Racism: not someone else’s problem

Protesters hold up a Black Lives Matter banner as they march during a demonstration against racial inequality in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. The turmoil seen in the United States and around the world may seem far removed from the Prairies, but people of colour say they also experience racism in rural Canada.  |  Reuters/Erin Scott photo

People of colour who work in the agriculture sector share their experiences and argue the rural Prairies are not immune

Himadry Singh was once told she needed a more white-sounding name. In another instance, someone said to her she was only hired to fill a diversity quota. She has also been asked if her parents speak good English.

The racist comments are only a few that Singh, a marketer in agriculture, has dealt with. She said the farming community and companies must address racism and make systemic changes.

“These comments might seem small, but it’s a big ask to change someone’s identity,” she said.

“You would never ask a white person that, so why are you asking me?”

When she was told about being hired to fill a quota, she said it made her feel like her skill-set was undervalued. What she provided to the company didn’t seem to matter, she added.

“As a brown person, some people don’t think I belong in agriculture or don’t think I bring knowledge. They don’t give me the time or attention that they would give someone else,” she said.

“In agriculture, there are different levels of racism. You have to put on this white face in order to fit in.”

Discussions over racism have come to the forefront since George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest.

Floyd’s death sparked mass protests in the United States and around the world.

The Prairies may seem far removed from these events, but people of colour in rural communities recently shared their experiences to shine a spotlight on the issue.

Ryan Jason Allen Willert, an Indigenous man who grew up in Innisfail, Alta., said while attending school, other children would call him racist names.

“Some parents told their kids not to hang out with me because I am Native,” he said. “I don’t know how the kids learned those racist terms, but anything you can think of, they called me it.”

Willert said he started to hate himself and thought of dying by suicide.

“I didn’t love myself and I hated being at school. People were mean to me, and I was not nice to others. I dropped out at an early age because I couldn’t handle it.”

He later lived on the streets in Calgary, turning to drugs and alcohol. However, he said he started to become healthy once he began creating artwork and embracing his Indigenous roots.

“When people were racist, I handled it in a different way. I stopped self-sabotaging myself. I would turn to my sweet grass, put it on a coal and smudge myself with it. I would pray for those people,” he said.

“Racism is a terrible thing.… Everybody has healing to do. Racism brings people down to a dark place. It’s hard to grow up in this world with brown skin.”

An agricultural researcher who is a person of colour and spoke to The Western Producer on condition of anonymity said working with his colleagues is enjoyable, but he has encountered racism from strangers in some towns.

He said people have shouted slurs at him from their cars while he’s walking. When he goes to some stores, shopkeepers have followed him around.

“I’ve been told to go back to my country, and called other names I don’t want to say,” he said.

“But at work, the people have been fantastic.”

He said he still finds Canada welcoming, despite the unfavourable encounters.

However, even though Canada may appear more welcoming than other countries, this country has a history of racism within its institutions.

Barrington Walker, a professor with the department of history at Wilfrid Laurier University who edited The History of Immigration and Racism in Canada, said the issue is complex. However, when colonizers no longer associated Indigenous peoples as allies and instead placed them as wards of the crown through the Indian Act, systemically racist policies were developed.

The act brought the residential school system, which saw Indigenous children removed from their homes and stripped of their culture, with many being exposed to trauma that has affected future generations.

As well, Indigenous veterans experienced discriminatory policies when they returned from the war.

Between the two world wars, some reserve land was sold to the Soldier Settlement Board for veterans who wanted to farm. Indigenous soldiers also weren’t treated the same when they returned home. Many lost their status and continued to live in poverty.

The Sixties Scoop, a time when Indigenous children were removed from their families and placed in foster homes, has also brought much pain. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has called for changes to the child welfare system, urging governments to commit to reducing the number of Indigenous children in care.

Walker said Canada’s racist history also includes slavery and creating racially based selective immigration policies.

He said Asians and Black people were at one time explicitly not allowed to immigrate to Canada. Priority was given to white people from Great Britain.

Walker said these policies all come from the ideals of settler colonialism.

“Settler colonialism means that folks who are colonizing the place, they don’t leave. The objective is to take land,” he said.

“The way I think about how Canadian history unfolded, is it starts with that dynamic of territorial dispossession and the codification of racial difference.

“When I think of that history, that history of slavery, patterns of settlement and immigration policies, these are all the legacies we’ve been left with now.”

He said the education systems haven’t taught children the full picture.

He said he didn’t learn about Indigenous stories in school. When he learned about settlers, they were described as pioneers or innocent folk who came upon empty land, he said. There was no context on how that land was taken.

Walker said he didn’t know anything about slavery until studying at university. There was also a lack of knowledge regarding the exclusion of Chinese people and of the internment of Japanese Canadians in the 1940s.

Instead, he said, primary educators tended to discuss the underground railroad or modern multiculturalism.

“As one of my colleagues has put it, there is this stupefying innocence around race, which one confronts over and over again,” he said.

“When people protest and take to the streets, they are met with this surprise because they haven’t learned these things in schools. The ‘I didn’t know that’ is the dominant Canadian response.”

He said these patterns of learning need to be broken.

There are many untold stories of Black people living on the Prairies in the late 1800s.

For instance, John Ware was an accomplished cowboy. He was born into slavery and experienced racism. He persevered, brought in new agricultural techniques and helped shape the territory that would later become Alberta.

“There were lots of black cowboys and it makes sense,” Walker said.

“Think about African American men running from slavery, running north or out West to outrun the law.”

Some farmers on social media have been discussing racism following the recent protests.

Stewart Skinner, a farmer from Ontario, asked on Twitter if it’s possible for the community to shatter racism, similar to how many have come together to de-stigmatize mental health.

“Can we amplify the voices that deserve to be heard and push the hate to the far fringe of our community?”

Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said racism has to be acknowledged.

In many ways, he said, what is considered normal behaviour can be racist. There are legitimate concerns people have with how they are treated, he added.

“The more conversations we have about it, the more improvements we’ll see,” he said.

“It’s not going to get fixed over night.”

He said it’s important for farmers to realize lots of immigrants come from agricultural backgrounds. Building those relationships could lead to more people wanting to work in agriculture, he added.

“There are lots of positives that new Canadians can bring to agriculture.”

Vashti Kelly is the program manager for health and safety programs with the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, an advocacy group for migrant and seasonal workers in the United States.

She said people assume migrant workers are uneducated, even though many were doctors or lawyers in their home countries.

The United States has been built on slavery and immigrant labour, she added, and current systems make it difficult for people of colour to get ahead.

“People are told to pull up their bootstraps, but they don’t have boots to begin with. The system is broken,” she said.

“The systems are set up for certain people to succeed and others to fail.”

Singh said there is no Band-Aid fix for racism and that it will take a long time.

People need to understand there are different levels of racism, she added. People have internal biases, and society will need to re-think policies and analyze the policing system.

“For us, it starts with looking in the mirror and that we all played a role in this. We have to be aware of our biases,” she said.

“Saying you understand isn’t enough. We need to take action, learn and hold people around us accountable and companies accountable.”

She said people in the agricultural sector can’t expect everyone to be the same. There should be speakers of diverse backgrounds at agriculture shows, she added, and agriculture colleges should broaden their recruitment efforts.

Walker said he hopes people continue to raise awareness about racism.

“This is the really tough part, and the really blunt part: people who enjoy the power that is conferred by white supremacy will have to be willing to walk away from it,” he said.

“What are we going to do with this system that has been in place for so long? If the system itself isn’t dismantled, then these things aren’t going to change.”

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