There is a scene in the Wire where Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin lectures one of his sergeants for not understanding policing. Good policing isn’t about fighting a war, it’s about building relationships with people in the neighbourhood. If you decide to fight a war, Colvin claims, then the people on your beat become the enemy.
“And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your fucking enemy. And soon, the neighbourhood you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory. You follow this?”, he asks the sergeant.”
Major Colvin made me think of Desmond Cole’s harrowing Toronto Lifepiece, where he writes of being baselessly stopped and questioned by police over 50 times. In Toronto, the practice of “carding” — stopping somebody ‘voluntarily’ and taking down their information to put in a secret police database — has disproportionately affected neighbourhoods of colour, even when controlling for crime rates. This is not community policing, this is occupation.
Yet, there is no ‘national conversation’ about policing and incarceration in Canada. Journalists shamefully ignore these issues, and my own reporting experience is a testament to that.
I am a Vancouver-based radio producer and reporter who cares deeply about poverty, health care, and social justice. Like any reporter who fits that description, I often find myself in the Downtown Eastside. There, I have heard numerous stories from drug users, sex workers, and the homeless. These people all have long relationships with the criminal justice system, but I am ashamed to say I have reported very little on it—well, the Canadian criminal justice system, that is. It seems like the problems in the United States are much more profound.
There is a ‘national conversation’ in the United States about the causes of mass incarceration and the disproportionate criminalization of people of colour. On my radio program, Cited, I have played a small role in that conversation by producing numerous documentaries and interviews that wrestle with criminal justice reform. I’ve learned that the ‘super-predators’ scare locked up African American juveniles based on the lie that there was a “demographic bomb” of irredeemable teenage criminals who would ravage America’s streets. I’ve learned that tough sentencing guidelines from the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ criminalized poor African Americans, while caucasians continued to consume illegal drugs at just a high a rate. I’ve learned that ‘three strikes’ laws, which ballooned America’s prison population, were built on a media lie of rampant inner city violence.
Yet, when I examine the statistics, it becomes clear that the Canadian criminal justice system is an even more flagrant perpetrator of racial injustice. According to the latest research, Indigenous adults make up 4% of the Canadian population but 18% of the people in federal custody, and 24% of the people in provincial and territorial custody. In two provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Indigenous adults make up over 70%of the prison population. This disproportionate incarceration is dramatically higher than African Americans in US prisons. As Maclean’s pointed out, African Americans are incarcerated at 3 times the national rate, whereas Aboriginal Canadians are incarcerated at 10 times the national rate.
You may be tempted to say that Aboriginal Canadians are a special case of a particularly brutalized people, suggesting that these staggering figures have more to do with the colonial past than the current functioning of our criminal justice system. However, the problems have only gotten worse since the final residential school shut its doors. In 1996, the federal government instituted sentencing reforms aimed at reducing the Aboriginal inmate populations. The rates have skyrocketed since those ‘reforms.’
Further, this problem is not limited to Aboriginals, as Desmond Cole’s case makes clear. Black Canadians are imprisoned at three times the national rate. In 1992, Ontario created a commission to investigate systematic racism in their provincial criminal justice system. The commission found that people had a widespread belief that all players in the criminal justice system — from officers, to judges, to prison guards — treat Black Canadians unfairly. Further, in 2000, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty conducted a surveythat found over two-thirds of black youth reporting being assaulted or threatened by police. Further, in 2002 a Toronto Star investigation uncovered systematic bias in traffic stops and arrest records.
So, why is there no ‘national conversation’ in Canada like in the United States? First, we simply do not have much data. In the 1980s, the federal government ceased collecting law enforcement data related to ethnicity and policing. We know the number of Aboriginals in custody, but that is about it. Scholars are partly to blame. Up until the 1990s, Canadian criminologists were arguing whether knowing detailed crime statistics would only “foster racism.” This is why there have only been a handful of major books related to race and the criminal justice system, while American sociologists and criminologists could fill libraries. Today, Canadian scholars have changed their minds and come to the conclusion that this data is essential. Still, major bodies of scholarship on the issue of race and criminal justice have been slow to form—partly because police forces across the country still refuse to collect or disclose racial statistics.
Second, Canadians simply have not had their problems dramatized in the same way. There has been no TV shows like the Wire to demonstrate the way that Canadian drug laws criminalize the inner-city poor. There have been no ground-breaking books like The New Jim Crow or Netflix documentaries like 13 to connect the legacy colonization to current incarceration rates. I have no answer to this, other than to implore writers (and readers) to take on these stories. CBC’s recent Missing and Murdered podcast demonstrates that Canadians will follow these stories, if journalists decide to produce them.
Finally, I think perhaps the most important impediment to this conversation is our national myth of multiculturalism. Imagine a hypothetical newcomer moving to Canada. They will be told that we are an open, tolerant, and accepting people. Why wouldn’t they believe it? Indeed, research indicates that recent immigrants have the most positive attitude towards the criminal justice system. However, the feelings of recent immigrants quickly sour after living in the country and seeing the truth. As Desmond Cole says in his Toronto Life piece, “it has become a matter of survival in a city where, despite all the talk of harmonious multi-culturalism, I continue to stand out.” The longer racial minorities live in Canada, the more negative they become.
White, middle-class Canadians are suspended in a state analogous to this hopeful newcomer when they just arrive. Like the newcomer, they have fully embraced the national myth of multiculturalism. However, unlike the newcomer, they will never actually face the brutal racism of our criminal justice system. The white, middle-class Canadian will not even investigate it. Instead, they will righteously condemn the United States. ‘Thank goodness we are so tolerant and multicultural here in Canada!’ All the while, this white middle-class Canadian is blind to the very same pattern in this country.
It is time that Canadians finally have a national conversation about racial discrimination and their criminal justice system. The first and most difficult task will be to free ourselves from our fantasies. To again quote Major Colvin, “this is the world we got, people, and it’s about time all of us had the good sense to at least admit that much.”