Cross Country Checkup·ASK ME ANYTHING

People who deny racism exists in Canada are 'like people who deny climate change,' says El Jones

Poet and activist El Jones is one of a growing chorus of voices calling on Canadians to speak out against racism within our borders, and calling attention that anti-Black racism isn't limited to the United States.

'People who deny that racism exists in Canada are not paying attention to our history,' says poet and activist

El Jones is an award-winning poet, activist, journalism instructor and columnist for the Halifax Examiner. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Poet and activist El Jones is one of a growing chorus of voices calling on Canadians to speak out against racism within our borders, and calling attention that anti-Black racism isn't limited to the United States.

Jones helped organize a rally in Halifax last weekend in the name of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, the 29-year-old Toronto woman with Nova Scotia roots who fell to her death from a highrise building. Questions have swirled since, with Korchinski-Paquet's family, community advocates and various politicians asking what happened in the lead-up to her death.

The march follows over a week of protests in the U.S., including violent clashes with heavily armed police forces, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Jones, who is also a journalism instructor at the University of King's College and the fifth Poet Laureate of Halifax, spoke with Checkup host Duncan McCue about Canada's relationship with its own legacy of racism during the show's Ask Me Anything segment.

Here's part of their conversation.

There is … an anti-Black racism conversation going on here in Canada as a result of what happened in the states. And I wonder why do you think that it takes an American tragedy like what happened to George Floyd to spark that conversation here in Canada?

Well, that's very typical of Canada. Canada's view on race and particularly on Blackness when it comes to race is that it's a problem that exists "over there." So you frequently hear things like that doesn't happen here. We don't have the same kind of policing.

But in fact, when you look at history, you can see that Canada — I talk in the article I wrote in The Washington Post very briefly about the Shelburne race riots, which are the first recorded race riots in North America, which is white settlers burning down Black people.

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      We can look at our immigration laws and then we look at current reports, whether that's the Ontario Human Rights report on killings by the police in Ontario, whether that's UN report that called racism in Canada deplorable.

      So we see all this evidence in every field on how Black people in Canada experience anti-Black racism that has this huge effect on health, livelihood, how we can walk, how we can live, whether we can cross the street or be in a store.

      You do hear a lot of talk this past couple of weeks that we aren't the U.S., when it comes to the way that racism exists in Canada. What goes through your head when you hear people say that?

      Well, we aren't the U.S. in that we have our own distinct history and our own cultural context. And of course, another part of being in Canada is we're so overwhelmed by, you know, imperial American culture, our popular culture, our TV.

      So it is important to situate what we're experiencing within Canadian history. But that's different from saying racism is a phenomenon that doesn't happen here.

      We tend to view ourselves that way as sort of the lesser that doesn't mean as much the United States. But that's different from, I think, minimizing the very real histories of racism here that have taken place in a particular way.

      Can I be really blunt? From your assessment, are we a racist country?

      Yes. And I don't think that's an accusatory statement. That's just a factual reality. So I think this is rather like people who deny climate change. Racism deniers are simply not on the side of the evidence.

      Again, I could list report after report after report after statistic that have been done over and over again in this country … So in a sense, to debate it, is rather just like debating a flat-earther. People who want to deny that racism exists in Canada are not paying attention to our history.

      One of the big calls coming from this movement has been defunding the police. … There may be some confusion about what it means to defund the police. So how do you define it?

      I define it as redistributing the resources into communities. So what we've seen over the last few decades is that as social services are increasingly cut, and we're told under austerity we can't pay for that, we see police budgets exploding.

      So in Toronto, over a billion dollars, which is, I believe, half the municipal budget. When you look at municipal budgets, policing takes up so much of this budget. And a lot of it is in salaries, because a lot of police, with all the overtime they make, are the ones on the Sunshine List, the people that make over $100,000.

      So rather than investing in punishment and policing, the conversation around defunding is about where we put our resources. Do we put them into criminalizing people who are mentally ill, or do we put them into funding the resources we need as communities to actually heal people, which is what actually prevents crime?

      Dealing with addiction, dealing with mental health, getting safe housing for people, having the resources in community to make sure people are employed, having the resources to make sure that people can deal with trauma and everything else. That is actually effective.

      When asked on Thursday if he would be willing to take a hit to the police budget to free up more money for community groups doing that kind of work, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders wouldn't answer directly. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

      You mentioned the Toronto police force and the amount of money that's spent there. I want to play a clip from Mark Saunders. He's Toronto's chief of police. Here's what he had to say about the question of defunding.

      Right now, we've got a responsibility. We've got a role. And that role is to keep the community safe. Now, we need other agencies to help offload those responsibilities of helping the at-risk, of helping the high-risk. Then we can start talking about the reduction. But until then, it would be naive to reduce police officers who right now, when you look at the numbers versus the calls, we're not near where we need to be as a community.

      Mark Saunders was being pretty blunt there, saying it's naive to start cutting police budgets. What do you think, make of that, when they're already struggling to make demands now?

      Well, Mark Saunders is speaking as though he is a passive agent in all of this. "Oh, I just don't know what we can do." When in fact, of course, Mark Saunders has consistently advocated for the budget that they have.

      People have done all kinds of studies showing where they can streamline, showing how resources can be cut. And again, so much of this is concentrated in salary, but studies show that those salaries aren't resulting in more one-on-one police time.

      So this idea that they just can't do anything about the budget they have, I don't accept that. And also, cities need to not accept that, and be redistributing those resources.

      Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair was Toronto's chief of police during the G20 summit protests and mass arrests in 2010. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

      We reached out to Canada's minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, Bill Blair, to try to get his input on the question of defunding police departments. He wasn't available, sadly, but he did provide us with a statement:

      Indigenous people, Black Canadians and other racialized communities still face systemic barriers in Canada and that racism often takes form in interactions with law enforcement. We are working hard to make our systems more just and have taken many steps in the right direction. We also know there's much work to do.

      What would you say to people that are concerned that if cities start to defund the police, violence and crime are going to increase?

      Well, let's talk about what Bill Blair did in his time as police chief. Bill Blair was the police chief of Toronto doing the G20 protests, and he participated in one of the greatest violations of civil rights of Canadians in history.

      There were thousands of people that were illegitimately arrested, held without charges, held in conditions. And we all saw those videos…. So the idea that police prevent crime? In fact, police are committing a number of crimes.

      One of the myths here is that public safety is maintained by ever increasing the police force, and not that it's gained by actually preventing crime and addressing social problems.


      Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Steve Howard.

      Clarifications

      • A previous version of this story included a photo caption that referred to El Jones as a professor. In fact, she is an instructor.
        Jun 11, 2020 4:30 PM ET

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