A Time to Listen and Be Told

My formative years were spent in a very small, rural, Canadian community. A hamlet, by definition. Needless to say, it was not a racially diverse environment.

I arrived in Montreal, not long before Anthony Griffin, a 19-year-old unarmed black man, was shot and killed by a Montreal police officer on November 11, 1987. He was the same age as I, and yet, to borrow a poignant and über Canadian lyric, both behind and ahead by a century relative to my naïve, privileged and sheltered existence.

In retrospect my fraught journey coming to terms with inequality and racial injustice started that day.

My country proudly embraces multiculturalism as an official policy, while promoting integration and tolerance. On the whole, it is a noble effort.

Nonetheless, in some respects it can act as a distressing moral proxy. It lulls us into a dangerous sense that our intercultural duties have been taken care of for us, outsourced to a national feel-good campaign.

In good times, we do nothing and blithely adopt the role of stereotypically polite Canadians. In times of crisis, however, we don't sufficiently feel the need to shift gears. We are left passive, sideline observers confident that we are beyond reproach on account of our citizenship.

Don't believe the hype. Racism, intolerance, inequality and exclusion live here, and always have.

We don't get a pass because our government pamphlets, corporate marketing campaigns and university curriculums feature a veritable rainbow of smiling skin tones on the cover page.

In the countryside beyond this city's borders there is small stream. It feeds into a larger tributary that turned the grist mills of industrious settlers from south of the border during the early 1800s. A few years back the province tidily removed a conspicuous 'g' from what is now the Niger River, and history was made right.

Now, centuries later and decades after my arrival to this city, my regular jogging route takes me past a solemn memorial on the site where Nicholas Gibbs, a 23-year-old black man with mental health issues, was fatally shot by police in 2018.

I have been oblivious to my relative privilege. I have been the fool who blithely, righteously and obnoxiously declared that "I don't see colour". I did not appreciate soon enough the inherent danger of the over-simplified and misguided "all lives matter" platitude. I awkwardly drop evidence of my spotty knowledge of a culture casually into conversation to show that I am one of the good guys, no doubt making people of colour feel like an exhibit on involuntary display.

I am too comfortable in the notion that my moral outrage at the distant site of injustice puts me on the right side of the history.

My journey is not over, but the part where I do the talking is.

It is not time for people like me to talk. It is time for people like me to finally shut up and listen to the black community, to hear about how every day entails some degree, some element of genuine and legitimate exclusion, fear and danger that we can't pretend to know.

It is not for us to prescribe remedies, to layer on yet more posturing and empty outrage.

It is time to listen and be told. 

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