Image: Mark Klotz/Flickr
We used to be able to say that Canadians who didn’t believe that their governments and police forces were racist against Indigenous and Black peoples, were simply unaware of the facts. Numerous public commissions, inquiries and investigations were undertaken to get at the heart of what appeared to be obvious racism in policing.
We learned through testimony, facts, research and statistics, that yes, Canadian police forces are racist. The media also exposed countless examples of police officers who targeted Indigenous and Black peoples with racist and sexist acts of brutality, sexualized violence and death. When politicians, journalists and commentators continued to deny that racism exists in Canada, it became apparent that white privilege and supremacy are well rooted in Canadian society.
In March of 2020 in the U.S., Breonna Taylor, a 26 year-old Black woman, was killed by police who forced their way into her home and shot her eight times. In May 2020, George Floyd was killed by a white police officer who kept a knee on his neck for almost nine minutes until he died, despite his pleas that he could not breathe.
Police brutality and shootings of Indigenous and Black peoples in the United States is nothing new. The very same officer who killed George Floyd — Derek Chauvin — also killed an Ojibwe man, Wayne Reyes, in 2006. In 2014, white police officer Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death, despite him telling police he could not breathe. The video went viral and sparked nationwide protests against racism and violence in policing.
Anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in policing takes many forms, from racial profiling, carding, planting evidence and over-arrests; to harassment, physical beatings, sexual assaults and killings. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people and one-and-a-third times more likely to be unarmed than white people. Each year, the top spot for those killed by police in the U.S. alternates between Indigenous and Black peoples.
The Guardian newspaper’s database, The Counted, which monitored the number of people killed by the police in the US noted that in 2015, it was Black people who occupied the top spot of those killed by law enforcement. In 2016 it was Native Americans. Police killings are so prevalent that in 2019, there were only 27 days when people were not killed by police. Police violence should be considered a national public safety crisis.
Despite decades of public education, advocacy, lobbying, lawsuits and protests, anti-Black and anti-Indigenous police brutality continues with relative impunity. The American Civil Liberties Union reported that over a 10-year period from 2005 to 2015, thousands of police-involved killings resulted in only 54 officers charged with a crime and the majority of those were cleared or acquitted. The Washington Post‘s extensive analysis found that the majority of those few police officers charged were white, and the majority of those they killed were Black. Those who were actually convicted of a crime spent as little as a few years or a few weeks in prison. Prosecutors interviewed for the Post investigation admitted that they were reluctant to charge police, even if they believed they committed a crime.
The long history of police racism and violence against Indigenous and Black peoples is well documented but aggressively denied by police officers, police chiefs and their unions. Many town mayors also stand in defence of the police despite evidence of police brutality and lawlessness. Historically, the mainstream media has defaulted to reporting on official police statements and narratives of deadly police interactions, no matter how bad the situation looks. In the vast majority of cases, the Black or Indigenous victim is presented in a criminal light with negative descriptors of their life. Conversely, police officers are typically portrayed as heroes. Rarely are readers presented with the criminality or past violations of the officer in question.
However, with the advent of social media, mainstream media is no longer able to uphold the the narrative of hero cops protecting communities from bad guys anymore. Thousands of people with cell phones capture photos, audio recordings and videos of police violence that counter statements by law enforcement after brutal beatings or killings of Black and Indigenous peoples. This citizen-collected evidence has the ability to not only better inform the public than mainstream media, but has been one of the few tools able to push back against the Blue Wall of Silence — the informal rule and practice within police forces to never report on the criminality of fellow colleagues, their corruption, or brutality. This code is one of the reasons why so many community groups demand that police officers wear body cameras, a compulsory measure some forces have resisted.
While protests continue in the U.S., they have now spread to Canada and even worldwide in places like Australia and the United Kingdom. The response from many mainstream media commentators in Canada has been to characterize the growing number and intensity of protests as violence and looting. Citizens acting in solidarity have taken to the streets and have been countering this narrative with photo and video evidence of white officers engaging in unprovoked acts of violence — smashing windows, vandalizing cars and property, and even invading peoples homes without warrants. Even large groups of white men have been seen roving the streets with baseball bats.
Yet, so many in the mainstream press cannot seem to bring themselves around to presenting police officers in a negative light. In this way, the Blue of Wall of Silence extends well beyond police forces and unions into governments and the media. The oft-repeated mantra of “we are not a racist country” provides comfort to many Canadians that racism and white supremacy are uniquely American problems.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and violence in policing is as big an issue in Canada as it is in the U.S. But don’t take it from me. Let’s just look at the facts. CBC conducted an extensive investigation into fatal encounters with police in Canada over a 17 year period from 2000-2017 and found that while Black people are less than three per cent of the population, they were nine per cent of those killed by police. Indigenous peoples were less than four per cent of the population but more than 15 per cent of those killed by police.
In places like Toronto, Black people are 20 times more likely to be shot dead by police. Indigenous peoples are twice as likely to be killed by police than white people and in Quebec, almost 10 times as likely. In places like Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Indigenous people represent 58 and 62 per cent of those killed by police, respectively. In a ten-day period, during a global pandemic, the Winnipeg Police killed three Indigenous peoples in separate incidents, one of whom was a 16 year-old girl, Eisha Hudson.
Racism is a crisis in Canada and it is killing Black and Indigenous peoples. The same CBC investigation, Deadly Force, found that of the 461 cases analyzed, only 18 officers were ever charged and only two were convicted. The Toronto Star‘s exposé on Ontario’s Special Investigation Unit (SIU), a team which probes police-involved deaths and serious injuries, questioned whether cops are above the law. The Star’s investigation showed that out of 3,400 SIU investigations, criminal charges were laid against only 95 police officer — just 16 have been convicted, and only three have seen any jail time. In other words, less than 0.5 per cent of officers were ever convicted.
The Winnipeg Free Press has also exposed many problems with the Winnipeg Police Service, which has created numerous “roadblocks” for the province’s Independent Investigation Unit (IIU), and undermining journalists’ ability to conduct investigative reporting. Blocking interview requests and refusing to turn over documents is likely part of the reason for less than a handful of charges against officers in the IIU’s history.
We should not ignore the high levels of corruption that are common in police forces, either. One of the RCMP’s own investigations found hundreds of cases of corruption, including perjury, falsifying evidence, and officer involvement in organized crime. Add to this the RCMP’s culture of bullying, sexual abuse and harassment which has resulted in multiple class-action lawsuits totalling well over one billion dollars. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented the physical and sexual assaults of numerous RCMP officers on Indigenous women and girls, along with instances of sexual harassment and abuse by police of Indigenous women during strip searches. The calls by Black and Indigenous women in Canada and the U.S. to end sexualized violence in policing have largely been ignored.
What’s more, numerous justice inquiries and commissions have found that racism is pervasive in Canada’s entire justice system; from police to prosecutors to judges. Decades ago, the Marshall Inquiry found the police and justice system were systematically biased against Black peoples and Indigenous peoples, but little has changed.
How much evidence is enough? The National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls found Canada guilty, as a matter of fact and law, of both historic and ongoing genocide. Canada’s complex web of discriminatory laws, policies, practices, actions and omissions targeted Indigenous women and girls for an insidious form of racialized and sexualized violence that is the direct cause of their high rates of abuse, exploitation, disappearances and murders.
Racism and hatred of Indigenous and Black peoples in Canada infects all levels of governments and agencies, police forces and many segments of society. CSIS has reported a significant jump in far-right activity and notes that at the heart of right-wing extremism is racial hatred. In fact, CSIS considers white supremacy more dangerous than threats from radical Islam. The current research on white nationalist and supremacist groups shows they specifically target Black and Indigenous peoples with violence.
It is clear that racist violence is a form of terrorism that has plagued Canada for decades, even centuries. White supremacy is the basis of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, hatred and violence by governments, police forces and many segments of society.
Blatant denials that racism exists in Canada serve only those who benefit from it, but silence is also violence. Silence is complicity that allow police abuses to continue unabated and in the case of Black and Indigenous peoples, to get worse.
So, yes Canada, we have a racism crisis in this country and it is killing Black and Indigenous peoples. Let’s stop pointing fingers at the U.S. and take steps to end the loss of life here in Canada.
Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and is the Ryerson chair in Indigenous governance. This article was first published in Canadian Dimension.