Opinion: Why has it Taken Us so Long to Address Police Brutality in Canada?

A scened from the Black Lives Matter protest in Kitchener in June. Photo by Ahmet Yildirim.

Growing up, my father was often openly critical of police; in truth he kind of made a profession of it. One of the most distinct memories from my childhood is an altercation my father had with police.  I remember watching my dad get into an argument with an officer who was aggressively questioning a homeless man, demanding to know where he had gotten his bike. I remember feeling shamed by the mocking tone of the officer when he asked me who my dad had taught me to call if I were ever in trouble.  

Despite my deep desire to be respected by authority, I was a know-it-all who loved to challenge people. So I took every opportunity to tell people I knew that, despite what they may have been led to believe, the police were actually oftentimes the “bad guys.” 

My claims that the police were not to be trusted were often a point of contention between my friends and me. They would counter my position by talking about the good experiences they’d had with police officers, and at that time that was enough to shut me up.

I didn’t understand that there was a logical fallacy in what they were saying, and since the tide of public opinion was on my friends’ side and not mine, I started to talk less and less about the police. If they were mentioned, I hardly ever said anything because I knew that I would be faced with a wave of dissenting opinions, which made me nervous and insecure. I would sooner think my parents were wrong than everyone else around me. 

When I moved to Chicago in the 5th grade, I found that my parents’ views on the police were actually very common. There was a general mistrust of police, and people understood that many police performed racially charged violence without consequence.

Even at the ripe age of 11, my classmates knew the details of the slaying of Trayvon Martin. When Eric Garner and Micheal Brown were killed, their stories were topics for discussion in our classroom.

When I moved back to Canada in 2016, I found that questions of police brutality were still rarely discussed. The Black Lives Matter movement had gained some traction by then, but most of my classmates were of the opinion that police brutality was an America-specific issue. Despite the extensive talk of residential schools and the sixties scoop, no one really wanted to talk about what was happening right then. 

No one wanted to specifically address the ongoing racism in Canada. No one wanted to discuss the fact that the onslaught against Indigenous peoples did not end when the last residential school closed in 1996. 

Teachers would make a point to say that it was “not that long ago,” but they still discussed anti-Indigenous racism in a passive voice. No one wanted to admit that it was still happening, that it was inescapable, that prejudice had been ingrained into every system in Canada. 

The details of the lives of current day Indigenous people were seldom discussed. I did not learn in school that Indigenous people experience the highest level of poverty in Canada, or that Indigenous men are 10 times more likely to go to prison than non-Indigenous men, or that since 2017, 10 times more Indigenous people were shot and killed by police than white people.  

Since the murders of George Floyd in May and Breonna Taylor in March this year, Canada has gradually come to include themselves in the history of racially charged police brutality. 

While there is no central police database in Canada and therefore no solid documentation of the race of every person killed by police, independent news sources have set out on their own in an attempt to document as much as they can. For instance, CBC compiled a list of all people killed in police confrontations from 2000-2017. They found that Black and Indigenous people were seriously overrepresented. 

Yet many people are still convinced that Canada holds some sort of moral high ground over the US when it comes to this issue. 

Whether or not we’re marginally better than the US on issues of police brutality is really irrelevant. 

Innocent people are being murdered, being imprisoned, restricted to living in poverty, making this issue about anything else, including who is doing less harm, should be considered unethical. 

We can no longer let these stories go unheard, no longer silence voices that may be challenging to hear. These are human beings, developing beings who had beating hearts and futures that were stolen by people who will likely never face consequences for their actions. 

People like Eisha Hudson, a 16 year old girl who played hockey, and was just a year away from graduating, when she was killed by police in April in Winnipeg after officers opened fire on the car she was in, a car police suspected was linked to a robbery. 

People like Chantal Moore, a 26 year old Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation woman struggling with mental illness who was murdered by police during a mental health check in June in Northwestern New Brunswick.

People like Neil Stonechild, an accomplished wrestler at 17, left to freeze to death outside in Saskatoon in 1990 after being arrested for being drunk and disorderly.  

The first step is to open yourself up to the possibility that there are things that you are wrong about. To listen when people are telling you that they are hurting and to be a voice for the voiceless. Realize that whether you know it or not you are part of the problem. 

I say this with urgency: something must change. 

The tides are turning but the conversation cannot end with an acknowledgment. Real change must be enacted, change that starts with defunding the police. Every system in Canada has been corrupted by racism to some extent, and it is our responsibility to dismantle all the systems that have failed to protect Canada’s original peoples.