Systemic Racism in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Systemic Racism in Canada

Systemic racism (also known as institutional racism) is a concept whereby the social structures produce inequalities based on racial discrimination. Racialized people thus face challenges due to racism from both individuals and institutions (health, education, penal system, etc.). Systemic racism is a concept different from that of individual racism.


Systemic racism should not be confused with systematic racism. Systemic refers to the concept of system. Discrimination within a system is not experienced systematically and is not always deliberate.

Systemic racism is often seen as the tendency within a group to systematically exclude or marginalize racialized people. It puts unfair obstacles in the way of non-white individuals who are trying to access such important resources as employment, accommodation or health care.

This phenomenon is often based on culture, as well as on the racist practices which exist in institutions or society as a whole. In Canada, historical examples include the segregation of Black people and the Indian Act. According to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ), systemic racism is the result of decisions and actions based on race-related inequalities and discrimination. For others, this tendency results from the fact that the standards of the white majority are entrenched in the ways in which an institution functions. This results in a system which treats Indigenous and racialized people unfairly.

Specific Examples

Systemic racism can be experienced in a number of ways.

Indigenous and racialized people experience discrimination when they are stopped by the police or have reduced access to accommodation and employment to a disproportionate degree compared to the rest of the population. This means that in an equal representation of races, individuals who are white or members of the majority experience fewer negative incidents in their everyday lives in society than Indigenous or racialized individuals.

In 2016, one-quarter of the discrimination complaints filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission were related to race, colour, national or ethnic origin or religion. (See also: Anti-semitism in Canada; Islamophobia in Canada. ) In 2017, 43 per cent of reported hate crimes were motivated by hate related to race or ethnic origin.

In the labour market, studies show that a job applicant with a name that sounds African, Arabic or Latin American is likely to be discriminated against during the hiring process. Moreover, there is a substantial difference in the unemployment rate between immigrants ― who are often racialized ― and the rest of the population. For example, from 2006 to 2015, the unemployment rate averaged 5.8 per cent in the population born in Canada versus 11.2 per cent among immigrants. The difference is highest in Quebec. In Canada, the unemployment rates are substantially higher in the Indigenous, Black and Arab communities.

Another example of systemic racism seen in Canada and elsewhere is racial profiling by the police. In 2019, a report from the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal showed that Black and Indigenous people are stopped four to five times more often than people who are white. A similar situation has been observed regarding the police in Toronto. In 2020, while Black people represented only 8.8 per cent of the population of Toronto, they were targeted in one-quarter of police actions and subjected to the use of force in 40 per cent of these actions.

Further, in 2020, despite representing only 5 per cent of Canada’s adult population, Indigenous people accounted for 30 per cent of the inmates in federal penitentiaries. (See Prison.)

The safe drinking water issue in Indigenous communities is another example of systemic racism. In 2022, 27 reserves were subject to long-term advisories regarding unsafe drinking water (do not consume, do not use, or boil water advisories). Yet, drinking water is readily accessible to the vast majority of the Canadian population. In fact, Canada has the 4th largest resources of renewable fresh water in the world.

Controversy Surrounding the Recognition of Systemic Racism

The concept of systemic racism has been the subject of controversy and heated debate in Canada.

In May 2020, the death of George Floyd in the United States following a police intervention led to a number of demonstrations worldwide. (See: Black Lives Matter-Canada; Anti-Black Racism in Canada.) These events forced a number of public figures to take a position on the issue. The Premier of Quebec, François Legault, asserted that he condemned racism, while questioning the existence of systemic racism in the province.

Black Lives Matter-Canada

At the federal level, the Liberal government had already recognized the definition and existence of systemic racism. In fact, in 2019, Ottawa had published a plan to combat racism over a three-year period. A key element of this strategy was an investment of $4.6 million to establish a new Federal Anti-Racism Secretariat in the Department of Canadian Heritage.

The opposition parties, including the New Democratic Party and the Green Party, have followed the lead of the federal government in recognizing systemic racism. The Conservative Party of Canada maintains that it is anti-racist; however, some critics point to the fact that its 2019 and 2021 election platforms make no mention of the term.

The following provinces also recognize the existence of a racist system: British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Possible Solutions

A number of experts and organizations have proposed solutions to combat systemic racism. Obviously, the problems differ according to communities and cases, but some solutions are frequently mentioned:

  • Recognize systemic racism. Much more than a semantic debate, such recognition is the starting point from which to launch the reconciliation process.
  • Recognize and support the work of organizations representing the Indigenous, Black and otherwise racialized communities, which have been combatting systemic racism for many years.
  • Offer more training involving intercultural approaches to workers in various fields (health care, education, police forces, etc.).
  • Promote the hiring of visible minorities and Indigenous people in the civil service.
  • Facilitate the handling of complaints in the various institutions.

Companies and organizations have even set up new, specialized teams to implement these strategies. In June 2022, British Columbia was the first province to pass legislation, the Anti-Racism Data Act, intended to collect data to better combat systemic racism. In Montreal, the Bureau de la commissaire à la lutte au racisme et aux discriminations systémiques was created in the wake of the June 2020 report from the Office de consultation publique de Montréal, which recognized the systemic nature of racism. (See also Balarama Holness.) The team’s mandate is to combat racism and systemic discrimination to make Montreal a more equitable and inclusive city.