The colour of Canadian poverty
Apr. 28, 2006. - Toronto Star
The surprising thing about Grace-Edward Galabuzi, author of a new book entitled Canada's Economic Apartheid: The Social Exclusion of Racialized Groups in the New Century, is that he is a gentle, scholarly man.
He uses facts, not polemics, to make his case. He acknowledges that Canada has been good to him since he fled Uganda at gunpoint in 1982. There is nothing angry or strident about him.
But passion is not measured in decibels. And Galabuzi is nothing if not passionate about resisting the formation of a non-white underclass in his adopted home.
The Ryerson University professor admits he chose the title for his book partly to jolt Canadians out of their complacency. But he does see real and disturbing parallels between the racial stratification of South Africa from 1950 to 1994 and what is going on in urban Canada — especially Toronto — today.
He is not accusing individual Canadians of racism, Galabuzi emphasizes. He is asking them to look at the way their labour markets and power structures systematically relegate people of colour to the lower ranks. He is asking them to explain why poverty is disproportionately concentrated among blacks and south Asians. He is asking them to face the fact that Toronto is becoming an increasingly segregated city, with non-whites living in its least desirable neighbourhoods.
"These trends are becoming institutionalized. Not by fiat, not by the state, this is not South Africa and it never will be. But when you look at what's going on in Canada's urban centres, an underclass is starting to emerge and it's very clearly racially defined."
He cites a 2003 Statistics Canada study, which showed that poverty was much more prevalent in Toronto's racial enclaves than in the rest of the city. In areas where more than 30 per cent of the population was Chinese, the low-income rate was 28.4 per cent. Where South Asians predominated, it was 28.3 per cent. Where blacks were dominant, it was 48.5 per cent. (The citywide rate was 22.6 per cent).
The same pattern was evident in unemployment rates. In Chinese enclaves, the incidence of joblessness was 11.2 per cent. In South Asian enclaves, it was 13.1 per cent. In black enclaves, it was 18.3 per cent (the citywide rate was 8.6 per cent.)
All three racial groups were over-represented in low-wage, precarious jobs such as sewing-machine operator, electronics assembler and taxi driver and under-represented in management, the professions and supervisory roles.
This combination of factors — low incomes, high unemployment, jobs that don't pay enough to pull families out of poverty and kids who see no prospect of a better life — can easily give rise to anger and violence, Galabuzi says.
"You're starting to see a dramatic increase in incarceration rates in these communities," he warns. "We're looking at real trouble down the road."
He rejects the comforting explanations that Canadians frequently offer for racial polarization.
It can no longer be attributed to differences in education, he points out. Visible minorities — thanks to Canada's highly selective immigration system — have a higher rate of post-secondary training than the rest of the population.
Nor does the old time-lag argument hold up. It is not just recent immigrants who are struggling to get a foothold on the economic ladder. Non-white citizens who have been in Canada for decades are stuck on the bottom rung. What's worse, their children are dropping out of school in disproportionate numbers, locking in a destructive intergenerational cycle.
"There will always be individuals who buck the trend," Galabuzi says, anticipating objections. "But as a group, they're doing poorly."
He does see a few hopeful signals.
The city is targeting resources at 13 troubled neighbourhoods before they become racial ghettos.
The labour movement is organizing Toronto's hotel workers, who are overwhelmingly Filipino and Caribbean. They are hired for "back-of-the-house" jobs — housekeeping, maintenance, food preparation, dishwashing — that pay $10 to $12 an hour and are let go when their bodies wear out.
And the non-profit sector is highlighting the racial dimension of poverty. The United Way of Greater Toronto took the lead, with its groundbreaking 2004 report Poverty by Postal Code.
Promising as these developments are, Galabuzi says, they are not enough.
Ontario needs an employment equity law that is effective and enforced. The province did adopt an Employment Equity Act in 1993. But former premier Mike Harris repealed it two years later and the governing Liberals have made no attempt to replace it.
Galabuzi is aware that legislating equality of opportunity in the workplace is controversial. But he contends that employers who discriminate on the basis of race — "blacks wouldn't fit in here, aboriginals are unreliable, ethnics aren't team players" — should at least be held to account.
He also believes Canada's political parties and public institutions have to do a better job of turning multiculturalism from a feel-good catchphrase into a visible, measurable reality.
Canadians are fair-minded, tolerant people, Galabuzi says. But the society they've built does not reflect that.
Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
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