The first time I was witness to anti-black racism in Canada I was only eight years old. I had befriended a black boy named Shane in my class. One day, as Shane and I were walking home he told me that every time he goes into the corner tuck shop to buy something, the clerk follows him around the store.
At first, I didn't believe Shane. But, sure enough, the first time we went there together after school, the shop owner never left Shane's side. The second time, he watched Shane like a hawk from behind the counter. The third time, I proposed to Shane that since he gets followed, I would steal some candy because no one would be watching me. For roughly six months I lived a life of crime and Shane and I would giggle uncontrollably as we ate unlimited packs of Twizzlers and Snickers bars.
Last week, when the Ontario government and the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) announced their decision to continue the controversial practice of carding—i.e. racially profiled street stops—with some regulations and to not destroy the data accumulated so far, I thought of Shane.
Officially known as the Community Contacts Policy, carding allows police officers to detain, question, and store personal information about individual people's addresses, height, weight, skin colour, accent etc. into a vast police database; all without arresting the individual.
Toronto Police Service (TPS) says the practice of carding is simply an intelligence gathering initiative and that it does not purposefully target individuals because of their race. However, members of black and other racialized communities testify that they are being targeted simply for the colour of their skin. And after Ontario launched an investigation into the practice, the data collected reaffirmed the communities' assertions that they are disproportionately represented.
The final regulations put into place by the province of Ontario on the practice of carding come into effect on January 1, 2017. After the new year, officers must inform the person of their right to not provide identifying information and they must also provide a reason for requesting the information. The regulations are also very specific citing that the reasons cannot be arbitrary, based on race, or because the person refused to answer a question. Officers must now also offer a document that includes their name and badge number and information on how to contact the office of the Independent Police Review Director if there are concerns about the detainment and questioning.
Similar to the regulations on New York City's "stop and frisk" program, the Ontario Human Rights Commission raised concerns about the practice of carding in 2014. As did NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh, who has been stopped on numerous occasions for no apparent reason. Singh has called for an outright ban on the practice which he says "violates Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
Although new regulations were imposed on the practice, there are also exemptions in place that critics say make the guidelines easy to ignore. Ontario's Community Safety Minister, Yasir Naqvi, who introduced new regulations to the policy, says the exemptions are necessary in order for the police to be able to do their jobs properly.
The exemptions are:
- If the person is legally required to provide information (e.g. during a traffic stop)
- If the person is under arrest or being detained, or when the officer is executing a warrant.
- If complying with a specific aspect of the regulation would compromise an ongoing investigation or compromise safety.
- If the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the interaction is necessary to their investigation of an offence that has been committed or that the officer reasonably suspects will be committed.
This week, a group of black intellectuals, writers, and community organizers issued an open letter to the Province of Ontario and City of Toronto regarding the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) decision to continue carding in communities.
Signatories to the open letter include Canadian writer and Toronto's third Poet Laureate, Dionne Brand, and Rinaldo Walcott, director of the University of Toronto's Women and Gender Studies Institute. The letter asks for an outright ban on the practice and sights the legal implications and the historical detriments it has had on the Black community specifically.
"The new regulations confirm the intention of ongoing, sanctioned intrusion into the lives of Black citizens. If we say that young people are our future, then the clear message that carding and data collection and storage send to young people of African descent is that they have no future in this country. The new regulations signal open season on Black life. This is unacceptable in a multiracial and multicultural society. In fact, carding is an abhorrent practice that mars any claim of a just society in the Province of Ontario and the City of Toronto, let alone the country," reads part of the letter.
Signatory Rinaldo Walcott, who also helped in drafting the letter, spoke to VICE and stressed that the act and practice of carding itself is not something to be reformed, and thus legitimized, in the process.
"We want to make clear that carding is not acceptable to us. We want those responsible for its continuation, even if reformed to know that they have endorsed an anti-black racist policy. We want it on record that black Canadians object strenuously," said Walcott.
Noting the historical connections between modern day carding and slave passes, Walcott does not believe the regulations will protect him from arbitrary detainment and questioning by police.
"That I can be questioned as a black man walking the street, forced to produce identification, have it recorded and stored makes Toronto an open air jail for me. Carding is the late modern passbook. This is no different from the slave pass, the passbook in apartheid South Africa and so on. We should be clear that such behaviour has no place in a modern society," says Walcott.
Provincial or municipal officials have yet to respond to the open letter from the community:
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