THE SKIN WE’RE IN
CHARLES OFFICER, 90TH PARALLEL PRODUCTIONS, 2017
The first step in confronting anti-blackness in Canada is to dispel the perennial myth that, relative to America, it does not exist here. In the documentary The Skin We’re In, screened on CBC Firsthand, journalist and activist Desmond Cole teams up with director Charles Officer to, as Cole puts it, “draw a straight line from the history of our struggle in this country to today.”
The film is framed around Cole’s critically acclaimed 2015 Toronto Life essay, “The Skin I’m In,” an exposé of rampant anti-black profiling and carding practices by Canadian police. “240 years of history tells me that I’m not wanted here,” Cole says in the film, as he seeks out hidden information and listens and relates to his subjects’ narratives about how anti-blackness affects the minutiae of their lived experiences and their intergenerational trauma. Cole’s journey takes him across the country—from his local Toronto barbershop to his birthplace of Red Deer, Alberta, to visit an African immigrant family on their one-year anniversary in Canada. He returns to Ferguson, Missouri, where the non-indictment of the policeman who murdered unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 instigated protests. Cole describes participating in those protests as the pivotal point in his journalism, when his activism became unapologetic.
In a particularly profound scene in the film, Brown’s friends take Cole to the intact traces of a former slave auction block and lynching site. Together, they memorialize Brown and countless other victims of anti-black police brutality, known and unknown, over Brown’s memorial plaque.
Cole introduces us to the core members of Black Lives Matter – Toronto and their response to Toronto police fatally shooting Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old father of five, in the hallway of his apartment within seconds of seeing him holding a hammer. He shows us footage of BLM – TO disrupting a police services board meeting during which police mishandling of the evidence is debated a year after the chief of police refused to release the murderer’s name.
Cole says this is evidence of a police culture that resents Black people and denies the systemic racism in policing, even though “97 per cent of officers are cleared by the [Special Investigations Unit].” He adds that while, “since 1990, at least 35 per cent of people fatally shot by police since 1990 are Black men,” they tend to be seen as the threat rather than the subject of crisis. “What is this perfect victim that everybody needs before it’s murder in the first degree?” Cole implores when he visits Loku’s grieving sister in suburban Saskatoon.
He visits the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, where the first race riot was recorded a year after the Black Loyalists arrived in 1783 and set up the largest free Black settlement in North America. Panels in the centre document Black slavery in Canada, a part of history that Cole asserts many Canadians are unaware of, despite its profound impact on the standing of Black people living in cities across Canada today.
In a lecture, Canadian parliamentary poet George Elliott Clarke links the policing of Black people to the history of restricting slaves’ freedom of movement. It’s crucial to understand how oppressors still get away with marginalizing Black people, he says. Brush up on history, he urges, because if you understand history nobody can lie to you. “The knowledge of history is dangerous. The knowledge of history is radical,” he says. This resistance to the persistence of amnesia is precisely Cole’s starting point for his unravelling and unsettling of the quintessentially Canadian narrative of tolerance. An unfortunate glance at the comments on the CBC page streaming the documentary is a testament to the dire need for the rallying cry that The Skin We’re In issues. —MERRAY GERGES