Special UN group visiting Canada to study anti-black racism

A United Nations working group is visiting Canada this week to study racism against black people in the country, and is spending some time in Ottawa.
About 50 people attended the UN's Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent's Ottawa meeting and panel discussion on Monday night. (Stu Mills/CBC)

A special United Nations working group is in Canada this week to study racism against black people in the country.

The five-member team is making its first official visit to the country and spent some time in Ottawa.

The African Canadian Legal Clinic helped to host a panel discussion with the working group at the Catholic Immigration Centre on Monday night, moderated by Ewart Walters, the former editor and publisher of Ottawa's black newspaper, the Spectrum, which ended in 2013.

"Essentially, our aim is to study the human rights situation of people of African descent and to consider issues of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and Afrophobia against people of African descent in Canada," said Ricardo Sunga, who heads the expert group.

"The fact that the Canadian government officially invited us is an expression of its intent and desire to co-operate with us."

Studying Canadian practices, conflicts

"We're hoping that by bringing light to some of the issues that are impacting the black community, the UN working group can have something to work on, in terms of a solution," said Lavinia Latham, a lawyer with the African Canadian Legal Clinic, which addresses anti-black racism.

"This is the first time that this fact-finding mission has actually found its way into Canada and that is a really fundamentally important moment for us Canadians," she said.

"I feel really good about it."

Sunga said the working group will study Canadian best practices but also consider instances where conflict may have had a racial dimension. 

Dahabo Ahmed Omer, a co-chair of the group Justice for Abdirahman, says she wants better police oversight and transparency. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Racial profiling

Specifically, the chair said his working group would look at random police checks, or what is sometimes called police carding.

He said the team would also study possible issues of racial profiling in Canada and instances where police violence has ended in the death of people of African descent.

Dahabo Ahmed Omer — a co-chair of the group Justice for Abdirahman — came to the event to make a short presentation to the panel on access to justice.

Justice for Abdirahman formed in the summer shortly after a Somali-Canadian named Abdirahman Abdi lost vital signs during an Ottawa police arrest in Hintonburg and later died. Ontario's police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, is probing the death.

'I want a better oversight'

"I want a better oversight of the police services," said Ahmed Omer.

"The Special Investigations Unit isn't living up to its standard or its mandate and it's losing its credibility and its transparency."

David Onyalo of the Canadian Labour Congress also presented on the topic of employment and migrant workers.

What I would say in Ottawa is that, for the black community, there's too many underemployed black people.- David Onyalo, Canadian Labour Congress

"What I would say in Ottawa is that, for the black community, there's too many underemployed black people," said Onyalo.

"They have all kinds of credentials: they're professionals, they're engineers, they're professors. They come here, there's no jobs," he said. "It's very important. If you can't work, if you can't feed your kids, if you have no money coming in, your sense of self-worth diminishes very rapidly."

The UN group will travel next to Toronto, Halifax and Montreal to meet with politicians, organizations and people working on issues of racism and discrimination.

The delegation will share its preliminary findings Friday on Parliament Hill.