Da Costa, black history and inclusiveness in Canada

I have high regard for President Barack Hussein Obama. His ascent to the presidency was a magnificent moment in history. As an African-American citizen with a Canadian family, it was a particularly poignant moment for me to actually have been in the U.S. to vote for him.

The Obama campaign for the presidency offered much to admire and learn from. But a very significant aspect of President Obama's victory was his vision for the United States, which was primarily one of inclusiveness. His plea was, and after his second State of the Union address essentially remains, that the fulfillment of a nation's destiny can only be achieved by harnessing the potential of all its people, not just a select few or elite. Whatever else his problems may be, we can learn a lot from this.

As we observe Black History Month it is painful to contrast this with the exclusionary and demonization-of-the-other perspectives are the hallmarks of neo-conservatism in Canada, as well as the U.S. It is hurtful, ugly and divisive.

A leader of a 21st-century democracy is not supposed to be an agent of divisiveness. A national leader is supposed to submerge his or her own "partisanship" in order to steer the ship of state towards a vision-horizon that is inclusive. A national leader is not only supposed to welcome all on board but to demand that all be allowed on board whether such satisfies his/her ideological base or not. A national leader is supposed to be a statesman who, if not in possession of such a positive national vision, tries to broker a national climate in which such a vision may be nurtured.

As one who has struggled for black empowerment, as a father who has raised four so-called "bi-racial" Canadian children to adulthood, as a member of an extended Canadian multi-racial/multi-cultural family, as one who can say with enormous affection that "my kids" -- those of my extended family and my biological children's friends -- are of practically every hue and ethnic background, and as one who knows intimately what it is like to live amongst those considered the lowest of the low in our society, I can say without equivocation that there should never be a Canada in which people of African descent feel abandoned by their government.

Current Canadian federal law-and-order initiatives are akin to pogroms directed against aboriginal, "black" and other "racialized" peoples and poor peoples. There has been no attempt at policy and program creation which identifies and gets at the root causes of crime because the effort is not about crime prevention. It is about attacking and locking away those who are considered the "other" or the "enemy"; those who also happen to be among the most vulnerable and "at risk" in Canadian society. It is effectively an attempt at negative social engineering.

Mississauga has been rated as the safest city in Canada for 11 years in a row! Yet, the Conservative MP representing Mississauga-Erindale, Bob Dechert -- whose caucus colleague Rob Anders is the only Member of Parliament to engage in Apartheid Denial and to call Nelson Mandela a "terrorist" -- dares to attempt to paint a picture of Mississauga as needing a harsh law-and-order agenda, while offering NOTHING by way of crime prevention or restorative justice. This is patently mean-spirited and pushing an agenda of hateful pogroms. I use the word pogroms very carefully. Just a glance at the Don Jail will reveal an inmate population disproportionately comprised of young black men. It is alarming.

Crime in Canada is not as big a problem as poverty, illiteracy, joblessness and alienation; all of which contribute to the breeding of crime. By not addressing social justice issues the federal "law-and-order" agenda is by nature oppressive and the facts bear this out.

Colour of poverty.ca says:

Racial profiling (vehemently denied by Julian Fantino when he was Toronto Police Chief) -- the targeting of racialized persons by policing authorities -- is all too common. For example:

• African-Canadian students in Toronto are four times more likely to be stopped and eight times more likely to be searched than white students in the same places.

• In a large sample of Toronto youth who had no police records, more than 50 per cent of blacks had been searched by police in the previous two years, compared to only eight per cent of whites.

• A study in Kingston showed that police were 3.7 times more likely to stop black people.

• In Ontario, black suspects are 5.5 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured from police use of force than white suspects, and they are 10 times more likely to be shot by police.

African-Canadians represent over 6 per cent of the federal prison population even though they comprise only about 2 per cent of the Canadian population. In Ontario, they make up 14 per cent of the federal offender population but only 3.3 per cent of the provincial population.

The so-called "war on drugs" targets racialized communities. Police focus on low-level street dealers instead of powerful drug lords because it makes for high arrest records and publicity. Many dealers are poor, racialized youth with few opportunities. A study of more than 10,000 arrest records in Toronto showed that:

• Whites arrested on drug charges were more likely than blacks to be released at the scene.

• Blacks were twice as likely as whites to be held overnight for a bail hearing.

• Blacks were much more likely to be charged for offences that could only be detected after being pulled over in traffic by police.

• Research in Toronto shows that white men are less likely to be stopped by police as they grow older and have higher incomes, but these factors make no difference for black men.

"How does the criminal justice system affect and impact racialized communities ?

Is Black History Month a time only for backwards-glancing celebration in Canada?

Or is Black History Month in Canada also an opportunity to learn from the failures, atrocities, positive efforts and triumphs of addressing the racial inequality and racism that plague the real-life experience of too many "blacks" in Canada; and to commit to solving the problems faced by black and "racialized" peoples?

It is recorded that Mathieu Da Costa was the first "black" to set foot in what we now call Nova Scotia in the early 1600s. In 1996 the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien instituted the Mathieu Da Costa Challenge; an essay writing contest to augment the awareness of Black History Month in Canada. It is interesting that Bill C-272, tabled by Liberal MP Marlene Jennings (NDG) to create Mathieu Da Costa Day (Bill C-272 An Act to Establish Mathieu Da Costa Day) appears to be in limbo. Please support the advancement of Bill C-272 so that it becomes law.

Federal initiatives that promote a positive viewpoint of blacks and other "racialized" people in Canada are in keeping with the true Canadian spirit. Such efforts remind us all that the history of Canada is written by Canadians of every hue and that all Canadians ultimately benefit when inclusiveness is central to the goals and policymaking agenda of the government of the day.

Gary Freeman is a Washington, D.C.-based, long-time Canadian resident being denied the right to return to his family in Canada. Despite serving only 28 days in Cook County jail for a 1969 incident in Chicago, and successfully completing two years of probation, Ottawa continues refusing his request to be reunited with his Mississauga family on specious grounds. More info can be found here.

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