In a famous 60 Minutes interview in 2012, Mike Wallace asked actor Morgan Freeman how to get rid of racism.
Freeman instantly responds by saying it’s easy: stop referring to him as a Black man and he will stop referring to Wallace as a white man. Freeman says only by removing racist labels will we get rid of racism.
A lovely video is circulating of very young children of different races being asked what the differences are between two friends of different races. In one clip, a child points out that she likes swimming while her friend likes running, or that one likes math and the other likes English. These children don’t see each other by their race but by who they are.
A long-standing belief by Canadians is that we see each other as individuals – not by what race we are.
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh want to change all that.
In the past, Canada and the United States collected data very differently. In the U.S., race-based data is collected as a matter of course – on driver’s licences, insurance documents, health records, educational documents, and on and on. In Canada, we have purposely avoided that. The only document we collect racial data on is the census form – which is anonymous – and it’s collected once every 10 years.
No prime minister in Canadian history has used identity politics more than Justin Trudeau. Many Canadian politicians use racial identities in campaigning, but this has been taken to new extremes by making references to various ethnic groups on a weekly basis.
It has been effective on the campaign trail but it’s questionable whether it has been effective in running our country.
Now, at the urging of Singh – with the implied leverage of NDP support for the Liberal minority government – the government must now start collecting race-based data.
Although it will start with health information on the COVID-19 pandemic, this is simply the wedge to begin to segment our society more and more into tiny competing groups. If it’s to be used on health data, then it can be used on income tax forms, driver’s licences, school transcripts, and on and on.
In countries like Canada and the U.S., 15 per cent of our children are of mixed race – and rising by five per cent every decade. By the end of this century, most people living in Canada and the U.S. will be of mixed race and which race you are will depend on how you perceive yourself.
The most extreme example to date is U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren. She looks Caucasian, was brought up by two Caucasian parents, and a genetic test revealed she was at least 98.44 cent and up to 99.8 per cent Caucasian. Despite this, no less than Harvard University claimed that Warren was the first full female professor of colour at the school. So how does a person who is 99 per cent of European origin claim to be a person of colour?
This isn’t unique to Warren and is happening in Canada within government hiring, where identity has been used by most governments to screen and select candidates. This has led to many candidates self-assessing in similar ways to Warren. And in government, there’s no DNA test so it’s all self-assessment, with no proof required or allowed.
Canada will need to make a decision. Do we want to continue with our historic belief that all Canadians are equal and everyone should be treated the same? Do we want progress toward the view of Freeman and stop describing people by their race? Or do we want to adopt the Warren route – to highlight any and all racial differences in society even if the difference amounts to only one per cent?
We may be at an inflection point, where we’re looking to ensure that our society becomes less racist than ever. This is true for both the U.S. and Canada.
Do we achieve this by looking for more ways to accentuate racial divides or do we work harder at treating everyone the same?
It’s a choice Trudeau and Singh are forcing on society and we need to decide which way to go.
Peter Holle is president of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.