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‘Policing Black Lives’ author on confronting Canada’s historical amnesia, Black expendability, and the path forward

Robyn Maynard: Police violence is a legacy of Canada’s history of racial and economic injustice

Canadian Politics

Justice For Regis - Not Another Black Life rally and march in Toronto, May 30, 2020. Photo by Jason Hargrove/Flickr.

The murder of 46 year-old George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department has become a watershed moment in American history. At the time of writing, protests against racism and police violence continue around the world.

Stoked by unaddressed racial and economic injustices, Floyd’s death has ignited long-simmering rage against law enforcement and carceral systems that disproportionately target, imprison and brutalize people of colour. Calls for police reform, divestment and abolition—unthinkable only two weeks ago—are now widespread.

And the protests are working.

On June 4, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he would cancel a massive police spending hike, slashing up to $150 million from the budget and reinvesting the funds in racialized communities. In New York, dozens of city council candidates are calling for a $1 billion cut to the NYPD’s $6 billion budget to help fund other programs. And in Minneapolis, city council has pledged to dismantle the local police department and usher in a “new model of public safety”.

In Canada, too, protests have been widespread. Over the past week, thousands rallied in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver and elsewhere to demand action to redress the ways in which state violence has targeted Black and Indigenous peoples for generations.

It is no secret that Canada has its own history of racial violence and inequality, stretching back to the very origins of this nation. While most Canadians are at least tacitly aware of the history of colonialism and the violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples to secure unfettered access to land for white settlers, few may know, for example, that slavery existed here for over 200 years.

Indeed, the institution of slavery is not a uniquely American phenomenon. In Canada, it persisted long before the consolidation of the British colonies of North American created the independent nation of Canada in 1867—slavery was not abolished in the British Empire, including what is now Canada, until 1834.

Rarely if ever taught in most schools, many African slaves ended up in Canada, arriving at transatlantic network ports like Québec City and Halifax where they were forced into bondage.

Between 1444 and the 1880s, more than 15 million human beings were stolen away from the African continent against their will. Thousands eventually arrived in Canada. A complex and interlinking network of violence, dehumanization and racial segregation soon followed. Resonances of this oppressive framework exist today.

In Ontario, Black women are more likely than whites to be unemployed, and Black children are more likely to be in foster care. According to separate investigations conducted by the Toronto and Halifax police forces, African-Canadians are stopped and searched three times more frequently than white Canadians. Black people are also being over-policed, surveilled and carded at a rate that is disproportionate to other demographics. In 2017, a report by the United Nations Human Rights Working group called on Canada to recognize the lasting damage done by slavery and segregation.

In Toronto, Black people accounted for 37 percent of victims in police encounters, despite representing only eight percent of the population. What’s more, a landmark 2018 study by the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that a “Black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a White person to be involved in a fatal shooting by the Toronto Police Service.”

In the words of Robyn Maynard, academic and author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence from Slavery to the Present, “To be Black in Canada is to live in slavery’s ‘afterlife’ and to have one’s existence demarcated by ‘skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.’”

Maynard’s book, released in 2017 to critical acclaim, “traces the role of the state in slavery and its afterlives, following the intensive policing of Black life in Canada that originated on slave ships and persists into the present, spanning the criminal justice, immigration, education, social service and child welfare systems.”

Canadian Dimension spoke with Maynard about her seminal research on the history of anti-Black violence in Canada, and how we can use it to understand the present moment—one in which calls for police divestment and abolition are growing stronger by the day.


Harrison Samphir: In your book, Policing Black Lives, you define anti-Blackness as a phenomenon that attaches race to criminality and danger, and rationalizes state violence against communities of colour across Canada. Why do so many Canadians think of anti-Blackness or police violence as a uniquely American problem?

Robyn Maynard: Well, that’s two fold. One part of it is that Canadians are very much expressly socialized and educated so that we are always directed and redirected towards the United States as the place where we understand the history of slavery and of segregation in a way that explicitly displaces those very realities of two hundred years of slavery being legal in the settler colonies that became Canada—the kinds of formal and informal segregation, for example, that were part of the development of the Canadian state.

For instance, and I refer to this in my book by quoting Robin Winks, even by the 1860s, in Ontario school textbooks, you had reference to slavery only in the United States and not in that territory where, of course, slavery had only been abolished by the British in all of its colonies in 1834. So 30 years after the abolition of slavery, we already see this strong tendency to identify the legacy of slavery and its attendant afterlives as a particularly American phenomenon.

Slavery advertisement from the Upper Canada Gazette, February 10, 1806.

This is something that nation states do around the world, this way of exceptionalising anti-Black violence and the legacy of Black revolts, of Black rebellion and Black resistance, as existing solely in the United States. In some ways, this is a means of shifting social and public responsibility for the shared global history of involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and in all kinds of state-sanctioned and extrajudicial and vigilante anti-Black violence that is both a global reality and one that has permeated Canada as a country since before confederation and long afterwards. So it’s a method of taking away responsibility by continual misdirection, and of the United States being a particular scapegoat for a reality that is a very Canadian one, as well.

There is a very Canadian proclivity to want to self-identify with the notions of racial tolerance and racial benevolence as being the end of the destination of the Underground Railroad. And of course, that’s only possible if we disavow and disappear the presence of Black people; the continual and ongoing violence that the state has always directed against Black populations here. So that self-identification is only possible if we erase history and we disappear people from history except to occasionally play the role of villains or as recipients of state benevolence.

We’re seeing this in the framing of the Canadian media, which is pointing towards the protests in the United States and the kinds of anti-Black violence we’re seeing there, even as we’re having these massive demonstrations of our own, and on our own terms. For example, just last week in Toronto, over 7,000 people participated in what the media called a “solidarity demonstration”, but the protest was specifically called “Justice for Regis”. It was about the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black woman, in a police encounter during a mental health crisis. So even as history is being made, even as Black people are out in the streets as part of multiracial coalitions denouncing anti-Black racism in Canada, we have history being rewritten in real time, but the media points only towards the United States while referring to our own activity as sympathy demonstrations.

You see for example, the Montreal police chief, Sylvain Caron, saying that these protests are not about racism in Canada, they’re about American racism, when, in fact, that’s explicitly denying the fundamental reality on the ground as it’s happening now.

Black Lives Matter march, Ottawa, June 5, 2020. Photo by Canadian Dimension.

HS: On June 1, Prime Minister Trudeau made some public comments about the ongoing protests in the United States, declaring, “Anti-Black racism is real. Unconscious bias is real. Systemic discrimination is real. And they happen here, in Canada.” The following day, Trudeau was asked to comment on Trump’s call for military action against protestors. His response did not mention the president directly, or condemn his use of tear gas to make way for a photo op in front of the White House. Then, during anti-racism protests on Parliament Hill on June 5, the prime minister took a knee for over eight minutes—the length of time that Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck before his death—in what has been described as a “hollow gesture” by many who believe our leaders have failed to take concrete action to confront systemic racism in Canada. All of this comes less than a year after multiple images surfaced of Trudeau wearing blackface, and the RCMP’s incursion into Wet’suwet’en territory. While the prime minister’s posturing may be well intentioned, what could the government be doing right now that meaningfully connects this rhetoric with actual policy?

RM: I’m really glad that you brought that up, because as far as Black communities in Canada are concerned, that gesture is more than hollow, given that it is Justin Trudeau who has his knee on our necks collectively as Black and Indigenous populations in this country.

We see the ongoing deaths of Black people at the hands of police. Not just Regis Korchinski-Paquet, but D’Andre Campbell. There are so many others. I think that inaction and a failure to commit to any kind of policy, any kind of redress of the ongoing crisis that Black communities are facing, really demonstrates the ongoing lack of political will, and that the prime minister’s kneeling was just smoke and mirrors. That may be effective for some Canadians who, again, are very much committed to this idea of tolerance over the ending of a politic of Black disposability. There are so many demands that are being leveled across the board.

For example, in Montreal, we see that so many of those taking care of seniors in long-term care homes are undocumented, or are folks with precarious status who are primarily Black. The presence of Black asylum-seekers who cross the US border into Canada resulted in an intense populist and state backlash and increasingly punitive immigration policies at the level of the federal and provincial governments. We see those people who are now on the frontline of the pandemic who are fearing deportation at the same time that they’re facing a heightened level of risk of contracting COVID-19.

So we have Black peoples as well as Latin American workers on the frontlines of this crisis; essential and seasonal agricultural workers picking fruits and vegetables in conditions that have been documented to be egregiously unsafe, insecure and damaging to health. We are starting to see not only the high risk, but actually the level of outbreaks that Black and other racialized people are being exposed to. Trudeau could act in this regard. He could grant status to migrant workers, or to the many women who are working on the front lines as personal support workers, status to all migrants: this is what redress looks like.

We have seen a continual push across the country to release inmates from federal prisons where we know Black and Indigenous peoples are disproportionately incarcerated well above other demographics, in the context of COVID-19 exposure. And yet, even as it has been demonstrated that people in federal institutions are highly vulnerable to infection and to death, we again see a failure to act, a failure to release prisoners, even as there’s been this cross-country push calling for action. So we are again seeing this very clearly iterated demand, and a refusal to meet that demand.

There has been a resounding drive across North America to fundamentally rethink policing in our society, to defund police forces and to think about police abolition, yet there has been no meaningful response. There has been ongoing inaction in every place where the federal government could act and is being asked to act for different Black communities that are facing extreme vulnerability. At this time, we see nothing. We see an empty gesture. And I don’t think Black communities are being fooled.

HS: Elsewhere, Québec Premier François Legault said that, while he supports the protesters in the US, “there’s no systemic discrimination” in the province. The premier’s comments angered many, and were seen to minimize or downplay the lived experience of minorities at a crucial time. Ontario Premier Doug Ford was also forced to walk back a statement he made in which he claimed that Canada does not have the same level of systemic racism and discrimination that exists south of the border. What does this failure to acknowledge systemic racism say about Québec society—and Canada in general—where institutional barriers and oppression are either tacitly acknowledged or simply denied?

RM: So at this point, we really need to understand that committing oneself to the idea that there is no systemic racism is a political choice to continue to let Black populations be expendable. For any elected official to not have that basic knowledge of how their society functions is something that is morally reprehensible, especially given that Black people are also technically their constituents, and we have so much documentation—often in the form of government-funded studies!—to prove it. To speak to the Québec example, we have the recent study of the Service de la police de Montréal (SPVM), demonstrating that Black people are being vastly, disproportionately stopped by police officers in the city. We have continual stories that emerge of Black people suffering extreme levels of violence at the hands of the police, like Majiza Philip who had her arm broken while being arrested by the police and was criminally charged for it in 2014 (although those charges were later dropped). The stories are endless. We also know that Black youth in Québec are being disproportionately put into care, held in care longer, or are less likely to be released from care. This is a systemic issue that has again been widely documented. For Doug Ford to have stated that there is no deeply rooted systemic racism in Ontario, where we know, for example, that the last segregated schools closed in the 1960s, well after Brown v. Board, is very troubling. We also have the Ontario Human Rights Commission report that came out in 2018 showing us that Black people are 20 times more likely to be shot by police than whites in Toronto. These are the kind of numbers that we’re facing. It is a crisis.

Black communities have been so vocal about this in both cities, particularly since the death of Anthony Griffin in Montreal in 1987, where there was massive outpouring from Black communities decrying police violence and systemic injustice. This struggle has been going on for a long time. Black communities organized after the killing of Buddy Evans in Toronto in the 1970s. We need to understand that this refusal to acknowledge the reality of systemic racism is a particular kind of ignorance. It is purposeful ignorance, a kind that is deadly. It is a strategic choice to simply not value the lives of particular residents of Ontario and Québec, and to not recognize that people are dying and dying disproportionately. This just further reveals that there are some lives that matter far less within these cities, within these provinces, and within Canada.

A mural depicting George Floyd, who died while being arrested and pinned to the ground by Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. Photo from Flickr.

HS: How does the “defining racial logic” which governed the interactions between early settler colonists and Indigenous peoples correlate with the treatment of other racialized groups in Canada? How does this shared culture of abuse manifest in contemporary society?

RM: Even though the histories of Black peoples in Canada—the legacy of enslavement and its afterlives—is not identical to colonization and genocide of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island, we know that in many institutions of the Canadian state, the legacy of slavery continued in modified forms. We can see this with the advent of modern policing. In the early 20th century, we see the vastly disproportionate policing of Black communities as well as the development of policing in the service of settler colonialism, similar to how the RCMP emerged out of the Northwest Mounted Police, which played an important role in clearing the prairies for white settlement. These ‘twin violences’ that are really at the heart of the ways in which North America was settled are both fundamentally embedded within the institutions that we now find ourselves with in the present day. Whether you’re looking at provincial jails, federal prisons, the child welfare or educations or system, you’ll see that Black communities have continued to face heightened rates of discipline, surveillance, punishment, of extreme and egregious violence. These abuses may not be identical, but are very comparable to those faced by Indigenous communities throughout Canadian history.

The legacy of segregated schooling and of residential schools, too, is not identical. Nonetheless, we see the ways that our communities are pushed out of the school system and are not receiving what’s considered a public education. We see that jails and prisons are filled with Black and Indigenous peoples. This is the living afterlife of settler colonialism and of slavery right in the present day. These racial logics, particularly the logic of disposability, are ongoing and they are living within institutions that many Canadians think of as serving the social good, yet many of them are foundationally violent towards Black and Indigenous peoples. We also need to understand gendered violence as an extension of the founding violence of North America, as we understand it today—of slavery and colonialism embedded in the present. The police killings of Chantel Moore, Eishia Hudson, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and Abdirahman Abdi highlight the fact that our communities are still living and dying under uninterrupted logics of violence that were created long ago.

HS: In your recent article in the Toronto Star, you write that, despite popular misconceptions that only Black men are impacted by law enforcement overreach, “Black women’s encounters with police continue to be marked by heightened surveillance and violence in many forms.” Why is it important to understand the gendered as well as the racialized dimensions of police violence?

RM: I think that is really important because, in many ways, the popular framing of the criminalization of Blackness has emphasized the policing of young black men as the prototypical target. In and of itself this is gendered. We do know that in Canada it is Black men that are being killed at higher rates, but what happens if we fail to expand the frame in which we actually understand racial violence to take place? We erase and negate and disavow the gendered nature of police violence and of the policing of Black women. According to a recent study, Black women were found to be three times more likely than white women to have been stopped by police. The policing of sex workers in particular, or of Black women who are perceived to be sexually deviant in public spaces, is also something that has a standing legacy and a gendered as well as a racial dimension. You can even look to the disproportionate arrest records of Black women in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and see that there is a particular way that Black women are policed. It can sometimes take many different forms and it is important for us to look at.

Thousands join a Black Lives Matter protest in Vancouver, May 30, 2020. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

We understand that the ways in which Black teen boys are being policed on the street, being forced to disperse or being carded and stopped is a kind of violence. But we also need to look at the realities of Black women who are, for example, being surveilled within the child welfare system—by welfare agents who can at times go into their homes, search them and take poor Black womens’ children away—as a kind of racial, gendered violence that is impacting Black women in disproportionate ways. That needs to be seen as a crisis in the same way we now view carding as unconscionable. If we do not look at the gendered realities, then we are absenting entire regimes of violence from our view, and making it impossible to stop and to interrupt that kind of state violence. To me, it is extremely important that we allow ourselves that broader frame that Black feminists like Andrea Ritchie has given us. We need—as previous generations of Black feminists have shown us—to centre Black women in the fight against state violence, against anti-Black violence, and in the struggle for a vastly transformed society.

HS: Can you comment on the complexities of capitalism and opposition to it within this fight for racial justice, and how the two struggles are being pitted against one another to separate people and movements.

RM: Something that was crucial in writing Policing Black Lives was including a critique of racial capitalism: understanding the ways in which Black communities in particular have been subject to state neglect, state abandonment, and poverty, and how this drives and reinforces policing and criminalization. These are all forms of racial violence. But, as always, the logics of capitalism and racism are inseparable and mutally constituting. If we look to the reasons why Black people have migrated in such large numbers to Canada over the last century, we see that the global inequities of racial capitalism have displaced Black people across the Global South. Canada has played a role in neocolonial violence across the African continent, across the Caribbean, and have been complicit in structural adjustment programmes that are impoverishing Black peoples globally, and bringing them to countries like Canada in the first place. And then again, once they’re here, we see that policing, that criminalization, that targeted detention and deportation as well within the immigration system: this is economic and racial violence at once. So we need to understand that, to paraphrase Ruth Wilson Gilmore, capitalism creates inequality and racism entrenches it; that the structural violence that Black communities are facing in Canada is a part of national and global economic violence. And we will never have safety any form of genuine well-being while capitalism continues as the dominant economic system.

HS: The concepts of divestment and police abolition are not new, but what makes increasing awareness about them so important?

RM: I think that divestment is crucial, and it is really important that we are having these conversations across North America right now. The public is now taking seriously the idea that we actually can divest from the police, and that we should be looking at the kinds of budgets police forces have. I’m talking about the Toronto municipal budget, where the police is one of the largest line items, or that out of an average Toronto property tax bill, the largest share goes to the police. I think that exposing the ways in which we have massively subsidized an institution that is literally killing people is vital. Even Statistics Canada, shows that 50 to 80 percent of what police do are responses to mental health crises, overdoses and domestic violence. These are all situations in which police are not effectively suited to meet those roles at all. And for Black and Indigenous communities, those responses, those wellness checks, can be deadly.

The idea of defunding the police is a necessary one, and I think it is important that we see it as the be-all and end-all of justice. Divestment comes out of a distinct historical tradition of Black radicalism that is also about abolition, not only defunding. It is also about reinvesting those funds into communities. Reinvestment in community-led anti-violence programs and mental health responses is obviously crucial. But abolition is a broader project, and here I’m thinking about people who have advanced this struggle before us, like incarcerated intellectuals including George Jackson, or more recently, critics of the “criminal punishment system” like Mariame Kaba, like the work of Critical Resistance, there are so many peoples whose collective work has gotten us to this point. It’s about building a different kind of system, a life-affirming collectivity without police officers and prisons, that is built to manage the many crises we’re facing, from poverty to homelessness to embedded violence. Abolition is about undoing those things and building a society based on far different terms. So defunding is not the totality of abolition, but it is a tactic toward what it means to build an abolitionist society—and we are seeing real political traction and will to pursue it for the first time in my life.

HS: Finally, how do you think the pandemic plays into all of this—from how the virus disproportionately sickens and kills people of colour, to how it amplifies the dispossession of racialized communities, to how it might exacerbate the economic realities of the coming economic recession which has yet to be fully seen?

RM: I think that is an excellent question, because all of the disparities that we are seeing in terms of expose to COVID-19 and death, these are not issues of some inherent Black or racial vulnerability to the virus, these are long-standing, structural issues of anti-Black violence that the pandemic is making particularly clear. Anti-Black racism is the public health crisis—that these disproportionate deaths are not about any racial proclivity to the disease, they are a symptom of a society that has already made Black people expendable. Those who we sometimes refer to as “essential workers”, but are actual disposable workers, people who are making minimum wage, people whose health is not being prioritized, while we have police officers who are being paid six-figure salaries. So the pandemic is really making clear, and bringing into a heightened visibility, the kind of expendability, the kind of anti-Black racial logics that already permeated our society at a national and at a global level.

Of course, the protests around the deaths of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, these are about policing, these are about anti-Blackness, but they are also about much, much more. They’re about the rejection of the status quo. I believe that these are not protests that are demanding we return to normal. It’s a demand for something new. It’s not only about policing, it’s about so much more—it’s about the racial logics that have defined life in the Americas since 1492. It is essential that what the pandemic has brought into view are those inequalities that people are now rising up against. And we need to think about what this means in a global context. As we push to get inmates released from prison in Canada, we also need to think about the fact that our Correctional Service is involved in Haiti, that there are form of anti-Blackness that are transnational. We need to bring these things into view when we are demanding something radically new, something radically different, and that it’s not a return to normal, but a rejection of the status quo that was not only about state violence within Canada, but also at the hands of empire.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Harrison Samphir is an editor, writer and policy analyst based in Toronto. His work has appeared in CBC, Jacobin, NOW Magazine, Huffington Post, rabble.ca, Ricochet, Truthout, and the Winnipeg Free Press, among others. In 2016, he completed an MA in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Harrison has served as Dimension’s web editor since 2014.

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