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How is Canada's Record on Racism?

My novel Forgotten Followers features Joanna, a character of mixed-race struggling with feelings of being unworthy and not belonging. Joanna is affirmed when she sees Jesus reaching out to foreigners to heal them and bring them into the family of God. Do we as Christian churches do the same? How has Canada's dominant culture responded to minorities?

In my previous post, I spoke about Joanna hiding who she really is, imposter syndrome, and the harm to her self-confidence. In separate posts, I speak about Canada's early mistreatment of white immigrants and class struggles, and Canada's Black history. Today I will talk about how Canada's attempts to assimilate various groups went wrong and what Canada is doing as a result.

Minorities have been mistreated in the past, and with each arrival of a new ethnic, cultural or religious group, we have seen a pressure to assimilate while maintaining cultural identity. We have been challenged by diversity and introduced new laws and policies to protect minorities and have learned to accept and appreciate our differences.


Acadia was a French-speaking colony in what is now New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and parts of Quebec and Maine (US). Acadians took an oath in 1730 to remain neutral if there was a war between Britain and France. As Britain brought colonists to Nova Scotia, they were suspicious the French Acadians would not remain neutral. In 1755 Britain asked Acadian leaders to pledge an oath of allegiance to Britain. When they were reluctant, Britain took their livestock, burned their homes, and expelled them. Between 1755 and 1763, Britain deported 10,000 Acadians to South Carolina, and Georgia and some founded the Cajun culture of Louisianna. However, a few Acadians survived, and by the 1880s there were forums to establish Acadian national cultural symbols (flag, slogan, anthem). Today, Acadians have established French education (mainly in New Brunswick) and are making some gains to preserve their rights.

French Canadians

The French had built the fort of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in 1713, and while the British controlled it for a time, in 1748 France regained Fort Louisbourg. The Seven-Years' War broke out in 1756 and in 1758, Britain captured Fort Louisbourg from the French. After Louisbourg, the British moved to Quebec City and won a battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. Quebec City had been founded as a permanent settlement by the French in 1608. Next came the British capture of Montreal in 1760. The Seven-Years' War ended in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, which resulted in France leaving New France (its North American colony) to Britain.

The French had established a permanent fishing village on the small island of St Pierre in 1604, just 25 km off the coast of Newfound land. At the end of the Seven-Years' War, it was returned to France (in exchange for Cape Breton Island going to Britain) as a base for the fishing industry. It became a permanent part of France in 1816.

Quebec has successfully resisted assimilation by English Canada. There were four provinces in the formation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia. The British North America Act organized the distribution of federal and provincial powers. Provinces would keep provincial control of education, provincial freedom of education and religion, and health and justice systems. This gave Quebec the ability to protect French-language rights and education, French Civil Law, and French Catholocism. In 1965, Canada admitted that Quebec has a 'distinct society'. However, tensions mounted against assimilation, and in 1963 an organization called the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) was founded.

FLQ graffiti
FLQ: Francophone Liberation of Quebec: Oui (Yes)

Its goal was to fight anglophone domination and capitalism and to separate from Canada. The FLQ conducted several bombings in mailboxes, which were painted with both Canadian and British symbols. In October 1970, the FLQ kidnapped a British trade official and then a Quebec politician, whom they later killed. In 1980, during a referendum, federalist parties made promises to Quebec and Quebeckers voted to stay with Canada. However, in 1982, Canada's constitution was amended unilaterally, without Quebec's approval. In 1999, the Parliament of Canada passed the Clarity Act that set out conditions for any future vote by a province to leave Canada and strengthened federalism. Today, Quebec continues to fight to protect its language and culture.


Manitoba became the fifth province of Canada in 1870 when the Canadian government purchased Rupert's Land from Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). However, Metis, Cree, Saulteaux, and Assiniboine rejected HBC's ownership or ability to transfer the land without the consent of the Aboriginal peoples who lived there. No residents of the area were consulted about the transfer. Louis Riel and the Metis led the Red River Rebellion. Historians debate whether Riel was a rebel or a Metis leader fighting to protect his people from Canada. Canada hung Louis Riel for treason and with the rebellion over, Manitoba joined Confederation. Finally, in 1982, Canada recognized and affirmed Metis as one of the three distinct Indigenous peoples along with Inuit and First Nations. Today, there is a Metis National Council and Metis representatives for various regions.


British Colombia joined Canada as the country’s sixth province on 20 July 1871, primarily motivated by the threat of American annexation, the American purchase of Alaska in 1867, and the Canadian federal promise to build a railway linking British Colombia to the rest of Canada. Indigenous people were not part of these negotiations and as a result, indigenous reserves were reduced in size and British Columbia is the only province in Canada to exist on unceded land.

It became a national dream to build this steel ribbon to tie the country together, but it was difficult. Canada brought in 9,000 railway workers, including 6,500 Chinese. Chinese labourers built the difficult segment on the west coast through the mountains of BC in the 1880s. Much of the eastern end of the railway was built by the Irish immigrants. The Chinese were paid less than white workers, had to pay for their own provisions and were given more dangerous tasks such as explosives. Hundreds of Chinese Canadian railway workers died from accidents, winter weather, illness and malnutrition. In addition, the rail line split traditional indigenous territories and native peoples were located in sub-par lands or moved to reserves. The trains brought loads of new settlers who populated the former indigenous territories.

The US and Canada had a boundary dispute around the Alaska panhandle at the start of the Klondike goldrush 1897and the dispute was referred to an international tribunal in 1903.

An earlier treaty defined the border as 56 km east of the ocean coast, and the Canadians defined the coast as where the islands touch the Pacific, and the Americans defined it as where the mainland touches the Pacific. The tribunal and three American votes, two Canadian and one British. The British representative sided with the Americans. The Canadian representatives refused to sign the final decision, but it took effect in any case and a wave of anti-British feelings came over Canada.

Chinese labour: cheap, expendible
Chinese labour: How Canada achieved a rail from sea to sea


Jews were legally barred from living in New France, where immigration was restricted to Catholics. After the Seven-Years' War, Britain controlled Lower Canada and a few prominent Jews were in the British Army and settled in Montreal after helping seize it for Britain. By 1768, there were enough Jews in Montréal to establish Canada's first synagogue. Canada amended its law in 1829 to no longer require an oath "on my faith as a Christian", and in 1831 Canadian law gave full political rights to Jews. Growing anti-Semitism in Russia, Austro-Hungaria and Germany brought more Jews to North America in the early 1900s. Jewish immigrants brought a tradition of establishing a communal body to look after the social and welfare needs of the less fortunate.

Jews not allowed in segregated areas and in immigration

In the face of high unemployment during the Great Depression of the 1930s Canada severely restricted immigration, and Jews were rarely admitted. Canada discriminated against Jews, restricting Jews from medicine and law as well as certain property and vacation sites. During the 1930s, Canadian hate crimes and riots against Jews generated Canada's first anti-hate laws. Canada turned away Jews looking for a safe haven on the eve of WW2. During the twelve-year period of Nazi rule in Germany, Canada admitted fewer than 5,000 Jewish refugees. In 2018, Canada apologized for turning away Jewish refugees in 1939.

Since WW2, Canada has improved its human rights legislation. In 1948, Canada signed the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and amended the federal Elections Acts so that race is no longer grounds for exclusion from voting. In 1960, Canada passed the Canadian Bill of Rights and stopped barring immigrants based on nationality, citizenship, ethnic group, occupation, class or region of origin.


Japanese Canadians sent to internment camps

The first wave of Japanese Canadians immigrated to Canada between 1877 and 1928 and they were limited to working in certain service, fishing, or agriculture industries. They were denied the full rights of citizens, and by 1907, Chinese, Japanese, and all south Asians were denied the right to vote. In 1928, Canada severely restricted Japanese immigration, and it was stopped after Japan became allies with Nazi Germany in 1940. During WW2, Canada interned and confiscated the property of over 20,000 Japanese Canadians. Finally, in 1949, legal restrictions to control the movement of Japanese Canadians were removed. Japanese Canadian communities had been destroyed during the 1940s and they raised their children in white-dominated communities with limited knowledge of Japanese culture or language. After 1967, Canadian immigration laws were amended to use a point system based on education, social and economic characteristics and a new wave of Japanese immigrated to Canada. In 1988, the Canadian government apologized to Japanese Canadians and announced compensation to redress wartime wrongs and compensate Japanese Canadians and fund a new Canadian Race Relations Foundation.


Before Confederation in 1867, a person could vote based on their British citizenship, age, and land ownership. Since Status Indians lived on reserve lands owned by the Crown, they were most often disqualified from voting. The Indian Act was introduced in 1876 and pertains to First Nations people, not Metis or Inuit. Its goal was to assimilate First Nations into Euro-Canadian society. Hereditary chiefs were replaced with band council elected chiefs. First Nations were not permitted religious or cultural gatherings such as the potlatch, powwows, or sundance. Residential schools opened in the 1830s and were promoted to separate Indigenous children from their culture. First nations were prohibited from practicing their own culture, religion, and language. The Canadian government used the Indian Act to define who was considered a status Indian. A person lost status if they graduated university, became a Christian minister, doctor or lawyer, and a woman lost her status as First Nations if they married a non-status person.

In 1907, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, Canada's Chief Medical Officer reported that Indigenous children at residential schools had mortality rates as high as 25 percent but no action was taken on his report. In 1920 residential schools were made mandatory for every First Nations child ages 7 to 16. In 1922, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce published a story exposing the government's suppression of information on the health of Indigenous peoples. Residential schools continued to expand, with 80 of them operating in 1930.

In 1951 the Indian Act was updated to allow First Nations ceremonies, allow women to vote in band council elections, and allow communities to hire lawyers to bring land claims against the Canadian government. However, provinces were given jurisdiction over Indigenous child welfare. Provinces use these changes to remove over 20,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children from their homes and place them with non-Indigenous families. Through the 1950s, residential schools expand to Inuit in Canada's north.

In 1960, while drafting the Canadian Bill of Rights, the federal vote was granted to Status Indians. Through the 1960s, many residential schools close and the Canadian government takes over responsibility for the remaining schools from the churches. By 1979 only 28 schools remain, and the last school finally closes in 1996.

When I was young, our farm hired First Nations men from time to time and I sat beside their daughter on the school bus and we played together. Our family visited the local Indian reserve to enjoy their Pow Wow and buy their crafts. Our class went to visit Chiefswood, where the poet and author Pauline Johnston was born in 1861. Her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief and mother was an English immigrant and we learned how they honoured both heritages. Our high school teams played against First Nations players who attended nearby public schools. As an adult, I took my own children to visit the summer Pow Wow of the Saugeen First Nation and visited the Saugeen First Nation amphitheatre and gardens. I thought Canada had moved beyond its abusive past.

childrens shoes
My 2021 visit to Ottawa, where children's shoes illustrate the children who died at residential schools

In 1981, the United Nations Human Rights Commission ruled that Canada had violated human rights because women lost Indian status through marriage (while men did not). In 1985, the Indian Act was updated to allow all First Nations the vote and to reinstate status to those who had lost it for unfair reasons.

The 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples stated the Indian Act measures were oppressive. The Indian Act remains controversial as it has enabled social and cultural disruption, trauma, and human rights violations. First Nations recommend more reforms.

protest sign
Author photo: Every Child Matters

In 2007 an Indian Residential Schools Settlement provided compensation to survivors and established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2014, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) summarized the tragic experiences of approximately 150,000 Canadian residential school students, many sexually abused, and over 3,000 dying of malnourishment and disease. The TRC called residential schools were a system of cultural genocide, the intentional destruction of a culture. In 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls concluded that the Canadian state perpetrated genocide against Indigenous peoples. Canada has accepted the conclusion that what happened amounts to genocide. Since May 2021, remains of more than 1,000 children have been discovered on the grounds of just three former residential schools. Today, Canada is slowly working towards truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.


In my novel, Forgotten Followers: from Broken to Bold, we see Jesus reaching out to foreigners and marginalized people and welcoming them into the family of faith. He told us to go to all people, and all nations, and offer God's love. As Christians, we can follow the example of Jesus.

Canada's record shows we have struggled with racism and prejudices based on religion, ethnicity, and culture. Many minorities have suffered, and Canada has been slow to realize its mistakes. However, Canadians can be proud despite past injustices. We have a record of overcoming racism and have now become known for policies defending human rights. Canadians can see past injustices and remain proud of our country, our movements towards multiculturalism, acceptance, peace and safety. We are working towards justice, equality, and liberty. As we learn the truth of our past, we are working to do better.

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