Chapter 8: Interrupt Oppression


In this chapter, we provide a brief overview on Canadian history and colonial oppressions that have happened on this land. We will provide a definition of what interrupting oppression means in EDI practice and discuss different intervening strategies to be an effective upstander.


Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  1. Identify historical and contemporary racism in Canada;
  2. Explore common considerations when creating an interruption; and
  3. Identify strategies to interrupt systems of oppression.




In previous chapters, we talked about intersectional oppression that describes acts or processes that repeatedly target the same people for harm just because they are members of a particular minority group. We explored different ways to address social disparities, such as unconscious bias training, inclusive language, and effective allyship. All of these actions involve embedding an anti-oppression lens because they recognize systems of oppression that manifest in our society, and encourage us to work proactively, consciously and continuously lift others up, to confront complex social inequities, to dismantle systemic barriers and to build a more equitable and inclusive future for all talents, instead of selected privileged ones. However, in order to become anti-oppression activists and interrupt oppression, we need to first acknowledge the history of racism in Canada, and our relationship with the land and the people who lived there before us.

Interrupting oppressions describes “an attempt to stop a present or future harmful behavior, model respectful words and actions, create a safer space, advocate for those oppressed by the behavior (self and/or others), and support those being harmed” (Oregon Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, 2018).

Harm is anything that undermines a person’s dignity or minimizes their worth (Evans & Vaandering, 2016. pp. 80). Harm extends beyond interpersonal relationships and can be caused due to structural injustices.

Conflict consists of incompatible objectives between two or more people or groups (Bickmore, 1997). Conflicts are disagreements or problems, based on competing wishes and needs, and/or divergent belief systems or lack of trusting relationships, between individuals or groups (Bickmore, 2005). Conflicts are inevitable in daily life, but they are not necessarily violent. In contrast, violence is intentional harm, which may (or may not) be a result or response to underlying conflicts.

Conflict Resolution is the informal or formal process that two or more parties use to find a solution to their dispute or conflict (Shonk, 2020)

Restorative Justice is a positive way of responding to harm, wrongdoing, injustice, or conflict by focusing on repairing the harm caused by the wrongful action(s) (UNODC, 2021). This type of justice “uses processes that aim to restore the well-being of people involved, as well as the agency, ownership, and decision-making power of those directly affected by the harmful event – victims, offenders, their supporters and the wider community” (Ibid). Restorative Justice emphasizes the restoration of respect, equality, and dignity to the relationships affected by wrongdoings (Evans & Vaandering, 2016). For instance, talking circles, originating from Indigenous cultures, contribute to address situations in which people are in conflict or cause each other significant harm, as well as nurture healthy relationships (Ibid, pp. 78).

Transformative Justice is a movement that relies on community resources to respond to harm and conflict – for the people and by the people (Lakshmi, Piepzna-Samarasinha, Dixon, 2020). For example, “health programs requiring ID can cause harm to undocumented people and keep such populations at a higher risk for health issues. A transformative justice response would look like community health care being provided by services where IDs are not necessary, such as seeing a doctor outside of a clinic” (The Mosaic Institute, 2021).



Historical and Contemporary Racism in Canada

Canada is a nation of immigrants that has a long colonial history with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. The initial military and commercial alliance between Indigenous peoples and European explorers started from the first contact until late 18th century when these peaceful relationships turned violent, as the British Empire began to perceive themselves as a superior race, and a “civilization” in comparison to Indigenous peoples. This shifting relationship, and the consequent legislated assimilation, led to policies, laws and statues, such as the Indian Act, that denied First Nations, Métis and Inuit people’ access and control of their own lands. In 1883, Residential Schools became the primary vehicle of “civilization” and “assimilation”. Children were removed from their homes and were forbidden to speak their own traditional language, or express their culture, religion, and lifestyles (McCullough, 2017). Between 1857 and 1996, more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children suffered isolation, denigration, physical and verbal abuses. Thousands died. The trauma and devastating legacy imposed by Residential Schools and colonialization on indigenous families and communities continues in the present (CCDI, 2020). However, acknowledging the past is only the beginning to combat institutional and systemic racism. We must work together to reconcile and decolonize the relationship between First Nations, Inuit, and Métis People and all levels of Canadian government.

Some additional examples of historical racism in Canada (CCDI, 2020):

  1. Slavery and segregation: from 1628 to the 1880s, 3,000 enslaved African people were brought to Canada from the United States. Generations of African Canadians experienced segregation in employment, housing, schools, churches, restaurants, hospitals, and public transportation. The last segregated school in Ontario remained open until 1964.
  2. Racial discrimination against Chinese people when they survived the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the enactment of $23 million in “head-taxes” that only applied to Chinese immigrants.
  3. Detention and deportation of over 20,000 Japanese people during World War II. Many of them were Canadian citizens who were sent to internment camps.
  4. Discriminatory immigration policies that favoured immigrations from the United Kingdom and Western Europe, but refused people from racialized countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. This “preferred” list of immigrants was in place until 1976 when Canada introduced a ‘fairer’ immigration policy.
  5. Canada’s history with antisemitism dates back to the late 1700s. In the twentieth century, there were rising incidents of antisemitism, including discrimination and restrictions during the Holocaust. For instance, in 1939 over 900 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis were denied entry to Canada; over 250 of them died from the Holocaust after deportation. In 2018, Jewish Canadians were targeted by religion-motivated hate crimes more than any other group (Stats Can, 2018)
  6. Canada’s history has seen pervasive attitudes of Islamophobia toward individual Muslims or followers of Islam, including stereotypes, bias, and violent hate crimes (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2005). The mid-2010s saw some of the worst attacks on Muslims and their places of worship in Canada’s history. For instance, a shooting took place in 2017 at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City, where six Muslims were killed and 19 more were injured (CBC News, 2017).

The history of racial discrimination continues to negatively impact racialized people, at social, economic, political and even environmental levels. For example, racialized youth not only have a higher unemployment rate of 23%, but they are disproportionally more likely to be working in lower wage jobs (Statistics Canada, 2021b). Racialized people are also under-represented in the trade labour markets, they are more likely to suffer hate crimes and discrimination, and to live in poverty (Statistics Canada, 2020a, 2021a, 2021b). Black people in particular are under-represented in post-secondary institutions (Statistics Canada, 2021a). To this day, members of the Black and Jewish population remain the primary target of police-reported hate crimes (Statistics Canada, 2021c).



The Ontario Human Rights Code in Fighting Discrimination and Harassment

As racial discrimination and other forms of oppressions (such as sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism) persist in our society, social justice activists and social movement advocates are always there to force change and to protect people of all identities. One of the main legal tools used to combat racial discrimination and harassment in Ontario is the Ontario Human Rights Code, which states that every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to: (1) service, goods, and facilities, (2) the occupancy of accommodation, (3) contracts; (4) accommodation; (5) employment; (6) vocational associations, such as memberships and occupational association, and (7) freedom from harassment, without discrimination because of “age, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status or disability” (Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19).

The Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario oversees and reinforces the operation of the Ontario Human Right Code.



Interrupting Oppression: Guidelines

Oppression = Prejudice + Power

Anti-oppression describes different strategies, theories, actions, and practices that recognize oppressions that are constructed in our society, and actively work to dismantle the social and institutional inequalities (The Anti-Oppression Network). Anti-oppression is not only confronting oppressive behaviors such as exclusion, microaggression, unconscious biases, gender, or racial stereotypes, but to also confront ourselves on how we can leverage our privilege and power to become better allies and advocates for people of all identities. Keep in mind that since oppression can occur on individual, group, and systemic levels, anti-oppression actions should also have different levels.

To combat oppressions in an organization, and to create fair and inclusive environments, organizations can audit existing policies and practices. This could include:

  • reviewing the organizational and workplace culture, such as communication materials and interpersonal relationships;
  • collecting and analyzing data across all levels of the organization; and
  • developing an anti-oppression strategy.

A strong anti-oppression strategy can ensure accountability and transparency that addresses systemic barriers and can actively, and effectively, push for cultural and structural changes. On an individual and interpersonal level, we can employ a restorative justice approach to interrupt oppression.


Key Considerations

Interrupting oppression is about creating positive (transformational) changes, so we need to be mindful about how to interrupt, intervene, question, or redirect a harmful conversation, as well as to how to respond when we are being interrupted. It is important to have empathy and compassion for others and for yourself. We all make mistakes, so we need to refrain from defensiveness and, instead, acknowledge the impacts we may have. Interruption is not an accusation, it is a restorative approach that provides an opportunity for people to take responsibility for their actions, learn from their mistakes and build awareness of the harm caused to repair it. Additionally, there are several considerations that could help us formulate a response:

  • Consider the power differentials.
  • Assess safety. Do you feel safe enough to speak out? Self-care is essential and requires no explanation.
  • Consider the existing network and social relations. How will the interruption affect your relationship?
  • Be sensitive of language and cultural differences.
  • Know your objectives and the desired outcomes you would like to achieve after the interruption.
  • What forms of interruption are best suited in this scenario? Does this require immediate action, or should this be addressed via an indirect message?
  • Account for other barriers. It is normal to struggle and to fear making mistakes or doing something wrong. Interrupting oppression is hard, but it gets easier with practice.


Strategy Inventory

When people say and do oppressive things, we need to let them know what they did had a negative impact – on you and, potentially, on others. There are lots of ways to do this. When we choose a private moment for a one-on-one follow-up conversation after someone says or does something offensive, this is known as ‘calling someone in’, as we’re inviting them into dialogue with a goal of deepening their understanding and changing behaviour (Haslam, 2019).

When we deal with problem behaviour immediately and often publicly, this is referred to as ‘calling someone out’ (Haslam, 2019). The goal is to stop the oppressive behaviour in a way that is non-negotiable.

Here are a few strategies you can use to interrupt oppressive behaviours:

  1. Use “I” statements and speak from your personal experience. For example, if you noticed someone used dated terminology in their communication, kindly share with them a personal story of a time when you were reminded that a word you used in a presentation was not very kind and could appear inappropriate to others.
  2. Ask for clarity and request the question to be elaborated, “what did you mean by that?” or “can you elaborate a bit more?”
  3. Provide an alternative, “I’d like to invite you to consider …” or “I am curious to hear about your thoughts on …”.
  4. Amplify and support other’s interruptions.
  5. Seek supports and solidarity from others. We all start somewhere. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, just know that you are not alone and keep learning.
  6. Be open-minded and non-judgmental. Keep in mind that all good characters could have problematic behavior. It’s a learning and unlearning practice.
  7. Educate wherever you can and explain why certain behaviors are rooted in systems of oppression (e.g., racism, sexism, classism). For example, “I don’t think this is an appropriate way of expressing your opinion because it approves toxic masculinity”, or “I appreciate your attempt to humor, but jokes on racial stereotypes aren’t funny because it diminishes the contributions and diverse perspectives that racialized folks bring to our society.”
  8. Validate positive comments, emotions, and values.
  9. Invite folks to return to group guidelines created and remind them that “this isn’t what we agreed to do/say or enact.”
  10. Be humble and interruptible.



Summary and Self-Reflection

Tip #8

Interrupt systems of oppression when you witness them operating to exclude, stigmatize, or normalize “othering” of equity-deserving folks.

Keeping in mind that even though we provided some strategies for you to consider when you engage in interrupting oppressions, the most important thing is to be present in the moment, to listen to your heart, and be genuine and kind with your words. There is no perfect interruption. Know that sometimes interruptions might not work, and the plans don’t always lead to the desired outcomes, and that’s OK. Interrupting oppression is like planting a seed. It could take a long time to germinate and to grow, but we must keep nurturing it.



Additional Resources



Chapter 8 References

Baig, Fakiha (2015). Arson hits Peterborough’s only mosque. The Star. Retrieved November 2021 from

Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion. (2020). Navigating race in Canadian workplaces A brief history of race relations in Canada. Retrieved November 2021 from

CBC News. (2017). ‘We don’t feel safe’: Mosque shooting sends shock wave through Quebec Muslim community. Retrieved November 2021 from

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. (2017). First Nations in Canada. Retrieved November 2021 from

Federal-Provincial-Territorial Ministers Responsible for Justice and Public Safety (2018). Principles and Guidelines for Restorative Practice in the Criminal Matters. Retrieved November 2021 from

Haslam, R.E. (2019). Interrupting Bias: Calling Out vs. Calling In. See the Way LLC.

Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19

McCullough, J.J. (2017). Early History of Canada. In The Canadian Guide. Retrieved November 2021 from

Oregon Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence. (2018). Toolkit for Interrupting Oppression. Retrieved November 2021 from

Statistics Canada. (2020a). Changes in the socioeconomic situation of Canada’s Black population, 2001 to 2016 (Catalogue no. 89-657-X2020001). Ottawa, ON

Statistics Canada. (2020b). Results from the 2016 Census: Education and labour market integration of Black youth in Canada. (Catalogue no 75-005-X). Ottawa, ON

Statistics Canada. (2021a). Labour market outcomes of journeypersons designated as visible minorities (Catalogue no.81-595-M). Ottawa, ON

Statistics Canada. (2021b). Harassment and discrimination among faculty and researchers in Canada’s postsecondary institutions. (Catalogue no.75-006-X). Ottawa, ON

Statistics Canada. (2021c). Police-reported hate crime in Canada, 2019. (Catalogue no 85-002-X). Ottawa, ON

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Building Community: Introduction to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Copyright © 2022 by University of Guelph is licensed under a Ontario Commons License, except where otherwise noted.

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