Last week, I jaywalked right in front of a police cruiser. The officers smiled and nodded as we made eye contact. #CrimingWhileWhite
If you haven’t yet seen them, #CrimingWhileWhite, and its companion #AliveWhileBlack, are open Twitter discussions borne out of the last few weeks’ public outrage in the United States (and beyond) over the grand jury decisions first in Ferguson, Mo. and later in New York City. In both cases, the grand juries decided that charges were not warranted against the police officers who killed 18-year-old Michael Brown and father of six, Eric Garner.
The common thread running through these stories is that Brown and Garner were both black men, killed by police officers in circumstances which demanded far greater judicial investigation than either of them received. The incidents are part of a disturbing trend of violence and discrimination by police against black men in the United States.
It does happen here
As often seems to happen when something goes wrong in the United States, Canadians have dug up that tired trope: "we're so lucky to be Canadian. That could never happen here."
The problem? It does happen here. It’s been happening here for decades and there is no end in sight. But in Manitoba and throughout Canada, it is Aboriginal Peoples who are the targets.
'Approximately 70 per cent of inmates in Manitoba correctional institutions are aboriginal, despite that community only making up roughly 15 per cent of the general population' - Corey Shefman
Nearly a quarter century ago, Manitoba’s landmark Aboriginal Justice Inquiry began its report, noting that:
“The justice system has failed Manitoba’s Aboriginal people on a massive scale. It has been insensitive and inaccessible, and has arrested and imprisoned Aboriginal people in grossly disproportionate numbers. Aboriginal people who are arrested are more likely than non-Aboriginal people to be denied bail, spend more time in pre-trial detention and spend less time with their lawyers, and, if convicted, are more likely to be incarcerated.”
Today, each of those markers of what the authors of the report rightly called the failure of the justice system, remain just as present and problematic.
While perhaps not as in your face, racism pervades our institutions as insidiously as in the United States.
Approximately 70 per cent of inmates in Manitoba correctional institutions are aboriginal, despite that community only making up roughly 15 per cent of the general population.
That's a problematic enough statistic without knowing that 60 per cent of people in Manitoba prisons are in fact not serving time for a crime — they're in pre-trial custody. In other words, it is likely that almost half of the people in Manitoba prisons are Aboriginal Peoples who are presumed innocent and yet remain in custody, their freedom taken away.
Shockingly, the overrepresentation of Aboriginal Peoples in Canadian prisons is by most estimates far worse on a proportional basis than the oft-discussed overrepresentation of African-Americans in US prisons.
The violence by police against black men and boys in the United States, exemplified by the killings of Brown, Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by a police officer mere seconds after he was seen with a toy gun (in a state which permits the open carrying of real guns), is simply an extreme iteration of an institutionalized racism that exists in Canada as well. This is a racism that festers throughout our institutions, from the way health-care funding is allocated to the patrol routes of police and police cadets.
No simple solution
Cultural sensitivity training isn’t going to cut it.
The awareness that the protests throughout the United States have brought to the institutional racism faced by Black America is an enormously positive first step. The inundation of social media with conversations and images addressing the crisis will expose an insulated population to the realities of racialized America.
For the first time since Martin Luther King Jr. demanded an end to police brutality in his "I have a Dream" speech, Western society writ large is being forced to acknowledge, accept and address the violence, racism and structural inequities which define our justice system.
Next step: national inquiry
In Canada, the demands for a national inquiry into the missing and murdered indigenous women, renewed following the death of Tina Fontaine this summer, were a hint that some Canadians are beginning to awaken to our own national crisis.
But the scale hasn’t tipped yet in Canada. While some hoped that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission might expose the issues, its impact appears to have been limited.
A broad national inquiry with a clear mandate and a political commitment to implement its recommendations is the next logical step.
This national inquiry must address not just the crisis facing Aboriginal Peoples in Canada but the institutional biases present throughout the system. A commitment to an open and frank dialogue taking place throughout the Canadian polity is the only way for progress to be made.
It remains to be seen whether Canadians, and our leaders, are willing to take the difficult steps necessary to make the changes needed.
Corey Shefman is a Winnipeg-based lawyer and activist.
#CrimingWhileWhite is a hashtag used on Twitter to curate discussion, in which white Americans give examples of their privileged treatment by the authorities. #CrimingWhileWhite tweets usually feature a white person describing an encounter with law enforcement which resulted in them being let go without punishment.
#AliveWhileBlack is a hashtag on Twitter, likely created in response to #CrimingWhileWhite, which curates a discussion largely among Black Americans. Tweets featuring #AliveWhileBlack usually give examples of the authors’ mistreatment by police.