Canadian citizenship study guide should tell the truth about racism

At this crucial time of confronting systemic anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, the Canadian government must take responsibility for its enduring role in propagating racism. This includes through its misleading self-portrayal in Discover Canada, the official study guide for the test taken by Canadian citizenship applicants.

Issued in 2011, the guide aims to teach prospective citizens about Canada’s history, geography, culture, and political and justice systems. Disgracefully, the document whitewashes colonialism, conceals genocide, minimizes systemic racism and its inhumane consequences, and portrays these as remnants of the past even as the guide itself engages in racist discourse.

We write as women faculty members at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. Our perspective on these issues is borne of our shared concerns yet differing relationships to “Canadian” nationality. One of us is Algonquin (Timiskaming First Nation); another is a woman of African ancestry, born in “Canada,” surviving transatlantic enslavement; two are new-ish Canadians (white European heritage, from the United States and South Africa); another is a permanent resident from the U.S. (from Venezuela).

Revising the guide

Recognizing Discover Canada’s flaws, the government set out in 2016 to remove certain offensive elements, including the portrayal of immigrants’ “barbaric cultural practices” and the glorification of military exploits.

A draft shared with The Canadian Press in 2017 incorporated coverage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report, as well as discussion of discrimination against people of racialized backgrounds, people with disabilities, LGBTQ2S+ people and other marginalized communities.

Despite an expected 2017 release — during Canada’s sesquicentennial — the new version, inexplicably, never came to light.

Citizen shame

Outrageously, Discover Canada is still the welcome guide for new Canadians. Just a few of its shameful elements include:

1) It presents a sanitized account of Indigenous Peoples, before and under colonization. This erases the history and legacy of stolen lands and dispossession, the upheaval of nations, cultural genocide, broken treaties, assimilation policies such as residential schools, police and carceral racism, continued heinous living conditions on reserves and hugely inequitable health outcomes.

From the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which states Indigenous people are sovereign, to the British North America Act of 1867, there is no discussion of how the Doctrine of Discovery shaped the nation. Discover Canada also omits Indigenous people’s resistance movements, past and present, that contest historical and ongoing forms of colonialism and oppression.

2) The guide celebrates Upper Canada as “the first province in the Empire to move toward abolition” and as a “safe haven” for enslaved Black people escaping the United States, but there is no mention of Canada’s own history of slavery, nor of the pervasive racist violence and human rights violations faced by African and Black Canadians. The guide’s omission of the Code Noir (1685, revised in 1789) further erases the reality of policed and enslaved African lives, which included forced religious conversion, sanctioned punishment and other brutalities.

This legacy, combined with successor policies, has generated over-representation of Black and Indigenous children in foster care and Children’s Aid facilities and high rates of educational, food and housing insecurity, all generating worse health outcomes among Black Canadians.

Likewise, anti-Asian racism is covered only superficially. The horrendous Komagata Maru event is entirely overlooked. The internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War is discussed fleetingly, with no mention of numbers affected (over 22,000), uncompensated liquidation of property, family separation or forced postwar relocation.

The guide was issued by the Government of Canada in 2011.
Roberta has worked as a consultant for the past X years. Some of her areas of specialization include women abuse; child, youth, and adult violence; intersectional identities, critical expressive arts, multiple oppressions, transgenerational trauma, and resilience/resistance work.

Roberta is Co-Director of Continuing Healing Consultants and has engaged in anti-oppression consulting in the Toronto and global communities since 1997. She is also co-founder and trainer of Anti-Oppression Psychotherapy™.

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