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Slurs and Intolerance: The Unpleasant Side of Canadian History

If you haven’t read about it yet, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario has recently suspended a history professor in response to allegations that he used racist language in the classroom.   In the university’s defense, the professor does not deny that he used phrases such as “japs”, “towelheads.  However, in the professor’s defense, the racial slurs were quotes from books and articles about racism in the post-colonial era.  Oh, and the course in question was one on post-colonial history.  Perhaps one question that stands is whether a course on post-colonial history could be taught without discussion and inclusion of racial slurs.  The answer clearly is ‘yes’.  A better question however is whether such a course ought to omit such discussion.  The answer as far as I am concerned is an emphatic and resounding ‘absolutely not’. 

Canada, 1918: The Government of Canada issues a set
fee that all Chinese immigrants must pay to be allowed
entry into Canada.
To be clear, were someone to walk into a classroom (or anywhere else for that matter) and start flinging racial slurs around I would certainly not approve.  This being said, a university course where the material is based in history (be it history, literature, sociology or otherwise) is not only an acceptable venue for the use of slurs, it is quite frankly the most appropriate place for them.  Universities are supposedly places of higher learning; a bastion of knowledge and the one place in a liberal democratic society where we ought not be afraid of presenting and experiencing our history in its full and often unpleasant totality. 


Canada, 1945: The Government of Canada authorised and
oversaw the forceful removal of Japanese-Canadians from
their homes and relocation into internment camps as pictured.
 Of course racism has no place in Canada today but the freedom and tolerance we enjoy has not always been present and it has come at a price.  We should never forget that there are still people living in Canada who were around when Stanley Park in Vancouver was a Japanese internment camp.  We should always remember that although Canada was a place of freedom for slaves fleeing the United States those slaves were often subject to segregation and racism North of the border.  We should keep in mind that New France and the Dominion of Canada were built on the blood of countless natives.  Too often are we complacent with brushing these unfortunate and shameful parts of our heritage off because “that’s British history, not Canadian history”.  Although this may have some degree of truth, British history IS our history and this is reflected in our laws, our government and even on the back of the coins we use every day to buy our coffee.
Canada, WW2: Natives serve in the armed forces, lay down thier
lives for Canada.  Denied the right to vote in federal elections
until the 1960's. 

 All this being said, Canada is one of the most tolerant, open and free societies in the world – this is why so many immigrants have made the journey to our country for so many decades.  What we must never forget is that this tolerance has not always been present.  Censoring our history, punishing people for speaking in context about the slurs, violence and discrimination that has been present in Canada, and attempting to present a revised “clean” version of history does not promote tolerance.  In fact, denying the worst parts of our track record as a nation detracts from the multi-cultural mosaic we enjoy on a daily basis.  To truly appreciate and enjoy the society we have built, we must be able to discuss where we came from and understand the struggles that we faced getting here.  This means that academic settings should embrace demonstrating the realities of racism and that no professor or student should be afraid of using contextual material to explore and discuss our history of racism.  Even if we reject the material in the modern era, universities are the perfect place to retain and pass on the knowledge that Canada was not always perfect – slurs and all; not to hide from this knowledge and instill fear of recognising our shortcomings as a country.

Canada, 1983: The last segregated school in Canada closes.  Seriously... 1983.  Let's not forget about this.

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