If Americans think of Canada as the not-so-racist neighbor to the north, that might be because that is the myth white people in Canada like to tell themselves. Canadian exceptionalism narratives locate anti-black racism as a problem felt acutely “over there.” But black people have been suffocated for centuries in this country; we have long felt the boot on our necks here, as well.
Mythologies of Canada as the “promised land” at the end of the Underground Railroad ignore the realities of white-supremacist oppression that black people in Canada have long experienced. In 1784, a white mob armed with hooks and chains attacked the home of black Baptist preacher David George in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, setting off 10 days of violence by white settlers in the first recorded race riot in North America.
For decades after the Shelburne race riots, black people were held as slaves in Nova Scotia and pre-Confederation Canada. After slavery was abolished, segregation of schools and businesses persisted, punctuated with white mob violence. Until 1967, Canada’s immigration laws were crafted in a way that restricted access for black people. Today, black people in Canada face gentrification, poorer educational and health outcomes, environmental racism and other forms of anti-black racism — including police brutality.
In January, just six weeks after Halifax Police Chief Dan Kinsella apologized for disproportionately targeting the black community in street checks — black people in Halifax are six times more likely to be stopped and have our data recorded by police — a young black mother named Santina Rao was approached by store security and police while shopping in Walmart with her two children. Accusing her of shoplifting, police searched her stroller and bags. Rao says she was then beaten to the ground. She was charged with disturbing the peace, resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.
“I can’t stop thinking about George Floyd, and how an officer pressed his knee into his neck, the same way they did to me here,” Rao told me Monday. “The exact same way. For similar reasons, too. I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’m still alive. I wasn’t suffocated to death on camera. Or thrown off a balcony.”
Rao is referring to the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-indigenous woman living in Toronto. On May 27, her family called Toronto police. After the police entered her apartment, Korchinski-Paquet fell from the balcony. Her family has claimed her death was caused by the police. Her death is being investigated by the Special Investigations Unit, which has not held police accountable in police killings of black people in the past.
Indeed, even as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to affect Canadians, police have continued to kill black and indigenous people. On April 7, a Peel, Ontario, police officer shot and killed D’Andre Campbell in his home after he called 911 in mental distress. On April 8, 16-year-old indigenous girl Eishia Hudson was shot and killed by Winnipeg police investigating an alleged liquor store robbery. Only hours later, on April 9, Winnipeg police responding to a domestic violence call shot and killed Jason Collins. Along with these police killings — which are being investigated by police watchdogs — policing and surveillance during the pandemic heavily targeted black and indigenous communities.
Canadian cops often receive training at Quantico. Canadians who view racist policing as an American phenomenon rarely consider that our police go to the country with the highest prison population in the world to learn the latest techniques.
As police arsenals and budgets grow — in Toronto, to more than 1 billion Canadian dollars annually — calls to defund the police and redistribute resources to communities are growing as well. And for good reason: It is past time to stop believing in the fantasy that arming the police, increasing their surveillance powers and allowing them to commit violence with impunity upon black people keeps the public safe.
Canadians taking the street in protest of black death are not simply a background chorus to American race issues. And those smugly observing the United States and thinking “it doesn’t happen here” are wrong — both in their assessment of the absence of racism in Canada and in their complacent refusal to understand that black people in Canada have also had enough.