Imagining a world free of racism – International Day to End Racial Discrimination

Posted: 03/21/2018

By Laura Wilson

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The global community reflects on this day annually to honour the 69 people who were killed by police on March 21, 1960, during a peaceful anti-Apartheid demonstration held in Sharpeville, South Africa.

The demonstration was against the Apartheid “pass laws”—the Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act of 1952, commonly known as the Pass Laws Act of 1952—which required black South Africans over the age of 16 to carry documents authorizing their presence in restricted areas.

Sharpeville massacre

Anti-Apartheid demonstrators fleeing the police shooting in Sharpeville. March 31, 1960.

On this important day, we recommit ourselves to eliminating racial discrimination, in whatever way we can, with whatever tools we have. This day pushes us to engage in the critical discourse of anti-racism, allowing us to not only look back at the violent consequences of racism from Apartheid-era South Africa, but also across other past and current movements around the world, and especially, in our case, in Canada.

Acknowledging the existence of discrimination on the basis of race may be challenging for some. However, one must situate their discomfort within the context that—as seen in South Africa 58 years ago, and in countless other places before and since—being discriminated on the basis of race can be a life or death situation for racialized peoples.

Racial discrimination happens every day along a broad spectrum: overtly or subtly, systemic or seemingly isolated.

As I write this piece, I’ve received a call from my agent whom my partner and I had enlisted to find a condo unit to rent in downtown Toronto. He had recommended one that we thought was ideal—it was spacious, clean, close to the lake, and vacant. We prepared the required documents, work information, and references to prove that we were worthy tenants for consideration, and our offer was rejected. The reason? The landlord had apparently gotten into an accident with people who looked like us last year and therefore, didn’t want to rent the unit to us.

It didn’t matter that I am a lawyer, or that my fiancé has a PhD. It didn’t matter that I am employed at the Law Society of Ontario. Our salaries were irrelevant. I had to inform my manager that there wouldn’t be any reference calls coming her way about this rental application because none of that mattered to the landlord. At the end of the day, it was the colour of our skin that prevented us from being considered tenants in the first place.

My experience is one that is shared by many Black Canadians, as captured in this article.

Beyond just the inconvenience of finding a good place to call home, this kind of exclusion—happening today, on a consistent basis, in a diverse metropolis like Toronto—has the effect of reminding people like me that we don’t belong.

What I felt can also be experienced during a traffic stop, at an airport security check-in, in schools, or at the shopping mall. And yes, on the accounts of our peers, friends, and colleagues: systemic racial discrimination also occurs within the legal professions in Ontario.

This year, the United Nations has declared the theme of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to be that of “promoting tolerance, inclusion, unity and respect for diversity in the context of combating racial discrimination”.

Through our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives for licensees and public events, the Law Society of Ontario continues to demonstrate its commitment to combating racial discrimination in the legal professions.

As Shaneka Shaw Taylor aptly stated in support of our EDI initiatives, “Progress is not a measure of how far we have come, it’s a measure of what’s left to be accomplished.”

With the implementation of our EDI initiatives, the legal professions are making progress, but we have barely scratched the surface.

Treasurer Paul Schabas wrote in his Toronto Star op-ed piece that, “eradicating racism in the legal profession involves recognizing it and reminding ourselves that we all have a role to play.”

What is your role?

Laura Wilson with Treasurer

Laura Wilson with Paul Schabas, Treasurer, at the Law Society’s International Women’s Day event. March 13, 2018.

Laura WilsonLaura Wilson is an Associate Counsel, Equity Initiatives, at the Law Society of Ontario.