Protests are sweeping across the United Sates due to the public murder of African American George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Cities have risen up in response. The federal government and US states and municipalities have responded with tremendous use of force to shut down demonstrations and silence protestors thereby, denying them their First Amendment rights. In my country, one response to the “Floyd Rebellion” is to ask “Could it happen here in Canada?” This question not only underlines Canada’s feigned innocence and ignorance but also its hypocrisy. Police brutality against Blacks happens here—over and over again.
On the international stage, Canada is seen as a site of goodness, politeness, and mercy. As a place where slavery did not exist and racism and anti-Blackness do not occur. Canada is often contrasted to the US, with its racism, police brutality, and cruelty toward Blacks that has its roots in slavery. When Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford noted that race relations in Canada and the US are like “night and day” and that he hopes the US can “straighten out its problems,” he epitomised how Canada continues to ignore its deep-seated structural racism. Ford’s denial of Canada’s anti-Black racism renders our experience of it invisible, whereas police killings constitute part of a steady diet fed to Black Canadians. As I write this, demonstrations against anti-Black racism in Canada are also happening across our county. Yet, these events are rarely noticed, internationally, even though Canada’s historical and contemporary treatment of its Black citizens parallels that of the US.
Canada’s history includes the same institutionalized enslavement of Africans, beginning with its pre-Confederation French and British colonial regimes. Yet slavery has been excised from its historical chronicles and erased from its memory. After legal emancipation in 1834, the shadow of slavery continued to loom over Black lives as Whites re-inscribed an established social order based on White supremacy and Black inferiority. Canada’s racial hierarchy manifested itself in segregated communities, schools, churches, cemeteries, and places of entertainment. In some jurisdictions, Black people were denied the franchise because of the colour of their skin. They likewise faced restricted employment opportunities and were targets of police harassment and unjust court decisions.
Blacks attempting to migrate to Canada faced restrictions from the time it became a country, in 1867, to when its Whites-only policy was lifted in 1962. During that century, Canada re-invented itself as a “White man’s country” and denied racialized people the right to entry. A 1911 federal government order-in-council effectively halted the migration of Black people to Canada. This ended in 1962 but only due to international pressure.
Today, Canada still lives within the shadow of slavery, with its logic of Black inferiority, Black marginalization, and the denial of Black experience and pain. Nowhere is this more evident than in the manifestations of the COVID-19 crisis and in Black people’s often-fatal interactions with police. A disproportionate number of health workers are racialized, Blacks in particular. Personal support workers in long-term care facilities are particularly vulnerable. In Toronto, so far, five of the six Personal Support Workers (PSWs) who died from the virus were African Canadian. Leonard Rodriquez was one such worker. Before he died, he told his wife that the caregivers where he worked did not receive adequate personal protective equipment. He purchased his own. The lack of adequate PPE directly contributed to Rodriquez’s death. Black people are over-represented among COVID-19 fatalities, but as Canada does not collect race-based data, it’s difficult to know for certain what this number is.
Many other occupations in which Blacks and other minorities make up most the workforce are also deemed “essential services,” including janitorial, transportation, postal, sanitation, food delivery, courier, grocery and supermarket work, and meat packers and seasonal migrant farm labourers. These workers are at greater risk of infection and many have died. Alberta’s Cargill meat packing plant is a case in point. Cargill largely employs minority workers and experienced one of North America’s largest outbreaks of COVID-19, with up to 1500 cases. The spread to others is unknown.
The issue of police interaction with Black community members, much of it fatal for the Black people involved, has been a sore point for decades. Police killings of Black men, in particular, have now become normalized. In the past 40-plus years, young Black men, in major Canadian municipalities, have been shot or beaten to death. Toronto is a case in point: in 1976, Toronto police gunned down Albert Johnson, who was mentally ill. Two years later, Toronto police shot and killed Buddy Evans, age 24. In 1988, Lester Donaldson and Michael Wade Lawson lost their lives to Toronto police. Donaldson suffered from schizophrenia, Lawson was 17 years old. In 1989, 23-year-old Sophia Cook was shot and wounded by Toronto police. Other police killings in the Toronto area include the 1990 killing of 16-year-old Marlon Neal and the 1991 killings of 22-year-old Raymond Lawrence and 21-year-old Ian Clifford Coley. Similar killings have occurred in cities across the country. The police have used the same excuse: they thought the victim had a weapon and they felt threatened. In every case, the cops were exonerated, and even if they were charged, these charges were eventually dropped.
Since 2000, many African Canadian men and women have lost their lives in police encounters. Among them, Jermaine Carby, Andrew Loku, Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Duane Christian, O’Brien Christopher-Reid, Ian Pryce, Nicholas Gibbs, Alex Wettlaufer, Jean-Pierre Bony, Eric Osawe, Frank Antony Berry, and Junior Alexander Manon, died in police in jurisdictions across Canada. Police beat Abdirahman Abdi to death in front of his apartment building. D’Andre Campbell was shot and killed in a public park. And on May 27 two days after George Floyd died, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a young Torontonian woman, who was suffering a mental-health episode, “fell” from a 24-storey balcony after her mother called police for help. Once they arrived, they insisted on being left alone with her. Shortly afterward, Regis called out, “Help me Mom, please help me.” A few moments later, her lifeless body was found on the ground.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently analysed data on fatal police encounters with civilians between 2000 and 2017. Researchers revealed that, in Toronto, while Black people make up 8.3 percent of the city’s population, Black men are over-represented in fatal police encounters: close to 40 percent of the 52 persons killed by police during that time. But Canadian jurisdictions don’t keep race-based data, so the racial identities of many persons killed by police remain unknown. We do know that many of these men and women had been mentally ill. Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Michael Eligon, Andrew Loku, and Regis Korchinski-Paquet are just a few.
Protests and demonstrations followed each of these deaths. In 1990, the Black Action Defence Committee’s consistent agitation against police brutality led to the creation of the Special Investigations Unit of Ontario, a civilian watchdog tasked with addressing police shootings and sexual misconduct. Yet the atrocities continue.
Black Canadians are also vastly over-represented in police street checks, racial profiling or “stop and frisk” statistics, particularly in larger municipalities. A recent Toronto Star report notes that an elite police squad, working under the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, stops predominantly non-White people without “reasonable and probable grounds to do so, and demands identification like the South African police used to do under Apartheid.” This operation has documented over one million individuals in a draconian phenomenon called Known to the police.
In 2019, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission examined Halifax Regional Police street-check data for 2006 to 2017. It noted that Black men are 9.2 times more likely than White men to appear in Halifax street-check statistics even though they represent only 1.8% of Halifax’s population. The Black female street-check rate (519 per 1,000) is greater than the rate for White males (481 per 1,000).
Street checks have far-reaching impacts. They affect employment opportunities for Black people and have led to injuries and lost lives. Street checks led to the killings of Jermaine Carby, Junior Alexander Manon, and the wounding of Sophia Cook. This carding treats Blacks like second-class citizenss and has antecedents in Black codes, pass laws, slave laws, and sundown laws—statutes designed to regulate and control Black bodies during and after slavery. It racially profiles Black people and contravenes their rights under Canada’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
In 2017, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent and its Mission to Canada released its investigative report on Black life in Canada. The Report notes that Black Canadians suffer disproportionately from racial profiling, police arrest, incarceration, death from interactions with police who use lethal force, poor health outcomes (high rates of cancer, poor mental health, hypertension, and diabetes), and lack of access to education, employment opportunities and safe, adequate housing. Blacks are also over-represented in child welfare agencies, high school drop-out rates, and are more likely to experience spatial segregation and environmental racism. The UN Report also observed that Black Canadians are the most highly targeted group in Canada when it comes to hate crimes. In 2013, fully 44% of the hate crimes reported to the federal government were directed toward Black individuals.
Anti-Black racism is deeply embedded within Canadian institutions at every level and is manifested in policies and practices that negatively affect the quality of life and life opportunities of African Canadians. The UN Report notes that Black people are among Canada’s poorest as their poverty rate “is more than three times the average for Whites.” The UN Working Group points to the roots of anti-Black racism today as originating in the enslavement of Africans in Canada and the ensuing segregation. It issued a wide-ranging set of recommendations to address almost every aspect of Black life in Canada, placing the onus for carrying them out on our federal government. Five recommendations directly bear on the issues discussed here: The UN recommends that the government i) apologize for slavery and consider reparations for historical injustices; ii) discontinue the practice of street checks and other forms of racial profiling; iii) address anti-Black racism in the criminal justice system; iv) collect data that is disaggregated by race, colour, ethnic background, and national origins; and iv) create a national department of African Canadian Affairs to represent the interests of African Canadians.
The federal government has yet to respond to the UN Working Group’s recommendations. When journalists recently asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau why he has not addressed the dire condition of Black life in Canada by responding to the Report, he replied, “We will continue to work with the Black community on the things we need to do.” The fact is, there is no “continue” as Trudeau has not even begun to respond to the Report. This shows that Canada’s prime minister does not see Black people’s issues or anti-Black racism as important even though the UN clearly delineated these issues. This failure is a continuation of the trampling of Black people’s human rights and a cover up of African Canadians’ traumatic history at the hands of Whites.
Canada’s government can do much to ameliorate the racial issues that the UN Report pointed out. For starters, it has jurisdiction over much of the criminal justice system. In the past two decades, the number Black people incarcerated in federal prisons has increased by 70%, whereas Blacks make up less than 3% of Canada’s population. With the stroke of a pen, the prime minister could abolish racial profiling, halt the massive incarceration of Black people and make better use of these expenditures by investing in the amelioration of Black communities as articulated by National Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh.
Multiculturalism is a cornerstone of Canada’s constitution. Theoretically, within this multicultural frame, all racial, ethnic, and religious groups are “equal before and under the law, and have the right to the equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination.” Yet, Canada’s history of slavery has been swept under the rug, its anti-Black racism continues to be denied, and African Canadians remain second-class citizens.
Afua Cooper, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Slavery in Canada and the Burning of Old Montreal (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2006).
Donald Oliver, “COVID-19 and African Canadians: a festering, unresolved problem,” Hill Times, 18 May 2020.
Trevor Dunn, “In deadly encounters with Toronto police, more than a third of victims are black,” 5 April 2018, CBC online news. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/police-deaths-blacks-data-1.4599215
Wendy Gillis, “How Many black men have been killed by Toronto police? We Can’t know,” Toronto Star, 16 Aug. 2015.
Jim Rankin & Patty Winsa, “Known to police: Toronto Police stop and document black and brown people far more than whites,” Toronto Star, 9 March 2012.
Scott Wortley, Halifax, Nova Scotia: Street Checks Report, https://humanrights.novascotia.ca/sites/default/files/editor-uploads/halifax_street_checks_report_march_2019_0.pdf
UN Human Rights Council’s, Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent and its Mission to Canada. https://ansa.novascotia.ca/sites/default/files/files/report-of-the-working-group-of-experts-on-people-of-african-descent-on-its-mission-to-canada.pdf
Marieke Walsh, “Trudeau won’t say whether Canada will apologize for history of slavery or pay reparations,” Globe and Mail, 2 June 2020.
Catherine McIntyre, “Canada has a Black Incarceration Problem,” Torontoist, 21 April 2016. https://torontoist.com/2016/04/african-canadian-prison-population/
Afua Cooper is a professor of Black history at Dalhousie University, Halifax’s Poet Laureate Emerita, and lead author of the Report on Dalhousie’s History of Slavery and Race.