In reflecting upon my experience at McGill, it would be fair to say that much of it was true to form; the share of good and bad professors, the very real labyrinthine bureaucracy, and the infamous campus politics. In some sense, all of that is usual. In other ways, it hasn’t been usual. My time at McGill fits into a narrative about my own life I’ve noticed as of late: Being the outsider. Ever since middle school, growing up in Manhattan, that’s been the case. Yes, I was often one of the few black kids in my classes from middle school onward—an honours program student in a school building shared with a predominantly minority ‘regular’ middle school—but I also was one of the relatively few children of recent immigrants for much of my schooling, which in many ways also gave me a somewhat different set of experiences even from the few black kids I did know in middle and high school.
Coming to McGill, I became an American in Canada. It’s hardly lonely for Americans here compared to those from elsewhere—there are enough of us that official McGill statistics separate us out from the rest of the international students—but there are some real differences in outlook that my time in Canada has brought into relief.
One of the things I’ve noticed about Canadians is their deep, unabiding belief in Canada’s comparative innocence, historical and otherwise. Canada’s self-congratulatory narrative, both in current events and in history, is that Canadians are ‘better’ than Americans—Canadian society isn’t simply the result of different policy choices, some better and some worse than the U.S., but that at its core, Canada is, in some way, a ‘perfected’ version of the U.S. Canada has a vision of itself as more enlightened, ‘multicultural’, open minded, and less racist. This phenomenon even comes down to small differences in disposition attributed to the two countries. Canadian nationalism, to some degree, rests upon an underbelly of soft anti-Americanism. The United States undoubtedly has its own self-congratulatory narrative, but it’s essentially discredited among the cultural elite—many Americans are fully willing to look critically at their own history in a way that Canadians are less disposed to.
In the wake of the results of both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, as well as the ensuing debate over policing and American race relations, I noticed that the commentary from my friends in Canada has seemed to come from a position of looking at it as an example, in stark relief, of the way in which the United States is a fundamentally worse society that Canada. When I mentioned my upbringing in New York, an acquaintance asked if I found my time growing up in America to be more racist than Canada, in a weirdly sympathetic and off-putting way, as if to affirm that already-held conception for herself. It’s not that the Canadian perspective here is completely unearned; Canada, after all, was the ‘promised land’ for many who journeyed here on the Underground Railroad, and black communities in Ontario and the Maritime provinces can be directly traced to descendants of those who escaped enslavement. That much is true and worthy of acknowledgement.
Rather, what has stirred me about that point of view is twofold; a Canadian view of America that is only slightly less ignorant of American society than Americans are of Canada, and an unwillingness to acknowledge that Canada does not have un-soiled hands when it comes to race and racial prejudice.
On the racial question, this need to view racism as an evil mostly attributable to America elides the ways in which Canada’s history contains the same evils. The easiest element to draw from is Canada’s treatment of First Nations populations, from residential schools to present-day criminal justice disparities that are a mirror image of ‘The New Jim Crow.’ However, the presence of racism in Canada goes even deeper than that. If we want to make it as fair a comparison as possible, we can track back to the response in Canada to the Brown and Garner cases. One of the biggest Canadian media angles to emerge from that wave of stories was the fact that the organizers of an Ottawa rally protesting the grand jury decision in the Brown case asked whites to not be in the foreground of the protests. This story, picked up by the Canadian Press and the Globe and Mail, was approximately the extent of the original contribution here. Aside from a lukewarm Globe editorial, there’s been little mainstream coverage of the intersection of police and race in Canada. For example, the Toronto Police’s carding policy—a program of stopping and questioning young men that bears an uncanny resemblance to the NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” policy, since ruled unconstitutional in a U.S. federal court, has been comparatively invisible in both the city’s politics and in any broader discussion here. The policy has recently been “suspended” but questions remain as to real efforts at underlying reform of such stops. The eagerness to spotlight the real American injustices revealed by both cases has not been followed by commensurate self-examination.
None of this should be taken as a condemnation of Canada, a country I have enjoyed in my time here. Rather, my point is that in my experience, the nature of Canada’s view of America, on issues both racial and otherwise, is skewed by the need of Canadians to define themselves—usually positively—against Americans. While unavoidable, this phenomenon has led Canadians to under-examine their own issues with race relations.