A Tool Against Apartheid

Reviewed by Scott Neigh

Reviewed in this article

Canada’s Economic Apartheid
by Grace-Edward Galabuzi, Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2006.

It is far too easy for those of us on the left to respond to a piece of political writing by fixating on what we feel it lacks. This often means that instead of critiquing from a place of respect and deep listening, we compose itemized lists of real or imagined political shortcomings and fail to learn from what the text in question has to teach us.

I raise this because I suspect there are aspects of Canada’s Economic Apartheid that might lead some, particularly among those of us who are white and also identify with labels like “activist,” “left,” and “radical,” to fail to appreciate the importance of this book. This would be a major loss as it thoroughly spells out some of the crucial features of social relations in 21st-century Canada and will be an important textual tool for groups and communities engaged in anti-racist struggles.

Over the last several decades, the number of non-indigenous racialized people in Canada – the population that is the focus of this book – has increased dramatically. It is projected that by 
2015, as much as 20 percent of the population will be non-indigenous racialized people, up from under four percent in 1971. Grace-Edward Galabuzi, a professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, points out that “Canada has always had a multicultural, multi-racial character. The ‘White nation’ myth was achieved through a state-sponsored campaign of social exclusion of Aboriginal peoples and racialized groups throughout Canadian history” (1). This myth’s powerful hold over the Canadian imagination allowed the first major sociological study of inequality in Canada, John Porter’s The Vertical Mosaic (1965), to focus almost entirely on hierarchy among ethnic groups understood as white, while treating race-based exclusion as a minor feature of this ethnic stratification.

In the late 1960s, Canada’s immigration rules shifted away from exclusion based explicitly on race and nation. Immigration from Europe was declining but capitalist accumulation continued to require the infusion of new workers. As a result, significantly larger numbers of racialized immigrants began to arrive in the 1970s. In the 21st century, racialized immigrants continue to “represent a key source of human resources for the Canadian labour market” (6). According to the federal government, 70 percent of new entrants into the labour force are immigrants, three-quarters of whom are racialized. The Conference Board of Canada has shown that between 1992 and 2000, racialized groups averaged less than 
11 percent of the labour force while accounting for 0.3 percent of real gross domestic product growth, while the remaining 89 percent of the labour force accounted for only 0.6 percent, and the relative contribution of racialized people to economic growth in Canada is likely to increase in the future (6-7).

These changes are occurring in the context of the neoliberal offensive against gains made by working people in the period after World War II. On a global scale, there is an increasing transnational division of labour that counts on the oppressive realities left in the wake of colonialism to allow for heightened exploitation of workers in the global south. When they migrate to the rich, 
white-dominated countries in search of opportunities, these workers face environments in which the previous modest efforts to address inequality and poverty by non-market mechanisms are being dismantled. Work processes the world over are being reorganized so that they are increasingly flexible, informal, and precarious.

Migrants to Canada from the global south also face new forms of racialization, in which “non-white” and “immigrant” are increasingly treated as synonymous. As Galabuzi writes,

What has come to be known as neo-racism is said to explain the anti-immigrant discourses and policy actions of people in the North in response to the new migration unleashed by globalization’s displacement of entire communities. Neo-racism represents a particular construction of race at the historical moment of 21st-century globalization. Like all other forms of racism, it utilizes the social construction of racial categories to demand limits on the numbers of certain racial groups allowed into the country and on racial mixing. Neo-racism’s dominant theme is the insurmountability of cultural differences. It concentrates on the harm that can come out of abolishing borders, and on the incompatibility of social traditions and lifestyles (9-10, emphasis in original).

These discourses are used to construct racialized people as forever outside the nation and inferior to white nationals, justifying their subordinate place in the labour market.

These forces work together to create an “intensification of the racialization of the process of class formation” in Canada; Porter’s vertical mosaic has become “colour-coded” (7, 32). In practice, this means that racialized people in Canada increasingly experience an “income gap, [a] gap in employment levels, overrepresentation in 
low-paid occupations, underrepresentation in high-income occupations and sectors, and disproportionate exposure to precarious work” compared to white Canadians (18). Galabuzi invokes apartheid in the title to foreground the historical and contemporary similarities of Canada to South Africa in terms of white settler colonization, capitalism, and racial oppression. In part, it is a reference to the way South African officials looked to Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples for lessons in implementing apartheid, but it also reflects that “while apartheid South Africa’s use of domestic and migrant racialized labour was distinctive in the intensity of its exploitation, there are parallels to the historical exploitation of racialized labour in the Canadian labour market” (xiv).

In short, he writes, “The organization of labour deployment under Canadian capitalism seeks to guarantee cheap sources of labour. In the case of racialized groups it sees an opportunity to produce a ‘racial’ dividend for those who own the means of production” (50).

Generous use of numbers from sources like Statistics Canada illustrates Galabuzi’s conclusions, and he rounds out this quantitative approach with descriptive material. One chapter looks at the sorts of gendered racisms experienced by racialized women in the labour market and the barriers that prevent many internationally-trained professionals and tradespeople from using their skills in the Canadian context. Another draws attention to the links between economic apartheid and experiences of racial oppression in other spheres, from increasing residential segregation, to marginalization in the education system, to a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets racialized people. The book concludes with suggested reforms, including more and stronger employment equity legislation, stronger employment standards, a national urban strategy, a national child care program, and renewed funding for anti-racist programs at all levels of government.

Galabuzi’s text will be a useful tool in struggles against racism on multiple fronts. Despite underlying ideas that are radical, it appears that great efforts have been made to package them in ways that maximize the text’s access to the mantle of mainstream expert authority. For example, its style is dry and academic, its use of language is careful and moderate, and it uses very conventional sociological approaches. The book’s program for change is clearly social democratic, albeit a more anti-racist variant than any party or white-majority social movement in Canada has thus far embraced. This allows it to tap in to the tradition of building mainstream legitimacy for change-focused policy documents – a tradition that traces its roots back to Canadian social democratic initiatives from the 1930s.

The strength of this approach is that the resulting text will be less easily dismissed in the mainstream. It is a key manifestation of white supremacy that knowledge generated about racism from the standpoints of racialized people is dismissed with extreme ease in white-dominated public contexts. Therefore, tools that leverage other markers of “legitimacy” in order to insert anti-racist ideas into the mainstream can be of great practical value.

One context in which such a tool can advance anti-racist struggle is that of academic and other elite policy discourse. As limited as gains through struggle on this terrain might be, there is a complicated but real relationship between these discourses and the organization of state practices, and even small changes in those practices can have significant impacts on people’s lives. In particular, Galabuzi soundly refutes various strategies used in the mainstream social policy literature to explain racialized gaps in labour market performance that deny the relevance of racism and that have influenced state practices around immigration and employment issues for at least the last 15 years.

Another context in which this book will be useful is in supporting reform-oriented anti-racist struggles by groups and communities on the ground. Such campaigns often grow out of common-sense knowledge generated as part of everyday lived experiences of racism in Canada. Yet they often depend upon winning support from certain segments of the broader population and elites whose common sense has been forged in everyday experiences of white privilege. It is certainly offensive that groups and communities should need to refer to expert knowledge to bolster claims for racial justice but, when they do, books like this can play a crucial role.

This book does have the potential to be valuable in efforts aimed at social transformation. However, the care taken to position the text in ways that make it useful in the contexts outlined above has resulted in a book that may not generate excitement and a wide readership in some left and social movement spaces. The conventional academic approach may deter some; others may express quite sensible skepticism about its social-democratic orientation or lose interest when they find it makes demands of ruling institutions without investigating how we might organize to win such demands. Finally, we should be concerned with this work’s failure to address how best to centre in our politics the fact that everything we are trying to reorganize and redistribute in this country rests on stolen land.

If this distracts you from finding what is of value in this text, fight through it. The book’s insights into the shifting dynamics of racialization and Canadian capitalism are important, regardless of how they might be packaged, and they need to be taken up by radical groups and movements in this country. If we do not understand these changes, our groups and movements are likely to reproduce oppressive relations in our political orientations and everyday functioning regardless of the labels we apply to the changes we want to create. And our efforts to create change are less likely to result in anything worthy of the effort.

How exactly we might take up these insights and translate them into action is a question we need to address. Galabuzi’s sole foray into questions of organization provides a starting point for one important set of answers: “Perhaps no institution represents as much promise in empowering racialized workers to overcome their oppression in the labour market as does organized labour” (235).

The history of unions in Canada in this regard is hardly stellar, however. More often than not over the last 150 years, mainstream organized labour has ended up “succumbing to competitive racism in its own ranks” (236), to use Galabuzi’s understated summation of a history that has at times, particularly in earlier years, been quite vicious. It was only in the early 1980s that the labour bureaucracy began to move in the direction of a sustained organizational response to anti-racist challenges by racialized workers and their allies and, though advances have been made, it is very much a struggle still in progress. In particular, it is unclear whether the current leadership of most unions and labour federations are willing to shift priorities as Galabuzi recommends – that is, to adopt ways of organizing that might work for the racialized, lower status, and increasingly more precarious sectors of the economy.

“Organizing those in precarious employment,” Galabuzi writes, “does not undermine workers in standard employment relationships, as alleged by those who have counselled organized labour to consolidate its gains by focusing on organizing better-paid workers in the private sector, and workers with stable employment in the public sector. Rather, it provides the labour movement with a defensive position against creeping precariousness before it overruns those secure jobs in the private and public sectors.” For this reason, he argues, “Labour cannot afford to sit out the struggle against economic apartheid” (236).

As for those of us outside the labour movement, this book can help focus whatever energies for change we possess that are not taken up in our own immediate struggles. In this respect, Galabuzi’s insights into the increasing relevance of migration and national borders to racialization and to relations of production are key. They highlight the importance of actively supporting initiatives against borders by the likes of No One Is Illegal, and the various struggles across the country by migrant farm workers, domestic workers who entered Canada under the Live-In Caregiver Program, and guest workers whose labour is supporting Alberta’s tar sands boom. These sites are at the heart of how capital in Canada is evolving in the 21st century, and they must be central to how it is resisted.