Last month, a woman named Nikki Samuels walked into a clinic in Mississauga, Ontario with her child and demanded to see a white doctor. She became belligerent and began shouting that she wanted to see someone who "speaks English" and "doesn't have brown teeth." As she continued to harass the staff in the waiting room, others began to confront the woman about her racist and erratic behaviour and of course, someone began to film the incident. The video went viral and was serious enough to garner reaction from the province's premier.
Peel Regional Police were called to the scene in response to reports of a disturbance and confirmed that they did not lay any charges as no threats were made. As it turns out, Samuels is no stranger to hurling racial epithets. CTV News reported that a year ago, a neighbour called police to report that Samuels was yelling racial slurs at children and being confrontational. Again, the police declined to lay any charges. Although causing a disruption in public is certainly a punishable offence, being a racist in public is not.
Even when people are killed, there is a hesitation on the part of law enforcement to label a death a hate crime. This past week, Barbara Kentner, an Indigenous woman from Thunder Bay, died from her injuries resulting from an incident in which a trailer hitch was thrown at her from a moving car. The family has repeatedly called this a hate crime and while police claimed they were looking into laying such charges at the time, they ended up only charging the 18-year-old suspect with aggravated assault.
This comes after Thunder Bay police have been under fire for their investigations into the death of three Indigenous people, with First Nation leaders demanding the RCMP take over the cases.
There are numerous recent cases of police standing by idly in response to incidents of hate. Last month, anti-Islam protesters gathered outside of John Fraser Secondary School in Mississauga. Things got heated between the protesters and students who were passing by, but ultimately nothing violent occurred. Parents, worried that the situation could escalate, have been calling on police to do more, but Peel Police said that the protestors are well within their rights to protest.
While it is true that protesters have the right to protest, police services have been unequal when it comes to respecting these rights. On June 3, a group called the Organizing Committee Against Islamophobia (OCAI) planned to hold a rally against Islamophobia at Nathan Phillips Square. When they got there, Toronto Police officers told them they were not permitted to use the space as they did not have a permit for their sound system. They pointed to the fact that another concurrent rally taking place and that city bylaws prohibited two events with sound systems to take place at once. Organizers from OCAI though point to the fact that a month earlier, neo-Nazi supporters found themselves in a similar situation and yet were not disturbed by the police.
One thing is clear; the police will not protect us from the rising threat of white supremacists. Last month, VICE reported on the presence of a new armed anti-Islamic "patriot group" known as the Three Percent in Alberta. When asked to comment about the group, the Royal Mounted Canadian Police, initially denied knowledge of their existence, and then pressed later, issued a brief statement acknowledging the group, but not going much farther than that. It seems unlikely that a group of brown men running around with guns would receive the same response from Canadian law enforcement.
Law enforcement agencies in Canada are no different than their counterparts south of the border. This week, statistics came out that showed Edmonton Police were ten times more likely to stop Indigenous women than any other group of people, when it came to conducting "street checks" also known as "carding." This practice of carding has long been contentious in Ontario, because of its disproportionate targeting of black people. While the practice has been scaled back, police continue to have access to old data—a fact that led journalist Desmond Cole to stage a protest at a police services board meeting back in April.
Rather than just relying on the police, communities and individuals are starting to take small steps to protect themselves. Women who wear the hijab are taking self-defense classes, people are walking with buddies and checking in with friends more often, and communities are keeping a watchful eye on their local places of worship and other potential targets for hate crimes. Most notably, Nazis are being met on the streets by anti-fascist or Antifa protesters all over Canada. Antifa protesters serve as bodyguards for counter-protesters who are there to drown out messages of hate. They also serve as a deterrent, making it difficult for neo-Nazis to harass people of colour or march to picket the nearest mosque.
Incarceration and fines—things used to target people of colour—cannot eliminate the ideology from which hate crimes stem and more policing won't make us safer.
The concept of self-defense is however one that is fraught for people of colour, especially for black and Indigenous people. When you bear the brunt of both state violence and hate crimes, it can be incredibly difficult to defend yourself. This might be why despite video after video coming out showing yet another racist rant in a public space, the people of colour in the videos are for the most part, composed and calm. In a world where a black person is shot after phoning 911 for help—defending yourself may be a risky strategy. If the cops are called, who will they consider the bigger threat?
Hate crimes cannot be divorced from the system they take place in. Since Donald Trump won the presidential election late last year, there has been an uptick in hate crimes both in Canada and the United States. When white supremacists like Steve Bannon hold positions of power, their influence trickles down to the streets. Incarceration and fines—things used to target people of colour—cannot eliminate the ideology from which hate crimes stem and more policing won't make us safer. For people of colour to be truly safe, the system of white supremacy that feeds the actions of individuals needs to be smashed.
Until that happens though, all we, people of colour and allies alike, can really do is look out for another.