For many Canadians, the viral Starbucks video is both shocking and abhorrent. The incident, like the Stephon Clark shooting in Sacramento, sparked broader public discussions about the ongoing ubiquity of racial injustice in the United States. However, for most Canadians, racism in policing continues to be treated as an exclusively American phenomenon. In Canada, discussions around policing of black lives here are sidelined or ignored entirely. While Canada’s global reputation of racial tolerance is a source of national pride, it is accompanied by a reluctance to acknowledge the ongoing injustices faced by black communities here at home.
To those attuned to the realities of race and policing in Canada, the Starbucks incident is an all-too-familiar reminder of the violent police killing of Abdirahman Abdi in the summer of 2016, which originated in a coffee shop in Ottawa, Ontario. According to witness accounts reported in the Ottawa Citizen, Abdi, a black Somali man with mental health issues, was pepper-sprayed and brutally beaten by Ottawa police officers. According to multiple accounts, they continued to beat him after he was handcuffed. They knelt on his head as he lay on the ground. One of the officers involved, Constable Daniel Montsion, was later charged with manslaughter.
Despite official denials by police forces, the racial injustice so frequently decried in police killings in Canada cannot be chalked up to mere misunderstandings. A study released a few weeks ago by CBC News uncovered that police killings disproportionately impact black communities, particularly in Toronto, where black people make up 8.3 percent of the population but 36.5 percent of police fatalities. To little fanfare, a report published in fall 2017 by the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent concluded that Canada’s black population experiences “endemic” racial discrimination by law enforcement. Encounters often escalate “into police violence, resulting in injuries and even deaths” of black Canadians.
Many Canadians might recognize the names of Eric Garner and Philando Castile. But Abdirahman Abdi, Andrew Loku, Bony Jean-Pierre and Pierre Coriolan, all black men killed by law enforcement in Canada in recent years, are far from household names — even though sizable protests occurred in the days and weeks after each of their deaths.
Similarly to the United States, racism in Canadian policing does not begin and end with violent encounters and loss of life. Racially biased policing occurs within a broader continuum of injustices from police stops to arrests. For instance, despite relatively similar rates of drug use across racial groups, a recent report by Rachel Browne for Vice News found that across multiple cities, both black men and women have been significantly over-represented in cannabis arrests between 2015 and the first half of 2017. Black women, too, have experienced physical and sexual violence by police. In the past 10 years, racially disproportionate police stops have been documented in cities across the country, including Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Kingston, Ottawa, Edmonton and Lethbridge. For many black people in Canadian cities, profiling is a daily reality. As long as black people are seen as suspect, they will be less able to move freely through public spaces — whether driving, walking or just living.
The refusal to acknowledge the crisis in policing and race in Canada is not only a negation of present-day realities but also an erasure of history. Canadians are largely aware of the history of slavery and segregation in the United States, but they have comparably less knowledge of these realities in the Canadian context, despite the fact that slavery existed in pre-Confederation Canada for more than 200 years. Disproportionate arrests and incarceration impacted black communities throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Historian Constance Backhouse uncovered police support for cross-burnings and other acts of racial hostility by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and 1930s. Furthermore, although police killings have nearly doubled in the past 20 years, police killings of black civilians in Canada are far from a solely contemporary issue. In 1946, a black Nova Scotia man was shot in the back by police after being pulled over for driving without a license. Black activists in Toronto have been drawing attention to police killings dating to the 1970s, after the deaths of Buddy Evans and Albert Johnson in Toronto.
Here in Canada, the belief that racism is an exclusively American phenomenon continues to be widespread. But it is urgent that we address the crisis in the policing of black communities right here at home.