We Have Been Here Before
An Open Letter to Black Canadians
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We are not okay and we have not been okay. As we try to cope in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our energy must still be directed to grappling with overt racism and racial microaggressions. The protests across the United States of America (USA) to demand justice for the killing of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department are an outward expression of our individual and collective viscerally suppressed anger, fear and frustration. Heeding the words of Jamaicans, “Pressha buss pipe.”
The “buss pipe” is telling us we can no longer suffer the deleterious effects of anti-Black racism, which leaves us emotionally, mentally and physically drained and exhausted; the insouciance of governments — federal, provincial and municipal — and their pertinacity about our needs; the blatant disregard of employers and institutions through their silence that sees us show up every day with a brave face because we know that our articulation of Black pain and suffering will fall on deaf ears; and the detraction of “Black lives matter” by those who say “All lives matter” and have been complicit in their inaction to end anti-Black racism.
The vicarious trauma we are experiencing because of coverage of the protests in the USA is a reminder of the painful Black experiences in Canada that persist without redress under the idea of colour-blindness, a multicultural society welcoming of immigrants and the negation of racism in the True North. This very fallacy props up polite racism.
We have been here before. As we prepare for the “new normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic, there are some critical questions before us.
How is it that the very system of policing that should serve, protect and reassure, is the very cause of our death and insecurity?
- D’Andre Campbell, who called Peel Regional Police for assistance, ends up tasered, shot and killed.¹
- 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.²
How is it that the criminal justice system which should rehabilitate people, does no justice to the underlying issues that caused their criminalisation?
- Black people are overrepresented and increasing in size in the prison population.³
How is it that the education system which should nurture the potential of all people, pushes out Black students and streams them based on an underestimation of their intellect?
- Black students are over twice and three times as likely as White and other racialized students to be in Applied and Essentials programs respectively.⁴
- Compared to their White and other racialized peers, Black students in the Toronto District School Board are more than twice as likely to be suspended.⁵
How is it that the healthcare system responsible for healing, treats us as incapable of articulating our pain; over-medicates us; and excessively restrains us because every Black person presents some unfounded threat?⁶
- The Public Health Agency of Canada, provincial and municipal health authorities refuse to collect race-based data when data from the USA indicates a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the African American population.⁷
- The Substance Abuse Program for African Canadian and Caribbean Youth⁸ remains the only program of its kind in Ontario, and possibly across Canada, and has remained at its funding level since its founding in 1993, in the face of a growing mental health crisis in the Black community and an increasing number of homicides and suicides among Black youth.⁹
How is it that the child welfare system which should protect our children, ultimately destroys familial ties and social bonds in the community, and sets up Black children for failure?
- Black children who have few mental health problems upon entering care, leave or age out with marked deterioration in their mental health.¹⁰
Even in the face of governments recognising the International Decade for People of African Descent, which describes us as “a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected”¹¹, there have been no substantive changes in these institutions — policing, criminal justice, education, healthcare and child welfare — thus maintaining inequity and anti-Black racism. They have not been responsive to the needs and situations of Black people.
Our ancestors have been down this road before. They ran their leg of the relay and left us a map to follow. We are responsible for dismantling the systems that oppress us and rebuilding ones that respect our right to life, liberty and security, as well as the right not to be deprived thereof, and the right to equality before and under the law as enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.¹³
We believe that Black people are worthy and deserving of a better future. Let us think strategically and harness our collective strengths and power to be a part of changing these structures with our vote, our activism, the raising of our consciousness and the commitment to continue uplifting our people.
Those in power rely on our apathy. We have been here before and we should not return.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus¹⁴
¹ Tracy Tong, “‘He was already on the floor’: Family looks for answers after Ontario man shot dead by police,” CTV News, https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/he-was-already-on-the-floor-family-looks-for-answers-after-ontario-man-shot-dead-by-police-1.4886751.
² Ontario Human Rights Commission, “A Collective Impact: Interim report on the inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Service,” Ontario Human Rights Commission, http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/public-interest-inquiry-racial-profiling-and-discrimination-toronto-police-service/collective-impact-interim-report-inquiry-racial-profiling-and-racial-discrimination-black.
³ Dr. Emerson Douyon, “Ethnocultural Minorities and the Canadian Correctional System,” Correctional Service Canada, https://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/about-us/006-4000-eng.shtml.
⁴ Dr. Carl James, “Towards Race Equity In Education,” York University, https://edu.yorku.ca/files/2017/04/Towards-Race-Equity-in-Education-April-2017.pdf.
⁵ Dr. Carl James, “Toward Race Equity.”
⁶ Human Rights & Health Equity Office, “Black Experiences in Health Care,” Sinai Health System, https://www.mountsinai.on.ca/about_us/health-equity/pdfs/SHS-BEHC-report-FINAL-aoda-final.pdf.
⁷ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Cases in the U.S.,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/cases-in-us.html.
⁸ Substance Abuse Program for African Canadian and Caribbean Youth, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, https://www.camh.ca/en/your-care/programs-and-services/substance-use-program-for-african-canadian-caribbean-youth.
⁹ Jennifer Yang, “Program for black youth in crisis at heart of bitter dispute,” The Star, https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2017/05/04/program-for-black-youth-in-crisis-at-heart-of-bitter-dispute.html.
¹⁰ Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, “One Vision One Voice: Changing the Ontario Child Welfare System to Better Serve African Canadians,” Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, http://www.oacas.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/One-Vision-One-Voice-Part-1_digital_english-May-2019.pdf.
¹¹ United Nations, “International Decade for People of African Descent,” United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/observances/decade-people-african-descent.
¹² Government of Canada, “Constitution Act, 1982,” Government of Canada, https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/const/page-15.html.
¹³ Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/colossus.htm.