Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate the opportunity to rise in debate on these critically important issues. The recent and brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the United States has been a catalyst for a necessary and, I hope, cathartic public debate throughout the United States, across Canada, and the entire world, which I hope will lead to a real change in hearts, minds, and institutions. Let us say clearly and with one voice in this place, that racism is always and everywhere an unqualified evil. It is a sickness of the soul. It is a stain on humanity. It must be condemned at every turn, and we must recognize our own sad history of institutional racism here in Canada and indeed here in Alberta.
Racism has touched too many Albertans. Too many Albertans continue to experience racial prejudice in their lives. Mr. Speaker, it is important for those of us who are elected to represent Albertans to say these things and to reflect them in our attitudes and in our actions because what we seek to build here in Alberta is a society that is rooted in a belief in the inalienable dignity of the human person, a belief in equality of all before the law, and a belief in real, lived, actual equality of opportunity. That cannot exist as long as there are attitudes of racial prejudice, which judge people, which undermine the lives of people, which at their worst inflict violence upon people because of the colour of their skin, of their racial or ethnic origin, of their place of birth, or other immutable characteristics.
Mr. Speaker, while we acknowledge these things, let us also acknowledge that Albertans and Canadians have built one of the most welcoming, tolerant societies in human history, imperfect though it may be. While much work must yet be done, it does not diminish the challenge or reality of racism in our society to also acknowledge that we have built a society which people from every corner of the world dream of and strive to join as new Albertans and as new Canadians. We should take some comfort in that.
We should acknowledge that while our friends to the south in the United States of America continue to struggle with the terrible historical burden of racism because of the institution of slavery, slavery did exist in some parts of Canada. We should also celebrate the fact that in 1793 Upper Canada, now Ontario, was one of the first jurisdictions on the face of the Earth to make slavery illegal, which is why Canada became, long before Confederation, the northern star for the escaped slaves seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad. We should think of all of those heroes who joined with the abolitionists in the United States to make this a country of freedom and of liberation.
We acknowledge at the same time that those who heroically engaged in the battle of abolition in Canada and the United States – notwithstanding their efforts, many of the escaped slaves who came north continued to face racism and prejudice here; for example, Black Loyalists who came to the colony of Nova Scotia at the end of the American Revolutionary War only to face institutional racism in that colony, many of whom then fled back to west Africa, to Liberia to complete the circle of their families’ tragic migration.
While we should acknowledge the nobility of many in Canadian history who turned Canada into a land of liberation and opportunity, we should never allow those noble moments in our history to minimize or diminish the long history of institutional racism which has existed. This very same country which was the north star for the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves coming north from the United States in the 19th century, this very same country, in 1910, under the premiership of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, had a prime minister who signed a ministerial order barring Black people from migrating to Canada, the very same country that in 1885, following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, said to the thousands of Chinese railway labourers that effectively they were no longer welcome in Canada by imposing the head tax, which was a punitive racial charge for people of Chinese origin to migrate to or stay in Canada – incidentally, Mr. Speaker, the same prime minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier, who imposed that order banning people of African descent from entering Canada also increased by 10-fold the shameful Chinese head tax, from $50 per person to a massively prohibitive $500 per person in 1912.
Our own history, we must recognize, is a complex one. It’s a history filled with noble characters who overcame prejudice, who fought for emancipation, who created equality before the law, but it’s also a history of often systemic and institutional racism and not far off in our past, Mr. Speaker. We as Canadians are still coming to terms with the terrible devastation of our Indigenous communities through the regime of Indian residential schools, where children were torn away from their parents, where families were destroyed by the abusive power of the state in an effort to completely deracinate Indigenous children from their families, their languages, and their cultures. To deracinate means literally to pull up out of their roots.
We must acknowledge that at the heart of that policy – and while there certainly were people who were well intentioned in offering an education in the context of residential schools and there were, as has been testified by many Aboriginal residential school survivors, many good people working in that system, the system fundamentally was flawed. The system was fundamentally racist in its nature and was an official policy of the Government of Canada, supported as well by the Government of Alberta, other provincial governments, and institutions of civil society. We must acknowledge that just as the vestiges of slavery in the United States continue to reverberate down to this day, so too does the racism that lies at the heart of the residential schools continue to reverberate through Indigenous communities to our own time.
Mr. Speaker, I can understand the response of many Canadians in the context of the current debate, saying: we live in a society characterized by equality, respect for minority rights, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, access to the courts, and programs to educate and support people of minority backgrounds. There is an element in this discourse that says, “We don’t have racism” and that basically seeks to deny it. I think that is a terrible mistake. It is a terrible mistake to deny the lived reality and the real experience of our friends, our neighbours, our co-workers, so many of whom can speak to the reality of racism, both explicit and implicit, in their lives.
Mr. Speaker, I had the great privilege of serving as Canada’s longest ever serving minister of citizenship and immigration –for over five years – during which time I welcomed more newcomers to Canada than any immigration minister in the history of the Dominion, and for nine years had the honour of working with our ethno-cultural communities as the Canadian minister of multiculturalism. Through that lens, I got to hear thousands of stories and develop hundreds of friendships with people from diverse racial and religious backgrounds, and ethnic backgrounds, and hear their experiences.
Very often, what they would tell me, Mr. Speaker, is that the racism that they encountered was not overt. It wasn’t explicit or it wasn’t official, but very often it was insidious, somewhat hidden, and implicit. It would be expressed, for example, in their never getting a callback on applications that they made for employment, time after time after time, even if they were manifestly better qualified than the person selected for the job. It was manifest, I would argue, in some ways, by the enormous regulatory barriers that exist to the recognition of the qualifications, education, and credentials of newcomers, who often have to take high levels of education from abroad and go to the bottom of the Canadian labour market, working well below their skill level because our institutions are too rigid to recognize in a fair and just way their education, skills and education.
Of course, we can see this as well, Mr. Speaker, sadly and too often, in our criminal justice system. This is something with which we must grapple. It is true, for example, that we have a massively disproportionate presence in our correctional system of Canadians of Indigenous origin. We have all seen complaints of brutality or targeting of people from racial minority and indigenous backgrounds. We must take those seriously in our institutions. Our laws, our policies, our regulations must constantly be reviewed to ensure that they actually do reflect our highest belief in equality of all before the law.
That is, for example, one of the reasons why, Mr. Speaker, the Government of Alberta is currently engaged in a fundamental review of the Police Act, and we invite Albertans of all backgrounds, particularly those who may have been victims of or have first-hand experiences of racist attitudes in our policing or correctional or justice systems, to come forward to share those experiences and to propose remedies to be reflected in the law. We owe them nothing less than that.
You know, I’ve always been of the view that racism and hatred really are, as I said, a sickness of the soul. I believe that it’s very challenging to change someone’s heart. That can’t be done through a conventional government program. Posters and public awareness campaigns cannot take hate out of someone’s heart. I think the most powerful way of rooting hatred out of people who may have been raised with or developed such attitudes is through the power of relationships. It’s by getting to know others beyond the racial, ethnic, or religious stereotypes. That’s what I learned as the Canadian minister for multiculturalism: the power of those relationships.
That’s why I think it’s so critically important, Mr. Speaker, that as we talk about diversity being a strength, we must constantly strive not for diversity as an end; rather, we should strive for unity in our diversity. We must be intentional about not creating a series of cultural or racial or religious silos operating side by side. We must, through government policies, through our own intentions, through our conduct as individual citizens, make a very deliberate effort to build bridges of understanding.
I was responsible as minister of multiculturalism for the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, which was established by the Mulroney government as part of the redress settlement with the Japanese-Canadian community to express the profound regret of the Government of Canada for its role in the detention and internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. I always thought that the Canadian Race Relations Foundation was a very wise framing of the issue to develop those relationships.
Some say that what we need is not multiculturalism but interculturalism. Whatever the appellation is, Mr. Speaker, I think the greatest antidote to the poison of hatred is the personal relationships that we must build in our society. That’s why when I was the federal multiculturalism minister, I made a point of changing our grants and funding programs to focus on programs that would bring people together.
Mr. Speaker, let’s speak bluntly. Racism: while there is a long and tragic history of it in this country, as I’ve reflected on, sadly, sometimes people come to Canada as newcomers from regions or countries where there is a history of conflict, and sometimes because of the injustices they’ve suffered, the grievances that they have experienced, there are enmities that come to Canada. I’ll share an example.
I recall, I think in 2006, shortly after becoming minister responsible for multiculturalism, that there was a Sinhalese Buddhist monastery that had been firebombed in Scarborough, Ontario, and ultimately the perpetrators were brought to justice. It was discovered that they were people from a different confessional community from the same country of origin who, in a sense, were living out the conflict of the country from which they came, much like my Irish ancestors had done in the 19th century. The biggest conflict in Upper Canada in the 19th century was the orange versus the green, the Catholics versus the Protestants, the Republicans versus the Loyalists. They continued to live out, in many ways, here in Canada the conflicts that they had brought, conflicts that were rooted in hatred, in confessional hatred. In some cases these conflicts arrive and are expressed in the form of racial hatred.
My point is simply this. Whatever the form that hatred or racism takes, I think the critical remedy is to find common ground to bring people together, to get to know each other as human beings, as women and men, who I believe, as a person of faith, are ultimately creatures of God, equal in dignity before God. Mr. Speaker, that is not an easy thing to do. We can and should put up the posters and the public awareness campaigns and information in the school curriculum about the terrible evil of racism, but ultimately – ultimately – we must avoid the kind of centrifugal forces that would pull us apart into cultural, religious, or racial silos. That is an ongoing challenge for all of us to which there is no easy programmatic answer. I guess that’s my point. But we all must make an effort. Government must make an effort.
I hope I’m not stepping outside of cabinet confidence to say that my esteemed colleague the minister of municipal affairs raised in a forum here recently the lack of diversity in the Alberta public service, management in the senior levels, and challenged the government to do better. He was absolutely right to do so.
So, Mr. Speaker, in every institution these are the kinds of things upon which we must constantly reflect. I would encourage all members in their offices to be mindful of this, to make an effort wherever possible to hire people, give opportunities to people, of course, based on merit and competence, but wherever possible to try to create a culture of inclusion, where the institutions for which we are partly responsible reflect the diversity of today’s Alberta. These are the challenges that face us.
I want to come back to, however, perhaps the harder challenges that we face that have come to light about issues around policing and corrections and the justice system. Mr. Speaker, the model of our justice system is one where the goddess of justice is blindfolded to ensure her impartiality, and that is the model to which we strive. But we must acknowledge that sometimes there are even unconscious prejudices that have built up around people because of their racial or ethnic origin or other characteristics. We must ensure through our courts, our Crown prosecutor service, our police services, our corrections services, and all responsible for the administration of justice that justice truly is blind. I hope that we can all share the sentiment of the great Martin Luther King that we must judge people not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
Mr. Speaker, I want to close my remarks by reflecting on a remarkable Alberta story that I think is a hopeful one. It could be. In this debate I don’t think it’s helpful for us individually or collectively to paint our society or our institutions as deeply and irreparably racist. I think, actually, that those characterizations unintentionally undermine getting public support for combatting racism where it does exist. We must avoid the temptation of denialism, and we must avoid the tendency to racialize everything. I think that the vast majority of Albertans live peaceably with their neighbours of all backgrounds, respecting their dignity and their diversity. Sadly, that is not universally the case, so, as I say, more work must be done individually and institutionally. But we must also recognize a certain greatness in our history.
I close with this, the story of John Ware. John Ware was born into slavery in South Carolina in the 1860s, prior to the Civil War. Following emancipation by the great liberator Abraham Lincoln, John Ware moved west and became a cowpoke on a ranch in Texas. You can imagine that a ranch in Texas must have been a pretty tough place for anybody but especially for a black man who had escaped slavery in the 1860s in west Texas. He was a tough dude, Mr. Speaker, and he became known as one of the most respected and capable cowpokes in the entire American West.
Well, as you know, Mr. Speaker, in the 1880s, that’s when we started to see the great cattle drives of thousands and thousands of cattle owned by U.S. ranchers, and they would just swing them up along the path of where the buffalo used to roam in the Great Plains. John was hired by his rancher to be part of a huge cattle drive, one of the largest in history, in 1882, that brought 20,000 cattle up here to graze on the Alberta plains and on the eastern slopes of our magnificent Rocky Mountains. John decided that he loved this land so much that he was going to make it his new home. He befriended local Indigenous communities, befriended local ranchers, and got hired onto a ranch.
John, obviously, you can imagine, in the 1880s, out here in the new West, continued to face racism, but, Mr. Speaker, he never allowed it to become a reason to stop overcoming that racism. He always saw those obstacles as a motivation to prove himself as being the best cowboy on the plains. And he did. In fact, he invented the sport of bronc bucking, which is now part of the rodeo circuit, of course, at the Calgary Stampede and all around North America. John Ware was the creator of that amazing and rugged sport.
John became known as the greatest cowboy of the plains, the greatest cowboy in Alberta and in Canadian history. He was one of the only black cowboys in our early Canadian history. What amazing strength of character: man born into slavery who went to the freest part of the free world, the open plains, and, in a way, reinvented his life, having left behind the terrible scars of racism from South Carolina to create a new life for himself and his family. He married a pastor’s daughter in Calgary, and they had three beautiful daughters. Eventually, he bought his own plot of land out south of Brooks, his own ranch. Tragically, John was out tending to his cattle on that ranch on September 11, 1905, and his horse hit a gopher hole. He tumbled, the horse fell on him, and John was tragically killed just a year after buying his own ranch, the culmination of his dreams, a father of three.
They took John Ware’s body into Calgary, Mr. Speaker, and the largest funeral in the history of the Northwest Territories occurred. Tens of thousands of residents came from far and wide to 8th Avenue in Calgary. They were 10 deep on both sides to watch John Ware’s coffin pass through that crowd of that frontier, tough, cowboy town 114 years ago. In a culture and a society still deeply embedded with racial prejudice, they saw the dignity of John Ware. They saw a man who had overcome slavery to become a true exemplar of freedom.
Mr. Speaker, let us all be inspired by the example of John Ware, who changed hearts and who was a living example of the truest and deepest Alberta belief in human dignity. Thank you very much.