What Canadians are learning from Ferguson

Photo: flickr/Rebel Sage

The discourse surrounding the announcements that the police officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY will not be facing indictments is not something that can be framed as though we are speaking of isolated events.

It also cannot be, as is so often done, from a place of "us" vs. "them."

Too often Canadians rationalize our issues by saying that, "it's okay -- because we are not America." Playing identity politics with the crux of our identity being about not being tolerant -- just tolerant relative to the U.S. has created an environment wherein complacency is easy and activism and striving for social change is difficult. Because of this, we are having our own dialogue-turned-heated-debates on racism's place in this country.

Internationally, Canada is known to be a welcoming and accepting nation -- Toronto is constantly being referred to as one of the most multicultural cities on the planet. Aside from good PR, we must ask ourselves how many variables are at play here.

These conversations about race relations in Canada are sparking the question: "Do Black communities have similar experiences of racism in Canada?"

The answer is: yes.

Prompted by the no indictment announcements, demonstrations in Toronto and Ottawa have sparked bigger conversations about racism and white privilege by asking white and non-Black people of colour to stand at the side or at the back of the rallies.

Black communities have been vocalizing their frustrations with the consistent trends of police brutality and violence against them. However, some anti-police brutality protests in Canada have been shut down and declared illegal.

Looking at trends not only in the U.S. but in Canada as well, shows us that what we are witnessing is not an isolated incident. As time progresses the recent conversations prompted by Ferguson are becoming even more personal and closer to home; shifting away from relative moral superiority and closer to reality. 

However, discussions of institutional racism and police violence against Black communities are difficult to have in a country that is always touting itself as being 'multicultural and accepting'. Canadians are always reminded that our country is this way, not just because of a supposed peculiar Canadian mindset, but because we went as far as to adopt 'multiculturalism' as an official policy in 1971.

Institutional inequalities are of course, not limited to Black communities. The history of the oppression of Indigenous peoples is ingrained into Canada's history and identity.

Attempting to control Indigenous status, education and resources by implementing the Indian Act (1876) and later physically removing children for the purpose of isolating and resocializing them in Residential Schools has had numerous residual effects such as persistent poverty, lack of adequate housing, lack of access to quality health care, lack of access to food and safe drinking water and violent relations with law enforcement and the judicial system.

As conversations continue, Canada is slowly coming to the realization that law enforcement have histories of unfriendly relations with Black communities in this country as well. This is caused by not only a systemic divide, but a re-writing of history wherein we view ourselves as the contributors.

In our history classes we learn of Canada being a land that American slaves sought after. However, we don't learn about early colonial settlements of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, New France (Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario) allowing and even encouraging slavery.

Even as recently as the 1990s, a poll by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association found that 83 per cent of Canadians were not aware that slavery had been a practice in pre-Confederation Canada. And, of course, that disparity in power has had lasting effects. 

Economically, studies show that Black people make, on average, less money than white people do in this country. A 2006 Census data suggests that 75 per cent of the Black population in Toronto are first generation, with 22 per cent being second generation and three per cent being third generation.

And, the gaps in wealth between immigrants and settled communities are the largest in big cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal with a wage gap of approximately 26 per cent.

These conditions have created distrust between Black communities and Canada's institutions -- law enforcement being one of them.

In 2010, the family of 25 year old Reyal Jardine-Douglas called the police to get Reyal, who suffered from mental illnesses, admitted to the hospital. After a confrontation with police, Reyal was shot dead. In a statement it was noted that he, "was not exhibiting any violent behaviours at the time."

Sadly, there have been countless other people of colour fatally shot by Canadian law enforcement while unarmed.

In addition, racial profiling has caused a proposed $125-million class-action lawsuit against the Peel Police Department and a $100-million class action lawsuit by the Black Action Defense Committee against the Toronto Police Department for their ongoing discrimination and harassment based on race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, citizenship, ethnic origin and age.

Moreover, since 2000 there has been a 52 per cent increase in Black offenders in Canada's federal system.

Although standing in solidarity with Ferguson, with the families of victims such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner is imperative, shifting our attention to Canada and having conversations about institutional barriers and the policing of bodies here is important as well. It is necessary because not only is there injustice in this country -- but we owe it to those who have been and continue to be affected by it to talk about it and mobilize against it.

The anger and disappointment caused by injustices can be and is productive, but only if we look at bigger systems at play. And, only if we discontinue rationalizing our flawed systems because we see them as "good" relative to other nations.

The events we are witnessing in U.S. and Canada, are not mistakes -- they are products of a flawed and faulty policing and judicial system.

Ashley Splawinski is a student at the University of Toronto. Previously, Ashley worked as a producer and host of News Now on CHRY 105.5 FM covering Canadian social, political, and environmental issues. In addition to Rabble, her writing has appeared in the American publications: Young Progressive Voices and iAcknowledge. You can visit her personal blog www.lionpolitics.tumblr.com and follow her on twitter @asplawinski. 

Photo used with permission from Rebel Sage.

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