Emergency debate on racism

By: The Hon. Jim Munson

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Hon. Jim Munson: Thank you, Your Honour, and thank you to Senator Moodie for bringing this whole debate up. It’s long overdue. It’s so important in our lives.

I was thinking tonight; I was brought up in northern New Brunswick, and in the 1950s, I was a child, 12 or 13 years of age and you have all these heroes in your heart.. We didn’t have television in those days but we had heroes in the National Hockey League. It’s interesting how people talk about Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard, but in New Brunswick we had a hero, and it just came to me tonight during our two-hour break. I was thinking of Willie O’Ree. I don’t know how many senators here remember Willie O’Ree. Now, that’s a sports name. How can you not be in sports with a name like that?

Willie was from Fredericton, and he was black. Who cares when you’re a kid? He was a player who was in the National Hockey League. He makes it, with one eye, into playing for the Boston Bruins in 1957-58. He scores two goals, and he’s good. He’s a great hockey player.

Then all of a sudden he wasn’t in the National Hockey League any longer. He came back four years later. I want to have it on the record that he was considered the Jackie Robinson of the NHL because he made it. My goodness, in terms of systemic racism and overt racism and racism in hockey rinks, primarily, as he said, in American cities and not so much in Montreal and Toronto, but it was a six-team league. He didn’t get as much grief in the Canadian centres, but in the boardrooms of the National Hockey League, Willie somehow didn’t make it longer than two seasons. He scored goals. He played for the Quebec Aces, the same team that Jean Beliveau played on. But then Willie was gone.

Today, at 84, Willie O’Ree is an ambassador for diversity in the National Hockey League. Today in the NHL, there have been many stories of what happens in that — maybe it’s not an unconscious bias but it is a bias — where coaches have sometimes suppressed the ideal of a black kid making it in the NHL. Remember, that kid has to go through many different levels, all the way from peewee, bantam, junior, all the way up. There have been some serious stories; when I talked earlier today about arguing for this debate, I talked about the whole principle of what takes place, but you don’t see it happening.

Somehow Willie has persevered, and I hope that by telling his story tonight, it echoes out there in the sports world again of what we have seen in terms of systemic racism, which began a long time ago. Everybody thinks they are doing well with a quota system or so. It’s not about that. It’s much more important than that. When you have the imagination of a child and you hear a name like Willie O’Ree, you didn’t see black or white: You just saw a hockey player. He should have played in the National Hockey League for 15 seasons, but it didn’t happen. Check our history.

I want to start off by thanking Senator Moodie for her leadership. As she correctly points out, and it’s worth highlighting again, it is in the public interest that this discussion takes place. Canadians will continue to suffer if this is not given immediate attention.

Racism is very intersectional in this country, and it’s one of the reasons COVID has exposed the abundance of critical deficiencies in the way Canada operates. We are still waiting for complete statistics on the intensified effects of the pandemic in real time on racialized communities, the loss of income, the increase in domestic abuse and lack of access to medical care. This is something we need to consider, moving forward.

There will be a need to continue action after COVID. It’s clear that racialized Canadians are disproportionately affected during the pandemic and many more lives have already been lost. Racism toward African Canadians, Asian Canadians and Indigenous Canadians has increased. Yes, COVID made things worse, but it’s important to remind ourselves that inequalities were striking before the pandemic.

Let’s take a look at the data that we have available to develop solutions. Black Canadians are more likely than any other racialized group to fall victim to a hate crime. This is coming from data reported by the police in 2018. Remember, these are only the crimes that were reported. It is also more often than not harmful for racialized groups to call the police. We’ve seen that.

If you are able, imagine what it would be like to be scared to call the police, just terrified to call the police, or it makes you uncomfortable to think about it, and then we’re on the right track. We need to get into the realities of what is going on in this country. This is what black people are dealing with every day, and they do not have the privilege of only imagining it.

Honourable senators, systemic racism intersects with gender, religion, age, disability and even the labour market. Census data from 2016 reports the unemployment rate of black Canadians is 12.5% compared to 7.3% unemployment of non-visible minorities. This equates to thousands of jobs — high-paying jobs, too.

I would also point to the report last year in 2019, Canada’s Colour Coded Income Inequality, released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Severe gaps in employment and income remain in place.

Honourable senators, additional discrimination faced by racialized women also continues. Racialized women earned just $0.59 for every dollar non-racialized men did, while racialized men earned $0.78 compared to non-racialized men, according to this study.

The example of racism in the labour market is one tip of the iceberg in the sea of racism that we have to address. As I mentioned earlier in support of this debate, what we are doing today in the chamber is a good place to start. We are only at the beginning of a solutions-based approach to systemic racism. We have lots of work to do.

Also, I know we are in this chamber, but there was something about the other chamber, the historic chamber in Centre Block. I will never get back there, but maybe some of you will. I hope you do. I hope you will listen to the echoes of senators from long ago — for me not so long ago — who spoke about racism yet weren’t heard enough.

One is my Conservative friend Don Oliver. Don Oliver, another name to be thought of in the same vein in terms of politics from Nova Scotia as Willie O’Ree is from New Brunswick. When you listened to Don Oliver in the chamber just across the way talking about systemic racism, his reports and his passionate discussion in committees I was a member of, he talked about the public service in this country as he took on high-ranking public servants, take a look back at our own history in the Senate of what Don Oliver said. It is important to read. He was fighting the good fight. I sometimes thought he must have felt very alone. As the picture of this chamber changes and we take a look at it, there is a picture of, I hope, more equality. I want you to think back and perhaps take a look at what former senator Don Oliver tried to do and attempted to do. In that respect that we have to move on and keep fighting the good fight.

In closing, earlier this week the Parliamentary Black Caucus released a statement that goes into initial steps we’re able to take right now, this minute. The government can take them. We can’t put this thing off. I was very upset earlier this week about Indigenous Canadians and other minorities and what is happening. But when you stand up and see what has taken place in this country for a long time, we have a rich black history. They are the fabric of this country, as Asian Canadians are the fabric of this country, as everybody else who has come to this country through the Underground Railroad. It is so important to remember our black history. I don’t think we study it enough. We knew it in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia because it was there in front of us, at least it was at my dinner table growing up in Campbellton, New Brunswick.

In the statement by the Parliamentary Black Caucus, here are the steps they’ve talked about. I’ll just repeat them one more time so they all sink in for us and for those who work with us: make the collection of race-based data mandatory, seek out and support proposals from black business associations, invest in programs rooted in community-based initiatives, ensure black Canadians have equal opportunity to work in the public sector and implement unconscious-bias training programs throughout all government institutions.

Honourable senators, this is how we get the ball rolling on real change. As senators, we have a commitment to make Canada a better place and a safer place. Thank you.

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