The past few weeks have witnessed an intense public discussion over the sad case of Torrence Collier of Westport, Newfoundland – the young black boy subjected to racist bullying in his school. It has provoked a range of reactions: anger, defensiveness, confusion, recrimination. Last week Independent columnist Jon Parsons wrote a critical and timely intervention, pointing out that “[t]he overt and clearly visible racism directed toward Torrence Collier is not simply an aberration or a case of a few bad apples, but instead springs directly from the systemic racism at the heart of white-Canadian society.” If you haven’t yet read his piece, I strongly encourage you to do so.
Building on Jon’s able demonstration of the systemic racism at the heart of this matter, it’s important to point out that just as the causes are systemic and greater than the single case in the news, the solutions must be broad and systemic as well.
So far we have seen school board officials on the news, trying to respond to the Westport case with explanations and proposals. As they should: there’s an immediate problem there that needs to be addressed.
But it should not and cannot be isolated to a problem in the school system. Racism is the product of broader social attitudes – and often ignorance – that are embedded in a wide range of institutions. Children learn their behaviour from the adults around them, and the media and other institutional messaging that influences their behaviour. Racist bullying in schools is not merely a failure of educators: it is a symptom of a broader problem in the wider society. And it’s not surprising that in a province with growing income inequality, stubbornly high rates of unemployment, and shifting demographic trends, such problems should arise. What is startling is not the emergence of an ugly strain of racist attitudes, but the failure of our province’s leaders to predict and work to prevent it.
Inaction – not just racism – is what’s shocking
It should come as no surprise to our provincial government that the province is undergoing serious social strain. The influx of oil money and construction work, coupled with inadequate spending on social programs and concessions to big industry, have resulted in growing income inequality across the province. Economic and employment gains have not kept pace outside of the southeast Avalon. In some parts of the province – Labrador, for instance – the St. John’s-based government has taken on the role of rapacious colonizer, sending in the bulldozers to plow over the concerns of locals (and arresting them when they speak out) while failing to provide basic infrastructure; all the while sucking resources and wealth out of our mainland partner.
Outbursts of racism and other appalling social dysfunction are not an aberration – they are the result of a systematic pattern of neglect and inaction on the part of our provincial government…
Kowtowing to the business lobby has had the effect of depressing wages and creating a labour shortage; the perverse result of which has been an influx of temporary foreign workers to work at the poverty-level wages that unemployed local workers are unwilling to accept (because they know employers should be offering better).
Meanwhile, overcrowded and under-resourced schools and a lack of adequately funded arts, recreational, sporting, and other cultural industries provide little in the way of productive pursuits for youth and other restless community members, especially in rural parts of the province. The fact that many inhabitants are able to earn a better living flying out to Alberta every couple of weeks also contributes to the lack of social cohesion in the province.
In other words, outbursts of racism and other appalling social dysfunction are not an aberration – they are the result of a systematic pattern of neglect and inaction on the part of our provincial government, which has created the conditions for self-destructive anger and resentment to fester. By preferring to wine and dine with big business in the gourmet chateaus of downtown St. John’s, instead of representing the people who elect them, our political and business elites have brought on themselves an equal share of responsibility for the social tragedies that ensue.
What needs to be done
Is to gather those with insight and experience on these issues together, and establish a provincial anti-racism task force. The problem is not merely one in our schools – it permeates all of our social institutions, all the way right up to the provincial legislature itself. This is not a problem the school board can solve with a few expulsions. It’s a systemic problem and needs systemic solutions. And without a concerted, focused effort in the immediate future, it’s only going to get worse.
The provincial government – perhaps under the auspices of the Provincial Human Rights Commission – needs to convene a provincial anti-racism task force. It needs to include representatives of multicultural groups, human rights officers, labour, students, regional representatives, recent migrants, temporary foreign workers, and aboriginal/First Nations representatives. It needs to include academics with experience in anti-racism, diversity and equity; representatives from Labrador, from the school boards, the media, and of course government.
A task force with the right composition and representation could draw together the experience to chart out the scale of the problem we’re dealing with, and develop a strategy (attuned to local needs and experiences) to tackle racism in the province. This is a complex issue and needs a more concerted effort to tackle than merely a few school board representatives.
And it needs to happen yesterday.
The time for mediocrity is over
There are times, in the life of every society, where it is possible to make do with mediocre politicians who don’t do much more than shake hands, cut cake and kiss babies.
This is not one of those times.
We need new and innovative ideas to respond to unexpected and unanticipated problems. And we need the courage and confidence to do this.
Newfoundland and Labrador is in the throes of some of the most turbulent socio-economic change we have experienced in decades. And we need politicians and leaders who are able to rise to the occasion and take energetic and fearless action to meet the new challenges of this era. We need new and innovative ideas to respond to unexpected and unanticipated problems. And we need the courage and confidence to do this.
Let us hope that the new premier – whoever that may be – will rise to the occasion. But she or he will have precious little time to prove themselves, and there is already a very great deal at stake. Let us also hope that the Opposition Liberals will start doing more than simply propping up bad Conservative legislation and hosting $500-a-plate dinners to curry favour with elite business interests. What has happened in Westport is a prime example of what happens when politicians are more interested in wining and dining their rich business buddies than attending to the needs and demands of the people of this province and the challenges they face.
But for the moment, the sad events in Westport demonstrate a clear and urgent problem requiring a strong and proactive response. The provincial government ought to take the situation in hand by convening a task force to develop an anti-racism strategy for this province.
Otherwise, we’re going to be seeing a lot more social tragedies in the future.
Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.