Challenges of Being Non-White in Canada: Stories of Systemic Racism


Why is my son being charged $10,000?

She wanted answers. After receiving an inflated bill in the mail from the University of New Brunswick Saint John (UNBSJ) for her son’s tuition, Roxy, an immigrant to Canada in the 1970s, had spent over four hours waiting to speak to somebody in the registrar’s office. She sat in an office with a supervisor, a gentle and polite woman in her mid-40s, equally as confused.

I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m not sure why he was charged so much for tuition.

It was 1999. As a woman who arrived from Manila, Philippines to Saint John, New Brunswick for college over three decades ago, Roxy had worked at the hospital next door for most of it. Her and her husband had a son who was born, raised, and practically only knew the small yet nimble Canadian municipality of Saint John, New Brunswick. However, she knew what the problem was before she stepped foot in the room.

“Oh,” the supervisor replied with an urgent thought. “I think I know what the problem is.” With minimal change in her expression, she continued.

Maybe we saw your son’s last name and mistook it as an international student. So we ended up charging him the tuition cost for international students.

Tan. Foreign to locals, and seemingly impossible to have been born natively. I’ll go ahead and make that change for you right away.

Twenty minutes later, Roxy left the UNBSJ campus and headed home. With her husband, they contemplated whether to tell their son what had happened. Coming straight out of high school, they were worried that this error would disrupt his path. They were well aware of the racism that followed him. If she told him what happened, it may utterly dismantle his excitement to continue his education.

They decided it was best to avoid telling him.

There’s a problem with the system

My parents eventually told me what happened that day, and it was the right choice to wait and tell me. Had I known, my first year would have been a train-wreck, complete with a large chip on my shoulder that I was already mismanaging.

Back in July, CBC reported a similar story where a UNBSJ student, Yukie Xie, a Canadian student, had her summer semester tuition incorrectly changed from $4,000 to $13,000. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Even worse, Xie was treated like a hot potato, asked to produce multiple documents proving her Canadian citizenship, and after a week of unnecessary back and forth, had her fees eventually reversed.

UNBSJ blamed a technical error in their system that made fees for certain students increase, and claiming that the issue was caught “immediately” and fees were reversed “immediately”. Why the vice-president of UNB academic had said “immediately” twice in the same sentence still boggles my mind.

UNB’s president and vice-chancellor Paul Mazerolle, in response to this error, said that “racial profiling and systemic racism are real and harmful”. He could not have been more right.

However I do not believe that after at least 21 years, a technical error can consistently occur (a lengthy Google search does not produce any similar scenarios at other universities). Nor do I believe we were the only ones that had faced this.

To be clear, this is not meant as a shot at UNBSJ. Saint John’s primary university is an exceptional post-secondary institution with a good faculty, a beautiful campus, and a fantastic selection of programs. Three years ago, three hundred staff and faculty fought to have racist propaganda removed from the campus, and last year, more than a hundred of them condemned a fellow professor for white supremacy forcing his early retirement.

I have no beef with UNBSJ or the city of Saint John. I only question the system that surrounds it.

Now, both of these stories can seen from two very different perspectives.

  1. This was a clerical error, and is no different than alphabetical filing errors or switching around calendar dates by mistake. It could have happened to anyone.
  2. This was an error based on an assumption, specifically regarding race.

If your immediate thought was that the issue was administrative, this may be a good time to consider re-educating yourself with the concept of systemic racism.

Wikipedia defines systemic racism as, “a form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within society or an organisation. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among other issues.”

It’s a form of racism that many non-whites were forced to painfully yet silently endure. And we’re all very sick and tired of it.

As a Filipino, born and raised in the Maritimes and currently living in Toronto, I, along with so many of my minority friends and family, have experienced systemic racism. Let’s make it clear though-my experiences pale in deep comparison to Black Canadians and Indigenous peoples, who continue to experience more frequent scenarios of direct and systemic racism than any other minority groups.

The recent events in the US, including the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and other fallen members of the Black community, as well as the First Nations population in New Brunswick, including Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi, has shed a necessary spotlight on systemic racism, and the harmful effects it has on inequality and the most basic fundamentals of human rights. Being Black or a Person of Colour has always made us work harder for the same achievements as white people.

As of 2016, Saint John had approximately 87.7% white residents, 7% visible minorities and 5.3% aboriginal. And when I grew up in Saint John in the 80’s and 90’s, before moving to Toronto in 2004, it was an even smaller group of minorities.

Before I continue, I need preface that the citizens in Saint John, and the Maritimes in general, are simply amazing. It’s rare to find another community with equal care and compassion for their kin. The only places I’ve found similarly nice people is in a tiny village called Lucban in the Philippines, and a small settlement called Hope Town in the Bahamas (which was almost fully destroyed by Hurricane Dorian in 2019 and need your help with donations).

However in the context of systemic racism, we aren’t placing blame on any one individual. The problem exists in the system we live in, which is in effect, broken.

Saint John Police Chief pissed a lot of people off in June when attempting to address racial injustice:

“I’m a Caucasian male. I don’t know, I never seen it, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I don’t know.”

Chief Stephan Drolet, Saint John Police Force
Source: CBC

This unapologetic level of ignorance and lack of care for disadvantaged groups sparked a necessary push for changes at a legislative level. Three weeks after, with the help of Mayor Don Darling and Timothy Christie, Saint John city council rightfully pushed forward a motion to make racial discrimination a punishable offence.

“That comment outraged most people. If [the chief] hasn’t seen racism, it’s because he’s not equipped to see it.”

Timothy Christie, former member of the Saint John Police Commission Source: The Globe & Mail

Thirteen years ago, Saint John’s first minority city councillor Jay-Young Chang had been the target of racist death threats at his Taekwondo school, and separately, numerous Chinese students had been randomly assaulted. The motion should have passed then. And for whatever reason, 2007 was a year when attacking Asian people had appeared the norm.

Fun Fact: My family grew up across the street from Mayor Darling’s family. Because we were from different age groups, I didn’t get to know him that well, but I wanted to point out that my parents know them all quite well and he has been doing an incredible job in office. 👏🏽

As a youth, I needed to look outside myself to better understand the confusion and anger systemic racism was creating within me. So I did what any rebellious teenager would do.

I started a small-time Asian gang.

No, we didn’t extort restaurants, carry concealed meat cleavers, or push opioids into local communities.

It was a silly little meet-up that we called “Asian Invasion”. In hindsight, it was less of a “gang”, although we ultimately referred to it as such in order to create some transference of empowerment. Our what we called, “gang meetings”, comprised of teenagers from various Asian backgrounds – Filipinos, Chinese, and Vietnamese. It was more of a monthly forum at a Chinese restaurant to share our experiences of systemic racism, without actually know what it was. Speaking about it created an invisible safety net over us, helping us better understand what was deemed as “racist”, despite sometimes not always appearing as direct.

In the hopes of educating those that either have experienced systemic racism, or are looking to better educate oneself, I’ve populated a collection of real-life stories where I, or many of my friends, were victim to it.

Looking for work? Not so fast.

The tuition incident wasn’t the only time my last name was racially profiled. The job hunt in Saint John was excruciating; having the last name Tan had put me at uneven odds to other, more accepting white last names. I mean, how could I not get a call back from call centres that were hiring literally everyone I knew, including those that had way less experience than me. Even retired drug dealers were getting call centre jobs that I couldn’t even get an interview for.

Two of my friends – one Filipino, the other Vietnamese – had both applied to one of these call centres. Both had identical resumes. My Filipino friend had less of an Asian-sounding name, while my Vietnamese friend’s last name was a very Asian-sounding. What happened? You guessed it. The Filipino guy was the only one to receive a call for the interview and subsequently scored the job. The Vietnamese guy didn’t even get a call back.

To overcome this, I had to start writing cover letters that mentioned in the first paragraph that I was born in Saint John, and spoke fluent English. Only then did I start getting calls for interviews.

Systemic racism exists in the job hunt as business owners and hiring personnel, more often than not, may skip resumes of those with names that appear foreign. It’s an understood fact that this type of racism can be disguised as companies “seeking the right fit”.

One aspect to seeking cultural fit can include looking for “dreamers” and “people with a progressive and positive outlook on life”. How exactly is a person of colour, weakened from having the door slammed on his or her face over and over again, supposed to feel positive during a job hunt?

“You can’t put your career in the hands of people who haven’t done the work of recognizing power, oppression and privilege.”

Lauren Ruffin, Chief External Relations Officer, Fractured Atlas.
Source: CNBC

A little follow up for my Filipino friend mentioned above. He may have got the job, but on his first week, he was stopped and carded for jaywalking on his way home. Sometimes you just can’t win.

Looks like you’re a long way from home, boy…

My first speeding ticket was for driving 5 km/h over the limit. It was in the evening, coming home from a friend’s house in Rothesay, a quiet suburb just outside of Saint John, and a more affluent and predominantly white area.

The cop, an unnecessarily aggressive white man, was quick to judge the evolving scenario: young and urban brown-skinned feller, baseball cap, baggy jeans, rich white neighbourhood, no other cars or pedestrians in sight. He could have issued me a warning, considering I had a clean driving record and had never been stopped before. However, he felt it was appropriate to ticket me for driving 45 in a 40 zone.

It felt like a ticket you would give someone to make ’em never want to come back around these parts.

I always wondered – would others, who were white and behind the wheel, receive similar treatment? Or had I been from another minority group, would I be given an even harsher treatment? And if I had consistently experienced harsh treatment and eventually lost my patience, what would have happened then?


He roared in laughter as we sped by a pair of Chinese students.

I was fresh into high school. My friend at the time was a rather aggressive white kid. I sat next to him in the backseat, utterly confused. I felt betrayed and conflicted.

He turned to me and realized his error. “Oh don’t worry about it. You’re not one of them.

I paused, nodded, and turned my head the other way, making it awkward for a short moment. It was a confusing thing to justify; I felt closer to the pack, yet more disconnected than ever. I didn’t understand my feelings at the time, so I put that experience on the shelf.

I mentioned earlier-remember 2007, the year that it was somehow okay to attack Asians in Saint John? Almost a decade after that car ride, on a visit from Toronto, my mother told me she didn’t feel safe going for her morning walks. On certain days, teenagers would drive by and yell racial slurs at her, and in one occasion, threw garbage at her. I had heard numerous stories of Chinese students having frozen water bottles filled with ice thrown at them from cars speeding by. Now it was way too close to home.

Was there truly anything different between the pair of Chinese students we drove by, and my mother on a morning walk? At one point, weren’t both of my parents Asian students living in New Brunswick too?

Before elementary school, in my neighbourhood, there were no differentiators when it came to race. My childhood neighbours never put a spotlight on skin colour or background, even as a handful of us looked and sounded different. The neighbourhood – parents and children alike – was a big giant family, in a bubble safe from the injustice of the world. I’m forever grateful that my parents chose the neighbourhood that they did.

Then elementary school started. In Grade 1, my classmates heavily insisted I was Chinese. In Grade 2, I was referred to as Japanese. By Grade 3, my parents flew me to the Philippines so I could understand where I came from, and avoid a potentially catastrophic identity crisis. That’s an entirely different story for another day.

Assumptions will consistently make an ass out of you

There’s an allure to making an assumption: it takes less energy, it doesn’t require asking questions, and if you’re right, you look like some kind of prophetic genius. Unfortunately, the sea monster called assumptions has many tentacles, and two of them are generalizations and stereotypes. Neither of them are very forgiving.

Ever wonder why I’m a bit of a loudmouth? It took me decades to figure this out, but it’s because I used to fear being typecasted as a quiet Asian guy. So I purposely spoke louder, and more aggressively in order to beat the passive Asian stereotype. Being intoxicated helped exaggerate it further.

I essentially developed a self-destructive lifestyle so others would stop making assumptions about me.

P.S. It didn’t work.

I’ve listed out a few seemingly innocent, yet overtly racist, questions and comments I’ve heard over the years, to better encapsulate why it’s worth not making assumptions about people.

“So, what are you doing here from Saudi Arabia?

It was 2002 and I was living in Fredericton, NB at the time, wasting my student life at the bar and entering my sixth bottle of Keith’s. A random bro jock nudged me, “So, what are you doing here from Saudi Arabia?”

I know that I don’t look like the average Filipino guy, and to some, I don’t even look that Asian. Bro jock might have never interacted with a dark-skinned person before. But to assume I’m actually from one specific country, on the other side of the planet.. well, let’s just say that this story’s a keeper. “I was born in Saint John.”

This type of exchange almost always follows up with, “Oh. You know what I mean though. Where are you reeeeally from?”

For the love of everything holy, never ask anyone that question.

Actually, this reminds of me a more recent memory. Fast forward to 2011-ish in Toronto. I was walking home, heading north on Simcoe St. It was late, bar hoppers were out in full-force, and I had just exited the King streetcar. I was already buzzed from a few glasses of vino, and I remember finishing up an alleyway pee-stop next to a discarded desktop computer which I had considered lugging back home out of sheer curiosity.

A few drunk fellas happened to be heading in parallel. “Hey man! We’re visiting from Newfoundland. Where are youuuu from?” one of them asked.

It was rare to catch someone from the East Coast of Canada out there, so I replied with enthusiasm that I was from New Brunswick. No matter how hard I tried to convince him I was really from New Brunswick, the man could not compute that I, a coloured person, could be from New Brunswick. It got to the point where he began flat out ignored my responses and kept repeating, “No really, where are you from-from?”

After numerous attempts and becoming increasingly drunk-aggressive, his friends had to tell him drop it, and that I was actually from the province over from his. The drunk fella’s response was delayed, but I think he felt bad. He offered to buy me a beer at the The Rex Jazz Bar. I declined.

“So, how long have you been here from Toronto?”

Racism isn’t always blatant or purposeful. It can happen in every day conversation.

I was 19, leaving the parking garage of Market Square in Saint John in my midnight blue Hyundai Tiburon that had New Brunswick plates. After greeting the parking attendant, he asked, “So, how long have you been here from Toronto?”.

Up until this point, I had never been to Toronto. I barely knew what Toronto was. Yet after acknowledging my Asian look, and hearing me speak fluent English, he had immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was visiting from Toronto.

I responded: “I was born here”, chalking it up as another Maritime assumption that fluent-English Asians must be from Toronto (or Vancouver).

“Oh. Hah!” he replied, still unaware. As I pulled away, I took a peek at the rear view to see the parking attending check my license plate, just to make sure I wasn’t lying.

“He looks great! I mean look at him, he looks like Bruno Mars!”

Fast forward to 2019. Madaline and I were attending Newfie Night at a restaurant in rural Ontario. I had just kissed a raw cod and took down a shot of Newfoundland Screech (a screech-in, as it’s called). We randomly joined a conversation with another couple.

In a joyous and drunken mood, the guy looked at Madaline and said, “He looks great! I mean look at him, he looks like Bruno Mars!”

I’ll never say no to a good compliment. Even if it wasn’t addressed directly to me. What can be rather irking is when you’re compared to the only other brown-skinned, Asian celebrity and/or singer he could think of. Stick to compliments, skip the comparisons.

Also, it didn’t help that he was only really complimenting me so he, right in front of me and his own wife, could tell Madaline she’s “smoking hot”.

I mean, can I blame him though?

“I’ve never seen people like you before!”

Let’s rewind back to 2002. Fredericton was an odd place. As the capital city of New Brunswick, and simultaneously a university town, many students arrive from the most remote areas of the Maritimes to study.

While I wasn’t the recipient to this heinous comment, my Black roommate was. At a party, a white girl jumped in front of my Black friend and screamed, “I’ve never seen people like you before!”

Look, there was clearly no malice in her comment, despite lacking basic levels of tact or decency. There is, however, something wrong with isolating an individual as “not being one of us”. And there’s everything wrong with using the words “people like you”.

I was stunned, man. I never knew people were so sheltered. Yet here we are, the only Black and Asian dudes in a sea full of white people, and having a random subsequently ask to touch my friend’s afro, because “Wow. It’s so weird.”

Fredericton is a lovely city. Sure, the people can be a bit naive at times when it comes to systemic racism, but as we’ve seen happening across the world, it’s subsequently dangerous when it’s coming from law enforcement.

Take for example this. On a short evening walk with the same roommate, a police cruiser whizzed by us, then abruptly slammed on the brakes. The scent of burnt tires and loud skidding. The officer went into reverse, hopped out of the car and forcefully converted a calm and peaceful evening into unnecessary confrontation.

Here’s what happened.

My roommate and I were packing up to leave a friend’s house, roughly a 15 minute walk away. As we were about to leave, our host asked if we could do him a solid and bring an old, used tape deck to our other roommate. We all joked about being stopped by the police on the way home. A Black guy and an Asian guy carrying a tape deck. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

I carried the tape deck up the quiet and desolate street. For its moderate size it was a little heavy, but mostly because all machinery made before 1995 was heavy. This tape deck was absolutely nothing to write home about. Whether it’s 2002 or 2020, this prehistoric device served little value to anyone. In 2002, with aggressive bargaining techniques, you might score $10 for it at a pawn shop.

Halfway home, I made a jinxing remark: “I bet if you put a finger on the tape deck, a police officer will show up.”

We cracked up over the stupidity of it. He took the tape deck to carry it the rest of the way home.

Not even 30 seconds later, a police car magically appeared next to us.

It couldn’t have been written any better. I swear this inspired the scene from Harold & Kumar when Harold tried jaywalking.

The police officer, a white female cop, said the standard, fact gathering questions: what’s our names, where are we coming from, where are we going, what’s the tape deck for, who owns it, noting everything down her little notepad. We calmly answered everything. Apparently being calm didn’t help.

In her mind, my roommate and I were profiteering criminals, out to make a cool $10 bill. Or two $5 bills. Or ten loonies. A second police cruiser pulled up.

My roommate grew agitated from being racially profiled. Being raised in a predominantly white town, you grow a lot of patience with racism as a whole. He’s consistently taken the high road in every situation. But tonight, he couldn’t stand it any longer. He needed to say something.

“It’s because I’m black, isn’t it.”

Both of the cops ignored his comment. Like it didn’t matter.

She continued to furiously question us about the origins of this stupid, old tape deck. So determined to catch us in a lie, she went as far as running the tape deck’s serial numbers to dispatch to see if it came up stolen anywhere. For a $10 tape deck. Ten bucks.

Unsatisfied with the results, she let us go. We were beyond livid. We knew what injustice felt like, but when injustice comes from law enforcement, it feels much worse. Much darker.

Had our other roommate and the owner of the tape deck, who were both white, been the ones carrying the tape deck, would they have been treated the exact same way?

Getting the townhouse he deserved

A friend of mine invited me over to tour his new townhome he had just rented. It was legit: built in 1876, the row of townhouses were heavily sought after and located in the heart of downtown Toronto. It was furnished with beautiful heritage fixtures, and as an ultra-creative person, the place spoke to him in a way no other place had before.

As we sat in his living room, he told me about the hardships he had to face while renting in Toronto as a Black man (and in Canada, for that matter). He’s a successful entrepreneur, a popular name in the area, and could easily afford the high cost of rent there. However, after an exhausting search for a new home, he described what it took for him to get this specific place.

First, he called before arriving, pretending not to know where the townhouse was and seeking directions. This was purposely planned in order to have the landlord see him pull up in his new Mercedes-Benz. After the formalities, he produced four months of rent cheques, paid upfront, and every necessary document to streamline the background check. In order to overcome the stereotypes associated with his skin colour, he ensured that the landlord can see that he was willing and able to pay, and that he’s trustworthy.

Folks, this isn’t normal. He shouldn’t have had to go through hoops just to get a foot in the door. Systemic racism prevents many Black Canadians and other minorities from obtaining basic necessities like putting a roof over their head. And not just any roof over their head; one that hard working Canadians, regardless of their race or income, rightfully deserve.

In case you’re wondering: his name is George Sully, founder of streetwear line Sully Wong and more recently, founder of Black Designers of Canada, the first-ever interactive digital index of Canadian Black designers and an initiative to ensure Black inclusivity at a corporate level.

This blog-post-turned-short-novel is not a cry for pity. Despite being victimized by systemic racism, I’m on the other hand lucky to have the opportunity to even go to university. There are certain groups of minorities with greater struggles.

Most Black youth aspire to a university degree but are less likely to think they will obtain it. In 2016, although 94 per cent of Black youth aged 15 to 25 said that they would like to get a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 60 per cent thought that they could.

Source: StatCan, Toronto Star

The same can be said for my shortcomings in the job hunt. When I was able to bypass systemic racism and get an interview, I was able to wow the interviewer with my charisma and charm, or in other words, “Holy cow, he does speak fluent English!” But on the contrary, Black Canadians have greater hurdles in getting a call back, an interview, and the job opportunity.

There persists a gap in employment rates between Black and non-Black youth. Young Black males were nearly twice as likely as other young males not to have a job in 2016.

Source: StatCan, Toronto Star

There’s a reason why statements such as All Lives Matter does not address the issue at hand. While most will agree that equality is the end goal, equality simply does not exist in our current state of affairs.

This comic does a solid job explaining why Black Lives Matter.

While my experiences of systemic racism pale in comparison to Black Canadians and Indigenous peoples, I hope this narrative helps readers better understand why the alarms are sounding right now. Systemic racism still very much exists to this day, actively suppressing minorities and limiting chances for equal betterment.

  • We need to continue putting the pressure on local, provincial, and federal governments.
  • We need to continue holding companies, corporations, institutions, and law enforcement accountable.
  • We need to continue having this dialogue, through conversations and education.
  • We need your support in the fight against racial injustice.

It’s time to shatter the glass ceiling.

If you’ve learned something from this article, please share this story to your friends, family, and network using the social buttons on the side, and sign up to receive future emails from me below. Never be afraid to ask questions. Make sure your belief system isn’t built off of somebody else’s word. Stop relying on social media for news. Always consider how your actions today will impact the world around you tomorrow. Whatever wakes you up in the morning, whether it be God, your family, or the philosophy of the Stoics, always do what’s best for every human being on Earth. Greed has many disguises. And lastly, wear a damn mask.

Over and out ✌️

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About the author

Reggie Tan

Lifestyle blogger. Growth hacker in fintech & blockchain. Futurist. I write for myself.

By Reggie Tan

RAMONE is a composition of non-fiction short stories and introspections by Reggie Tan.

reggie tan

Howdy. I first started blogging on in 2009, with a dedicated focus on men's lifestyle and stories of inebriation. Shortly after, I was listed as a top Canadian blogger, and over the next decade, I've collaborated with hundreds of notable brands.

Then I grew up. As of late, I've graduated to writing about life experiences, well-researched opinions, and hopefully a few things you might find useful.

This is my memory vault.

reggie tan

About me-Power user of technology. Style guy. Avid gamer. Obsessed with the Cybertruck. Lyrical poet. I like my beats bottom heavy. Madaline is ∞. Only God can judge me. INTP. Birthed in the East Coast of Canada by a pair of cool Filipino parents. Cautiously ADHD. I prefer my whisky neat with a tumbler of room-temp water. Otherwise, a pint of your best draught will do.

I'm a member of the anti-social club. Happily retired from Facebook or Instagram. My verified Twitter account was recently hacked. I do use LinkedIn for business.

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