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Plenary from Public Health 2017: Racism in Society

Plenary from Public Health 2017: Racism in Society

By Sume Ndumbe-Eyoh Sume Ndumbe-Eyoh on October 30, 2017

Molly Peters, Dr. Darryl Leroux, Sume Ndumbe-Eyoh, Debbie Douglas and Dr. Kwame McKenzie at the closing plenary session at Public Health 2017, “Racism in Society."

Racism is a systemic force that impacts the distribution of power and resources according to socially defined “races,” leading to profound inequities in social, economic and political life for Indigenous and racialized communities. In health and public health systems, racial, social and health inequities must be recognized as core components of health equity and broader health strategies and policies. Given the centrality of this work to promoting the health outcomes of all Canadians, public health organizations have an important role to play in ending racism.

Public Health 2017 plenary

One way that public health organizations can help dismantle racism is by facilitating conversations about how racial inequity plays out in social, scientific and legislative arenas. It is with this aim that I moderated the closing plenary session at the annual pan-Canadian public health gathering, Public Health 2017, in Halifax, NS, located in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People.

Titled “Racism in Society,” the discussion focused on the impacts of systemic racism in various spheres of society and strategies to reduce its influence. The panelists started by locating themselves in the conversation and then moved on to discuss what their work has taught them about the importance of action on racial equity.

Dr. Kwame McKenzie: Making racism count

“Democracies count stuff. If you aren’t counted, you don’t count. If we don’t have the data, we don’t move forward.”  - Dr. Kwame McKenzie

Dr. Kwame McKenzie introduced himself as a psychiatrist who grew up as a black man in the United Kingdom at the dawn of the 1960s civil rights movement. The chief executive officer at the Wellesley Institute, Dr. McKenzie talked about racism as the new tobacco — alluding to the fact that the detrimental health and social impacts of racism were as significant as those of smoking. According to him, the stress of repeated racial injustice has a well-documented weathering effect on a person’s well-being. He noted that racism also increased exposure to detrimental social determinants of health. His analogy speaks to the profound impact of racism on health and the urgent need for action on this front.

Dr. McKenzie stressed that, given the depth of the problem, it is important for public health actors to overcome organizational paralysis and apply their existing resources and skills to anti-racist action. He emphasized the need to collect race-based data and analyze the effects of racism across sectors in order to drive action, arguing that “if you aren’t counted, you don’t count.” Reflecting on the importance of developing policy approaches to reduce racism, he cited the Interim Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism (2017) as a positive example of such action.

Debbie Douglas: Employment equity

Debbie Douglas immigrated to Canada from Grenada with her family as a young girl and has since been active in various social justice initiatives. She is currently the executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), which has offered ample opportunity to observe how public policies create racial inequities. Using the example of immigration systems, she noted that seemingly neutral immigration policies discriminate against people from the global South. For example, the average refugee claim for people from African countries was processed in 64 months, compared to less than one year from many other countries.

Douglas has been actively involved in policy activities to expand employment equity legislation, seen in OCASI’s work with organizations like the Ontario-based Colour of Poverty – Colour of Change. Legislation of this nature is designed to reduce racial discrimination and increase equitable employment practices. In the absence of such legislation, however, organizations can still implement practices such as identifier-removed hiring. She cited the Ontario government’s Anti-Racism Directorate as an important provincial-level structure to increase racial equity within the province.

OCASI has also been working to improve the relationship between refugees and Indigenous peoples. To do this, they are encouraging conversations between members of both groups around the experiences of both forced immigration and Indigeneity in Canada.

Molly Peters: 150 years of resistance

Molly Peters located herself as a proud Mi’kmaq woman from Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation who is also an elected band councilor for her Nation.

In her segment, Peters contrasted the ongoing Canada 150 celebrations with the need for wider understanding among non-Indigenous Canadians about the significance of findings in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report. She cautioned against the bastardization of reconciliation and the imperative to focus on meaningful action that improves the lived realities of Indigenous peoples and nations.

Peters remarked that we are all treaty people: Canadians have a shared responsibility to ensure that treaties signed between their nation and Indigenous nations are honoured. Acknowledging the territory you live and work in is one small step. For public health stakeholders who have a responsibility to serve all Canadians, however, initiative must also be taken to truly understand the TRC Report and give life to its Calls to Action.

Dr. Darryl Leroux: Naturalizing race, naturalizing inequity

“There’s a way in which we as White people get offended. It’s key, as White people, to be aware of the way we are reacting to claims of racism within our workplaces.” – Dr. Darryl Leroux

Dr. Darryl Leroux described himself as a White settler who counts the first French person born in New France among his ancestors. He was born to working-class parents in Sudbury, Ontario.

As an assistant professor of sociology at St Mary’s University, Dr. Leroux has been investigating the role that genetic scientists play in naturalizing the biological basis for race — actions that make racial inequities appear normal and inevitable. He drew attention to how those working in the health sector must be mindful of the impact this way thinking has on our collective understanding of racism and the importance of articulating race as a social construct.

Dr. Leroux’s work has made him attentive to how often White people detract from anti-racist action and critique by centring their own comfort. By often prioritizing the temporary and mild discomfort they experience when racism is raised as a concern within organizations and in society — a central tenet of White fragility — White people can distract from the real violence of racism experienced by Indigenous and racialized peoples. He called on White people to “put thought into how you react to claims of racism in your environment” and follow the lead of people with years of experience.


As the session concluded, each panelist gave an impassioned account of how they stayed committed to anti-racist and decolonial action. Though the reasons varied from presenter to presenter — hope for today’s youth, the desire to keep people alive and the progress that has happened over time — each emphasized that much more action is needed on this important issue.


Indigenous healthLeadership & capacity buildingRacism/racializationRacial equity at the NCCDH