Black activists, supporters and allies rallied at the Vancouver Art Gallery Sunday to protest racism, police brutality and white supremacy after the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
But Tayo Bero, a culture writer in Toronto and a Black woman says things aren’t much different in Canada.
“I think this idea that we’re not as bad as the U.S. is part of the reason why a lot of the issues around racism have persisted for so long,” she told The Tyee Monday. “Because we’re able to kind of look at the U.S. and position ourselves in comparison to them.”
Other advocates offered similar views.
Thaila Dixon-Eeet, a Black activist based in Toronto, said rhetoric based on comparisons with the U.S. is harmful.
“It just perpetuates an eraser of Canada’s violent colonial history,” she said. “Canada has a history of slavery, enslavement and a continued displacement of Black folks, even till now as we dress it up in gentrification.”
And Markiel Simpson, spokesperson for the BC Community Alliance, said that claims that Canada isn’t as bad as the U.S. show a failure in the education system.
“Black folks in Canada and in B.C. have lived experience and trauma that needs to be addressed,” he said. “It does speak to the lack of education on the topic and to the lack of knowledge in general that Canadians hold on the Black community’s presence in Canada, our history and all the valuable contributions that we’ve made to our society.”
Simpson said he hopes the crisis will encourage people to call on the B.C. Education Ministry to address the lack of Black history and anti-Black racism education in our school systems.
About 85 per cent of the speakers’ stories shared at the rally were about racism experienced within the education system, he said.
“So people were experiencing the racism in school, on the way to school, while leaving the school, and involved either other students, administrators or the police,” Simpson said. “It’s very important that the [education] ministry educate British Columbians adequately to end racism. We can’t just ask for people to take a pledge and to say words, we need concrete action.”
The alliance, an umbrella group of Black and community organizations, was formed in response to racist acts in Vancouver schools.
Simpson said that right now there isn’t a mandatory curriculum to teach students about Black history in the province.
Dixon-Eeet agreed that the education system needs to do a better job at teaching about anti-Black racism and Black history.
“The only time Black history is ever talked about is during Black History Month, and even those conversations are centred around the civil rights movement and around very specific folks like Martin Luther King,” she said. “This fits this nice little, neatly-packaged idea of what Black liberation is, almost as like a Black assimilation, but that’s not what it is.”
Danni Olusanya, co-president of the Black Student Union at the University of British Columbia, said the public-school system needs a makeover. And the racism experienced in high school usually carries over into university, she added.
“This could be not being in a group with another student, this could be excluding them, this could be saying the N word at a party or not befriending certain people,” she said.
Black kids are treated differently in schools, she said.
“A lot of children, Black and Indigenous children, are treated as if they are adults in the classroom,” Olusanya said. “This prevents them from being kids, and that is a huge problem within our system.”
Olusanya said she hopes the focus on anti-Black racism will also lead to police reform.
“I think it’s one thing to say 'oh, we’re going to implement change, or we are anti-racist,' but that needs to be enacted across the board,” she said.
Dixon-Eeet said real criminal justice reform is needed.
It’s not enough to talk about accountability and justice while “upholding and perpetuating a white supremacist institution that, quite frankly, is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing,” she said.
Fundamental change is needed, even to the point of eliminating the current policing and legal systems and starting over “in a sort of reformative justice sense.”
Simpson said he hasn’t done a lot of work in police reform policy, but “can understand where those sentiments are coming from.”
“The police, in the eyes of the Black community, aren’t serving us,” he said. “As taxpayers, we’re the ones funding the police and they’re not adequately protecting some of the most vulnerable people.”
Simpson said the media needs to do a better job of educating Canadians about anti-Black racism and presenting Black voices.
“We’re not so much in positions of power to have our own voice framed in the way that we’d always like,” he said. “It’s important that media outlets listen and respect the words of the Black community and assist in reducing anti-Black racism.”
“I think when we’re talking about Black people in general and police brutality, a lot of the time, it’s in a dehumanizing way,” he said.
Bero says more attention needs to be paid to the deaths of Black women, adding that the focus on the deaths of Black men is understandable because “we literally have watched these men die on camera in real time.”
“The hope is that as we continue to kind of sound the alarm and bring more awareness and bring more visibility to these issues, that will start to even out, and then Black women who suffer these injustices, and who are victims of police brutality, victims of state violence, also are remembered in the same way and their issues are taken up in the same way as well,” she said.
Simpson acknowledged that all levels of Canadian government have denounced racism. He hopes the protests will bring action, not just words.
“I’m hoping that the legislators come up to the plate and introduce Canadian Black history curriculums, that they collect race-based data on incidents of racism in schools, and that they also train police to protect and enforce laws accordingly,” he said.