigenous peoples and immigrants fails to make a mark on the Canadian conscience.

The same day a jury reached a verdict in the Chauvin trial, a superior court in Québec decided to uphold Bill 21. The law prohibits public sector workers who are in positions of authority (including teachers, police officers and judges) from wearing religious symbols (such as hijabs, niqabs, kippas, yarmulkes, crucifixes or turbans) at work. The judge made an exception for individuals working in English-language schools. That story, however, was buried under the coverage of the Chauvin verdict.

While news outlets are flooded with stories on anti-Black racism, many stemming from the other side of the border, there’s still no uproar in Canada about legitimizing racism by targeting non-white communities.

Source: Racism & the Americanization of Canadian history: Why we shouldn’t look at ourselves through a U.S. lens