Canada Has a Race Problem and We Refuse to Talk About It

The response to the police beating death of Abdirahman Abdi shows how far we'll go to avoid talking about race.

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Jul 27 2016, 8:48pm

The Ottawa Police Association is denying Abdirahman Abdi's death at the hands of several officers Sunday had anything to do with race.

Abdi died after, according to witness accounts, cops pepper sprayed him, hit him with batons, and punched him in the head and neck. Afterward, he lay facedown on pavement handcuffed and bleeding for several minutes until paramedics arrived on scene and administered CPR.

"To suggest that race was an issue in this, it's inappropriate. The officers were called to the scene. The officers had to attend. Race, in this case, is a fact, just like your age, your gender, your height. It doesn't have anything to do with our ... decision-making. Our decision-making is based on our training, and our training has nothing to do with race," Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association told the CBC Monday, adding it's "unfortunate" that racially charged "rhetoric" from the US is making its way across the border.

That conversation, he said, is "not one that's applicable here."

Where have we heard this before?

Oh right. Just a few months ago, after Black Lives Matter Toronto camped outside of Toronto police headquarters for two weeks in protest of systemic racism, the city's police association head Mike McCormack dismissed their concerns outright.

"When people are shouting rhetoric about people being murdered by the police, tortured, and beaten every day, I don't see how that's a debate… Are those legitimate concerns? I would say no," he told VICE at the time. "So far I haven't seen anything that indicates they want to have a meaningful discussion around this… I'm really not interested in taking part in a discussion around that but I'm definitely interested in taking part in discussions that are factually and evidence-based."

A memorial set up for Abdirahman Abdi. Canadian Press/Justin Tan

Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne downplayed her admission that systemic racism exists, by later clarifying that she was not referring to policing. Toronto Mayor John Tory, in the aftermath of the BLMTO Pride protest, expressed his support for cops and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson—after two days of silence on Abdi's death—said "it is always concerning when a life is lost in our city, and my thoughts are with Mr. Abdi's family and friends during this difficult time." Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, has said absolutely nothing on the subject of anti-black racism.

These responses show a complete lack of willingness to even entertain the idea that race could be a factor in how police conduct themselves. But a post-racial utopia Canada is not.

The "evidence-based" discussion McCormack claims he's seeking is harder to have when literally no agency in the country keeps tabs on how many black people are killed by police, though anecdotally, the deaths of Sammy Yatim, Andrew Loku, Jermaine Carby, and others at the hands of cops illustrate a disturbing trend in the way force is administered on people of colour. Here's what else we know: black men in Toronto are three times more likely to be "carded" or arbitrarily stopped by police than anyone else, regardless of where they live; only three percent of the general population is black, but black Canadians make up ten percent of the prison population, while in the last decade, the number of black Canadians in jail has risen by 70 percent; and high school graduation rates, income levels, and foster care rates are all heavily skewed along racial lines.

So, in the context of a national dialogue, at what point does "waiting for the facts to come in" become willful denial?

Abdirahman Abdi's name was absent from the front pages of all three of Canada's national dailies this morning—the Star, the Globe and Mail, and the National Post. Online, few headlines make note of that fact that he was a black man beaten and likely killed by police, or even use the term "racism."

In the US, coverage around police brutality is inescapable and focuses almost exclusively on race.

But that didn't happen overnight. Fuelled by outrage over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and many others, movements like Black Lives Matter made it impossible for anyone to ignore present-day, state-enforced racism.

These types of conversations are uncomfortable, but it's no longer an acceptable alternative to avoid them altogether.

After the shooting death of black Minnesotan man Philando Castile during a traffic stop, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, who is white, asked, "Would this have happened if the driver were white, if the passengers were white?... I don't think it would have."

President Barack Obama said, "When incidents like this occur, there's a big chunk of our citizenry that feels as if, because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same, and that hurts, and that should trouble all of us."

Aside from RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, who has admitted dealing with racists in his force is crucial in addressing Canada's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis, there aren't a lot of people at the top here speaking that way.

But our tendency to pretend the racism we see in the US doesn't exist here doesn't make these problems go away. It simply erases the experience of those who know otherwise.

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.