March 21 should be about more than slogans


The Commission finds that the police deliberately opened fire on an unarmed crowd that had gathered peacefully at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 to protest against the pass laws. The Commission finds further that the SAP (South African Police) failed to give the crowd an order to disperse before they began firing and that they continued to fire upon the fleeing crowd, resulting in hundreds of people being shot in the back. As a result of the excessive force used, 69 people were killed and more than 300 injured. The Commission finds further that the police failed to facilitate access to medical and/or other assistance to those who were wounded immediately after the march.

From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, Vol. 3, Chapter 6, October 1998.

In 1966, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution to recognize March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. March 21 was chosen to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960. On that day in Sharpeville, Azania (South Africa) 69 unarmed Africans were killed and more than 300 were wounded (shot in the back) as they fled the murderous gunfire of White police.

On March 21, 1986, Canada’s Prime Minister proclaimed in the House of Commons, the country’s participation in the United Nations call to all states and organizations to participate in the “Program of Action for the Second Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination”.

In 1989, the Department of Canadian Heritage launched its annual March 21 Campaign Against Racism and in 1996, the Racism. Stop It! National Video Competition. In September, 1998, ministers attending a federal/provincial/territorial ministerial conference on human rights agreed to commemorate March 21 in all Canadian jurisdictions.

Although Canada has an official policy of multiculturalism, the racism here is just as rabid as racism in America’s melting pot culture. For instance, when White people in Canada chastise immigrants for their perceived lack of enthusiasm in embracing Canadian culture, they are not referring to Aboriginal culture.

The so-called Canadian culture is a White Eurocentric culture that was imposed on the indigenous people and other racialized people. Individual racism and systemic racism continue to negatively affect racialized people in Canada. On September 13, 2007, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada was one of four nations (the others were the United States of America, Australia and New Zealand) that voted against the Declaration; 143 other nations voted in favour.

This decision by the Canadian government was made in spite of the October 2004 Amnesty International report, “Stolen Sisters”, which condemned “the terror and suffering that has been inflicted on Indigenous or Aboriginal women and their families across Canada” and urged the Canadian government to address the issue. The report cited the disproportionate number of young Aboriginal women who go missing or are killed every year with little public outcry or action.

Professors Carrie Bourassa and Wendee Kubik indict the long legacy of assimilation and colonization (Stolen Sisters and the Legacy of Colonization, published in 2006) as crucial contributing factors to Aboriginal women being particularly targeted by these acts of violence committed largely with impunity.

Locally, Toronto is celebrating 175 years of history but there is no mention of our story in Toronto. It has been 175 years (August 1, 1834) since slavery was abolished in Canada which included Toronto (York) and the African Canadian population grew as enslaved Africans from the U.S. fled to Canada. There was nowhere safe in the U.S. even for free Africans and even after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

In 1850, the United States passed the second Fugitive Slave Law which ordered marshals and deputies in free states to hunt enslaved Africans who had escaped to freedom and return them to their owners. Anyone found flouting this law could be fined $1,000. Formerly enslaved Africans who fled to Canada could live in freedom since legally they could not be removed from Canada.

After 1850, all Underground Railroad routes led to Canada (Toronto was the last stop on the Underground Railroad). The Fugitive Slave Law was repealed by Congress in 1864 because, after the Civil War, there was no longer a need for the Underground Railroad. Many of the people who had fled enslavement in the U.S. returned in an effort to reunite with family and friends.

Even though there has been an African presence in Canada since the 1600s with the arrival of Matthieu Da Costa (explorer, interpreter) in 1603 and six-year-old enslaved African child, Olivier Le Jeune, in 1628, African Canadians are routinely asked which island they are from. African Canadians have contributed to every area of Canadian life; the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved Africans helping to enrich White enslavers to today where African Canadians are mostly relegated to low paying jobs regardless of their education.

Men and women who are descendants of those who settled in the long standing African Canadian communities throughout Ontario from the time of the American Revolution (1775 to 1783) as United Empire Loyalists – and throughout the 1800s – do not fare better than those of us who immigrated from Africa or the Caribbean as recently as 2008.

Individual acts of racism such as one I witnessed at the Parkdale Library on Saturday, February 28, where a White man stood over a seated African Canadian woman and threatened her (including liberal use of the ‘N’ word) to the one I read about where police strip-searched an African Canadian assistant Crown attorney, proves that regardless of perceived social status, we are all affected by the pervasive racism of this White supremacist, Eurocentric culture.

Systemic racism can be so subtle that unless there is a study sanctioned by the government or an educational institution we bawl into the wind and all that results is damage to our mental, physical and spiritual health. From the subjects that are taught in schools (from kindergarten through university) to the manner in which we are treated on our jobs and by the people who are paid with our tax dollars to “serve and protect” we are at risk of physical and spirit injury.

The mostly useless and toothless policies and laws enacted to address racism are at risk as the White power barons can change anything at anytime and only a handful of “activists” will make some noise.

Amnesty International surmised in the “Stolen Sisters” study about the level of violence against Aboriginal women that: “These acts of violence may be motivated by racism, or may be carried out in the expectation that indifference to the welfare and safety of Indigenous women will allow the perpetrators to escape justice”.

Since then, the Canadian government’s refusal to sign on to the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples speaks volumes about the level of government indifference to the plight of racialized people. Not surprising, since the blueprint that was used in instituting the brutal, dehumanizing apartheid system (in 1948) when the White minority regime seized power in Azania, was patterned after Canada’s treatment of this nation’s Aboriginal people.

March 21 should be about more than slogans like “Racism. Stop it!” The role that Canadian institutions, including businesses and universities, played in propping up the apartheid regime is not usually acknowledged. The University of Toronto invested more than five million dollars in the apartheid system and a Canadian company, Space Research Corporation, sold South Africa the G5 howitzer, which enabled the regime’s genocidal wars of destabilization in the region.

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