Canadian Art - - Reviews -

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

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