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War Often Fosters Discrimination Based on Race

On this anniversary of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, I ask myself will human rights still be protected as we walk down this road to war?

It’s part of the human condition that fear and stress can affect our decision-making ability. War fever often brings decisions that result in discrimination, as we begin to paint whole groups with a broad brush.

Thankfully, history comes with lessons. The outbreak of World War I brought The War Measures Act (1914) and the internment of thousands, of which over 5,000 were Ukrainians who had immigrated to Canada. Many thousands more, the vast majority Ukrainian, were obliged to register as enemy aliens and report to local authorities on a regular basis.

Shortly after war was declared on Japan in December 1941, Canada saw the greatest mass movement in its history with the evacuation of Japanese Canadians from the Pacific Coast. Japanese men were sent to road camps in the British Columbian interior, to sugar beet projects on the prairies, or to internment in a POW camp in Ontario, while women and children were moved to six inland towns. Not until 1949, four years after Japan had surrendered, were the majority allowed to return. By then, most had chosen to begin life anew elsewhere in Canada. Their property had long before been confiscated and sold at a fraction of its worth.

Overwhelmed with the threat to security and fearful of strangers, we began to target our neighbours, our fellow citizens.

Since September 11, Amnesty International and numerous other organizations have documented a disturbing global trend. Members of religious and ethnic minorities, particularly persons of Middle-Eastern origin, have experienced harassment, violence and persecution because of their identity.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission recently conducted a province-wide inquiry into the effects of “racial profiling” on individuals, families, communities and society as a whole. Once again, groups of Canadians are being reduced to second-class citizens on the basis on their ancestry.

Racism, unchecked, can become embedded in our society. When we look across the globe, we see that systemic racism can result in genocide and massacre.

March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, was declared by the United Nations in 1966 in honour of those killed on March 21, 1960 in Johannesburg, South Africa. About 20,000 anti-apartheid demonstrators peacefully protested against a law that required black people to carry identification papers. Fewer than 100 police officers were present and tensions among them were high. When protesters began throwing stones, the police officers opened fire. As a result, 69 protesters died and 180 were wounded.

In our daily work at Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, we strive to forward the principle that cultural diversity is a basic human right and fundamental human value. We uphold the principle that every person is free and equal in dignity and rights without regard to ancestry, nationality, place of origin, race or perceived race.

The history of Canadian war tensions reminds us to be vigilant in our protection of these fundamental human rights. The freedom and equality we enjoy today is based on mutual understanding and on respect and justice for all Canadians. Let this March 21 be our reminder that we all have a hand in the elimination of racism.

Donna Scott
Chief Commissioner
Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission