TORONTO, Ont. — What is racism? In a nutshell it’s the practice of prejudice, discrimination, or hatred directed towards a person because of their skin color, ethnicity, religion, race, or national origin. It’s also a learned behavior; children are not racist by nature.
Derek Balchand is an owner-operator of Guyanese descent. He recalls the first time he encountered racism. “As a child, I got beat up at school and called a ‘Paki.’ I didn’t even know what it meant. I had to ask my father to explain it to me,” he says.
Balchand became fascinated with big trucks from a young age. He started driving them in his 20s at a time when racist attitudes were more strident.
“That was back in the ’80s and ’90s. You couldn’t turn on the (CB) radio without hearing someone complaining, Paki this or Paki that.”
Over the years, Balchand has had a couple of run-ins with shippers who gave him attitude – he suspects because of his skin color – but that was rare.
“Mostly it was other drivers,” he says. “You’d walk into a waiting room and everything would go quiet. ‘There’s that Paki driver,’ they’d say to each other, but never to your face.”
Back in those days, an overwhelming majority of truck drivers were Caucasian males, and they often hailed from rural or small-town environments, where there was little ethnic diversity. The popularity of the CB radio provided an anonymous platform for bigots and closet racists to air their views.
French-Canadian drivers were often abused if they spoke French on the air. Anti-black invective was not uncommon and the “N” word was often heard on Channel 19.
Canada may not have had the same history with slavery as did the U.S., but there were vestiges of it here: Dundurn Castle in Hamilton, Ont., originally had slave quarters, and some United Empire Loyalists who had owned slaves in the U.S. brought their human “property” with them when they fled north. Indeed, an anti-black societal bias was even institutionalized. Segregated schools existed in Southern Ontario until the 1960s; the last segregated school closed in Nova Scotia in 1983.
But overall, trucking had fewer barriers than other trades. A hard-working individual of any ethnicity or background could usually find steady employment and earn decent wages. The profession has always drawn its human resources from the waves of immigration that flowed into this country at one time or another. The first driver shortage occurred in 1856, when William Hendrie couldn’t find teamsters for his thriving cartage business in Toronto and Hamilton. He instructed his foreman to meet the trains of incoming immigrants and offer a job to anyone who spoke with a Scottish “brogue.”
Since that time, Irish, Poles, Germans, Italians, South Asians, Russians, Chinese, Somalis, West Africans, and recently Syrians, have all bolstered the ranks of the trucking sector at one time or another. Some of these new Canadians only trucked for a short while, while others have remained and thrived in the industry. But as each new ethnic group arrived, they were relegated to the lowest rung on the ladder, and often subjected to pejorative labeling, hazing, and/or discrimination.
However, the increasing number of South Asian drivers in the ’80s and ’90s became a concern for the established order. “Old stock” truckers were feeling threatened by this infusion of non-white drivers, and the new arrivals were easy to spot – some of them wore turbans and spoke Punjabi, Urdu, or Hindi. Canada is home to some 500,000 Sikhs (the largest population outside of India), and many are employed in the trucking sector.
The racial slurs and scapegoating gained momentum in that era. The narrative went something like this: these brown people are taking our jobs and they’re lowering the standard by working for lower wages.
Raman Singh is the CEO of the North American Punjabi Truckers Association. “When I used to drive I was clean-shaven, so I never had a straightforward confrontation with anyone, but a few times I’d heard words behind my back that were unacceptable,” he says.
One time, at a plant in Indiana, someone pointed Singh out as one of the people that caused the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.
“I turned around and said, ‘Excuse me, do you know anything about the world? You should think before you say those kinds of things.’ These people probably couldn’t find India on a map, let alone Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia,” Singh says.
Singh thinks it’s good that attitudes are changing.
“But I still see the same discussions on blogs, about Indian drivers taking away white people’s jobs. But the fact is young white men are not interested in driving trucks, while the number of young South Asian drivers is growing.”
Rampal Dhillon recalled applying for a job at a major Southwestern Ontario carrier almost 20 years ago. He has no noticeable accent, and when he spoke on the phone to a recruiter, he was invited to the terminal to fill out an application for owner-operator.
“But when I arrived at the office wearing a turban, I was abruptly told there were no jobs,” says Dhillon.
Ironically, only a few years later, this same company was recruiting South Asian and Sikh drivers. Dhillon thinks there has been a steady improvement for truckers of color.
“Racist attitudes are still there, but they are minimal these days. In terms of hiring, I would say there is zero discrimination,” he says.
Dhillon has 13 trucks and faces the same personnel problems as everyone else.
“I have units standing because I can’t find drivers,” he says. “I have to go on the road myself when I can’t find anyone.”
Dhillon’s story is not unique. I talked to the owners of several companies of South Asian descent who faced the same hurdles getting established in trucking.
Discrimination in these instances might have been a boon to these newly-minted Canadians. When they couldn’t get a job with the “white bread” trucking firms, they went out and started their own companies. And the irony grows thicker; in some cases these owners now have close business and personal relationships with the same people who initially refused them employment.
According to Dhillon, “Racism is a human tendency and will never be eliminated. But discrimination has been narrowed down. We now have a Canadian Defense Minister who wears a turban. We have some Indian-owned companies that are huge now, with 400 or more trailers. South Asian drivers are one of the main streams of the industry; they’ve earned respect for their hard work.”
Clearly Dhillon was discriminated against when he was refused an application. But human rights issues can be difficult to litigate and prove. Deepinder Loomba, a paralegal in Brampton, Ont., has acted on behalf of a couple of drivers. In one case an elderly Sikh driver was allegedly insulted and assaulted by a Montreal police officer. Loomba wrote some letters to the Montreal Urban Police Commission and the issue was eventually settled out of court. According to Loomba, the police officer was sanctioned and required to take awareness training.
The other case involved a pet food manufacturer in Ontario not allowing drivers to use the toilets in the plant. The claimant said that white truck drivers were being allowed access to washrooms while “brown people” were being denied the same. Loomba contacted the human resources department which clarified the company’s policy in a letter: truck drivers are not allowed to use the washrooms.
Even so, Loomba thinks access to toilets is a human rights issue. “They cannot stop anyone from using the washroom. This is a natural human function and a company should be required to have facilities for truck drivers. Some of these men are waiting four or five hours to load,” he said.
But on the whole, Loomba thinks that discrimination cases are “way down,” and that more tolerant attitudes now prevail in trucking culture. Balchand has been a trucker for 37 years and an owner-operator for 10 of them, and he agrees.
“I believe there is less racism now among truckers. The haters are now going after refugees,” says Balchand. “People are wiser now, less likely to call you names. And companies that wouldn’t hire brown people before, have all kinds of nationalities working there.”
But stereotypes are common in the industry. Balchand recalls running with another driver all the way from West Virginia to the Canadian border. They talked all night on the radio and got to know each other quite well.
“I arrived at a truck stop before he did, and I was waiting for him beside the pumps. He rolls down the window and says, ‘Aren’t you going to fuel up my truck?’ Then when I explained to him I was the driver that he’d been talking to all night, he was so embarrassed. ‘Oh my God,’ he said. I told him, ‘You see the way you people are?’ We had a good laugh about it.”
Balchand thinks the best way to overcome racism and stereotyping is to work alongside people from different backgrounds. But when he comes across racist talk, he tries to correct it. “Sometimes you have to tell people when they’re wrong and explain why,” he says.
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