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Race is a term that is commonly used to describe groups of people of similar ancestry or physical characteristics. The concept of race is socially and legally constructed, which means that there is no scientific or genetic basis for dividing people along these lines.

While there is no scientific basis to race, the effects of racism are very real and measurable. Racism has been used to control populations of people, and maintain systems of inequality. Colonialism (the attempt of settlers to control Indigenous populations) and slavery, for example, still dictate many of our assumptions about people and influence many of our institutions (government, education system, etc.).

Racism exists in three main forms:

Individual racism is the easiest to spot because it’s about a person’s attitudes and behaviours.

Systemic racism has to do with the policies and practices of institutions that take advantage of peoples of certain races — it’s often unconscious.

Cultural racism comes from the value systems embedded in society that support discriminatory actions based on perceptions of racial difference and cultural superiority or inferiority.

Did you know?

  • Racial ethnicity and “blood purity” were used as justification by European settlers to wipe out entire Indigenous populations all over the Americas.*
  • Half of all racially-motivated hate crimes in Canada in 2006 were property-related offences, while 38% were violent crimes.*
  • At least seven organized white supremacy groups across Canada have operated brazenly in the past decade or continue to. In 2009, a group of white supremacists in Vancouver poured kerosene over the sleeping body of a Filipino man and then set him on fire. Later, the police found out that their organization had been assaulting Indigenous, Hispanic, and Black people all over Vancouver.*
  • Many people continue to believe the myth that people of color steal jobs from “more deserving” Canadians.*
  • Because of racial discrimination, people of colour in Canada are more likely to be unemployed and to have lower incomes. In 2001, the unemployment rate among visible minorities was nearly double the national average (12.6% vs. 6.7%).*

The Colours Of Canada

Even though the Canadian government encouraged mass migration of Chinese workers during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in 1858, in 1923 the Chinese Immigrations Act (also referred to as the Chinese Exclusion Act) was passed to legally bar citizenship and voting rights to residents of Chinese origin.

In 1914, 376 Indian people were denied entry to Canada when the steamship Komagata Maru landed ashore in Vancouver, BC. In a true collective effort by South Asians living in Vancouver, the passengers were able to fight for their residency and to get shelter and food.

In Canada, the last segregated school (whites only, blacks only) closed down in Nova Scotia in 1983, while the last Indigenous residential school was not closed down until 1996.

In August of 2010, the MV Sun Sea, a ship carrying more than 400 Tamil refugees fleeing the Sri Lankan Civil War, landed on the shores of Victoria, BC. To this day, many remain under detention, despite the United Nations’ policy against incarcerating refugee claimants (see Appendix).

In 2010, Maclean’s magazine published an article called “‘Too Asian’: Some frosh don’t want to study at an Asian University,” quoting young white people choosing not to go to universities that had been characterized as having a large population of “Asian” students. This article was criticized for many reasons, mainly that it opened up a dangerous conversation about non-white students “taking over” Canadian universities.

Roots and Solutions

Racism is rooted in history and lives through our systems today. The hatred, ignorance, and fear behind racism gets passed through generations of familities, communities, and societies. Ending racism means stopping that cycle.

As individuals on a day-to-day basis, we need to call out racism when we encounter it (when we feel safe to do so) and advocate zero tolerance for it.

At a community level, we need to not be intimidated by hate groups that spew racism. We must constantly work to create communities that are so respectful and equal, groups like that couldn’t even exist because there’s no one to recruit.

Governments must proactively intercept racism through policy and legislation, while law enforcement should be more vigilant in addressing hate crimes.

It’s important to do anti-racism work with cultural sensitivity and respect. That means being aware of cultural differences and similarities, and realizing that they have an effect on values, learning, and behaviour.

In general, more needs to be done to counter racism — through public awareness and educational curricula, by challenging systems that continue to fuel racism, and by learning more about its historical roots.


In 2009, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) launched a national campaign called Students United against Racism. Various CFS members pursued anti-racism activities that were relevant to their particular campus or region. For example, the CFS-Ontario initiated an official task force on campus racism that held seventeen hearings on fourteen campuses. The task force’s final report made recommendations for ending racism around four major themes: individual and systemic racism in campus life, institutional racism in hiring and curricula, institutional racism in university policy and governance, and systemic racism in broader society.

Exercise: Your Story

Have you experienced racism personally, or seen it happening to someone else? Have you ever noticed that by the way it operates, an institution favours some people over others based on race? Contemplating your own experiences with racism is an important step to becoming more engaged with the effort to end it.

3 Things You Can Do

Ban it. Follow the lead of young people in various communities who have taken the initiative of declaring their school or campus a “racism-free zone.” With a bit of awareness-raising and persuasion of the decision-makers, you can absolutely achieve this. Knowing their educational institution is a racism-free zone — and understanding the reasons why — can go a long way toward shaping positive, respectful attitudes and behaviours in students.

Pin it. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So what about creating a board on to celebrate all races in the spirit of equality? Think about the endless possibilities! Riveting images of people of different colours, cultures, and backgrounds — looking beautiful, playing, collaborating, dancing, protesting — along with pinned quotations and messages about unity and respect. Even a humble pin board can have an impact on how people see and think about race.

Flash mob. Surprise shoppers in a food court or crowds in a downtown square with an impromptu performance. Set it to music with a powerful anti-racism message, or write your own. Not only is this a creative way to speak out against racism, you’d be stimulating public discourse on the issue, which is always beneficial.