Stephen McNeil 'startled' black people subject to street checks so often

Nova Scotia’s premier says he was dismayed to learn of statistics showing how frequently black people are street checked by police, but he says the province has no plans to strip or limit police’s ability to stop people.

Premier says legislators shouldn't tell police how to do their jobs

Premier Stephen McNeil says it isn't lawmakers' role to tell police or the judiciary how to enforce the law. (CBC)

Nova Scotia's premier says he was dismayed to learn how frequently black people are street checked by police, but says the province has no plans to strip or limit the ability of officers to stop people. 

"I don't think anyone wants the politicians to reach across to tell our police enforcement this is what you can do or not do today. Or go into the justice system and tell the justice system how to respond and act to it," Stephen McNeil said Thursday. 

McNeil was responding to reports black people are three times more likely to be street checked by Halifax Regional Police. Forty one per cent of street checks done by RCMP around Halifax this year also involved people identified as black.

Not a positive picture

In most cases, a check involves an interaction between an officer and an individual or a group of people. Sometimes it is an observation, with no communication between the officer and person. Checks are recorded, with details such as age, gender, location, reason and ethnicity.

McNeil said it wasn't clear if the statistics showed any type of racism, but they don't "give a positive picture for our province and our municipality." 

"I don't think it's acceptable anywhere. I think I was startled like most Nova Scotians with the stats that were brought out," the premier told reporters Thursday.

Ontario has introduced stringent rules for carding, also known as street checks. The new rules say police officers cannot arbitrarily or randomly stop and question citizens.

In Calgary, police say they are revising the practice, following allegations street checks amount to racial profiling.  

History of systemic racism

Nova Scotia needs to look at the information, McNeil said, but he doesn't plan to tell police how to do their jobs. 

"It's our right to make laws, it's our responsibility to make them. It's up to law enforcement to enforce them and the judiciary."

​Systemic racism has historically been a problem in the province, he said, pointing to the abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, a former Halifax orphanage. 

Boat Harbour in Pictou County, which contains the remnants of decades of pulp mill effluent and other industrial residues discharged near Pictou Landing First Nation, is another "prime example."

'Province is poorer for that' 

"That would not have happened, in my view, had it happened in any other community but an Aboriginal community," he said. 

There is a restorative inquiry underway examining what happened at the Home for Colored Children "as a lens to look at broader systemic issues in Nova Scotia," said Chad Lucas, who heads up communications for the inquiry. That includes how African-Nova Scotians in particular are treated by public institutions, he said.   

The inquiry runs until March 2018.

Hearing from minorities about their interactions with the province's institutions is one of its priorities, McNeil said. 

"Far too many Nova Scotians of minorities see those institutions not as a positive, helpful institutions, they see them as adversarial. I think our province is poorer for that." 

With files from Jean Laroche