​Halifax Police Chief Claims His Officers Are Feeling the 'Ferguson Effect'

Activists are angry that Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais seems to be downplaying the role of racism in Canadian policing.
September 28, 2016, 8:38pm

Halifax Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais. Photo via The Canadian Press

Activists in Halifax are unhappy after the chief of police suggested systematic racism within policing is not as bad in Canada as it is in the United States and claimed that "perception" has been created by social media.

"Racism isn't imported here," said El Jones, activist, professor, and the city's poet laureate. "It's not an American issue we're just adopting. It's organic here."

She was responding to comments made last week by Chief Jean-Michel Blais who, in a speech before the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, blamed the "Ferguson effect" for changing perceptions of cops in Canada.

"Even when US law enforcement has issues, we, in Canada, even here in Halifax, end up wearing them," Chief Blais told the crowd, arguing that those perceptions often have "no basis in fact."

"There are all these concerns that police officers are out there shooting people with the same regularity in Canada as in the States," he added in an interview with VICE News. "And that's not the case."

But according to Jones, that fact alone offers little insight into a "long history" of racism within the city's police force.

"Police brutality is not an event," Jones said. "It's a continuum, it's a constant presence in people's lives.

"Poverty is violence, over-policing is violence, mass incarceration is violence, and when you're a racialized person, you experience that constantly at the hand of the state," said Jones. "You can't discount that and say, well, there's no police shootings, therefore it's not an issue. We shouldn't need a large event, like a shooting, to draw attention to it."

Read more: Racial bias found in 'every stage' of Baltimore policing

African Nova Scotians make up just two percent of the province's population, but represent 14 percent of adult inmates in Nova Scotia, with that number climbing to 16 percent for young offenders, according to documents obtained by the province's NDP caucus.

And although Chief Blais argued the numbers prove the problem is not nearly as bad in Canada, there are no complete nation-wide statistics on deaths at the hands of police.

Last year, a VICE News investigation found it was impossible to determine how many people are shot and killed each year by cops in Canada overall, let alone get a racial breakdown of that data. While some forces publish statistics on use of force, they usually include little information about the number of deaths or injury, or the background of the victims.

Some numbers were available though — the RCMP, for example, told VICE News last August that 28 people had been shot and killed by officers between 2010 and 2014, with dozens more being injured. Over the same 4-year-period, the police watchdog in Ontario reported 39 fatal shootings in Ontario — 6 of those were in the 2014-2015 period. In B.C., 10 people were shot and killed between mid-2012 to mid-2015, though RCMP officers may have been behind some of those shootings.

Data from police forces in other provinces was significantly less accessible, with most directing VICE News to annual reports on their websites, which were inconsistent in what they disclosed.

According "The Counted," an initiative by the Guardian to track police shootings in the US, 800 people have been fatally shot by cops in the U.S. so far this year. The total last year was 1,146.

Nova Scotia has had experience with racism within its police force. In 2004, former Halifax police chief Frank Beazley apologized to professional heavyweight boxer Kirk Johnson, admitting that an officer "acted on a stereotype" against him, after a human rights inquiry ruled that he'd had been discriminated against in a 1998 incident when was pulled over and his car was seized by a cop.

In 1997, a black judge acquitted a black boy who was arrested by a white police officer for allegedly interfering with the arrest of another youth. In a historic ruling, the judge noted that "police officers had been known to mislead the court in the past, that they had been known to overreact particularly with non-white groups."

Halifax's strained relationship with its black population goes back more than a century. Next month, former residents and descendants of the Halifax community of Africville — a small community originally founded by black loyalists at the turn of the 20th century — are taking the city to the province's highest court, in hopes they'll be compensated for the land they lost when the community was demolished and its residents forcibly relocated. Homes, businesses, and a church were bulldozed as part of a process the city called "slum clearance."

And activists say there are still changes that need to be made.

In 2015, the Halifax police force defended the use of random street checks, claiming the stops are based on suspicion, not race, although no statistics breaking the data down by race were available.

Blais said he'd received a "biting' email from a university professor who wanted to know what the Halifax police were doing to protect black residents after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were shot and killed in July — in Minnesota and Baton Rouge.

"The next day, five Dallas police officers were killed," he added in his speech. "I never answered the e-mail."

And while there's been no fatal shootings involving police in Halifax in the last nine years, high-profile cases in other cities, like that of Abdirahman Abdi in Ottawa and Andrew Loku in Toronto, have spurred a cross-country movement against police brutality.

Toronto's chapter of Black Lives Matter has been fighting for greater transparency of investigations into police shootings in Canada, as well as statistical breakdowns of victims by race—no concrete numbers are available as of right now for how many black people have died in interactions with Canadian cops, and attempts to collect them have only resulted in partial pictures.

Even in Halifax, where the police force was recently recognized for being more diverse than the community it serves, activists say issues like being profiled while driving and harassment of young black men persist in the city.

"I still don't feel like I'm reflected," Quentrel Provo, a Halifax-based anti-violence activist who has been pushing for officers to engage black communities while they're not in uniform.

"You have to earn that trust."

Blais acknowledges that more can be done to improve relations between police and Halifax's black residents.

Over the next 10 years the force's strategy will include more outreach and dialogue with civilians.

"People are being skeptical overall when it comes to government authority, so we have to explain things more, and we're ready to take on that challenge," he said.

"What I say to people is be skeptical, absolutely, just don't be cynical. Cynicism cuts off any rational discussion about the facts."

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