By Daniel Tseghay
Released in September by Fernwood Publishing, Robyn Maynard’s Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present clearly details a long and, arguably, actively forgotten, history. It’s a history of the repression and exploitation of black people in this country – a country whose identity is largely formed by being less racist than that of the United States of America.
This exploitation of black people has taken numberless forms, many of which Maynard addresses in her wide-ranging book. And one of those forms the author expertly describes is that of labour exploitation.
Maynard situates the current condition of black workers – one of disproportionate unemployment and underemployment, lower wages, and a more pronounced exploitation through temporary foreign worker programs – historically and globally. It’s a condition framed and shaped by “racial capitalism, which “relies on the use of race – and racial hierarchies – in order to justify unequal power relationships and make them appear natural,” according to Maynard.
Globally, Canada played a significant role in the destabilization of the Global South, including African and Caribbean nations. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) relieved African debt in 2005 on the condition of “acceptance of policies created by the IMF and the World Bank – policies which continue to be known for destroying lives, livelihoods, and causing socio-economic hardships with long-standing effects.” Canadian governments and its agencies subsequently compelled African nations to cut public spending, privatize public assets, and ramp up export production. Multinational corporations increasingly moved their industries to these resource-rich locations, where workplaces were deregulated and workers could be paid less. “The so-called global assembly lines of sweatshops worldwide were fed by the work of young Black and brown women,” Maynard notes.
The surplus of labour, the devastation of people’s homelands, and the conflicts which subsequently emerged led to mass migration. Black people from the Global South sought refuge and livelihoods in the Global North, in the nations that displaced them in the first place. And Canada largely accepted them – but not on equal and just terms.
In 1955, Canada established the Caribbean Domestic Scheme, where Canadians could sponsor single and childless women from Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago to labour in Canada as domestic workers. The program was one of the only pathways to permanent residency for working class women and they were paid significantly less than the minimum wage while working long hours without concern for their well-being. It amounted to an implicitly racist labour system. Black domestic workers were treated very differently from European domestics, who often came to Canada as landed immigrants, “which meant that they were free to change employers or otherwise challenge abusive situations,” according to Maynard.
In 1947, when Jamaican agricultural workers were already making their way to Canada on short-term contracts, Canadian officials resisted the possibility of permanent residency on explicitly racist, and curiously paternalistic, grounds. “The admission to Canada of natives of the West Indies has always been a problem with this Service and we are continually being asked to make provision for the admission of these people,” reads a federal memo. “They are, of course not assimilable and, generally speaking, the climatic conditions of Canada are not favourable to them.” Meanwhile, between 1946 and 1966, 89,680 primarily Polish war veterans and Dutch farmers became seasonal agricultural workers in Ontario. These migrants were largely granted permanent residency status.
“While race could no longer be openly used to deny labour rights to non-white workers, immigration status would serve the same purpose,” writes Maynard. “Canada’s temporary work programs provided an updated means of enforcing Black economic precarity and the exploitation of Black labourers.”
These Black domestic workers, however, fought back, according to Maynard, continuing a long history of resistance, such as the successful legal battle in 1955 Dresden, Ontario against businesses that wouldn’t serve Black patrons. This time, the Black domestic workers organized with the Jamaican Canadian Association of Domestic Workers and made legal challenges. “Most famous is the case of the “seven Jamaican mothers”, who faced deportation in 1975 for having omitted to mention that they had depended children when they applied to work as domestics,” writes Maynard. “With the support of the advocacy group INTERCEDE, they mounted a successful and highly public legal challenge with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The workers were involved in picketing, flyers, and large rallies about the patriarchal and racist nature of these targeted deportations, and were aware and vocal of the fact that no non-Black women were harassed or deported during that period and Caribbean men were never asked about children. They eventually received popular support, and were victorious in overturning their deportations.” This victory, however, ultimately led to a shift in Canada’s racial preferences regarding domestic workers. Documented Black domestic workers were gradually replaced by Filipinas, pushing the former into ““illegality”, exposing them to lower wages and even more exploitative conditions.”
In 1966, Canada established the Caribbean Seasonal Workers’ Program with Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago, bringing workers from those countries in on a temporary basis without a pathway to permanent residency. Today, racialized migrant workers – most from Mexico but many from Jamaica – labour on Canadian farms, creating the powerful agricultural industry’s skyrocketing profits. But they remain disposable. When they are injured, for instance, they are often deported without receiving medical treatment.
Beyond super-exploited migrant workers, Black Canadian workers who have citizenship also disproportionately face labour exploitation. Maynard notes that in “1981 70 percent of Blacks earned less than $16,000, and 85 percent of Black women earned 27 percent less than other women.” Currently, in Canada, the rate of Black unemployment is 73 percent higher than the rate of unemployment for white Canadians and Black women earn 88 percent of the earnings of white women, and 57 percent of the earning of white Canadian men.
Maynard argues that this is the result of active and consistent state practices, from the unwillingness to recognize foreign credentials and experience to the defunding and restricting, since the 1990’s, of immigrant employment programs which pushed “skilled, racialized immigrants to take any job (frequently often temporary, contractual and low-end and low-earning), rather than channeling them into their skilled fields.”
“Immigration resettlement programs have been found to funnel racialized migrants into the lowest echelons of the labour market – with men being funnelled into low-paid manual labour, and women into the service sector,” writes Maynard. “Focus groups on highly educated Sub-Saharan Black migrants in Vancouver found that two thirds of participants had been in Vancouver over five years, but regardless, most men worked in manual labour, and women were in low-skilled or manual labour for basic survival income.”
All together, this history speaks to importance of underscoring the experiences of Black workers in Canada. And it casts doubt on the self-created Canadian identity of, simultaneously, racial colour-blindness and multiculturalism. In fact, Maynard argues that such concepts are actively deployed to deflect from attempts to describe Canada as historically and currently implicated in anti-black racism.
“Multiculturalism has served a similar role as the Underground Railroad,” writes Maynard, “allowing Canadian state officials and the general public to congratulate themselves on Canada’s comparative benevolence, while rendering invisible the acute economic and material deprivation currently facing many Black communities.”