Thursday March 09, 2017

Yes, Canada, anti-black racism lives here: journalist Desmond Cole

The Skin We're In – Intervening With the Police 1:47

Listen 24:13

Read story transcript

Journalist and activist Desmond Cole wants to talk about a difficult subject many here in Canada would rather not confront: anti-black racism. ​

"There's no domain in Canadian life that racism, and anti-black racism, doesn't exist," Cole says in the CBC documentary, The Skin We're In  — tracing the story of anti-black racism in Canada. 

The Skin We're In – Systemic Racism1:24

He tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti racism doesn't affect everyone in the same way and it's important to acknowledge there is a a difference.

"I always think for example of the term anti-Semitism which everybody understands is racism but as a specific kind of racism that affects Jewish people in specific ways," Cole explains. 

The Skin We're In

The Skin We're In, a film by Desmond Cole and Charles Officer, airs March 9 on CBC. (CBC Docs)

"Anti-black racism is denoting the same thing, it's saying that racism is happening to black people in this country and all over the world in specific ways, in specific contexts, with a specific history behind it. So you can't just say racism to cover all forms of discrimination — it happens to different people differently." 

'Anywhere we go, we're finding that the police always seem to have an excuse to stop us and ask us what our business is.' - Desmond Cole

Cole says it's important to notice anti-black racism is happening in Canada because he says it manifests itself in the world in specific ways. He points to an an example of black men and women who are followed in stores when shopping. 

"This is something that's very specific to us as black people but it plays into a larger idea of anti-blackness that says that our bodies are a danger that always needs to be contained — wherever we're going we need to be scrutinized by security or police even if we're just shopping in the store because we might get out of hand."

Police carding

Cole has documented his interactions with police in a 2015 award-winning story pointing to at least 50 times where the police in Toronto, Kingston and across southern Ontario interrogated him because he is black. And according to a Toronto Star investigation, it's 17 times more likely that a black person will be carded — or stopped by police to provide personal information — over a white person in Toronto's core.

'If you can be a black person here, and there's black people who are enslaved, you can never really walk free.' - Source

Related: Here's what you need to know about carding

"This is what's happening to black people ... anywhere we go, we're finding that the police always seem to have an excuse to stop us and ask us what our business is," Cole tells Tremonti.

He suggests this is historically important because in the 1780s, in Nova Scotia, black Loyalists who had fought with the British were promised freedom but slavery was still legal. Slavery was not abolished across the British colonies until 1833. 

'We don't want to talk about our own history and that was really a big part for me in wanting to make this documentary.' - Desmond Cole

"So we're talking about 50 years of black people being here in mass numbers while slavery still exists, while people all around them are enslaved on ... now Canadian soil," Cole expalins.  

"If you can be a black person here, and there's black people who are enslaved, you can never really walk free."


​McGill legacy

Canada's legacy of slavery includes James McGill, after whom the University of McGill is named.  

James McGill Statue 20160621

A statue of James McGill, founder of the McGill University. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Cole shares his story of McGill who enslaved six people - including two black people. One of the women he enslaved has his name in the historical records "because she was his property." 

"So people need to understand that the guy who built that massive university empire ... that guy's an enslaver and we're honouring him," Cole tells Tremonti.

"We don't want to talk about our own history and that was really a big part for me in wanting to make this documentary, is to say when we have to focus on Canada without relation to anybody else it's sobering. It teaches us a lot about our history and a lot about why we're having the situations we're having today."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.