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The criminalized lives of others

Canadian PoliticsHuman Rights

Photo by J P Davidson

The acquittal of Gerald Stanley on charges of second-degree murder last February precipitated a wave of public protest. People watched as the criminal justice system exonerated a farmer who shot a 22-year-old Cree man at close range for trespassing on his property. The collective response of activists and community members in the form of demonstrations nationwide reflected intense frustration and anger toward a system that could not protect Colten Boushie, and apparently did not care to. The law spoke loud and clear that day: Gerald Stanley would not go to jail for the killing of this young man on his property. In the end, there was nothing any of us could do.

The Stanley verdict called into question the legitimacy of the criminal justice system in Canada. It drew attention to a system marked by hypocrisy that results in unfair treatment — a system that infiltrates the lives of those caught up in it in ways that are hard to grasp unless you are pulled into that system yourself, for whatever reason. It was a harsh reminder that the criminal justice system has been deployed ever since Canada’s inception to protect the use of the land for European settlement, to maintain and promote business ventures and private investments, and to control people living in poverty, especially in urban areas.

This CD Focus section highlights a few aspects of our unjust justice system and the lives it affects, from anti-Black policing in Toronto to the repression of Indigenous land and water defenders who resist extractivism, and to the laws, policies, and practices that have exacerbated the injustices of life in prison, sparking prisoner activism and demands for meaningful reform.

Colton Boushie, Facebook photo.

Through reports that have recently surfaced in the media, I have become familiar with harrowing tales of people who are enmeshed in a system that is, at best, difficult to navigate. Their stories have prompted me to think critically about the concept of justice, as the outcomes for the people involved are so often entirely unfair, with punishments that do not fit the crimes. There are accounts of detention for breaching strict citizenship regulations, stories of being reincarcerated for breaking the rigid conditions of parole, and tales of being racially profiled and carded by police or harassed by Toronto Transit Commission fare inspectors. All these are becoming common experiences in Toronto these days.

The mainstream media covers the higher-profile cases, but abandons interest in them in short order. Meanwhile, these shameful practices overshadow the lives of those in the grip of the so-called justice system, whether that means checking in monthly with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, or being placed under the authority and supervision of parole officers at Correctional Services Canada, or simply wondering if they will make it home that evening without being scrutinized and harassed by the authorities.

While there will be no justice for Colten Boushie through the courts of criminal law, there will be a platform for the stories of the people who fight daily in a system stacked against them. In this issue of CD, Phil Morgan leads us through the heavily policed streets of Toronto’s midtown, while Tia Dafnos exposes the increasing militarization of the state as it thwarts attempts by Indigenous land and water defenders to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Finally, Jarrod Shook shows us the walls, both physical and psychological, that are built up around the criminalized. These writers work hard every day to make sense of a system that has deformed the lives of so many people in this country and to shed light on some of the concrete ways that we can begin to create a fairer system of justice, one that serves the interests of the people and not the paramount aim of protecting settler property.

Kimberly Wilson is a coordinating editor for Canadian Dimension and a community literacy worker with the Alexandra Park Neighbourhood Learning Centre in Toronto’s West End. She holds an MA in Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies from Trent University.

This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Canadian Dimension (An Unjust Justice System).


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