On the afternoon of Oct. 23, 2015, two black boys, ages 10 and 15, were walking home as usual from school in Toronto. With reports of an armed black youth in the area and vague descriptions in hand, Toronto police approached the boys, screaming with guns drawn, forcing them to the ground. Thankfully, neither of the boys were shot, but this recent incident is not — as the Toronto Police Service would have us believe — one of simple mistaken identity. Two black boys doing something as innocuous as walking home from school being stopped as the muzzles of seven armed weapons were pointed at them is symbolic of the way blackness is engaged and encountered in Canada. This incident, and so many like them that occur every day, are common renderings of the anti-blackness that — contrary to popular belief — is not random or mistaken but rather constitutes Canada’s very social fabric.
Undoubtedly, Canadians take solace that the incident did not result in the shooting of the two unarmed black boys, as is the case in so many similar confrontations of late in the United States. This event, read as a “near-miss” for Canadians, is indicative of the perceived wide disparity in racial tensions and anti-black racism prevalent in the U.S. vs. here in Canada. Yet this gap and disparity in which so many Canadians take pride is more national myth than reality, as anti-blackness is rampant in Canadian institutions on social and symbolic levels. Consider that Prime Minster Justin Trudeau is being widely lauded for constructing the most diverse cabinet in Canadian history coupled with the fact that it contains no black Canadians.
While the U.S. only recently started to imagine itself as post-racial, with the election of its first black president in 2008, Canada has long subscribed to such a fantasy. Recall former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s claim of Canada being a country void of a history of colonialism, the myth-making and white-washing of history has always started at the top. Canada has a long history of absenting the presence and contributions of black people, from the myth of two founding peoples to writing out black loyalist and present-day community labour activists. And this is not even to broach the cultural and artistic contributions of black Canadian artists made under a dearth of infrastructure, lack of federal investment in the arts and culture sectors, and a whole host of other unfavourable conditions.
The expulsion of black people from public view is not only historical, as in the erasing of black contributions to the making of the nation, or symbolic as in Trudeau’s cabinet; it is also a function of contemporary state practices. In 2013, Corrections ombudsman Howard Sapers released his annual report, detailing the disproportionate increase in black inmate population over the last decade, the same decade that saw a drop in the federal major crime rate. While funding increased to Corrections Services Canada during a period of lowered crime activity, mandatory minimums were instituted which — though Saper asserts he is unable to draw a direct line — has resulted in an increase in the jailing of black (and Indigenous) people; in fact, over that same decade, the visible minority prison population increased by 75 per cent. Link these findings with the carding practices of metropolitan police services across Ontario, black life in Canada is not only absented, it is also subject to a hyper-visibility buttressed by unwarranted heavy surveillance and constant investigation.
The anti-black racism exists not only in familiar institutions such as prisons, state care, police carding and school expulsions — it also exists in universities. Annette Henry, professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia, is convening the Race Literacies series of lectures, designed to change the Canadian narrative which all too often — as sociocultural political critic Rinaldo Walcott has noted — absents the presence and contributions of black people. Though blacks have been in Canada since the 1600s, both enslaved and free, there exits to date no Black Studies department in any Canadian university. Aside from the James Robinson Johnston Endowed Chair of Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University, held by Afua Cooper, there is a no formal department nor Canada Research Chair dedicated to the sustained study of black life. This is an issue taken up by the Black Graduate Student Collective (BGSC) at York University, a newly formed student group “interested in forging a centralized space for graduate scholarship conducted by black students in the academy.” Their intention is to form a social intellectual community of black graduate students at York, by locating and reclaiming past and present black scholarship as a distinct part of York University, and inserting themselves into and as part of that historical narrative in order to contextualize and promote black studies within one of Canada’s most diverse institutions. The absenting of black scholarship is rampant in the Canadian Academy and, as professor Henry remarks, black scholars deserve more attention.
Combating racial amnesia
Anti-black racism is an old Canadian past-time, constitutive of the very nation, and is in lockstep with global realities of anti-blackness. At the time of this writing, scores of college students across the U.S. are protesting racial discrimination and maltreatment on campus. What were once calm and tranquil landscapes of higher education and intellectual engagement are now backdrops to the upheaval and uproar resonating with the loud and thundering demands of black students. No doubt, the majority of Canadians are looking on from the north, noses turned slightly up, with a sense of superiority and hubris at their evening news screens, thinking a variant of: “there go those Americans again, always making a fuss over race. Glad we don’t have those problems here.” For when it comes to Canadian racial injustice and anti-black racism, the Canadian element is erroneously thought of as benevolent, or even non-existent.
There is no better symbol of rampant anti-black racism than the necessity of a slogan (and movement) like #BlackLivesMatter, and is as necessary here in Canada as it is anywhere. By any account, that a slogan of this type is necessary is ridiculous, yet deeper analysis of the recent refugee crisis makes its necessity crystal clear. Mainstream media coverage of the current refugee crisis remains problematic as stories of Syrian refugees continue to dominate media coverage. in Canada, media coverage and government concern for the global refugee crisis remains strictly tethered to the “Syrian story,” resulting in Black and African refugees getting relegated to the extreme periphery. While a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, and the image of Alan Kurdi washing up face down on a shore resonates, we have been witnesses of similar images taken off Italian coasts for several years now. Daniel Tseghay, activist and writer, captures the anti-black sentiment in the refugee crisis, “I’m glad that there has been the response and the attention drawn to the refugee crisis because of that photo. But it is disheartening that we didn’t see that same response (to) photos of little black children… . Black death, African death is unimportant. it’s seen as natural and as something that we shouldn’t really worry too much about.”
The sharp forgetfulness of Lempedusa, where more than 300 mainly East African refugees perished, exposes anti-blackness as a factor, illuminating the sad and enduring truth that there exists a normalcy with the death and dying of black African bodies on the shores of large bodies of water.
As the poet Warsan Shire (2015) wrote in her beautifully recited poem Home, “no one leaves home unless home chases you … you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
While inevitable death is part of the human condition, anti-black racism is about the social death constitutive of a very particular global reality for black people in the world, one in which Canada, in the 21st century, has as much a monopoly on as any other nation — multicultural myths and diversity fictions notwithstanding. In order to resist and overcome this anti-black reality, it must first be recognized and admitted.
Sam Tecle is a graduate student based in Toronto.
This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Canadian Dimension (Racism).