Legacy of Shame

Policing Black Lives
State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present

By Robyn Maynard  

In 2003 Chevranna Abdi, a 26-year-old black transgender woman in Hamilton, was arrested by police and dragged down seven flights of stairs face-down.

By the time they reached the lobby, she was not breathing. She died in police custody. Her death was ruled “accidental.”

Author Robyn Maynard combines true stories of racism in Canada with statistics and studies that put the individuals’ experiences in a big-picture perspective. If a middle-class white woman died after such treatment, there would be public outrage. But because Abdi was black, poor and transgender, police, the media and the public all treated the death with indifference.

It’s just one of the stories of blatant racism that Robyn Maynard recounts in Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada From Slavery to the Present.

According to her bio, Maynard is “a black feminist writer, grassroots community organizer and intellectual” based in Montreal. Her work has appeared in newspapers and journals.

In her first book, Maynard combines riveting true stories of racism in Canada with statistics and studies to put the individual experiences in perspective.

She deliberately avoids American examples, being all too familiar with the rationalization among white Canadians that anti-black racism exists in the U.S., but not here.

Think again.

“The long history of anti-blackness in Canada has, for the most part, occurred alongside the disavowal of its existence,” Maynard maintains.

Her aim is to shake white Canadians out of their smug complacency by providing irrefutable proof of their complicity in state violence — arbitrary control and mistreatment by the police, courts, immigration, child welfare and school systems — against people because they were black.

If you know systemic racism exists, can see it traumatizing its victims and do nothing to stop it, then it is done in your name, she argues.

Today’s negative view of black people is the legacy of slavery, which had a 200-year history in Canada under French and English colonial regimes. Slavery was abolished in Canada a mere 31 years before it was ended in the U.S.

Maynard argues persuasively that the negative stereotypes of black men and women created to justify slave ownership persist today, affecting everyone from Chevranna Abdi to black mothers dealing with hostile child-welfare workers and school authorities.

Being black often intersects with being poor, resulting in double discrimination.

Almost all the agencies working on behalf of the state have demonstrated systemic racism in study after study cited by Maynard. For instance, Montreal police use photos of black faces for target practice.

Maynard has a passion for those people who are overlooked and undervalued by society. While she examines the issues facing black men, she focuses more on black women.

Maynard does not divide “black folks” into those who deserve oppression and those who don’t. Instead, she deliberately tells the stories of those ignored or marginalized by others, including black transgender women and sex-trade workers.

She makes common cause with Indigenous people, especially women. Indigenous people were also enslaved during the colonial regimes and experience similar racism and discrimination from officialdom today.

While many black people have been abused and murdered, Maynard concedes the scale and uniqueness to the Indigenous community of residential schools and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Black immigrants, however, face a potential form of state violence unknown to anyone born in Canada. They can be deported to a country where their lives may be in danger because of their political beliefs or sexual identity. While they are waiting for a decision, some are held in jail indefinitely.

Despite overwhelming evidence of racism in Canada, Maynard strikes a hopeful note at the end, calling for economic, racial and gender justice in a world that invests in education, health and safety over “criminalization and cages.”

Every Canadian — black, white, Indigenous or otherwise — could benefit from reading Maynard’s frank and thorough assessment of racism in Canada.

— Winnipeg Free Press, November 2017

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