Posted on January 30, 2008

In the U.S. South, Is Canadian a New Racial Slur?

Graeme Hamilton, National Post, January 24, 2008

It was a routine e-mail from the boss sent to congratulate a junior prosecutor in Houston, Tex., who had won manslaughter convictions against an intoxicated driver.

“He convicted Mr. Sosa of a double intoxication manslaughter, got a weak jury to give him 12 years in each, and then convinced Judge Wallace to stack the sentences,” Harris County assistant district attorney Mike Trent wrote in an office-wide memo. Then came the odd part: “He overcame a subversively good defence by Matt Hennessey that had some Canadians on the jury feeling sorry for the defendant and forced them to do the right thing.”

The e-mail was sent in 2003 but came to light only this month as part of an unrelated controversy with his office, forcing Mr. Trent to defend himself against accusations of bigotry—not because he offended the people of Canada, but because “Canadian” has apparently become a code word for blacks among American racists.

“There is a double meaning to that word and I didn’t know it. I was horrified when I learned what it was, and I immediately addressed the issue with the people who brought it up,” Mr. Trent told a local Fox News reporter in a recent interview.

“I’d never heard of Canadian being used as a term for a black person or for a racial slur,” he said.

“If I had, I would never send that out in an office-wide e-mail that’s going to go to people who are going to be offended if they recognize it as such. That would be crazy . . . I’m not a racist. I’m not a bigot,” Mr. Trent said.

Mark Vinson, who was a chief prosecutor in the Harris County office at the time, said he was puzzled by the reference to Canadians when he got the e-mail but was too busy to give it much thought. Then some colleagues informed him about the slang meaning of Canadian, and he felt crushed.

“So much has been accomplished in terms of equal opportunities, and the office had a super reputation,” Mr. Vinson, who is black, told the National Post. “I just couldn’t imagine someone in the office who would engage in that conduct.”

He said he believes Mr. Trent’s assurance that he had simply repeated a term used by the prosecutor on the case, Rob Freyer. Mr. Freyer did not return a message left yesterday.

“I know Mike. We laugh and talk about the [Dallas] Cowboys,” Mr. Vinson said. “I truly don’t believe that Mike knew what he was saying.”

It is unusual that a seasoned attorney like Mr. Trent would not have wondered how a Harris County jury came to be stacked with Canadians. (There were no Canadians on the jury but there were some black members.) “The only way that there could have been Canadians on the jury, was if they were born in Canada and then became U.S. citizens, and then became citizens of the county in which the case was tried,” Mr. Vinson noted.

Mr. Trent told Fox News that was not out of the question. “It would not be impossible or unusual for people from other countries to be on our juries,” he said. “That’s what I was told, and I took it as the literal meaning.”

The bigger mystery is how “Canadian” came to be code for black. An online directory of racial slurs defines Canadian as a “masked replacement” for black.

Last August, a blogger in Cincinnati going by the name CincyBlurg reported that a black friend from the southeastern U.S. had recently discovered that she was being called a Canadian. “She told me a story of when she was working in a shop in the South and she overheard some of her customers complaining that they were always waited on by a Canadian at that place. She didn’t understand what they were talking about and assumed they must be talking about someone else,” the blogger wrote.

“After this happened several times with different patrons, she mentioned it to one of her co-workers. He told her that ‘Canadian’ was the new derogatory term that racist Southerners were using to describe persons they would have previously referred to [with the N-word.]”

A similar case in Kansas City was reported last year on a Listserv, or electronic mailing list, used by linguistics experts. A University of Kansas linguist said that a waitress friend reported that “fellow workers used to use a name for inner-city families that were known to not leave a tip: Canadians. ‘Hey, we have a table of Canadians . . . They’re all yours.’ “

Stefan Dollinger, a postdoctoral fellow in linguistics at University of British Columbia and director of the university’s Canadian English lab, speculated that the slur reflects a sense of Canadians as the other.

“This ‘code’ word, is the replacement of a no-longer tolerated label for one outsider group, with, from the U.S. view, another outsider group: Canadians. It could have been terms for Mexicans, Latinos etc. but this would have been too obvious,” he said. “What’s left? Right, the guys to the north.”