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Truckers of a different color

After I was assigned to study racism in the trucking industry, I spent a few hours listening to Channel 19. My ears perked for any racist inference. The first session left me wondering where the racis...


CHALLENGING STEREOTYPES: Rampal Dhillon takes the time to sit down with those who spout racist remarks.(Photo by John G. Smith)
CHALLENGING STEREOTYPES: Rampal Dhillon takes the time to sit down with those who spout racist remarks.

(Photo by John G. Smith)


After I was assigned to study racism in the trucking industry, I spent a few hours listening to Channel 19. My ears perked for any racist inference. The first session left me wondering where the racists were. The best I can find is a Toronto crank on a home base spouting inanities against Prime Minister Jean Chretien and multiculturalism. Hardly triple-K fare.

But the next morning, the redneck jokes are flowing like a sewer. It sounds like the daily banter between three bigots running along Hwy. 401 – anti-black humor in which the drivers already know the punch line. Two quick situations in which blacks (not the word they used) are portrayed as lazy and slovenly. But the last joke comes from deep in the cesspool of their consciousness. These men are talking about the murder and dismemberment of a person of another race and yukking their way down the freeway.

Hugh McPherson is a contract driver for Ryder Logistics in Toronto and says he encounters racist attitudes “all the time” while making deliveries in southern Ontario, but he dismisses a lot of the extremist chatter on the CB. He thinks radio racists are insecure mimics hiding behind the anonymity of the microphone. “You can tell by the way they try to sound like Americans,” he says. “Some Canadians hear that kind of thing in the south and think it’s a cool thing to spit out. These are people who spend too much time by themselves.”

A rural upbringing in Stormont County in Eastern Ontario has provided McPherson with a unique perspective. He thinks that intolerance is not necessarily organized along racial or ethnic lines. “I had the opportunity to grow up in a closed society,” he says. “I hardly ever saw a black person until I was 25. But there was plenty of bigotry and hatred to go around.”

McPherson doesn’t think there is anything wrong with celebrating one’s own ethnicity. “It’s like people who listen to the same kind of music hanging around together.” Rather, he believes intolerant attitudes are the result of ignorance and an innate need to categorize and denigrate others. “It’s a natural inclination of humans to want to find something to put other people down,” he says. “Unfortunately, for many it’s easiest to do by skin color.”

And he takes issue with how some of the media portrays visible minorities. Irresponsible and manipulative reporting, he thinks, does much to fuel the fires of prejudice. “I find racist tendencies rising in myself,” he says. “If you listen to the radio and read the newspaper, you’d think that blacks were the source of all trouble.”

Q: What does it say on Quebec licence plates?

A: “Use centre lane only”

Raymond Villeneuve smiles when I tell him the above gibe. He’s at the Fifth Wheel in Bowmanville on a January Sunday night, on his way to Georgia for Travelers Transportation. I explain that the Quebec truckers’ habit of sticking in the centre lane is baffling for many Ontario drivers, but that French drivers are regarded as fearless and skillful in winter conditions by their English colleagues.

“That’s for sure,” says the Montreal-based Villeneuve. “They make jokes about French drivers but that’s where they want to be in a storm – behind a Quebec plate.”

Fully fluent in English, he never has a problem picking up and delivering outside of Quebec. But the same is not always the case for his Francophone coworkers who are less than bilingual.

“Some guys who can barely speak English might have a hard time when they go to Ontario,” he says. “Shippers make them sit longer or load the English guys first. He ain’t going to start arguing because he can’t speak English. I’m sure the same thing happens to English drivers when they pick up in Quebec.”

Villeneuve ranks Saskatchewan as the most anti-French province but Ontario is not far behind. “A lot of times it’s unbelievable,” he says. “They just chew your butt all the way down the 401. At first you just let it roll off you, but after six or seven hours running with the same bunch of drivers it gets a little aggravating.”

The gulf between Quebec and English Canada is minimalized in the trucking world. French and English drivers use different CB channels – 12 and 19, respectively. Truckers running the Montreal-Toronto corridor tend to keep to their own language groups in rest stops and highway cafeterias. The recent strike against high fuel taxes by Quebec drivers was watched with interest, but detachment, by English truckers. There is so little communication between the two camps that the job action came as almost a complete surprise to drivers outside of Quebec. This despite the fact that the both sets of drivers do almost identical jobs using identical equipment in the same environment.

The 1996 census shows the trucking pie is generally split between the two solitudes, which roughly reflects the breakdown of the general population. Sixty-five per cent of truck drivers listed English as their mother tongue (the language first heard in the home and still understood), while 26 per cent ticked off French. Surprisingly, German accounted for the next biggest chunk, almost a fifth of the remaining nine per cent, followed by Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Ukrainian and Chinese.

Villeneuve sees the conflict between French and English drivers as something that goes back years and will not be soon resolved. He thinks that Quebec drivers go more than half way to meet their anglophone colleagues. “When it comes right down to it, we speak two languages and they don’t make the effort to speak French when they come to Quebec,” he says. “And they get mad at us for speaking French.”

Ironically, the distinction between cultures drops away once you cross the U.S. border. “In the States we’re all considered Canadians,” Villeneuve says. “On the radio you get a lot of ‘Hey you Canucks, go back to Canada and stop stealing our work,’ mostly from the regional carriers who don’t interstate.

“The guys we get along with the best down there are the ones doing the same work – long hauls. And there’s plenty of work for all of us. What’s the difference between a B.C. driver and a Quebec driver?” he asks. “We’re both doing the same job.”

Last summer, Garry Valiquette of Kanata, Ont. was on a training run for a major north-south carrier. He and his co-driver were dispatched to a plant in Westchester, Pa., to pick up a load of paper for Gatineau, Que.

“We were part way through loading, when another driver from our company came in wearing a turban. The shipper didn’t talk to that driver at all, but came over to us and asked us if this guy knew what he was doing with his paperwork.

“We thought he was making some kind of crude joke. But he made it clear to us that he had dealt with one or two of ‘those people’ and, as far as he was concerned, they had no right to be on the road at all.

“To us, it was a clear case of stereotyping. I mean, the shipper didn’t even give this man the time of day. He was basing his entire perception of a culture on his experience with one or two people. In fact, this driver was every bit as knowledgeable about the Customs documents as we were.”

But you don’t have to go south of the border to find racial discrimination. Rampal Dhillon recalls applying for a job in Guelph, Ont. with a cross-border transport company several years ago. “I spoke to the manager earlier in the day and he assured me that they were hiring owner/operators,” he says. “But when I arrived in the office wearing a turban (Dhillon is Sikh), I was abruptly told there were no jobs.”

The truck-driving instructor thinks that there are still companies that will not hire drivers who wear turbans. “But that all changes if they hire one or two of my countrymen,” he says. “When they realize how hard working they are, they are quite willing to hire more.”

Dhillon is puzzled by the negative feelings toward East Indian truck drivers. When he was working for a container company he would often hear disparaging comments on the company channel. “My comrades would say that these guys should be washing trucks, not owning them. B
ut then I’d sit with them in the coffee shop and they became my friends,” he says.

From humble beginnings as an immigrant in 1988, Dhillon now owns six trucks and a house in Dundas, Ont. His two brothers, who emigrated from India in 1990, have also done well in the trucking business.

The brothers’ success is typical of other drivers of Sikh descent who have thrived in Canada. Dhillon estimates that the number Sikh owner/operators working in the GTA has increased from about 20 in 1988 to a present level of around 5,000.

“Most Sikh drivers are hard-working family people who are not afraid to put in longer hours on the road,” he says. “They carry fruit and vegetables with them and have their own kitchens. You rarely see them eating at truck stops or watching dancing girls.”

Dhillon thinks that some of the resentment among Caucasian truck drivers stems from the fact that many Sikh drivers are able to buy new trucks almost as soon as they get out of driving school. He wants to clarify the misinformation that is passed around the CB airwaves about East Indians having a privileged position as immigrants, or that Sikhs are given a tax break because of their religion. According to Dhillon, the novice driver from his community usually has a significant birthright and access to capital through an extended family network. “It’s not unusual,” he says, “for a young driver to put down $50,000 for a new truck.”

As of the 1996 census, truck driving was the domain of the white Canadian male. Only three per cent of drivers are women, and visible minorities (people who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour) account for a slim 3.2 per cent of the trucking population. South Asians (East Indian, Pakistani, Punjabi, Sri Lankan etc.) make up the largest part of this subgroup at 43 per cent, followed by blacks at 24 per cent, Chinese at 11 per cent, Latin American at six per cent, etc. But the overall numbers of visible minorities driving trucks are still small.

However, things are changing quickly. The transport sector continues to grow at around five per cent a year and new immigrants become attracted to the trade that has a seemingly insatiable need for new workers. Over the years, Canadian metropolitan areas have witnessed an influx of Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Brazilian, and Russian truck drivers (among others) who have used the job as a spring board to a new life and another profession. Many, of course, have remained in the industry and carved out a healthy livelihood.

But while the skin color of most truck driving Canadians from rural and smaller centres might still be pale pink, drivers of color are making inroads. Saran Bal, owner of Bal Trucking of Surrey, B.C. has noticed a shift in the last few years. “I used to have two or three drivers that were East Indian and another nine or 10 were European. Now I have two or three European drivers and 10 or 11 East Indians.”

Bal sees this as a natural progression. New Canadians come into the business and find a niche. East Indians, he says, have gained respect by proving to be capable and reliable workers. According to Bal, racism or discrimination is not an issue that affects his daily operations. “If anyone has to move some freight … they basically have to deal with Sikhs and East Indians,” he says. “The majority of drivers coming out of the Lower Mainland are of Sikh or East Asian background.”

The 1996 census also tells us that truckers are a little older than the average worker (by three years), and less formerly educated (only 27 per cent of truckers have taken courses beyond high school, compared to 52 per cent for all workers).

Does this community of overworked, aging, under-educated white males seem like the spawning ground for intolerant or xenophobic attitudes?

“There has always been a tendency to view other peoples as the scapegoat, the ‘other’,” says Carol Carpenter, a humanities professor at York University.

“Jokes are a way of handling difference,” she says. “Racist humor is not a totally negative thing. It can be seen as a means of venting negative feelings that is relatively harmless.”

Truly, humans are a cataloguing animal. We spend a good deal of time defining what we are by what we are not. Further, cultural stereotypes have some basis in reality. And these are powerful motifs that form the basis for much of our humor and personal identification.

But the downside of racist kidding in the workplace is clearly apparent. “Racist humor can be extremely demoralizing,” says Hira Singh, a sociology professor at York University. “It splits the workers along racial lines when they should be working together.”

As well, racist behavior in the work place may create a backlash in certain situations. “Anyone can be a racist,” he says. “If I am a member of a visible minority and I am being discriminated against, I can react two ways. I can try to get together with my fellow worker and work for equality, or I can react racially and start disassociating from other employees.”

In the worst case, in economic downturns and cutbacks, hostility and resentment can be directed at visible minorities. “It’s OK to have different races of people working next to you in times of full employment,” says Singh. “But during layoffs, those people can become targets.” n


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4 Comments » for Truckers of a different color
  1. kris says:

    It is very true that Racism exits not only in trucking but pretty much in all areas of work. It is the insecurity of the white man that is breeding this Xenophobic attitudes.
    for eg. in driving schools I have noticed instructors give the wrong
    instruction and then turn around and blame the student for the mistake. They always have more to complain and they specifically target the smarter student.
    In a WASP world the dumb guys will survive as a side kick. They just do not want the smart guys around.

    • David Murdoch says:

      Racism lives in every race, not just whites. Think a Sikh family would allow their daughter to marry a White Canadian man? Isn’t, every white stereotyped as a racist? Listen. The whole world is trying to migrate into Europe Caucasian built nations like Canada. It’s going to take time.

  2. Kevin says:

    Up here in one lane northern ontario I see many drivers of different colours. I hate to sound racist but constantly I see other trucks crossing over center especially during periods of snow. I have been run onto the shoulder MANY times. Probably less then ten percent of the times its a person of european decent. (I look every time) You can call me a racist or a liar but its true. That is my only beef with drivers who have come to canada from somewhere else. I don’t know if its fatigue related or if they have been instructed in a driving school not to hug the right to avoid going in the ditch but it KILLS PEOPLE and it has to stop if you don’t want to be judged and you want to finish your trip without injuring someone else or yourself.

  3. Mike says:

    Just listen to the news every day
    Thats all you hear daily — A truck overturned here, a truck hit a bridge
    A truck spilled it’s load. An accident involving a truck
    I have never seen so many truck related accidents and not wanting to sound racist, but every one of them is Non North American. I think the real problem here is lack of training. I have seen the local truck driving schools in action taking several people around the block for their training and then send them on their way to get their licences
    Racism is NOT the problem, but when all these problems have the same common denominator that’s when fingers get pointed so instead of crying racism try to fix the problem. The trucking industry used to be a proud, safe industry with very professional people, now it is just scary

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