By Rosa Saba
When writer and activist Robyn Maynard speaks, she often asks members of the audience whether they remember learning about the history of American slavery. Almost everyone puts up their hand, she says, but when asked if they learned about Canadian slavery, almost no one does.
Maynard has spent much of her career tracing and documenting state violence against racial groups in Canada, and has been involved with activist groups such as Montreal Noir and the Black Indigenous Harm Reduction Alliance. The result of her work is her Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, in which she traces the history of anti-black racism in Canada. The book was published this past October by Fernwood.
Maynard, who often speaks publicly about racial profiling in Canada, is to talk about her book on Nov. 13 at an event hosted by the University of Ottawa’s criminology department, with a Q&A hosted by Dahabo Ahmed Omer, spokesperson for the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition. The event will be in the auditorium of the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library at Metcalfe and Laurier starting at 7 p.m.
The coalition formed after the death of Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali-Canadian man who died in police custody in July 2016. An officer involved in Abdi’s violent arrest faces a manslaughter charge in a trial scheduled to begin in February 2019, but Const. Daniel Montsion’s lawyer recently suggested that Abdi may have died of a heart attack, and blamed “a fringe group of extremists” for the public framing of the incident as a case of police brutality.
With a background in frontline harm-reduction work with marginalized communities in Montreal, Maynard said she has seen firsthand the effects of racism in Canada and realized there was a “significant gap” in the conversation about those effects.
Public discussion of racial profiling and police violence through movements such as Black Lives Matter led Maynard to realize that it was time to close that gap. Policing Black Lives aims to put current events, such as the Abdi case, in the context of a history that she says most Canadians are unaware of.
“This is something that doesn’t really receive the kind of attention that it should,” said Maynard, using the example of an almost two-week protest by Black Lives Matter Toronto after the July 2015 shooting death of Andrew Loku, a native of South Sudan, at the hands of Toronto police.
“There’s a longstanding history of disproportionate killings of black peoples in Canada,” she said.
Maynard said comparisons between racism in Canada and the United States have been made since before the civil rights movement. And questions continue to arise when, for example, the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling (two African-American men shot by police in July 2016) remained in the headlines longer and louder than did the deaths of Canadians such as Abdi or Loku. Maynard credited the Black Lives Matter movement for making her realize the history of anti-black racism in Canada needed to be addressed.
More broadly, Maynard says most Canadians are unaware that the last segregated school in Canada was only closed in 1983 in Lincolnville, N.S. The book aims to make Canadians more aware of institutions like this, which she says have been all but erased from Canadian history.
“What we really have is a very deliberate suppression of a really important part of Canadian history,” Maynard said. “I think it means a lot that when Canadians think about racism, we are taught to think about the United States.”
The death of Abdi has brought the conversation of anti-black racism into the Canadian public sphere, she says. When Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi announced proposed new rules regarding police oversight in the province, he referred to the belief among minorities that police are ignorant of their concerns.
Much of Maynard’s book focuses on state violence and the effect of state institutions on racialized peoples in Canada, including surveillance systems, exploitative labour, child removal programs and low graduation rates among racialized minorities.
Segregated schools, she said, are just one example. In Policing Black Lives, Maynard compares segregated schools and other institutions to the residential school system used to separate Indigenous peoples in Canada from their families and culture.
“If we’re going to look at the historical racism in the criminal justice system, we need to look at how it has always also disproportionately targeted Indigenous populations,” she said. “These racisms haven’t been identical … but there are so many overlaps.”
The disproportionate number of black children taken from their homes and put into the child welfare system is another central issue discussed in Policing Black Lives.
“The idea of separating black families and of segregating black children actually has a longstanding history in the development of child welfare in Canada,” she said.
Maynard said she hopes her book will reveal a side to Canadian history that has been largely absent from public discourse.
“The racialized surveillance and punishment of (Canada’s) black populations has always been a part of the foundation of the justice system,” she said, adding that though Canada’s problems are not as widely discussed as those in the United States, “there are many, many similarities.”
Justin Piché is a professor in the University of Ottawa’s criminology department and part of the Carceral Studies Research Collective, which is hosting the event. Maynard’s talk is the first event in Criminology Week 2017, 150 Years of (De)Criminalization in Canada.
Piché said the Collective thought a discussion about Maynard’s work would be an appropriate way to begin the week, and that involving the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition would bring a local focus while contextualizing events in Ottawa with the broader North American conversation around race.
“I think it’s important to always contextualize the present — locate it within longstanding, broader social struggles,” added Piché. “I expect we’re going to have a really great conversation about how black lives in Ottawa, Canada and beyond have been policed.”
This story has been produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.