Myth or fact?
We all take part in systems that create disadvantages for some while advantaging others. This is called systemic discrimination. You can play a part in helping to level the playing field. Learn how.
This page describes experiences of discrimination. It may bring up difficult or traumatic memories or feelings.
What you should know
Human rights law says we all have the right to be free from discrimination. That’s when someone is treated badly or unfairly based on certain parts of their identity. The law calls these protected characteristics. They include things like race, sex, gender identity, age, family status, and any disability.
BC human rights law protects people from discrimination in everyday contexts like work, housing, and accessing services. In our discrimination primer, we dig deeper into these laws.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains equality rights. These are based on the idea that everyone should be treated equally by the law and without discrimination.
Yet inequities remain
Despite these laws, the ideals of equal treatment and freedom from discrimination aren’t fully realized in Canada.
In large part this is because the playing field is not level. Government laws and policies have historically disadvantaged certain groups and advantaged others. For example, laws and policies have disadvantaged Indigenous, Black and other racialized people. This has happened since colonization and has continued across generations.
These histories continue to be reflected in BC’s cultures and systems today — from the daily experiences of Indigenous Peoples in the criminal justice system, health care, and child welfare, to discriminatory practices against Black and Asian Canadians.
How we all play a role
None of us are individually responsible for these ongoing inequities. But we are all impacted by them. We can learn how the playing field is not level, and how to play a part to fix that. For example, we can learn to spot when someone is being discriminated against.
We can understand, too, that human rights law can provide an individual remedy to someone who’s had an experience of discrimination. But that it’s not a singular fix to widespread inequities. We also need deeper changes at all levels of society.
We’ve been taught to think of racism and other prejudices as individual and intentional acts of hatred. Racial slurs, stereotyping of whole groups, acts of violence. These are easy to spot and recognize as “racist” or “sexist” or the like. And to distance ourselves from.
Racism and prejudice are also built into systems
But some forms of racism and prejudice are less obvious. We all move within social systems and structures every day. Workplaces, schools, hospitals, courts, even public spaces like restaurants and malls: these settings are made up of rules, policies, norms, and patterns of behaviour. Within most social systems in Canada, some groups of people encounter more friction than others. Their opportunities to thrive are limited, based on how others see them.
This is called systemic discrimination. When the part of their identity that’s targeted is race, it’s called systemic racism.
“Discrimination... means practices or attitudes that have, whether by design or impact, the effect of limiting an individual’s or a group’s right to the opportunities generally available because of attributed rather than actual characteristics.”
Systemic racism in action
Let’s zero in on systemic racism. It can be tricky to spot if you aren’t on the receiving end of it (and often even if you are). This is because the way in which our collective systems operate is built in as the normal state of play. But Indigenous, Black and other racialized people in BC experience systemic racism every day.
Consider these facts:
An Indigenous person in Canada is over 10 times as likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than a white person.
Racialized Canadians earn an average of 81 cents to the dollar compared to other Canadians.
Employers are about 40% more likely to interview a job applicant with an English-sounding name. This is true despite identical education, skills and experience.
Indigenous women and girls are at least 3 times more likely to experience violence and at least 6 times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
Each of these statistics has an important context. For example, consider the historical context of policing in Canada. As Europeans colonized Canada, laws and policies were put in place to displace and erase Indigenous Peoples. Policing and courts were used to assert control over Indigenous Peoples and their lands. Generations later, data shows that systemic racism within policing and many other social systems persists. And it contributes to the over-criminalization of Indigenous and racialized people.
Below we explore more examples of what systemic discrimination looks like.
As people, we self-identify by race, gender, family status, and ability, among other things. Each of these identities is connected to structures of power. If you’re on the wrong side of privilege in more than one area, those overlapping disadvantages can produce a very strong headwind against you.
This predicament is captured by the word intersectionality. In several dimensions of your identity — say, your race, your gender, your faith — you are far from the centre of power. You are in the opposite of a “sweet spot,” simply by virtue of who you are. These harms are experienced as daily occurrences over lifetimes and have impacts across generations.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that racialized and other historically marginalized people cannot thrive. But it does mean the odds are stacked against them.
“I came to Canada from the Philippines as a home support worker. Now I have two children of my own. Like all working mothers, I struggle to find affordable childcare, and earn less than most men do. And like many racialized women in Canada, I earn even less because of the colour of my skin. I’m not sure that it’s any one person's fault... but the truth is that some people get more, while others get less. A community worker put it to me this way: I’m at the intersection of gender, racial and class disadvantages in our systems.”
– Reya, North Vancouver, BC
Disadvantage and privilege are not always cut-and-dried. It’s possible to experience disadvantage in one identity, but privilege in another. This wheel of power and privilege can help you reflect on your own mix of identities. How do your identities engage with structures of privilege and power? Of disadvantage? How have your privileges shaped your life?
Applying this political lens to our lives, seeing ourselves as actors within structures of power, isn’t always comfortable. But it can be liberating. Even empowering. Because it means that we can be agents of change.
What systemic discrimination looks like
Retired judge wrongly handcuffed and detained
"They have to be very vigilant when they train young white police officers for dealing with minorities."
Justice Selwyn Romilly is a retired Supreme Court judge. He was the first Black person appointed to any court in BC. In 2021, he was enjoying a morning walk on the Stanley Park seawall. Five officers approached him. He was handcuffed in front of many people. He described it as humiliating. The officers were seeking a “dark-skinned man” in his 40s or 50s. Romilly was in his early 80s. Vancouver police later apologized for wrongly handcuffing and detaining him.
We all deserve to feel safe and supported in our communities. But the reality is that widespread systemic discrimination and racism persist within policing.
This report from BC’s human rights commissioner describes how these forces play out in BC. Indigenous Peoples and certain racialized groups face these discriminatory practices, among others:
they are significantly overrepresented in arrests
they are significantly overrepresented in police-involved deaths
they are disproportionately subjected to racial profiling and police street checks
Many factors contribute to systemic racism. One is bias of individual police officers, both implicit and explicit. Another is structural design. For example, a practice of gathering race data to identify people at risk for criminal activity can build racial bias into the system.
Other communities are also impacted by discriminatory policing. These include trans people, as well as people with mental health issues, with disabilities, and those living in poverty. Many of these groups, along with Indigenous, Black and other racialized people, have called for changes to BC’s policing laws.
“School isn’t really a welcoming place for me. But I’m motivated to get a good education and give back to my community. Last September, my new teacher used my English name when doing a roll call. I asked her to use my traditional name instead. It’s a way of reclaiming my Nation’s culture. I offered to help her pronounce my name. She declined, saying school ‘isn’t the place for politics’.”
– T.S., Lheidli T'enneh First Nation
Everyone has the right to be free from discrimination in accessing education. But systemic discrimination persists in BC’s schools. For generations, racist patterns of behaviour, policies, and practices within the school system have disadvantaged Indigenous students.
How the system discriminates
Reports like this one highlight that Indigenous Peoples are not treated equally in BC schools. Many Indigenous students receive verbal attacks and racist comments disproportionately. They don’t see people like themselves in the curriculum content. And teachers expect less of them. The Auditor General called the latter phenomenon the “racism of low expectations.”
Discrimination in education has serious impacts on learning outcomes. BC’s Auditor General reported in 2019 that while the gap between the graduation rate for Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students has been narrowing, it remains in double digits.
The damaging legacy of residential schools
This systemic discrimination has deep roots. For several generations, the Canadian government forced nearly every Indigenous child to attend a residential school. Children were abused, and thousands died in the schools.
Survivors of the residential school system fought to be heard. Their actions resulted in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The stories they shared reveal how trauma and disadvantage flow from one generation to the next.
The tragic story of Joyce Echaquan
Joyce Echaquan was a member of the Atikamekw Nation in southwestern Quebec. Joyce's husband described his wife as an incredible mother to their seven children. They shared a mutual love of nature, hunting, and their Atikamekw traditions. Joyce went to hospital with severe stomach pain. As she lay dying, health care workers ignored her calls for help. They uttered racist comments and crude insults. She broadcast this racist treatment on her phone through Facebook Live.
A BC government review found that 84% of Indigenous patients have experienced discrimination in BC’s health care system.
What this systemic discrimination looks like
Anti-Indigenous racism within the health care system includes:
being assumed drunk or being asked about substance abuse
not being believed
being misdiagnosed or receiving inappropriate treatments
not having their cultural practices recognized or respected
Experiences of discrimination have direct and indirect impacts. Many Indigenous Peoples mistrust and avoid the public health care system. Less access to health care leads to poor health outcomes. This contributes to health disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
Calls for systemic change
As noted in the BC government review, this systemic discrimination in health care has deep roots. Colonial beliefs that Indigenous Peoples were weak and less capable and less worthy of care became embedded in laws and policies for more than a century.
In calling for change, the government review made several recommendations. These include embedding Indigenous cultural safety in BC’s health care system and affirming the right of Indigenous Peoples to control their own health.
Be part of the solution
Systemic problems require systemic solutions. But it’s also true that systems can only change when people change. In this way, we each have a role to play in dismantling systemic discrimination. To dismantle something means to take it apart, making it unable to work.
We can start by educating ourselves. This is how we can begin to recognize and name what needs to change.
Here are some steps you can take to starting your learning journey:
Learn about which Indigenous territory you live on.
Take a course or workshop on the different histories and cultures of Indigenous Peoples. The Indigenous Canada course from the University of Alberta is free to the public.
Follow, listen to, and amplify the voices of Indigenous Peoples. Read their books, follow them on social media, watch their films.
We all have blind spots. A big one, for many of us, is our deep-down feelings about subjects like race and gender. It’s not easy to see our own biases. Here’s a resource made to help us do the hard work: this public campaign from BC’s human rights commissioner invites each of us to reflect on our cognitive foibles.
The point is, we may not recognize our own privilege because it’s the water we’re swimming in. Here are some starter questions you can use to clarify how your life has been shaped by your race and other privileges:
Can I see myself represented in different ways in media?
If I need legal or medical help, can I be sure my race won’t work against me?
If a traffic cop pulls me over, can I be sure I wasn’t singled out because of my race?
Do I have to worry about affording basic necessities?
Use your privileges to lift others up
Your privileges give you opportunity and influence. You can use them to help others who have historically been marginalized. We offer some suggestions on how you can do this at step 4 below.
Most of us don’t want to rock the boat or create conflict. But some issues are too important. If you witness someone being racist or otherwise discriminatory, let them know it’s not okay. If that feels too confrontational, try being curious. For example, “That comment doesn’t make sense to me, could you explain it?” Be part of building a “speak-up” culture. This can help displace harmful cultures.
What if you spot an unfair rule or policy in play? It may well be systemic discrimination. Consider saying something to those who have the power to make decisions. You may want to find others who agree with you and raise the issue together.
If the offensive behaviour is directed at you, it’s also okay not to respond. Prioritize your own wellbeing and security.
Sweat the small stuff
Racism happens in everyday conversations. Microaggressions are brief, commonplace interactions. Even if no harm is intended, they can communicate negative judgment of someone from a particular group. “Where are you really from?” “Wow, you speak English so well!” However subtle, microaggressions are not okay. Here are some tips on how you can respond to microaggressions.
If you’re in a position of privilege, use your power to lift up people from equity-denied groups.
Here are some examples:
Speak up in your social circles. You may have access to social circles that others do not. If friends or family are being racist or derogatory, call them on it. Be a voice for those who are not in the room.
Offer opportunities to be visible. Invisible discrimination happens every day. For example, if someone is being ignored or talked over in a work meeting, find a way to pass them the mic. You might say: “Building on what [insert name] said earlier…”
Take all complaints seriously. If a friend or colleague shares an experience of racism with you, don’t try to minimize or rationalize it. Validate this person’s experience. Ask questions to learn more.
Contact your elected officials. Tell them, for example, that you want to see them take meaningful action on issues concerning Indigenous Peoples.
Small actions can make a big difference
A microaffirmation is a small acknowledgement of someone’s value. Here are some simple but powerful suggestions. Learn how to pronounce people’s names. Ask people what their preferred pronouns are. Ask others their opinions. Practise active listening — listen to understand, not to respond.
Reviewed for cultural sensitivity by
Kinwa Bluesky, Indigenous legal advocate