Over the past few weeks, we've seen tens of thousands of Canadians take to the streets to protest police brutality, the prime minister repeatedly declare systematic racism a scourge, and the media make heartfelt promises that they’re going to act on newsroom inequality.
But we've also seen the top cop in this country deny systematic racism exists while her officers killed yet another Indigenous person. We’ve seen a leading newspaper say Canada is post-racism, while many on social media smugly point to quieter protests north of the border as a signal that our problems are somehow lesser.
The longstanding subtext that Canada has fewer issues with racism than the United States is a fallacy, one not borne of facts, past or present.
As a critical race scholar and the author of a book on Indigenous deaths in custody in Canada, I have received my share of comments from readers expressing disbelief that policing is as violent as I show it to be for Canada. As a Canadian of Caribbean origin who is now living in the United States (I have lived in Canada for 50 years), I have grown tired of the haters and have little patience for the smugness of Canadians who believe that they are so much less racist than Americans.
As we congratulate ourselves on our solidarity with protesters, let us pause and think of the police killings of Black and Indigenous peoples that happen so often in Canada and the specific histories that give rise to them. In the past few weeks alone, 16-year-old Eishia Hudson, an Indigenous girl in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was shot by police who were responding to a liquor store robbery. On June 4, Chantel Moore, a member of the Tia-0-qui-aht Nation, was shot by Edmunston, New Brunswick police, and on Friday, Rodney Levi of the Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation was also shot by RCMP members responding to a standard “unwanted person at a residence” call.
As with all such shootings, both in Canada and the U.S., the police and legal narrative of choice is a simple one: “I felt a fear and a threat and had no option but to shoot.”
Where does all of this racial violence come from? Too many like to think that Canada was settled peacefully and that we were merely misguided about residential schools. After all, we have had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Dozens of inquests and inquiries over the years have documented Indigenous death and dying. From the Cariboo-Chilcoten Justice Inquiry to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal peoples, Indigenous Canadians have not hesitated to provide evidence that they are targeted for death and are hunted daily by police. The same has been true for Black Canadians when they are given a chance to put their views on the record, as they did to the Ontario Commission on Systemic Racism.
The Canadian legal process of choice, the inquest, and its cousin, the inquiry, typically blames those who died in police custody for their own deaths.
Don’t slip into an easy Canadian innocence and outrage about police killings in the U.S. Don’t say you didn’t know. Know that in Vancouver, Frank Paul, a Mi'kmaq man was unable to walk the night he encountered police in 1998. He was dragged by police to an alley on a cold, wet night and left to die, a British Columbia version of Saskatchewan’s freezing deaths where police drop off Indigenous peoples outside the city leaving them to walk back in subzero temperatures without adequate clothing. Paul Alphonse, a Secwepemc man, died in a Williams Lake, B.C. hospital in police custody in 2000 with the print of a boot on his chest and several ribs broken.
A host of Indigenous men and women from B.C. and Saskatchewan, arrested for drunkenness, have died in jail, calling out for help that always comes too late, if it comes at all. Anthany Dawson, a member of the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Nation who suffered a mental health episode, died in Victoria in 1999, unable to breathe after he was restrained and “hog-tied” by police.
Dawson’s death, and the deaths of so many other Indigenous and Black Canadians, did not bring Canadians out to protest on the streets. In fact, the Canadian legal process of choice, the inquest, and its cousin, the inquiry, typically blames those who died in police custody for their own deaths. Inquests speak ill of the dead, dissecting the state of the livers and minds of Indigenous peoples but not the state of white indifference to Indigenous suffering.
In all of these cases of Indigenous and Black death in custody, inquests and inquiries have concluded that no one is to blame, that Indigenous peoples, like Black people, are simply a hard to manage population with too many pre-existing medical conditions including a strange propensity to die in custody. An inquest concluded that Dawson’s death was accidental and brought on by an aggravated delirium complicated by a presumed genetic abnormality.
Structural racism does exist and it kills, no less in Canada than in the United States. At this critical moment, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “serious questions” about the violent arrest of Athabaska Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, repeatedly punched in the head by an officer stopping him for vehicle registration, are not enough. It is time to dismantle an institution designed to transform traffic stops into colonial encounters of the fatal kind. Let someone else handle the problems police are apparently meant to solve.
Policing of the settler colonial kind has run its course. As the Black Lives Matter movement has made clear, the problem is not police brutality but policing, an institution set up to protect white interests and to consider those interests best protected through an endless and intrinsically brutal surveillance of Black people, Indigenous peoples, and all racialized groups. Given the structural role of the police in sustaining white supremacy, the answers cannot be found in reform.
BLM’s calls to defund the police and to invest instead in the health and well-being of Black communities apply just as much to Canada as to the United States. In both white settler countries, Black and Indigenous peoples have called for an end to systemic racism, understanding that policing has its foundations in Indigenous dispossession and slavery.
What does it mean to defund police and to end systemic racism? First, to move beyond outrage and take substantive steps, renouncing ties with law enforcement agencies and cutting police budgets, redirecting funds to those better able to deal with problems such as mental illness and the deep poverty that brings so many Indigenous, Black, and racialized people into contact with police. As anti-criminalization organizer Mariame Kaba put it so well in the New York Times, abolishing the police means literally abolishing the police. While we’re at it, reparations and ending the theft of Indigenous land and resources would be a fine start.
Sherene H. Razack is a distinguished professor and the Penny Kanner Endowed Chair in Gender Studies, UCLA. She is the author of Dying from Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody.