The wave of protests which began in the United States in response to the death of George Floyd has spread across Canada. These protests, which enjoy wide public support, have forced politicians and other public figures to comment on racism in the Canadian context. A common thread is to claim that Canada is “not a racist country” or is “less racist” than the United States. However, this wishful thinking does not hold up to an examination of the facts.
While most politicians will readily speak to the obvious truth that there is racism in Canada, there is generally a careful refusal to acknowledge systemic racism. Instead, capitalist politicians effectively pin all the blame for racism on individuals.
When Ontario Premier Doug Ford responded to reporters on June 2 regarding anti-racism protests in the US, he said, “It’s like night and day between Canada and the US… Thank God we’re different than the US and we don’t have the systemic, deep roots they’ve had for years”. He backtracked the next day after public criticism by stating, “Of course there’s systemic racism in Ontario.” Still, on June 10, he undermined this admission when he pointedly dismissed calls to cut the budget of the Ontario Provincial Police. His response to a reporter who asked about his opinion on the issue was, “I don’t believe in that for a second.” This comes as no surprise. When running for Ontario Premier in 2018, Ford was booed at a campaign event where he detailed plans to reinstate TAVIS, a Toronto police intiative infamous for using the racist practice of carding, which allowed police officers to arbitrarily stop, question, and collect personal information from people in targeted communities.
Similarly on June 8, the premier of Quebec, François Legault, doubled down on his declaration that systemic racism does not exist in Quebec. This is despite his own use of xenophobic dog whistle politics targeting muslims in his election campaign in 2018. Once in power, Legault implemented Bill 21, a law which prohibits certain public-sector employees from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols at work.
The National Post’s Rex Murphy published an article on June 1 where he claimed that “Canada is not a racist country”. On June 8, a day after Alberta’s Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) announced that it would investigate claims of racism and police brutality brought forward by Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam, Alberta’s RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki denied the existence of systemic racism in Canadian policing by saying, “I don’t believe that racism is systemic through Canadian policing, I don’t believe it’s systemic through policing in Alberta”. On June 10, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki announced that the RCMP does not have systemic racism.
Even Stockwell Day, a former cabinet minister under Steven Harper, weighed in on the subject by denying systemic racism in Canada. Speaking to CBC Newsworld, he said, “There’s a few idiot racists hanging around, but Canada is not a racist country and most Canadians are not racist. And our system… is not systemically racist.”
Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau has pivoted in the other direction, doing everything he can to capitalize on the movement, even “taking a knee” at a protest in Ottawa on June 5. He later stated, “For far too many Canadians, the images and stories out of the United States are all too familiar… As a country, we can’t pretend racism doesn’t exist here. Anti-Black racism is real. Unconscious bias is real. Systemic discrimination is real. And they happen here in Canada.”
Such hypocritical maneuvers from the Liberals are not new. Trudeau also proclaimed his commitment to the environmental movement and indigenous rights when he joined the Climate March in Montreal on September 27, 2019. This was four months before he sic’d the RCMP on the indigenous protestors and forced a pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory.
It is difficult not to see racism in the interactions between the Canadian state, especially the police, and the Black community. Recently protests erupted in Toronto over the death of an indigenous-Black woman, 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who died after falling 24 storeys from the balcony of her apartment during an encounter with the police. Her mother called the police for help because her daughter was in distress over a family conflict and had a history of mental illness. When officers arrived, they followed Korchinski-Paquet into the apartment after she indicated that she wanted to use the washroom. Her mother and family waited in the hallway of the apartment. Soon after, the family heard screams from inside the apartment, while police prevented the family from entering the apartment to check on her. “Mom, help. Mom, help,” were the last words her mother heard, followed by silence. Officers then told the family that Korchinski-Paquet was dead.
During the exact same hour that George Floyd lay dying in Minneapolis on May 25, an officer in Laval, Quebec yanked a young black man out of his car by his dreadlocks, beat him, and arrested him. This occurred after the officer refused to answer the man’s question asking “which investigation” he was being pulled over for. Laval police have since defended that officer’s use of force, stating that it was justified.
Some claim that these are isolated incidents. However, looking at the big picture, we see that these are not at all outliers but are in fact the general pattern in Canada.
The Guardian reported the following statistics:
“The Ontario Human Rights Commission interim report on anti-Black racism in policing states that Black people in Toronto are up to 20 times more likely to be killed in an encounter with the police than white people. If you’re Black in Halifax, you are six times more likely to be carded by police, compared to white counterparts. In Vancouver, a comprehensive third-party review of police data is currently underway, but statistics currently show that in 2017, 5 per cent of street checks involved Black individuals, who make up only 1 per cent of the city’s population. Ottawa is no different, where Black drivers are stopped 2.3 times more than the dominant population.”
As mentioned, Doug Ford promoted the revival of the hated TAVIS program which targeted black communities in Toronto and “under the guise of relationship building and becoming familiar faces in the community, TAVIS officers aggressively assaulted and drew guns on young people on the streets of their neighbourhoods, performed strip searches in broad daylight, and arbitrarily stopped hundreds of racialized people without cause in public areas to question them and gather intelligence–a practice known as carding, which has been targeted primarily at Toronto’s Black community.” (Madan)
It is rare that police officers are charged at all after killing racialized people. So, when James Forcillo, the officer who shot and killed teenager Sammy Yatim on an empty Toronto streetcar in July 2013, was handed a sentence it came as a surprise to some commentators. However, Forcillo was given day parole in 2019 after serving less than two years of his six-year sentence, and was given full parole in January 2020. Yatim, who appeared “dazed” and “high or mentally ill” according to bystanders, was alone on an empty streetcar and surrounded by police officers holding a small knife when Forcillo shot him. Forcillo was the only officer to open fire. He fired three shots, which killed Yatim and caused him to fall to the floor of the streetcar. Forcillo then fired a second volley of six more shots into Yatim and another officer tasered the teen’s motionless body.
Between 2000 and 20017, a CBC investigation found that Black people make up only 3.4% of Canada’s population, yet represented 9% of police fatalities. Indigenous people represented 15% of people killed by police while making up only 4.8% of the population.
The Canadian state’s brutal and racist treatment of indigenous people is often viewed incorrectly as something that happened “in the past”. However, in addition to the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, police in New Brunswick recently sparked outrage when they shot and killed an indigenous mother, Chantel Moore, during a “wellness check” on June 4.
On March 10, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation was harassed and assaulted by the RCMP over an expired vehicle’s licence tag. The officers pulled him over, put him in an arm hold, and struck him until blood gushed from his mouth. His wife, who suffers from late-stage rheumatoid arthritis, was put in an arm hold and slammed against the car. The RCMP has defended the actions of their officers and claim that Adam was resisting arrest and argue that the actions of the officers were “reasonable”.
On June 1, in the midst of international protests against racism and police brutality, a Nunavut RCMP officer drove a truck into an Inuk man in the Kinngait community of Nunavut. The officer subsequently arrested the man and put him into a cell where he was “viciously attacked” by another inmate and required hospitalization. This past April, there was outrage when Winnipeg police shot and killed three indigenous people in the span of ten days, including a 16-year-old girl. The Globe and Mail reported in November 2019 that a document obtained from the RCMP stated that between 2007 and 2017, of all deaths by shooting involving an RCMP officer, 36% were indigenous, despite indigenous people representing just 5% of the Canadian population.
In December 2019 the Guardian reported that ‘notes from a strategy session for a militarized raid on ancestral lands of the Wet’suwet’en nation show that commanders of Canada’s national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), argued that “lethal overwatch is req’d” – a term for deploying an officer who is prepared to use lethal force… The RCMP commanders also instructed officers to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want” ahead of the operation to remove a roadblock which had been erected by Wet’suwet’en people to control access to their territories and stop construction of the proposed 670 km (416-mile) Coastal GasLink pipeline (CGL)’.
“Starlight tours” were revealed to be an RCMP practice in Saskatoon since at least 1976. This involves RCMP officers taking intoxicated indigenous people to the outskirts of town and abandoning them in fields, at night during freezing winters, leaving them to try and make it back alone. An indigenous man, Darrell Night, survived a starlight tour in 2000 to explain what happened to him, which set off an inquiry into the 1991 death of 17-year-old Neil Stonechild. Stonechild’s death had not been investigated properly by the RCMP previously,the investigating officer simply saying that, “the kid went out, got drunk, went for a walk and froze to death.” The inquiry exposed the horrific details of this practice. At least two other indigenous men, Lawrence Wegner and Rodney Naistus, died as a result of “starlight tours”. In Quebec, starlight tours are known as “geographic cures”, and it was only in 2016 that then Public Security Minister Coiteux explicitly prohibited the practice.
In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, indigenous adults represented 75% and 74%, respectively, of admissions into custody in 2017/2018. The proportion of indigenous adults out of the overall population in the two provinces was 15% for Manitoba and 14% for Saskatchewan. Despite only representing 5% of the Canadian population, in 2020 it was reported that more than 30% of prisoners in Canada are indigenous. This is an increase from 25% in 2016, an increase occurring under the Trudeau Liberals. The proportion is even higher for indigenous women, who make up 42% of all women incarcerated. A 2017 report by the Office of the Independent Review Director (OIPRD) concluded that, “overall, systematic racism exists in the Thunder Bay Police Service at an institutional level,” and urged the reopening of “nine sudden-death cases involving Indigenous victims over concerns the investigations were tainted by systemic racism and neglect”.
After indigenous women came forward about decades of sexual assault at the hands of Sûreté du Québec officers in 2017, indigenous women from Maniwaki, Sept-Îles and Schefferville also came forward with similar horrific stories of abuse. Over a year has passed since the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report was released and the Canadian government has recently announced further delays in presenting an action plan to finally implement the report’s urgent recommendations.
These examples only scratch the surface, with further investigation bringing to light innumerable additional cases and statistics. If the issue were a few isolated racist individuals, one would not expect to see such obvious patterns over time. It also would not make sense how these “few isolated racists” could get away with such behaviour and feel emboldened to take such actions if they were embedded in otherwise “non-racist” institutions. The question remains of why Canadian state institutions would systematically operate in a racist manner. If it were as simple as changing a policy or a practice, the problem would have been solved long before now.
Racism is a product of capitalism
Malcolm X said, “you can’t have capitalism without racism”. The reason racism is systemic in Canada is because the capitalist system requires it. For a system in which a tiny minority of bosses owns and controls the economy, with their principal interest being to increase their profits, racism serves a vital function in dividing the population to weaken the resistance. Racism serves as a distraction; instead of fighting back against recent cuts to healthcare, racism is employed to make workers argue about whether a woman should be able to wear a headscarf to work. It allows the bosses to scapegoat others and put the blame on minorities and immigrants for all the problems in society that the bosses themselves are responsible for (e.g. falling wages, underinvestment in social services). For example, hate crimes soared recently, particularly against those of East Asian background, at the same time as the bosses and their politicians seek to displace anger over their insufficient response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Racism justifies paying some workers less so that the bosses can justify a fall in wages for all workers. Racism also justifies the unjustifiable—for instance, resource extraction by the Canadian industrialists would not be possible without the mistreatment and ongoing colonization of indigenous peoples. Capitalist development in the United States depended on slavery, and required racism to justify the possesion of Black slaves. Racism justifies the way things are and makes any violence and oppression seem “normal” if it is done in the interests of the system. Racist attitudes are therefore continually fomented in the working class through the media, the education system, and via capitalist politicians to sow division.
A white worker has infinitely more in common with a Black worker or an indigenous worker than with Doug Ford, François Legault, or Justin Trudeau. The purpose of racism is to obscure these common interests and instead pit worker against worker. If our fingers are pointed at each other, they cannot be pointed at the common enemy—the bosses who are driving down wages and driving up the cost of living while sitting on over a trillion dollars of dead, uninvested money in Canada alone, and whose state is inflicting so much suffering on not just racialized communities but on working class people of all types. This money could be used to provide affordable housing for all, address the cost of living, invest in healthcare and education, and find solutions to the environmental crisis. Instead of being terrorized by unaccountable police forces, communities themselves could democratically decide how best to meet their needs for self-defence and security.
Racism is an essential pillar of the capitalist system which is why it is embedded deep in the foundations of the system’s institutions in Canada. It is not in the interest of one worker to oppress another worker, and a working-class approach to fighting racism, based on solidarity and the unity of workers and the oppressed of all backgrounds against this system is the only guarantee of permanently uprooting the conditions that produce racism and all forms of oppression.
Madan, Gita Rao. “‘I’m Just a Friend Now’: Community Policing in Toronto Schools.” Critical Schooling: Transformative Theory and Practice, by Francisco J. Villegas and Janelle Brady, Palgrave, Macmillan, 2019.