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Motion to Strike a Special Committee on Systemic Racism

Excerpt from Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
Monday, June 22, 2020

Motion to Strike a Special Committee on Systemic Racism—Debate Adjourned

Hon. Marty Deacon: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in support of the motion to strike a special committee on systemic racism. I want to thank, from the bottom of my heart, Senator Bernard for encouraging us to undertake this important initiative, and Senator Lankin for introducing the motion on her behalf. I also thank every one of you who spoke on the matter of racism this last week. Your words were deeply impactful and inspired me to share my voice this evening.

When we are vulnerable, when we can share part of our narratives, that is when we can do great work together. Every story, every experience was an eye-opener. As I listened though, I also felt frustration. The debate was important and educational, but I think we can all agree we need to see action. This special committee will be one step toward that.

There is no question that systemic racism exists in Canada, in our economy, in our prisons, in our health care, in our schools and learning institutions. We know this, but why are we still here?

As has happened all too often, we have had a light shone on us. We are again uncomfortable with what we see. But we need to feel uncomfortable. As a white Canadian, I have to admit I am somewhat uncomfortable speaking today. Like many of us who have never had to worry about the colour of our skin, I wonder what it is that I can add to the national discussion and action we must have.


I cannot demonstrate the pain felt by racialized Canadians. In my past, I have had glimpses of what it feels like to be invisible, to be targeted, to understand discrimination as it relates to my gender, but not race. I don’t know what that deeply feels like.

When I first heard the term “white privilege,” I also felt uncomfortable. It was hard for me to accept that by virtue of my race, I had advantages over others where I hadn’t seen them before.

Like all of you, we know the hours we’ve put in to get where we need to go. We know we have sacrificed. We know the bumps in the road we have encountered and even some tragedies along the way.

“White privilege” is a term that is difficult to hear. It is upsetting to be racialized, to be identified as “white” because, quite frankly, I’m not used to it. Therein lies some of the privilege — to be completely unfamiliar with being viewed through the lens of racialization or dealing with the burdens that come with it.

It is that realization — accepting that white privilege exists and coming to terms with it. That is why these conversations are so important, and why we all need to keep them going and strong.

Moreover, it was hard for me to accept that by virtue of who I am, by what I look like, I have likely unwittingly contributed to a system that is inherently tilted against my friends and colleagues.

This was even harder to accept as a former education superintendent, where we did our best to implement policies to combat conscious and unconscious racial bias. We hired equity and inclusion officers that advocated for the needs of black, Indigenous and Asian students. We worked with authors and book publishers to ensure these issues were included in the materials used by our young students. We worked closely with all levels of community services to serve these students the best we knew how.

But while these and other approaches are needed and useful, it’s clear to me now that we were merely treating the symptoms of an underlying system that was and is still broken.

I have been called a racist, and it was both a deeply troubling and an incredibly enlightening experience.

It came after years of working with high school students, their families, community partners, leading restorative justice circles to deal with conflict, racism, drugs and violent incidents. I thought I had seen most of it.

I became a principal of an elementary school, and in the first month, after witnessing a fight resulting in injuries between some Grade 3 boys, I met their parents. As I met with the third student and his father, and before I could start the conversation, the father picked up his son, looked me straight into the eye and said, “This fight never happened. You are a racist.” He removed his son and walked out.

That was a shocking and very informing moment for me. “Not me,” I thought, “I’m not racist.” In time, I got to know this family well. I came to realize the frustration they felt, dealing day in and day out with varying degrees of systemic racism.

As a principal of their school, I was representing this system. For so long I was keeping a lookout for overt racist acts, but those problems run so much deeper than that, and they still do today. If you want to be an ally and if you want to confront systemic racism, simply not being a racist is not good enough.

If we go about our work knowing these things, knowing that the deck is stacked against such a large swath of Canadians, but do nothing to try to change that, we are complicit in its perpetuation.

This and other experiences are part of my narrative. They have taught me many things, including the importance of empathy, listening while moving to common ground and, most importantly, that we must meet people where they are.

I learned through working with our Indigenous populations and consulting with them, that supporting and understanding must be done in their communities — on their land, in their homes, where we experience their lives and traditions — before we can try to improve what we think is change. This proposed special committee can be a vehicle for that, as we set out to create that change.

Colleagues, when I came to this chamber, it was with a few, admittedly broad, goals in mind: to help make our country better, healthier, more hopeful and more connected.

To do that, we have to confront the reality that Canada has an urgent racist problem, and we need to put in the work to begin to dismantle a system that has seen racialized Canadians be very disadvantaged. This will not happen overnight, of course. It will take constant vigilance to see that any successes from this project remain.

However, it cannot go one more generation. It just cannot. We have to start doing the work now and seize this moment, this momentum, to put in motion reforms that won’t peter out when the next event happens, and when society gets distracted by something else.

We need to look at changing fundamental structures, seeing if undertakings, like a universal basic income, can somehow contribute to levelling things, even slightly.

We need to look at revisiting mandatory minimum penalties or criminal record reform as potential avenues of change.

We need to listen to the work of groups in this chamber, like the Parliamentary Black Caucus and the Indigenous senators working group. We need to strike this special committee to keep the conversation and action moving.

The worst result of all this is if we take our eye off the ball for one second, for one day, and if we come to this chamber sometime down the road to deliver platitudes and words when tragedy yet again shines a light on systemic racism in this country. This is the way to do our longer-term work.

In hearing many of you speak these last few days, I trust and deeply hope this cannot and will not be the case. I look forward to giving everything I have to putting in the work needed, and it’s in the work with all of you to help create the change that is needed. Thank you, meegwetch.

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