comscore Not just a U.S. problem: Black lives matter here, too, Canadians say | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Not just a U.S. problem: Black lives matter here, too, Canadians say

By Dan Levin

New York Times

TORONTO >> Police shootings and abuses are all-too-familiar flashpoints in the United States’ tense national conversation about race, privilege and power, but until recently, many Canadians believed that those problems stopped on the American side of the border.

That belief has been eroded by a growing protest movement in Toronto, fueled by several police shootings of black Canadians. The protests have laid bare the frustrations of black residents who say their complaints about discrimination and abuse, including being singled out for a police practice called carding, have been ignored for too long by the Canadian establishment.

Amadeus Marquez, 29, who is black, said that ever since he was in elementary school, police had regularly stopped him to ask what he was doing. As he grew older, he said, they also demanded identification. Asking why, he quickly discovered, was not an option.

“I’ve had a cop throw me onto the hood of a car or tell me he’s going to break my jaw, just to see my ID,” said Marquez, a chef and a dancer who grew up in Toronto, Canada’s most populous city. Many of his friends have experienced similar treatment from police, he said.

The street checks, called carding, were supposed to be colorblind, but Canadian studies have found that blacks are far more likely to be carded than whites. And Marquez said his mother had taught him early on that it could be dangerous to refuse. “Black parents’ biggest fear is their kid getting shot by a police officer,” he said.

Accusations of racism and police brutality have been fanned by a number of police killings of black men in and around Toronto in recent years, and charges have generally not been brought against the officers involved.

Black Lives Matter Toronto, led by a small group of young activists, began in 2014 as an expression of solidarity for Michael Brown, an African-American teenager who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. But the movement has grown in size and anger with the recognition, activists and residents say, that black people in Toronto and across Canada face the same types of prejudices as their American counterparts, while a similar pattern of impunity protects the police.

“People in the U.S. might be surprised, or not, to learn that racism doesn’t respect the imagined line of the 49th parallel,” said Sandy Hudson, 30, a graduate student at the University of Toronto and a founder of the chapter.

On social media and through street protests, Black Lives Matter activists in Toronto are pushing for changes in how the city and the province of Ontario treat black residents. They want greater police accountability and the abolition of a provincial policy that permits the government to keep secret the identities of officers involved in shootings.

Yet some Canadians have criticized the group, saying that racism toward blacks “is an American problem,” Hudson said.

As in the United States, the Canadian protest movement erupted after police shootings of black men.

Jermaine Carby, 33, was fatally shot by police in September 2014 after he was pulled over in a city outside Toronto and, police said, he refused to drop a knife. Investigators from the provincial Special Investigations Unit, an independent civilian agency that examines serious injuries, sexual assaults and deaths involving police, did not find a knife at the scene. A police sergeant turned one in several hours later, in what the unit’s director later described as evidence tampering. None of the officers involved in the episode were charged, disciplined or even identified publicly.

Andrew Loku, 45, a mentally ill black man who had immigrated from South Sudan, was shot dead outside his apartment in July after he refused to put down a hammer. A few days after his death, protesters blocked a local highway and demanded that the officers be identified and charged.

When officials decided in March not to charge the officers, activists camped outside Toronto Police Headquarters for 15 days, going home only after the provincial premier, Kathleen Wynne, met with them and agreed to hold a public consultation, and the City Council voted unanimously to have the provincial government review the investigations unit through an “anti-black racism” lens.

Facing intense pressure, the coroner announced an inquest into Loku’s death, and Mayor John Tory of Toronto agreed to meet publicly with activists in April after months of refusing to do so.

“There have been a couple of bumps along the way,” Tory said in a telephone interview, during which he promised to change policies that marginalized blacks. “Nobody should feel targeted or left out or unfairly treated.”

Grass-roots organizers say they have no intention of laying down their banners until deeper systemic problems are addressed, including high rates of poverty and unemployment among black Canadians; a lack of educational opportunities; and police harassment, particularly against gay or transgender black people.

“There’s so much more to do,” said Pascale Diverlus, 21, a journalism student and a founder of the Black Lives Matter chapter. “We know we’re in for a long battle to see an end to anti-black racism in this city and country.”

Government statistics illustrate the challenges black Canadians face. They make up less than 3 percent of the national population but 10 percent of the inmates in federal prisons, and represent the fastest-growing group in such prisons. Just 8 percent of Toronto’s youth population is black, but 41 percent of the children who are removed from their families and placed in the care of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto are black.

The issues raised by Black Lives Matter in Toronto are not new. Nor is black activism.

A wave of police shootings of black men more than 15 years ago prompted residents to form the Black Action Defense Committee, and the government to form the Special Investigations Unit to look into the shootings. But according to reports from the Ontario Ombudsman, the unit’s work has been hampered, first by pro-police bias, and then by interference from the provincial Ministry of the Attorney General when the unit has tried to introduce changes.

High on the list of grievances among black Toronto residents is carding, which police officers have used to collect personal information for a vast secret database. The Toronto Police Service says it does not compile or release race-based data on carding stops.

The practice was suspended by Toronto police last year, and the provincial government issued regulations meant to end arbitrary police stops, particularly those based on race. But black residents say police in Toronto and elsewhere continue to question them arbitrarily or claim they “fit the description” of a suspect.

“I feel that I’m obliged to do what the police want,” said Michael Upfold, 21, who is studying for a real estate brokerage license. “If you don’t, something could happen. They’re holding their guns.”

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