Canadian Criminal Justice Association Review of Racialized Policing

Racialized Policing
Aboriginal People’s Encounters with the Police

By Elizabeth Comack  

During a period when the current government puts controlling crime as one of its top priority and considers it as a key threat to the Canadian society, Elizabeth Comack has written a book that implicates racism as a driver of contemporary policing and as a contradiction to our aspiration of a free and democratic society. The book is divided into eight chapters. Chapter 1 sets the tone by defining the key terminology for the book - race, racism, othering, and racialization and policing. Racism is the use of racial categories to define an Other. It cannot be reduced to the proclivities of individuals because racist beliefs and actions that infiltrate everyday life become part of a wider system that reproduces racism and racial inequality. Canada has engaged in the racial project, which simultaneously interprets, represents, and explains racial dynamics in order to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines. The characterization of Canada as a nation of immigrants makes it easy to forget that Canada is also a white settler society whose origins lie in the displacement and dispossession of the original inhabitants of the land. Professor Comack then focuses on the Aboriginal-police relations and argues that colonialism has not disappeared but has taken on new forms in contemporary times. Aboriginal people’s deadly encounters with the police have a much broader ramification: how race and racism are embedded in everyday experiences and institutional practices, and how they are implicated in our society’s prevailing patterns of marginalization and social exclusion.

Chapter 2 introduces the debate of racial profiling versus racialized policing by focusing on related experiences of African Canadians in Ontario. This discussion paves the road for the rest of the book to study Aboriginal people’s experiences. Chapter 3 sets the historical record right of European immigration into Canada. It pinpoints the discrepancy between the official discount and the actual happening. The project of colonizing the indigenous population and constructing a white settler society may be less bloody than that of the US, but the end results are similar. The increasing number of European immigrants brought with them the virtual extinction of the buffalo, the infectious disease, whiskey trade, and the starvation. The author omitted an important historical fact that the Aboriginal population shrank from the time of European immigrant arrival up until the 1960s. Aboriginals were painted as “savages,” “inferior,” and “child-like” in the past and as “welfare recipients,” the “drunken Indian,” and the “criminal Other” in the contemporary time. Stripped into poverty and living in substandard situations, Aboriginals are subject to social exclusion. North-west Mounted Police had powers that were unprecedented in the history of police force: they were able to prosecute, judge, and jail an accused. Similar to the role of the past, contemporary police forces in Canada have been assigned a central role in the management and containment of the “problem populations.”

Chapter 4 describes the incidents of the lethal shooting of J.J. Harper in Winnipeg in 1988 and the following controversial over his death. The detailed description and analyses lead to the conclusion that the incident is not accidental, but has its roots in racism and is related to racial policing. Chapter 5 focuses on the recurring events of starlight tours in Saskatoon. Again these seemingly unrelated incidents are linked to the racialization of the police culture.

Chapter 6 examines the lived experiences of Aboriginal people in a non-random sample of 78 interviews. One by one, these interviews reveal a social reality: there is no trust between Aboriginals and the police. The majority of these Aboriginals have a story or two of the failure of the police because the police do not trust the tales of Aboriginals. Clearly, the missing trust is not an isolated phenomenon. Chapter 7 discusses more recent shooting death of Matthew Dumas in 2005. It concludes that it is tragic, but “not unexpected” (p. 217). The officer’s ethnicity has minimal to do with pulling the gun trigger. Rather it is the police culture or racialized policing that is the culprit.

Chapter 8 concludes powerfully that democratic racism prevails in Canada and the “discourse of denial” - the failure to acknowledge that cultural, structural, and systemic racism exists - is its manifestation. Colonialism is evidenced in contemporary Canada by the desperate living conditions in many First Nations communities. Beyond the usual recommendations, Professor Comack advances two creative solutions: reframing the problem and community mobilization.

This is a compelling book and I recommend it without hesitation. The book is simply the best on the market that breaks the “Northern taboo” by talking frankly about the issues of race and racialized police in Canada. It moves away from the simplistic claims such as “police are racist bigots” or that the problem is one of the “few bad apples.” It analyses the complicated issue with an objective sense and sensibility. It is theoretically rigorous and marshals an abundance of empirical qualitative material based on years’ of field work and high-profiled cases. It is timely: the normalization of these abuses leads to less recognition and more scorn against those who try to assert any issue with the status quo. In addition, it is very readable, with many vivid descriptions. Finally, it is accessible enough for a student text and it is available as an inexpensive paperback in these straightened times.

— Dr. Liqun Cao, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, in the Canadian Criminal Justice Association’s Journal of Criminology, January 2013

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