​Do We Have Systemic Bias / Racism In Canada?

Published on
June 20, 2020
Time to read: 
Indigenous Canadian Soldier holding Eagle staff
Sergeant Moogly Tetrault-Hamel carries the Canadian Armed Forces/Department of National Defence Eagle Staff at the Indigenous Sunrise Ceremony in honour of the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid in Dieppe, France on August 18, 2017. Photo: Corporal Andrew Wesley, Army Public Affairs. ©2017 DND/MDN Canada.< Accessed on June 20, 2020 through the Maple Leaf article "First Indigenous spiritual advisor reflects on anniversary" at https://ml-fd.caf-fac.ca/en/2017/10/7118?fbclid=IwAR1ZJWqk4YCN3_hqXFc_dHUx8Fx2lSLeWcVTY62WlyQ3OUcgiEt_-ywQqhY

There’s been a lot of talk about Systemic Racism in Canada over the last week. Do we have it? Are our national institutions rife with racism? Do you have to consciously make a choice to act in a racist manner to be a racist?

This week’s blog covers some of my thoughts on unconscious systemic bias and/or racism. 
According to the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary
“Definition of racism
1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2a: a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
b: a political or social system founded on racism
3: racial prejudice or discrimination”

When I teach organizations about inclusion, I emphasize the need to take the time to review their policies and procedures for unintended systemic barriers. Most people don’t take the time to question why policies and procedures are in place. Changing them can be time consuming and frustrating, so many simply choose to work around the policies and procedures they have in place, while not worrying about why they exist in their current state.

I’d like to share one example to illustrate a systemic barrier. Before I tell this story, I must disclose that I served in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) for 28 years. I enjoyed about 98% of my career; after all everyone has the occasional bad day. I truly believe that the CAF is one of the most equitable employers in Canada. I strongly recommend service in the Canadian military as an excellent career choice to this day. That being said, every organization has room for improvement.

The CAF has incredibly detailed and specific Dress Instructions that outline everything about how serving members of the Canadian military are to dress both in and out of uniform while on duty. Let’s focus on one small part of the Dress Instruction, how military members may wear their hair. The instructions are quite specific, and include directions based on gender, while allowing for accommodations based on religious or spiritual reasons. Let’s focus down even further. There are specific directions for Aboriginal peoples who are members of the CAF that allow them to ask for accommodations to grow their hair long enough to braid it, including how long that braid may be while in uniform.

I remember roughly when this policy came into effect. I was serving at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. I started noticing young women wearing braids while in uniform. I asked one about her braid. She told me about a newly published CANFORGEN (Canadian Forces General) instruction which allowed women and Aboriginal men to grow their hair and wear it in a braid. This policy has been in effect for about 20 years.

Many people who are raised in, or return to, a traditional Indigenous culture have strong spiritual beliefs about wearing their hair in braids. To learn more about this read the 2017 Maple Leaf article "First Indigenous Spiritual Advisor Reflects on Anniversary."  The systemic barrier of not allowing Indigenous people serving in the military to wear their hair in braids, was in place for close to a century. When the military decided to allow the wearing of braids, it opened up a military career path to more Indigenous peoples.

It’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on why the short hair policy initially came into effect, at about the time of the first world war. When gas masks were first invented, they did not seal very well. The short hair policy was a health and safety matter. As time passed, gas mask technology improved, to the point that women, who were allowed to have long hair, were able to successfully stay safe while wearing a gas mask. There was no longer a health and safety reason to insist that any military members had to have short hair and a close shaven face.

Before writing this blog, I tried to find the original CANFORGEN. I couldn’t access it. I did find the applicable part of the Dress Manual. I was appalled to read the following “As long as there is no safety or operational concerns, a Commanding Officer will grant permission to the member and have it recorded on the member’s original requesting memorandum. Upon posting to a new unit, the Aboriginal CAF member must re-seek permission from his new chain of command, as operational or safety concerns may have changed.”

What this means is that someone who has gone through the effort to keep or grow their braid, for spiritual reasons, may have that “accommodation” taken away from them by their next commanding officer. This is patently absurd. No commanding officer is going to tell a female military member that they must cut their hair for “safety or operational concerns” so there is no reason to tell an Indigenous person that they must do so. Which makes me question, why does the Canadian military continue to enforce hair standards based on gender? 

I’ll continue to use the braid example in my inclusion training, because it illustrates that as organizations take a step forward in becoming more inclusive, they can often be taking two steps back at the same time.

In answer to my question in the title, "Do we have systemic bias and/or racism in Canada?" Absolutely!  Even people with the best of intentions can be racist.
It’s time to acknowledge our privilege and to genuinely, and with a critical eye, reflect on how our organizations maintain unconscious bias, that supports racist decision making. It’s time to create a more equitable “New Normal,” one where everyone, regardless of any “differences” such as race, gender or religion can thrive.

Refection can be uncomfortable. Anything leading to change can be uncomfortable. That’s OK. You wouldn’t expect an Olympic athlete to reach that level without reflecting on how they can change and improve their performance. I urge you to take the time to reflect on how you personally can change, and how your organization can change to stamp out systemic racism.