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Racial Justice Matters - Advocating for Racial Health Equity in Canada

Written by: Meena Bhardwaj, Eden Hagos, Navita Singh & Anjum Sultana

In the last year, you would be hard pressed to find someone who has not heard about the growing Black Lives Matter movement in the US. The organization and movement was sparked by the abhorrent frequency and fatality of police brutality against black people. Specifically, statistics shows that every 28 hours, a black person has been shot and killed by the police in the last few years. We’ve heard of the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray, Sandra Bland, and sadly the list goes on and on. Their deaths and of many others has sparked outrage, protests and a national conversation about police brutality against racialized people in the US.

Canada is often painted in stark contrast to the US. While the US is a melting pot, Canadians can pride themselves as being part of a cultural mosaic. The US forces assimilation, whereas the peace-loving Canadians just want to love and respect each other, and say sorry all the time, or so the stereotype goes. However, the issue of racism, police brutality, violence and subsequent inequities present are not issues that are constrained to the US solely but extend to our borders here in Canada as well. The deaths of Jermaine Carby in Brampton, and Sammy Yatim and Andrew Loku in Toronto at the hands of police violence demonstrate this. The thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada speaks to this.

However, these deaths do not happen in a vacuum. They are but one manifestation of systems of oppression that, on the basis of the colour of one’s skin, not only disadvantage certain groups but as a result lead to the privileging of other groups. This is a very key point - the disadvantage of some allows the advantage of others. We see this process play itself out over and over again - it happens in our schools, at work, in the marketplace, and yes, even in hospitals and in broader society as it relates to the health and wellbeing of racialized and indigenous people in this country. Yet, given the influence racism can have and has had on the social determinants of health and the health care system, we have seen surprisingly limited responses from the public health community when it comes to this dire issue in Canada. Racism is not exclusive to the US, it happens here too and is has very real impacts on the lived realities of people of colour.

In fact, an article in Maclean’s shows not only does Canada have a lot of work to do when it comes to institutional and systemic racism, it often has a worse record on the issue than the US. For instance, as the chart below indicates, on several economic, social and health indicators, Aboriginal Canadians suffer more than African-Americans. From unemployment, income levels, incarceration rates, infant mortality, and life expectancy, the situation is much worse in Canada than in the US. However, even more striking is the fact that there are such inequities present at all in either country which identifies itself as a developed nation.



This in large part is due to the legacy of residential schools, and the colonial project that resulted in the ‘cultural genocide’ of Aboriginal peoples in this country, and which the recent findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report reveal and examine in greater detail. We are not exempt from the historical legacies of colonialism and slavery that have institutionalized racist policies and practices into many systems like the criminal justice system, educational system, and yes, even our health care systems. The xenophobia that has influenced certain citizenship and immigration laws also has impacts on health, for example, as we’ve seen with cuts and restrictions to refugee health care in the last few years. The troubling part is that in Canada and elsewhere, when the issue of racism is raised, action is stalled because the conversation becomes narrowly fixated on the individual and interpersonal forms of racism. Microaggressions, slurs and explicit disdain of people based on the melanin content of their complexion should never be tolerated, and it has been found to have real impacts on the health of racialized people.

What we want to do is create a space within the public health community to broaden the scope of the conversation around racism to understand the ways in which it is a public health concern. In schools of public health across the country, students will come across the ‘social determinants of health’ or the ‘upstream’ factors affecting health. We want to explore and demonstrate the ways in which different forms of racism such as the interpersonal, the internalized, the institutional, impact the health and wellbeing of people of color in Canada are possibly the most ignored social determinant of health of all. We want to also have a frank discussion on the different pathways by which racism in society causes health inequities. Specifically, we want to talk how racism leads to pathways to health inequity such as inequitable access and distribution of economic and social determinants of health; targeted marketing of commodities that can harm health like alcohol, tobacco, drugs and food; and inadequate and inappropriate medical care, some of which have been outlined in quite some detail in presentations by the Wellesley Institute.

As we peel back the layers and start to identify the root cause of health disparities between racialized and non-racialized people in this country, we can begin to see how racism influences the aforementioned pathways and replicates social inequities in health outcomes as well. With the release of several publications such as the ‘First Peoples, Second Class Treatment’ report by the Wellesley Institute to the ‘Racialization and Health Inequities in Toronto’ report by Toronto Public Health, we know that racism and racial health inequities are a hidden and serious concern with detrimental consequences for all people in Canada. We must become proactive in our efforts to put an end to these injustices. Racial justice and racial health equity must become everyone’s concern. We must act with great urgency, dedication and vision. We hope through a conference such as ours, we will be able to build a platform where we can inspire meaningful action.

As professionals in this field, and as Dr. Mary Bassett, New York Health Commissioner, eloquently outlined in a commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine, we can impact the issue of racism and racial health inequities in three ways: through critical research, through internal reform and by public advocacy. At the core of public health is a commitment to social justice and health equity and we believe this conference will serve as a catalyst for action so as to change the tide with respect to racial health inequities in this country.

As future public health professionals and leaders in the field, we believe it is imperative that we not only have a thorough understanding of the issue at hand but also begin the process of mapping out assets and developing possible solutions. We believe that racial health inequities are a public health concern and we must address the consequences of racism and its root causes. As you begin to read more about this conference, you will see that not only will it provide an avenue for discussion on this critical issue but it will be solutions-focused as well. The conference we are planning has the potential to truly shift the conversation in public health, and possibly other sectors as well by re-framing racism as a public health issue.

In this conference, we are hoping to start a conversation about the ways in which the public health sector can start to take a more active role on the issue of racism and racial health inequity in this country. In the weeks ahead, we will focus on each of our conference sub-themes to show that racism is indeed a public health area of concern. The sub-themes include: Aboriginal and Indigenous Health; Gaining Skills and Tools for Anti-Racism Research and Practice; Immigrant, Refugee & Newcomer Health; Environmental Racism and Built Environment; Racialized Health in the Digital Age; & Systemic and Institutional Racism.

We look forward to engaging on this critical topic with all of you! Let us know what you think or any ideas you’d like to share by sending us a message to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or via Facebook or Twitter. And of course, please do come out to the Dalla Lana School of Public Health on October 23 and October 24th to continue the conversation, discuss solutions and explore the leadership role the public health community can take on the issue of racism and racial health inequities in Canada.

For more details about our conference, check out our website at and stay tuned for details next week on how to purchase tickets!

Follow the Co-Chairs Meena Bhardwaj, Eden Hagos, Navita Singh, and Anjum Sultana on Twitter for more insights on public health issues. Be sure to follow our conference twitter account too:



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