The Current

Police brutality continually treated like a 'one-off' in Canada, says Desmond Cole

Journalist and activist Desmond Cole says it's time to disarm and defund the police and switch funding to care and prevention.

'The answer for the police is to stop policing and to start supporting and caring,' says Toronto journalist

Desmond Cole, an activist and journalist, says he's frustrated that media coverage of racism in Canada can be overshadowed by events in the U.S. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)
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Canadians need to have an "uncomfortable conversation" about police violence against black people — particularly around who benefits from it, says journalist Desmond Cole.

"The difficult conversation for me is racism isn't about some bad feelings inside somebody's heart, it's about power," said Cole, an activist and author of The Skin We're In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power.

"And when you keep power away from other people, there's more for you and your people," he told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"White folks are benefiting from this violence because the police are here to protect white people and their property."

If Minneapolis hadn't burned, would we be having this conversation about Toronto?- Desmond Cole

Speaking on CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup Sunday, writer Vicky Mochama said the question that should be asked is "what are white people willing to give up in a system that benefits and privileges them?" 

"We're in the middle of a pandemic where people have sacrificed for each other their health," said Mochama, the culture, society and critical race editor at news and commentary website The Conversation.

"But we're not yet recognizing how much other people could be sacrificing to ensure that black people are safe, that they experience the liberties and privileges that Canadians are supposed to have."

She said there is nowhere in Canada where black people will say, "'Oh, it's a haven here, it's utopia,'" adding that these Canadians experience "anti-black racism, existing in a system of white supremacy."

Toronto protest calls for answers

There have been widespread protests in Canadian and U.S. cities over the past week, following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was pinned to the ground by a white officer kneeling on his neck during his arrest. Four officers at the scene of the incident were fired last Tuesday. Derek Chauvin, seen in bystander video kneeling on Floyd's neck, was arrested and taken into custody Friday afternoon.

While many demonstrations were peaceful, some have been marked by violence, including officers being accused of excessive force, which has been at the heart of the protests

Protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere continue, as cries to prosecute the other three police officers at the scene during the death of George Floyd continue. There is a growing memorial for Floyd at the corner where he was pinned down by police until he reportedly stopped breathing.     6:32

In Toronto, a peaceful protest march Saturday called for answers about the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old black woman who fell from her family's 24th-floor apartment in the city last Wednesday, while police were in the home.

Ontario's police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, is looking into the case after family members initially said she had been pushed off a balcony by police.

In a statement released on Saturday, Knia Singh, the family's lawyer, said family members are "waiting on evidence from the investigation before any further conclusions can be made," adding that statements made prior to May 28 are not part of the official Korchinski-Paquet statement.

On Sunday, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders tweeted this thanks that the rally remained peaceful, and called for an expedited SIU investigation.

Cole attended Saturday's protest and said "it was a difficult, but powerful moment to be outside during a global pandemic, with people who recognize that that was a risk, but that there was also a risk in staying inside and sitting at home, when black people continue to die."

Ontario's police watchdog is investigating the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from her family's 24th-floor apartment in Toronto last Wednesday, while police were in the home. (Regis Paquet/Facebook)

He said he attended the scene on the night of Korchinski-Paquet's death.

"I arrived almost five hours after the police responded," he told Galloway.

"Regis's body was still on the ground underneath a tarp in a body bag — five hours," he said.

"For me, this is such a mundane, but clear example of anti-blackness — that's not about what the police did, but how the response happened afterwards."

In an email to The Current, Toronto police said the scene falls under the jurisdiction of Ontario's coroner's office. 

A spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Coroner said that "Ontario's coroners are very sensitive to protecting the dignity of those who have died."

"Coroners and other investigative stakeholders, including the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), are all required to investigate such a complex scene. Therefore, the time needed for examination of the deceased and the scene varies depending on the circumstances of the death."

The city endured a third night of protests and violence after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died in police custody. 0:49

Cole expressed frustration that he hasn't seen any reporting on how long it took to remove Korchinski-Paquet's body from the scene, and that it's an example of how more "sensational" stories in the U.S. can overshadow how the Canadian media addresses problems here.

"If Minneapolis hadn't burned, would we be having this conversation about Toronto?" he asked Galloway.

"I doubt it, and that's what's wrong with the way that our media is covering these issues."

'Defund the police'

Cole argued that it's time to "disarm and defund the police," and for funds to be redistributed to mental health services and initiatives that tackle poverty and systemic racism.

"Policing is violence, it's legalized right to use as much force as you want, up to taking someone's life, and then there being no legal consequences," he said.

Defunding 'would stop police from killing people,' Desmond Cole tells Matt Galloway. 1:09

A CBC analysis in 2018 found that 18 black men and one black boy were among the 52 people killed in encounters with Toronto police officers between 2000 and 2017. That is more than a third of the total figure. Of those 52 cases, seven Toronto police officers have faced charges after being involved in the death of a civilian. Only one was found guilty.

"We are all falling victims to police brutality and it's being treated every time like a one-off, and it's very insulting to see that," Cole said.

Thousands of people marched in Toronto Saturday, in a protest mirrored across North America. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

The same investigation found that most of those killed in encounters with police had mental health or substance abuse issues.

"We're sending people with a gun to somebody who is in crisis," Cole said.

"The answer for the police is to stop policing and to start supporting and caring."

Impact on Indigenous communities

The benefits of white supremacy are not built on the oppression of black communities alone, Cole said.

"White people have made careers managing the files of Indigenous children who are being taken from their families," he told Galloway.

"All the money that gets used in these ventures could be used to actually support families and keep them together in Indigenous communities," he said.

"But the racism says no, white people get to benefit, and everybody else gets to be administered."

If you assume that Aboriginal people are less than … then anything is fair game to put us in our place.- Myra Tait

Myra Tait, an instructor of Indigenous justice issues at the University of Winnipeg, said the problem stems from "an assumption of cultural superiority" that has shaped Canadian law over the decades.

"If you assume that Aboriginal people are less than, and that they need to be dealt with … then anything is fair game to put us in our place," said Tait, a member of Berens River First Nation in Manitoba.

Policing is one of the tools used in that silencing, she said. 

While Tait has found some hope in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work in bringing historical abuses to light, she said she is "often appalled by the profound ignorance of our leadership." 

"I don't simply mean government, but those who run corporations, lawyers, judges, law firms, businesses," she said.

"If those people who are in positions of power and … able to influence policy, if they have failed to educate themselves, then we're not going to see a lot of change."


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News and Thomson Reuters. Produced by Joana Draghici, Emily Rendell-Watson and Samira Mohyeddin.

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