Canada Has Its Own Racist Structures to Dismantle

The focus of the world’s media can make it seem like racism and the “War on Drugs” are primarily United States problems. US harm reductionists often compare their country’s policies unfavorably with those of Canada. But as drug-user activists in Canada, we want to underline that systemic racism is rife in our society—much of it inflicted through our own racist drug war, situated in the legacy of colonialism, and driven by plain white supremacy with a badge.

Since the video of the death of George Floyd went viral, at least two women of color have been killed in policing incidents in Canada. On May 27, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Black woman, fell from the 24th-story balcony of her family’s apartment in Toronto, after a police check in on her following a 911 call. According to a CBC report, “Mom, help. Mom, help,” were the final words that her mother, who was in the hallway outside the apartment, heard her say. Then there was silence. Security footage of the incident has still not been released.

Then on June 4, Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman, was shot dead by police in Edmundston, New Brunswick after the police performed a wellness check. What kind of wellness check ends up with a gun being fired?

Some people seem to think Canada is immune to racism, but it is all around us.

More recently, on June 10, Rodney Levi, an Indigenous man, was killed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in New Brunswick when they responded to a complaint about a man who allegedly had knives. After officers repeatedly used a stun gun on Levi, one of them shot him, committing another government-sanctioned killing.

Some people seem to think Canada is immune to racism, but it is all around us. Since the arrival of COVID-19, at least nine Indigenous people have been killed by police in Canada; many more have been assaulted, threatened and harassed. An analysis by CTV revealed that of 66 people shot and killed by police since 2017, 25 were Indigenous—a finding that suggests that an Indigenous person is more than 10 times likelier than a white person to be killed by police.

In April of this year alone, Winnipeg police killed three Indigenous people in 10 days. Eisha Hudson, a 16-year-girl; Jason Collins, a 36 year-old man; and Stewart Kevin Andrews, a 22-year-old man, all died in Manitoba at the hands of the police. That same month, Everett Patrick, a 42-year-old Indigenous man, was killed after being arrested by the RCMP in Prince George, British Columbia.

And Regis Korchinski-Paquet was not the only death in May. Abraham Natanine, a 31-year-old Indigenous man in Nunavut, was also killed that month.

The current international mood is at least encouraging some moves towards accountability, however inadequate. The RCMP is now being investigated by the Ottawa Police over five separate incidents, some of which ended in deathsincluding one person who is unidentified, a fact that somehow makes it feel even more shocking. Another incident involved a police officer hitting an intoxicated man with a truck.

Protesters in Edmonton, Alberta. Photograph by Jasmine Blake.

This has been going on for way too long. It needs to end, and the only way that will happen is to defund governmental police organizations like the RCMP.

The RCMP’s commissioner said that she “struggled” with the term “systemic racism.”

The RCMP started in 1873 to police the NorthWest Territories. It was created with the top priority of controlling the traffic of liquor to Indigenous people, and supposedly to “gain respect and confidence and to break old practices by tact and patience.” How many Indigenous people have prohibition laws enabled the RCMP to kill with racist motives?

This month, despite everything that is coming to light in Canada and around the world, the RCMP’s commissioner, Brenda Lucki, said that she “struggled” with the term “systemic racism.” Of course she struggles with it; she’s the leader of one of the most systemically racist authorities in the world. Although she quickly issued a statement to walk back her comment, we all now know how she really feels.

She still ended that statement with the words, I am proud to be the Commissioner of what I believe to be the greatest police organization in the world.” How anyone could be proud to be a leader of an authoritarian system through which people are demonstrably being killed because of the color of their skin defies belief.

The latest spate of deaths happened around a year after the federal government launched a national inquiry into the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Between 2001 and 2015, if you were an Indigenous woman or girl, you were almost six times more likely to be murdered than a non-Indigenous woman. Structural oppression and racism factored into why serial killer Robert Picton, for example, was able to kill up to 49 women, mainly Indigenous sex workers in British Columbia, between 1983 and 2002.

Indigenous communities are demanding action. The Healing Walk K’jipuktuk (the Mi’kmaq name for Halifax) involved hundreds of Indigenous people and allies on and took place on June 11. It was one of several such events in the region following the killing of Chantel Moore. Organizers were asked to read and follow a protocol created by Dr. Imelda Perley, a former Elder-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick.

She reminded us that a healing walk is very different from the European concept of a “protest.”

“This is not our traditional word, we instead use ‘Ikatomone’ (eek-gut-moh-neh), which translates to ‘let’s guard’ our way of life, our languages, our ceremonies, our rights to declare justice,” she told CBC.

We have to take away funds from the police and return them to the communities harmed.

Colonization and the genocidal killing and displacement of Indigenous people, Afro-Indigenous people and anyone of color should not be understood in merely historical terms, but as a continuing reality. European settlers who haven’t come to acknowledge their role, including through silence, in racist oppression, mass incarceration and death must be confronted with these ugly truths, and with their own privilege.

Defunding or abolishing the police are essential to empower the communities that are suffering. We have to take away funds from the police and return them to the communities harmed—and by that, we do not mean just hiring more social workers. Social workers have been taking Indigenous kids away from their families for a long time, notably during the “Sixties Scoop” and ever since. Although they don’t call themselves police, they are too often instruments of exploitation and control.

Resources should be directed to where impacted communities themselves want them—programs that may include, but should not be limited to, community-led mental health and addiction services, housing, harm reduction services and culturally sensitive training and education.

It’s time to follow the leadership of both Black Lives Matter and the movements of Indigenous peoples, like the Assembly of First Nations and the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society—together with the many other groups that have been fighting for and serving marginalized populations. It’s time to be open-minded, to ask questions and listen to the answers, and to accept the discomfort and self-criticism that may follow.

Protesters in Toronto. Photograph by Iye Sanneh.

We drug users who have been on the front lines of the drug war, those of us who know something of oppression while acknowledging our white privilege and complicity in colonialism, have an extra responsibility to stand up against the genocidal practices that we see around us.

Organizers of the Healing Walk K’jipuktuk passed out slips of paper bearing the names of eight Indigenous people killed by police forces in Canada since April. But Rodney Levi was killed just the night before the walk, which meant his name wasn’t on the paper. That’s how fast Indigenous lives are being lost.

At a peaceful rally in Toronto at the end of May, you could hear shouts of “Not another Black life,” “Abolish the police,” and “No justice, no peace” as thousands demanded justice for any Black or Indigenous person killed by police. Is that too much to ask for?

This is only a beginning. We must unite to dismantle the racist criminal justice systems that have been allowed to flourish for far too long.


Top photograph of the Healing Walk K’jipuktuk by Matthew Bonn.

Shanell Twan & Matthew Bonn

Shanell is an outreach worker and core team supervisor at a harm reduction program in Edmonton, Alberta. She is also the facilitator of the Edmonton chapter of AAWEAR As It Is (Alberta Addicts Who Educate Advocate Responsibly), a network that builds the capacity of people who use substances so their voices can be heard and their health improved. Shanell is also a board member for the province of Alberta for the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs (CAPUD).   Matthew is the program coordinator with CAPUD, and a National Board member with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP). He’s a research coordinator, freelance writer and current drug user.

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