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  • Writer's pictureNnaemeka Ali, O.M.I

What Canada could learn from the History of Racism and Slavery in the US

I have recently been reading about the involvement of the US churches in slavery. It’s a gloomy read but absolutely revealing. And among the compelling works on the topic is The Color of Compromise of Jemar Tisby, Reading While Black of Esau McCaulley, White Too Long of Robert P. Jones, Authentically Black, Truly Catholic of Shannen Dee Williams, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church of Bryan Massingale, etc. Each author exposes the involvement of different Christian churches in the ugly past of slavery in the United States of America with impeccable details. Each phrase brings forward the question of whether those who perpetrated the acts were indeed Christians at all. Unfortunately, no matter how one wants it not to be true, like DNA, their Christian background stays put in every page of that sinful history. And as they go about legitimizing the shameful acts of slavery, they backed it up with the Bible. Yet, as they trampled upon the slaves and executed those who asked questions, theologians, pastors, bishops, and everyday Christians hid behind the Bible and God.

However, while reading these books, I noticed that the authors are trying their best to be sincere and objective in their analysis. They all agree that the Church was guilty of both sins of slavery and racism but was only one among the actors in these odious crimes. Yes, she was deeply involved in it, they underline, and many Catholic Institutions, for example, held slaves, but it was not solely because they were Christians. And as the subtitle of Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise says, the force of these authors is that they are sincere in telling “The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.”

However, what we observe at this side of the border is a strange approach towards racism. Most of the citizens think that racism is an American (US) thing. And when they have no choice, they pretend as only angry priests and religious sisters carried it out. It was neither Canadians nor Quebecois, they say, but those sent by the Vatican. Our ancestors had no hand in it; others insist the Federal government orchestrated it all. Quebec was not involved; it was under the British administration. We are not racists; we were friends with natives at the beginning.

Of course, no one can deny that the Catholic Church is responsible for all her sins, but when will the history be read as our neighbours do it? Why is it impossible to admit that the same Church built a significant part of our society and that we are heirs to her glories and woes? When shall we agree that it was neither the federal government of Namibia nor Nubia? When shall we recognize that in a democracy, the government represents the people? When shall we begin to see that in every civilization, the elites execute the will of the people? When shall we accept that most of those priests and religious were not just our compatriots but our brothers and sisters?

As Jemar Tisby puts it, “history demonstrates that racism never goes away; it just adapts,” this country has had a highly complex relationship with the First Nation people in the past. She has subjected her children to different types of inhuman treatments. But today, she fantasizes that she has overgrown it. Everybody talks about truth and reconciliation, but we refuse to accept that the system was evil in the first place; that racism has always been in the system. If we pretend like there is no systemic racism, the truth is then about what? To begin with, why are we reconciling?

We can pretend like we were not the ones who assimilated the indigenous people, created the residential schools that destroyed their children, and stole their lands, but then who did it? Where were we then? Mr. Tisby wrote again,

throughout the course of US history, when Christians had the opportunity to decisively oppose the racism in their midst, all too often, they chose silence. They chose passivity. The refusal to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression.”

The same could be said of Canadian history. When the citizens had the opportunity to stop their brothers and sisters running the institutions that subjugated the First Nation children and those that stole their lands, they chose silence.

And today, for example, we take joy in informing every passerby that we are different from our neighbours, that we are friends of the natives. But the truth is that, unlike in the US, Canadians are not truthful to their history. Instead, they chose passivity and continue to profit from the same system that destroyed the native image and broke their self-esteem. Besides, as he said, the refusal to act amid injustice is an act of injustice; the same could be applied here. As the citizens chose to be indifferent to the oppression of the indigenous people, they as well perpetuated the oppressive system that left them traumatized.

Robert P. Jones (2020) said, “if we white Christians are going to get any critical leverage on our past, and the distortions this past has brought into our present, we have to let go of both the quest for self-protection—that is to say, the advantages we hoard at unjust costs to others—and the insistence on our racial and religious innocence.”

Both the Church and the Canadians should embrace their past; accept their involvement in the crimes against the natives. The nation needs to give up on shifting blames from one person to the other. It is not enough to destroy one’s baptismal certificate to be free from the cultural genocide committed on our behalf against the first people of Canada. One might run away from the Church, but what about our involvement through our government? Are we ready to tear our passports? Nothing changes if we keep on practising discriminating laws and perpetuating all stereotypes against the indigenous people.

The Church, the nation, and every Canadian – both citizens and immigrants - must “let go of both the quest for self-protection and the insistence on our racial (national) and religious innocence.”

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