We're smug about violent racism in the U.S., but there's blood on Canadian hands, too

The never-ending list of names of Black and Indigenous people taken fatally by our police continues to grow, with most of the country unaware of these injustices, writes Alexa Joy.

The collective denial that racist violence happens in Canada is incomprehensible

Protesters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa hold placards during a June 5, 2020, rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

This column is an opinion by Alexa Joy, a researcher, journalist, and graduate student at The New School for Social Research. She also hosts CBC Uncensored, a segment on CBC Radio One in Winnipeg, as a freelancer. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

There's a strange thing that happens in Canada when we are exposed to the murders of Black people in the U.S. Every time we bear witness to the violation of Black lives in America, Canadians relish in smuggery.

It's incomprehensible to me that we share this collective denial and are shocked every time the news reports on yet another Black life taken with violence — though we easily dismiss the blood on our country's hands.

From the assault of Dalia Kafi in 2017 by Calgary police officer Alex Dunn, to three incidents last year — the shooting and killing of Eishia Hudson by Winnipeg police, the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet involving the Toronto police, or the fatal shooting of Chantal Moore by Edmundston police in New Brunswick — assaults and killings of Black, Indigenous and people of colour by police continue unabated.

It's often misunderstood that police brutality is only seen through a camera lens, or that it is only characterized by gun violence. But police brutality takes on many forms. 

It's a system of white supremacy that begets more violence.

These are some of my honest frustrations seeing the Canadian reaction to anti-Blackness in the U.S.

This month commenced the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of murder in the killing of George Floyd during his arrest. On May 25, 2020, the world watched in horror and outrage as George Floyd lay unconscious on the pavement for nine minutes and 29 seconds under the knee of Chauvin, who now faces prosecution.

WATCH | Minneapolis police chief testifies that use of force against George Floyd violated policy and training:

Use of force against George Floyd violated policy, Minneapolis police chief testifies

3 years ago
Duration 1:57
Featured VideoThe chief of Minneapolis police testified the amount of force Derek Chauvin used on George Floyd violated department policy, and the crime Floyd was accused of, passing a counterfeit $20 bill, did not warrant taking him into custody.

Almost one year after Floyd's death, I'm still numb and find it hard to watch the trial.

Of course, my apprehensions over becoming emotionally invested in the trial are clouded with fear of what the results might be, though I wouldn't be surprised if the outcome sees Chauvin walk as a free man. I'm also confident that most Black people will not be surprised if the trial results in Chauvin not convicted. We've seen it before, let's hope we won't see it again.

This quote from Philip Dray's 2003 book, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, illuminates this collective distrust we share in Black communities:

"Is it possible for white America to really understand Blacks' distrust of the legal system, their fears of racial profiling, and the police, without understanding how cheap a Black life was for so long a time in our nation's history?"

My lack of trust in the state of Minnesota's criminal justice system cries an exhaustive ache, and begs the question: why should this trial matter to Canadians?

To answer this, I am hesitant to expand on the reasons why it should. I'm beyond trying to convince others why Black people should have the right to live, though we still hear this debate unfold in public opinion: "What happened before the camera was on?," or "It was the necessary force," or "Not all cops are pigs." And our national rebuttal, "That doesn't happen here."

The last sentiment is our greatest flaw.

Unfortunately, Canadians have mastered the art of denial, escaping our past through false politeness. And even with those of us on the front lines disrupting this narrative, it still does not feel like we've accepted who we are. Some of us know exactly who we are, while others are suppressed in an ignorant daze, and it's this ignorance that is overwhelming.

I know we're no different than our American neighbours, but what good is this belief if the general majority disagrees? As Black activists, scholars, creatives, and researchers in Canada continue to shatter this falsehood we still have such a long way to go, but I always wonder if it's worth it, to constantly explain our humanity to others.

The hopes I shared of Canadians having our "aha'' moment were dashed last year when people left their homes in droves across the country to show their solidarity for George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet (of course, Floyd's story heard a little louder than Korchinski-Paquet's — another shortcoming of Canadians). It was the summer of white guilt, as I like to call it.

Family and friends of Regis Korchinski-Paquet lead protesters in Toronto on May 30, 2020. They marched to highlight the deaths in the U.S. of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and in Canada of Toronto's Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who died after falling from an apartment building while police officers were present. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

White people threw money at Black nonprofits, collectives, and businesses. Justin Trudeau went down on one knee in front of Parliament. As we were all ordered to stay home, even some of the "Karens" took to the streets or sent e-transfers, all as a desperate plea urging Black folks in Canada not to compare them to white folks in the U.S. — "please, that's not us, we are nothing like that, take our money."

Excuse my sarcastic tone, but last summer was a hot mess and left me in a state of cynicism and exhaustion.

As we see the Chauvin trial unfold in the coming weeks, I'm not certain Canadians will use this as an opportunity to teach themselves not only about American anti-Blackness but also the injustices happening in Canada. The lives lost — from Regis Korchinski-Paquet (Toronto, 2020), to Abdirahman Abdi (Ottawa, 2016), Machuar Madut (Winnipeg, 2019), D'Andre Campbell (Brampton, 2020), and the countless others — need attention and justice.

It's shameful that we stay complacent in our smugness, when the resources are out there.

Pick up Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard, or Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson, Syrus Marcus Ware and the voices of Black Canadian activists. Read The Skin We're In by Desmond Cole, Fighting and Healing from White Supremacy by Rachel Ricketts, and the works of Dionne Brand, Guyleigh Johnson, Sylvia D. Hamilton.

Watch a film by Charles Officer, or the story of John Ware. Educate yourself about historic Black communities across the country (Africville, N.S., and Hogan's Alley, B.C.).

Support the grassroots collectives in your community outside of traumatic events.

It's not that difficult.

What seems to remain difficult, however, is facing and accepting the truth about ourselves, our country, our history, and our fear of what might happen if we chose to leave this state of ignorance.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.


  • This story has been updated to clarify the author's argument regarding police conduct to better articulate her view that the existence of violent white supremacy in our society created conditions that makes it more likely that Black, Indigenous and people of colour will be met with violence in a police encounter.
    Apr 28, 2021 2:29 PM ET


Alexa Joy is a researcher, journalist and graduate student at The New School for Social Research.