Our work at CAPE and systemic racism in Canada

Dear CAPE community,

People from coast to coast to coast have been left reeling by evidence that 215 children were buried at a residential school in Kamloops. Many of you likely also heard about the attack that killed four and injured a fifth member of a Muslim family in London, Ontario, leaving a nine-year-old child orphaned. I want to share some reflections with you about these events in the context of our work at CAPE.

However, before I share – I wanted to suggest places to donate and actions to take.

On donations – I encourage you to join me in donating to the following initiatives or to find relevant local efforts where you are:

On action – this is a moment to read the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Unsurprisingly, you will find we have a ways to go. You can also read Islamophobia in Canada’s Submission to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. We also suggest:

It’s easy enough to look at horrors in the past and present and say that we would never do that. And it’s true – I can’t imagine working at a residential school. I can’t imagine being so full of rage and hate that I would run down a family going for a walk.

However, in part as a result of my recently-completed doctorate studying environmental activism and solidarity with Indigenous peoples and through reflecting on my experiences as a settler environmentalist, I also understand actions as existing within systems that enable or encourage these actions to take place.

The residential school system was a deliberate act of erasure, of colonialism, of racism. It was operationalized through government policies whose goal was to eliminate Indigenous peoples – whether by “education”/assimilation or by death. The day-to-day work of the people who ran residential schools in the (sometimes quite recent) past and the actions of an individual committing terrible violence exist within systems that make these actions seem normal or even the only option, without considering the wider context and implications.

Here at CAPE, we are part of many systems – and I’ve been thinking about two in particular.

Firstly, while we are a unique voice in environmental spaces, we are in many ways aligned with and part of environmentalism. Environmentalism as a movement has a very poor record of engagement with Indigenous peoples – partly because it relies on the assumption that settler/non-Indigenous people should determine what happens on Indigenous land. In making this assumption, environmentalism risks participating in Indigenous erasure.

Unsurprisingly then, environmentalism has done direct damage to Indigenous peoples. Globally, conservation efforts have forced relocations of Indigenous peoples and caused irreparable damage to sacred places. Within Canada, the ordinary thoughtlessness of environmentalism commonly results in campaigns that inadvertently sacrifice Indigenous rights and health in pursuit of environmental change. (While in general, I don’t direct people to read my dissertation – I wrote about environmentalism and Indigenous peoples a fair bit in the Introductory chapter if this perspective is new to you and you would like to learn more.)

Secondly, we at CAPE operate within and adjacent to medicine. I would guess that you have greater knowledge of systemic problems within medicine than I do. A brief recent summary appeared in the Toronto Star with examples of how genocide was perpetrated on Indigenous peoples through the medical system. Evidence and anecdote relay many instances of racism experienced by Indigenous individuals seeking care.

In response to the light shed on the atrocities perpetrated in residential schools, of anti-Black racism perpetrated by police and other state systems, and in the last few days, in the wake of the killing of four members of a London Muslim family, we have often heard the response: “This is not Canada.” However, I would propose that these systemic problems and the systemic problems within environmentalism and medicine are part of the systems that created Canada. Declaring that this is not Canada ignores that these acts and incidents stem from the violence of Canada’s founding as a settler country. From the microaggressions in the form of questions such as “where are you from?”, to the public harassment and organizational discrimination of Muslim women for wearing the hijab, to racial profiling and targeting of Muslim people by CSIS, to the violent hate crimes in Mosques, Islamophobia is shamefully much more a part of Canada than people are willing to admit. It is time to put this idea to rest that systemic racism, discrimination and hate don’t exist in Canada and to confront and actively work to change the systems that perpetuate and contribute to Islamophobia and white supremacy.

Those of us who grew up as settlers in colonial countries are set on a path that makes it likely we will perpetuate the norms of the place we are in. I spent my childhood in Canada and the U.S. and was taught plenty of racist and colonial assumptions. I don’t believe this makes me a bad person – but I do believe that I need to actively work every day to analyze the systems I’m in and what feels acceptable or obvious within those systems. I don’t think this analysis will make me immune to enacting racism or colonialism. However, I think it will help – and that being part of a community also committed to this same work will help enormously.

I’ve been thinking for a while about how to best open a conversation among the CAPE community about ensuring our work is actively anti-racist. Just as we acknowledge that climate change, air pollution and chemical exposures are threats to health – and we have been working to address these issues through support for anti-environmental racism legislation – so too are racism, Islamophobia, and discrimination of any form. I’m open to your suggestions about what this conversation could look like. In the meantime, please keep an eye on your email for invitations to discussions or events. At the moment, I can direct you to the B.C. regional committee’s excellent recent environmental justice webinar series.

Finally, I quote my friend Tria Donaldson who wrote in the Regina Leader-Post: “The discovery of remains of 215 children does not surprise me. I am angry. I am also angry that I am not surprised.” Tria urges remembrance and action – and donation is an act of remembrance; is part of our collective work. Calling your M.P. is work. Implementing a TRC recommendation at your workplace is work. Our work is standing up to hate, to racism, to Islamophobia, in all its subtle and obvious forms. We are a creative community – I encourage you to connect with each other about what work you undertake so we can engage on this together beyond these few weeks.


Anjali and the CAPE staff team