We Canadians are quick to sing the refrain, “We are not like the Americans.” Some 25 years ago, I heard that line repeated by Black Anglicans when I told them about the struggles and work of the Union of Black Episcopalians, with whom I had a relationship. They had to be reminded that we have the same problems. Like this denial, many of the same issues remain to this day. Two issues suggest themselves: the absence of the Black presence at the highest levels of policy decision-making in our Church, and the employment and deployment of both ordained and non-ordained persons.
In many ways, the Canadian and American contexts are the same. Black people continue to endure the same pain visited upon us by the systemic racism that has infected every institution, including our Church. Saying that “we are not like the Americans” does not absolve us from confronting the sin of racism, nor does it erase the fact that slavery existed in Canada and that racism and racial segregation exist now as they did in the past.
Our hands are not clean, nor have they ever been! To set the record straight, when New France was conquered by the British in 1759, approximately 3,600 enslaved people (Indigenous and Black) had lived in the settlement since its beginnings. That Canada was the terminus for the Underground Railroad in the mid‐ 1800s does not invalidate these issues of slavery and racism in our country.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked when or if he would apologize for Canada’s history of the enslavement of African people (a recommendation in the 2017 United Nations Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its Mission to Canada), he replied, “We will continue to work with the Black community on the things we need to do.” This affirms the Canadian reluctance to acknowledge that racial slavery was a constituent part of our colonial origins, national consciousness and legacies that are present today in our society and institutions.
The ambiguity of episcopal support was evident in our House of Bishops’ response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, in their statement in June. The compassion, commitment and condemnation of acts of oppression usually expressed towards the Indigenous community, which are important, were absent in reference to the plight of Blacks in Canada and the issue of anti-Black racism. The statement did not mention the word “Black,” except in the reference to “Immigration policies restricted Black, Asian and Jewish immigrants.” There was no indication that our bishops were standing in solidarity with the issues of anti-Black racism in Canada or with the marches and protests across the globe! The opportunity to identify with those issues and to name the racism that exists toward Black people in Canada, in general, and Black Anglicans in our Church, was squandered.
The bishops went on to say that, “It is a matter of public record that The Anglican Church of Canada has been committed to and learning about a new path to reconciliation with Indigenous Anglicans. We recommit ourselves today to that path.” This begs the question, “What is the record of commitment to Black people and other non-white people?” Again, benign neglect!
The bishops further stated that they “repented” of their complicity in the continuing structures of racism and oppression in our Church and society, by naming racism as a sin.
The Church speaks of repentance but it can only do so if we are prepared to acknowledge that repentance demands a recognition that there is a problem, a resolve to repair it, a reorientation of minds, hearts and wills, and a response that will bring about change. The penitent Church must be the paragon of compassion. The compassionate Church cannot be an observer on the sidelines, reluctant to judge the values by which racism is allowed to take root. It must be disposed to listening, open to being transformed by reality, and accountable for being contributory to the situation, where that is the case.
With cautious optimism, I welcome the bishops’ “re-commitment” of “ourselves and our dioceses to confront the sin of racism in all its forms and the patterns of silence and self-congratulation, which have silenced the experiences of people of colour, First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples of this land.” I do so because I have seen the words “Black” and “racism” mentioned more in the last three months in our Church media and by our bishops, than I have seen in my 27 years serving in this diocese.
Bishop Asbil wrote the following in July: “It is time to challenge and to question how structures shape our attitudes, beliefs, assumptions and bias. We must understand and confront white privilege, institutional and systemic racism that so many of us have been blind to for too long. And we must not be afraid to become agents of transformation.”
At long last, the message may have gotten through. Time’s up. We have to move from studies, surveys and statements, to making bold, transformative decisions that will change the face of our Church in Canada.