No Safe Haven
Canada’s reputation as a multicultural idyll masks the reality of racial discrimination
IN TORONTO, THE MOTHER OF29-YEAR-OLD Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who had Black, Indigenous and Ukrainian heritage, called police for help with a family conflict two days after George Floyd’s May 25 murder in Minneapolis, Minn. The officers went into the apartment and, from the hallway, she heard Regis calling, “Mom, help,” before she fell to her death from the 24th-floor balcony.
In Kinngait, Nunavut, a bystander recorded a video on June 1 of an RCMP officer dooring an allegedly inebriated Inuk man as he drove up to him, knocking him to the ground.
Since the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December, anti-Asian hate crimes have been on the rise across the country, and Vancouver police were investigating 29 cases by the end of May, compared to four in the same time period the year before.
As riots and protests escalated in the United States over Floyd’s death at the hands of four police officers, one of whom knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, Canadians have joined the chorus of voices calling for an end to racism and violence against Black, Indigenous and other racial minorities, especially police brutality. For them, it reawakened traumatic memories of every encounter they’d ever had with police, clicking through them like a slideshow, thinking, “That could have been me.”
It could have been Santina Rao, a 23-year-old Black mom who was shopping with her two young children at a Halifax Walmart on Jan. 15, when she was stopped and accused of shoplifting. She had a $90 receipt for an electronics purchase with her and a head of lettuce, two lemons and a grapefruit under the stroller that she was going to pay for on the way out. When police asked her for identification and her address, she got defensive because she believed she was being racially profiled. One hit her in the face, according to her account published in the Halifax Examiner, and three more tackled her to the ground. She became even more agitated when she
couldn’t see her daughter. That’s when she says the cop who had a knee on her neck said, “Tighten the cuffs on her. She’s a feisty b****.” Rao says she “suffered a broken wrist, concussion and abrasions” in the melee, and one police officer pulled her up by her injured wrist before hauling her off to the police station.
After the Crown dropped all three charges – causing a disturbance, bodily harm to a peace officer and resisting arrest – against Rao on July 7, she planned to register a formal complaint against three police officers and launch a civil action suit against the city and Walmart. “I am worth RESPECT,” Rao writes. “My skin colour does not give others the right to walk all over me and treat me as though my life is second class.”
El Jones, a community activist, journalist and Mount Saint Vincent University professor who covered the story for the Examiner, says Rao’s case is all the more disturbing because it came less than two months after Halifax police chief Dan Kinsella apologized to the Black community for “all those times you were mistreated, victimized and revictimized.” The apology was prompted by an independent report from criminologist Scot Wortley, whose March 2019 findings showed Black Haligonians were six times more likely than whites to be stopped by police officers for street checks. Also known as carding, police use the practice to collect and record everything from ethnicity, gender, age and location on people in case it is relevant to future investigations. The practice was banned in Halifax in October, and the apology came in November.
“[Rao] says they knelt on her neck, like she had abrasions on her neck,” says Jones. “So one of the things she talks about is what happened to George Floyd. They did it to her. And she could have died.”
Jones is tired of repeating herself, tired of having the same conversations about racism and tired of people talking about apologies and reparations, as if that will wipe out Canada’s 200-year history of enslavement, genocide, subjugation, blatant discrimination and knees on the neck. As if it will right a million wrongs.
“Canada loves to act innocent all the time,” she said. “So Canada’s all shocked anew at every new discussion of racism.”
As Montreal author, activist and educator Robyn Maynard, who wrote the 2017 book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada From Slavery to the Present, told CBC’s Power & Politics in June, one of the reasons racism is so persistent in Canada is because of the perception that we are a safe haven of racial tolerance.
Indeed, two prominent white political pundits – Rex Murphy writing in the National Post and Stockwell Day on CBC’s Power & Politics – argued in June that racism does not exist in Canada, with Day comparing it to the teasing he received as a child who wore glasses.
Once again, Canadians watched the conversation turn from racial profiling and police brutality to a more general subject: is there racism in Canada?
Becauseofthewayweconsumenews,manyofusknow the names and stories of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, but as Toronto activist and journalist Desmond Cole told the CBC in June, “We can’t wait for the Americans in order for us to talk about ourselves.
“We have to stop pivoting from America and then saying, ‘What about Canada,” said Cole, who published The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power this year. “We have to look into our own communities.”
Here are the names, all people of colour, you should know who died in the presence of police this year alone: Jamal Francique in Mississauga, Ont.; Jason Collins in Winnipeg; Regis KorchinskiPaquet in Toronto; Eishia Hudson in Winnipeg; Stewart Kevin Andrews in Winnipeg; D’Andre Campbell in Brampton, Ont., Chantel Moore in Edmundston, N.B., Rodney Levi in Miramichi, N.B.;andEjazAhmedChoudry
in Mississauga, Ont.
Levi, a 48-year-old member of the Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation near Miramichi, N.B., was shot and killed by an RCMP officer on June 12, the same day RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki admitted that systemic racism existed in the police force, walking back her public refusal two days before.
Twelve days later, Crown prosecutorsinFortMcMurray,Alta.,dropped charges of resisting arrest and assaulting an officer against Athabasca Chipewyan chief Allan Adam.Dash-camvideofromaRCMP car showed a police officer tackling
Adam and punching him in the head outside a casino in March, an incident that started over an expired licence plate.
RACISM IS A REALITY
When the non-profit Canadian Race Relations Foundation commissioned Toronto-based Environics Institute to survey more than 3,000 Canadians in April and May 2019 from all ethnic backgrounds on perceptions of racial discrimination and the state of race relations in Canada, it proved, without a doubt, that racism was a reality in modern Canada.
Not only did more than half of the Black and Indigenous respondents say they had personally experienced racism either regularly or from time to time, but about half of Black and Indigenous people reported others had treated them as less than smart and with suspicion in the past 12 months.
All ethnic groups, including whites, believed Indigenous, Black and South Asian people either often or occasionally experience racism.
“Yes, it exists in Canada is the first [conclusion]. The second is that it’s generally recognized that it happens, even if the full scope of it is not fully appreciated,” said Environics senior associate Keith Neuman. “And there are very, very few Canadians, even white Canadians, who say it’s not a problem at all.”
After collecting age-related data, Neuman said there was no appreciable difference in the perspective of millennials, gen-Xers and baby boomers.
A HISTORY OF INACTION
The frustration of Canadian protesters comes from the long history of racism and decades of government inaction or lip service.
As a 2017 United Nations Human Rights Council report noted, slavery existed in Canada from the 1500s until it was abolished in 1834. Even though Canada was seen as a safe haven for African-Americans escaping slavery through the Underground Railroad, this country was far from an idyllic sanctuary.
After slavery ended, Black Canadians faced decades of discrimination, not to mention segregation in schools, work places and in housing, as well as in some restaurants and movie theatres.
Viola Desmond, the Nova Scotia woman whose face graces our $10 bill, was arrested and dragged out of a theatre in New Glasgow in handcuffs in 1946 after she dared sit on the main floor, which was reserved for whites, because she was short-sighted and couldn’t see from the balcony. She was fined $26 for “evading” the one-cent difference between a balcony and floor seat and died without any acknowledgement that she was subjected to racial discrimination. The pardon from Nova Scotia’s lieutenant-governor came in 2010 45 years after her death.
The conversation about anti-Black racism, like the one around murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls that prompted a national inquiry and returned a finding of genocide in June 2019, has been going on for years and makes headlines every time there is another senseless death, another hate crime, another blatant instance of racism.
Black Canadians are still waiting for the federal government’s response to the UN report, which had dozens of recommendations, including an apology to Canadians of African descent and paying reparations “for enslavement and historical injustices.”
Portrait of George Floyd by Paul GlynWilliams, Graffiti Alley, Toronto
Santina Rao at York Deboubt in Halifax, June 2020
Portrait of Regis Korchinski-Paquet by Adrian Hayles, Graffiti Alley, Toronto
Portrait of Jamal Francique by Bubzlitto Brigante, Graffiti Alley, Toronto
People walk to honour Rodney Levi in Red Bank, N.B., June 19, 2020