On August 24th, Black Lives Matter held its first nation wide event commemorating the death of Abdirahman Abdi in seven cities across Canada, including Vancouver. Throughout the country there has been an outpouring of support for incoming Syrian refugees, and the government has resettled 30,647 individuals between November 2015 and February 2016 alone. But all isn’t well in the great white north, despite these acts of resilience and inclusion.
Abdi, a 37 year old Somali-Canadian man believed to have mental health issues, died after an altercation with Ottawa Police. Although details remain vague, the incident has left many people asking important questions relating to racism, policing, and migrant justice. As a black muslim, Abdi’s marginalized racial and religious identities cannot be separated from his status as someone new to Canada, having arrived in 2009.
With words being tossed around like “confrontation” and the video of Abdi lying face down in blood on the pavement floating around social media, Abdi’s death is a reminder of other lives lost, like Eric Garner and Philandro Castile. I was disturbed to hear the head of the Association of Policing in Ottawa, Mat Skoff, describe how “in a situation like this, race is simply not the case.” He distances Canadian officers from their American counterparts. But are US and Canadian police systems remarkably more similar than white Canadians refuse to believe?
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Anthony Morgan write a telling piece comparing US and Canadian policing towards black, indigenous and other racially marginalized populations, adjusting for variables such as population size and racial make up. The results are starkingly similar, and yet it’s doubtful that any person of colour living in Canada would be at all surprised.
Policing is important to consider when looking at migrant justice, both within and outside of border control. How does race impact who is let in? How does racism impact those who are let in? For example, Operation Pipeline came to Canada in the 1980s and 1990s through training programs of the RCMP. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander outlines how Operation Pipeline gave the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) the ability to stop and search anyone for drugs. These searches were usually for minor infractions such as traffic violations. For example, in the US, Sandra Bland was stopped for apparently not signalling a turn. She ended up being ordered from the car, threatened and then put in jail where she was eventually found dead.
In fact, as Alexander explains, Operation Pipeline trained police officers how to turn random traffic stops into drug searches, something that explicitly targeted people from disenfranchised racial groups. Operation Pipeline is, in part, responsible for the mass incarceration we see today of black men in the US prison system. And its legacy extends to Canada. Think of this the next time someone talks about the school to prison pipeline as only being an “American problem.”
Another factor to consider when critically examining Canada’s racism problem is the high rate of violence against indigenous women and the indifference displayed by law enforcement. For example, a 2014 RCMP report estimates that 1200 indigenous women and girls are missing or murdered. But the Native Women’s Association estimates this to be much higher, around 4000.
The lived experiences of Canadians of colour should not be erased at the expense of preserving our “kind” reputation. And newcomers to Canada, such as Abdirahman Abdi, frequently fall into this category.
Look at the Komagata Maru incident, a ship transporting Indian economic immigrants who were denied entry to Vancouver in 1914. The passengers waited in the harbour for two months before turning around. Or the Chinese head tax (1885-1923), which charged Chinese immigrants a fee to enter Canada in order to discourage their arrival. But these problems are far from historic past events. For example, Syrian refugees at the Vancouver airport were greeted with pepper spray this past January. And there are many more examples.
As powerful experiences, narratives and statistics demonstrate, it’s clear Canada has a racism problem. It’s time white Canada starts listening to conversations that have been occurring, and considers how racism impacts migrants in a country that prides itself on being a multi-cultural mosaic.
By Emily Luba
* All views expressed in this blog post belong to the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of CYH.