Combatting Racism in Canada

Remarks at the Black History Month panel discussion in honour of Fred Christie

Speaking Notes

Marie-Claude Landry, Ad. E.

Chief Commissioner
Canadian Human Rights Commission

The Fred Christie case: Enduring lessons
Black History Month Montreal – Panel Discussion in Honour of Fred Christie

Saturday, February 29, 2020
3:00 p.m.

McGill University Faculty of Law
New Chancellor Day Hall
3644 Peel St

Thank you so much. It is an honour to be here with you today.

I want to thank the organizers, my fellow panelists and all our participants.

And a special thanks to Fo Niemi — who has been such a tireless advocate for racial equality in Canada.

Before I begin, I’d like to honour and acknowledge that the lands on which we gather are part of the traditional and unceded territory of Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations.

For me, this recognition is more than just words; it is part of a larger effort toward Reconciliation and toward better understanding.

It is a mark of respect to the Indigenous people who have been the guardians of this land. It is a recognition of their important contribution to our past, our present, and our collective future.

It is also important for me to acknowledge my own historical framework that I bring here today. That is to say that my perspective is that of a white person.

I would like to begin by sharing something that may surprise you.

As a lawyer, as a human rights advocate, with all my work in promoting equality, combatting racism, serving as a national voice for human rights in Canada, and studying the impact of unconscious bias on our society, I must admit: Fred Christie’s case was new to me.

I did not know his story. And I am unfortunately not the only one who can say that.

I am sure that many lawyers, and many Canadians never learned Fred Christie’s story — not in secondary school, not in university, not even in law school.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between our country’s Black history and what many understand to be Canadian history.

We need to do more to show that Black history and Canadian history are one and the same.

Black history is Canada’s history.

And as the saying goes: when we ignore history, we are doomed to repeat it.

No matter the issue, no matter the time, systemic discrimination targets people in similar ways.

Denying someone’s humanity, dignity and value…

Cutting a person off from employment, housing, education or social connection…

If we miss an opportunity to learn from how discrimination manifested then, we risk misunderstanding how it manifests now.

As is often said, looking to the past can help us better understand what’s happening in the present, and help us build a better future.

With that in mind, I’d like to share three key observations — three key points — that resonated with me from the Fred Christie case.

One: the law is a powerful but inherently flawed tool.

Two: laws alone do not change culture, people do.

And three: No one can do it alone.

So to my first point about the law as a powerful, but imperfect tool.

In preparing for today, I read the original 1939 Fred Christie decision by the Supreme Court of Canada.

It is hard to imagine how the Court could have failed to understand the scope and systemic impact of its decision.

How did Canada’s highest court put the freedom of commerce above the right to be treated equally?

Carol Aylward, a critical race theorist, describes it best. She wrote:

“…if you could pinpoint the exact moment in legal history when the courts were most supportive of and responsible for the perpetuation of racist ideology in Canada, it would be the moment when the Supreme Court handed down the Christie decision.”

It is encouraging that more recent court decisions in racial-discrimination cases have acknowledged that anti-Black racism can be complex, subtle or even unconscious.

Decisions in the cases of Elmardy or Wickham or Basi are just a few examples.

In its 1988 Basi decision, by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal stated that the “subtle scent” of racism is seldom expressed openly.

Today, barriers to employment, barriers to health care, and the use of racial profiling in police interventions all result from the presence of that subtle scene of racism.

It can also be detected in the demographics of our prisons and our homeless populations.

This shows us that although Canada has come a long way in the eighty years since the Christie decision, anti-Black racism is as still present in Canadian society as it is elsewhere.

That is why we must be mindful of how the law is still a human tool that is subject to human flaws, human bias.

The application of the laws in our country reflect the environment in which the laws operate. The law is interpreted by the human bias and human perspectives of those charged with applying it.

Even seemingly neutral laws and legal frameworks can create barriers and contribute to systemic discrimination.

We must remain mindful of the consequences of our own biases on our work, and on the people we serve.

This brings me to my second point.

Laws alone do not change a culture — people do.

Transformation comes through conversation, through scholarship, through intervention.

Transformation comes through persistence, through self-awareness, and through lifelong learning.

But transformation does not come easily, nor does it happen in a vacuum.

It is going to be a long journey — and every step counts.

Every time we challenge racism — whether at home, at work, in the media, or in the courts — we are one step closer to a more equal society.

Every time we realize that a certain rule or practice is skewed by harmful bias and prejudice — it is an important step forward for our society and for ourselves.

Meaningful culture change requires everyone in Canada to acknowledge that racism encompasses a multi-faceted system.

As Robin DiAngelo refers to it in her book White Fragility: “Racism is a structure, not an event.”

It is very likely that the judges in 1939 were unaware of the impact that their decision in the Fred Christie case would have. In a similar way today, we are often unaware ourselves of the subtle and unconscious ways that our own words and actions may perpetuate systemic racism.

Some people might like to imagine that racism in Canada is a thing of the past. But is still very much exists, and we need to be able to talk about it.

Study after study has confirmed that racialized people still have to overcome significant barriers in order to advance their careers. Racialized lawyers are no exception.

In order to dismantle systemic anti-Black racism, in our legal system and in our society, we must recognize the critical importance of representation.

Representation matters.

Culture change will only happen when everyone is represented within the legal system — when the people working at every level in the system truly reflect the people they serve, especially at the top level.

Former Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin once said that Canadians should be able to see themselves reflected in the judges who are on the bench.

She said it is important to have as diverse a bench as possible so we can have different perspectives represented.

Today our Supreme Court of Canada comprises only white judges.

Our country’s legal decisions can only be as robust and informed as the perspectives and lived-experience informing them.

But improving representation is not enough.

Being aware of and understanding unconscious bias is essential.

Unconscious bias affects us all, no one is immune.

As Dr Rachel Zellars, a scholar on racial-bias, puts it: “If you have a brain, you have bias.”

That is why, at the Commission, we are working to understand our own biases.

Through ongoing training and ongoing dialogue, we look at our decisions through a critical lens. We try to consider the broader context in the racial discrimination cases that come before us. We do this to make sure we don’t overlook what the Basi decision referred to as the “subtle scent” of racism.

Sometimes, a clear understanding that there is a need to take action, is often the best guide to determining what action to take.

Throughout this process at the Commission, I have become more aware of my own biases.

I’ve had to question whether as a mother to a daughter of Mexican-heritage and grandmother to a Black grandson, does my family experience cause me to think I am immune to bias?

It’s a phenomenon that Robin DiAngelo describes in her book “White Fragility” in the following way:

“I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of colour. I define white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist... White progressives can be the most difficult for people of colour because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship-building, and actual anti-racist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetuate racism but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.”

The danger lies in our unconscious bias going undetected, unchecked and unchallenged.

Increasingly, racism and other forms of systemic discrimination are viewed as a complex web of cultural norms.

While this web may manifest itself in individual, episodic acts of overt discrimination, racism itself is not episodic.

As I said earlier: racism is a structure, not an event.

This complex structure causes insidious harm to people’s rights to justice, to education, to medical care, to housing and other essential areas of life.

Increasing our awareness of this complex structure of racial bias has made a difference.

My hope is that all of us, everyone in Canada, especially those in decision-making roles, make an effort to understand their own bias, and encourage the same in others.

This brings me to final point.

When Fred Christie mounted his defence, his entire community stepped forward and helped him raise the money he needed — in barbershops and local delis, the railway porters’ unions and the Union United Church, right here in Montreal.

No one can do it alone.

In other words: Progress comes when people stand together.

Too many in Canada take their rights for granted. We must seize every opportunity to honour those before us who made sacrifices to advance human rights. We must take action and push for a society where everyone feels included, safe and valued. We cannot stay silent. Silence makes us complicit.

Combatting racism and racial inequality — in all its forms — is a priority for the Commission.

In conclusion, I have one final thought to share.

I read recently that Fred Christie never considered himself an activist.

But in the eyes of his granddaughter, that is how she remembers him. She said: “he always impressed upon us to do the right thing. You stand up for what you think is right.”

I was not familiar with Fred Christie’s story before.

But I am now.

And I’ll make sure my children and my grandchildren are too, and I will use my voice to spread this message far and wide. Will you?

Thank you everyone, I look forward to our discussion.

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