Canada in 2018 unveiled a vertical $10 bank note featuring Viola Desmond, a Canadian businesswoman who refused to give up her seat in a whites-only section of a movie theater in Nova Scotia in 1946 (several years before Rosa Parks’ famous bus seat protest in the U.S.) Consul General Nadia Theodore points often to this currency to show how Canada is reckoning with its past. Photo: CNW Group/Bank of Canada)

Nadia Theodore sometimes gets a question she doesn’t think many other diplomats are asked: “Oh my gosh, there are black people in Canada?” 

A black Canadian herself serving as consul general in the Southeast U.S., she addressed the timely topic of race and Canada-U.S. relations during a recent webinar with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.

Nadia Theodore

During the “Shared Border Shared Fight: Canada on #BLM” discussion, moderated by council President Charles Shapiro June 18, Ms. Theodore emphasized that her specialty is trade policy, not race relations, but she spoke poignantly as both a diplomat and a black woman about the ways in which Americans and Canadians can tackle racism while also staying vocal about the importance of trade and other shared interests.

Ms. Theodore has never had a black boss, and she has experienced the pernicious racism that goes unnoticed by even by those who inflict it. At times, it surfaces as being treated differently from her white colleagues upon checking into a hotel. Other times, it has taken the form of surprise at her knowledge as a trade policy expert.

“My default has always been to rise to the occasion of being underestimated. And to be strong enough to know who you are and know what you’re about and not being afraid to make sure that people understand that when they might be confused,” she told Mr. Shapiro.

In the context of Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. and Canada, Ms. Theodore has been asked often for her opinion on the violence against black people like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and others that have sparked new momentum for the movement. She finds it a “peculiar” question because she believes the answer should be obvious: grief, anger and frustration, just like “what I hope everyone is feeling.” 

While Canada’s government hasn’t given her specific guidance on what to say, she believes there is an “institutional feeling” that aligns well with her personal views, making it simple to speak her mind. 

“I’m lucky to work for a country where it is actually an official feeling — the feeling of grief and remorse and wanting to do better and trying to figure that out, is actually an official, government of Canada feeling,” she said.

That’s not because Canada is superior but, rather, because it has learned from its own troubled past, she made clear.

Ms. Theodore pointed to Canadian businesswoman Viola Desmond, who refused to give up her seat in a whites-only section of a movie theater in Nova Scotia in 1946 (several years before Rosa Parks’ famous bus seat protest in the U.S.), as an example of Canada’s history of racial tension. Ms. Desmond since 2018 has been on a $10 bill in Canada, which Ms. Theodore often pulls out of her wallet as an illustration.  

Ms. Theodore also noted that slavery existed in Canada, and Canada’s historical treatment of indigenous peoples has been — as admitted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — “atrocious,” she said. 

The Canadian government has implemented a Reconciliation initiative that aims to recognize and affirm indigenous struggles, put in place concrete steps to improve education and access to basic needs on reserves, and generally work toward better economic and social outcomes for indigenous peoples, who comprise some 4.9 percent of the country’s population (indigenous people make up approximately 2 percent of the U.S. population). Black Canadians account for 3.5 percent of the country’s population, compared with 12.1 percent in the U.S.

“We can only move forward when we have a process for reconciliation where the oppressed have the opportunity to feel like those in power are listening and have their stories affirmed and then have action toward justice,” she said.

She hopes the current surge of interest in rectifying race relations will actually translate into concrete action.

“Long-standing change means power structures will have to change, and those who now hold power will have to be comfortable ceding some of that power… It’s a heavy lift.”

Combating racism can add another dimension to an already strong and complementary relationship between Canada and the U.S. focused on shared values and trade. Canadians can learn from Americans how to have meaningful discussions about racism, rather than avoiding the issue with “Canadian politeness.”

And Americans can learn from Canadian political leaders’ “willingness to try different things,” she said. An official government action plan for combating racism in Canada, which was signed by black parliamentarians across all parties, has garnered new attention in light of the recent civil rights protests. 

“Our political parties really try to work together – we do have that right,” Ms. Theodore said.

The $612 billion trade relationship is an example of the enduring quality of U.S.-Canada cooperation. Canada remains one of the top markets for Georgia trade, which amounted to some $11 billion in 2019

Even with the international border closed to non-essential travel until at least July 21 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, trade is “still very much flowing between Canada and the U.S.,” Ms. Theodore said, adding that the pandemic has actually demonstrated the strength of the Canada-U.S. relationship by highlighting the intertwined nature of supply chains. 

As the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) goes into effect on July 1, which is also Canada Day, Ms. Theodore said the most important thing Georgians can do is to “get active” about voicing the importance of Canada-U.S. trade for economic growth and job creation in Georgia, including by signing the Canadian American Business Council’s “rebound initiative” pledge.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on trade between Canada and the U.S., with more than 200 Canadian companies creating jobs in Georgia. Canadian tourism to Georgia — once it resumes — is part of the economic engine of the state, she said.

Ms. Theodore said she and her family have been welcomed in Georgia and feel just as safe in Atlanta as they do in Canada.

“All of that [good] can exist in conjunction with the fact that we can do better in regard to race and race relations,” she noted. She recommended reading the book, “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo to learn about building societal capacity for racial justice. 

Learn more about upcoming programs or view a recording by becoming a World Affairs Council of Atlanta member here.