Policing Black Lives
State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present
At an event for her book at Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque late last year, Robyn Maynard asked the audience of about five hundred to raise their hands if they had been taught in school about the two hundred years of Black enslavement in Canada. One man raised his hand. One out of five hundred. This in a city, that, along with Quebec City and Halifax, was one of the transatlantic network ports, that frequently received ships containing enslaved Black men and women arriving from the Caribbean. A city where, as Maynard recounts in her methodically researched book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada From Slavery to the Present, enslaved Black women were “particularly fashionable and noteworthy possessions.” (She is quoting from Charmaine A. Nelson’s Slavery, Geography and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica.) In 1734, one such enslaved Black woman, Marie-Joseph Angélique, was arrested, tortured, and publicly hanged after she was accused of burning down a large portion of Montreal as she fled her white mistress.
Related Articles A History of Silence Examining aboriginal deaths in prison. The Gates of La Francophonie Mobilizing Quebec’s Haitian diaspora. Black Power in Montreal The ideas, leaders and pain behind the Sir George Williams riot Are Book Burners Always Villains? The ethical quagmire of censoring “difficult” literature “To be Black in Canada is to live in slavery’s ‘afterlife,’ ” Maynard writes in the introduction to a book that painstakingly shows how an anti-Black mindset that was perfected in order to justify the ownership of human beings continues to taint and poison almost every aspect of Black life in Canada today.
Canada’s willful amnesia to its history of anti-Blackness began early. Slavery in Canada was abolished in 1834. Just 31 years later, “textbooks bore little allusion to any Black presence in Canada, erased two centuries of slavery, included no mention of segregated schools (an ongoing practice at the time) and alluded to the issue of racial discord only in the United States,” Maynard writes.
Being the neighbour of a behemoth can be a blessing and a curse. Canada might resent its neighbour’s geopolitical heft and narcissism, but the United States’ more blatant racist record has proven a useful foil that ensures “anti-Blackness…continues to hide in plain sight” north of the border, she argues. “When acknowledged, [anti-Blackness] is assumed to exist, perhaps, but in another time (centuries ago), or in another place (the United States),” writes Maynard.
Had Maynard asked her audience in Montreal for the names of victims of anti-Black police violence in the U.S., undoubtedly many more than just one would have been able to recall the names of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown—and perhaps more—while at the same time being oblivious to the fate of Quilem Registre, a 39-year-old Montreal man who died in 2007 after police shocked him several times with a Taser, or Andrew Loku, 45, who was shot dead by a Toronto cop in 2015. Maynard is determined not just to honour those unknown and erased victims in Canada through witness and information, but to demolish the “wall of silence” that she says insulates state violence against Black persons in Canada.
The Canada that she knows “in the eyes of many of its citizens, as well as those living elsewhere, is imagined as a beacon of tolerance and diversity,” is the same Canada where, Maynard notes, there are “enormous racial inequities with respect to income, housing, child welfare rates, access to quality education and health care and the application of drug laws.”
Maynard places her book resolutely in that gap between what Canada likes to think it is and what it actually is, and makes it impossible to nurture the “fiction” that the state is the protector of its national subjects, as many believe. “It is more accurate to say that the state protects some at the expense of others,” she contends. And she has numbers and facts that will ensure you cannot look away:
– Despite comprising 3.5 percent of the Canadian population, African Canadians are incarcerated in federal prisons at more than double that rate. – Because so much of Canada’s Black population was born elsewhere, significant numbers of those eventually released will be punished again by deportation. – Black migrants are disproportionately affected by punitive immigration policies such as immigration detention and deportation, which, Maynard argues, is in part due to the heightened surveillance of Black migrant communities. – Black children and youth in Canada’s largest city are vastly overrepresented in state and foster care (41 percent in care are Black, compared with just 8.2 percent of the underage population who are Black) while they are far more likely to be expelled from high school. In a recent public school report in Toronto, nearly half of those expelled were Black. – Black communities are, after Indigenous communities, among the poorest racial groups in Canada.
As Maynard makes clear, many of those facts have been documented by various Black Canadian scholars whom she readily acknowledges as inspirations and mentors. Yet, Canada remains known, locally and internationally, “as the land of multiculturalism and relative racial harmony.”
Maynard is clear from the outset that her book’s writ is to explore and expose anti-Blackness in Canada but she is insistent that we see historical and current connections between Black and Indigenous oppression. Her language is clear and brooks no subterfuge, or polite denial: “any study of institutionalized anti-Blackness must necessarily be informed by the reality that Canada is a settler colony founded on colonization and genocide,” she writes.
In settler colonies, Maynard explains, Indigenous people are seen as being “in the way,” therefore state violence comes in the forms of laws and policies aimed at destroying Indigenous communities to secure “unfettered access to Indigenous land.” “Contrastingly, in the logic of Black enslavement, it is Black personhood that is under attack: ‘the slave’ is a useful commodity but ‘the person underneath is imprisonable, punishable, and murderable.’ ” As Maynard notes, “the living legacy of slavery and the ongoing practice of settler colonialism at times result in similar forms of repression” that are obvious in Canada today: “Black and Indigenous peoples experience grossly disproportionate incarceration, susceptibility to police violence, poverty, and targeted child welfare removal.”
If Canadians know the names of victims of anti-Black police brutality in the U.S. but not here at home, it is instructive that they also remember just the names of men. Given that most Canadians are oblivious to the anti-Blackness that Maynard carefully documents, it is also unlikely they would approach Canada’s bloody legacy with Indigenous peoples with the clear-eyed insistence on justice that Policing Black Lives demands of us. As the CBC reported last year, even after the launch of a national inquiry and an increased focus on the issue, there is still no way to tell how many Indigenous women and girls go missing in Canada each year. The inquiry, expected to cost $53.8 million, has already lost two executive directors and several staff members. All this at a time when Indigenous women represent just two percent of Canada’s population, yet account for more than 25 percent of female murder victims in recent years.
In an era in which optics dominate, a conventionally attractive Canadian prime minister is regarded a champion of all the downtrodden because, for example, he wore “Eid Mubarak” socks to Toronto Pride. The bar is, after all, set exceptionally low: The elected leader of Canada’s neighour to the south is an accused sexual predator and racist and Islamophobe. Maynard’s book unflinchingly demands that we see past those optics. Right-wing groups have co-opted the phrase “social justice warrior” and turned it into an epithet against anyone who challenges fascism, or racism, or misogyny. But as I read Policing Black Lives, I understood Maynard was the most vital and focused definition of a social justice warrior.
Two of the book’s most important contributions are possible precisely because its author is a Black feminist activist whose social justice work lives and breathes among the communities she writes about. Firstly, with regards to state violence, Maynard tells us that this is a concept too often equated with police brutality. But she insists on an expanded definition that also encompasses violence administered by other institutions outside of the criminal justice system, including institutions that many regard as administrative, such as immigration and child welfare departments, social services, schools, and medical institutions.
Secondly, Maynard writes, state violence and state-sanctioned violence are not evenly distributed among populations, but instead “deeply infused along the lines of race, class, and gender.” Just as state violence is not just about police brutality, it is not always directed at just Black men, as is often imagined. “All Black people are not demonized equally or identically,” Maynard writes. “Gender, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, mental health, and place of birth also mediate the way that anti-Blackness is experienced.”
If most Canadians know just the names of victims of anti-Black police brutality in the U.S., it is instructive that they—like many Americans—remember just the names of men. Where are the women? It is obvious from Maynard’s chapter on law-enforcement violence against women that many Black women are punished for being “uppity,” refusing to embody submissiveness or deference to white law-enforcement officers. Take Majiza Philip, a Montreal woman charged with assaulting two police officers and obstructing justice outside a concert. (She was charged after knocking on the window of a police car, and acquitted in court last year.) Or Sharon Abbott, a newspaper delivery worker in Toronto who was followed by a white officer in 2007 as she delivered papers at three in the morning. The officer claimed he was following her because she was driving erratically and not wearing a seat belt. Abbott alleged that the officer violently subdued her and kept her handcuffed in his car for an hour. She was issued seven tickets for minor traffic violations; of the six that proceeded to a justice of the peace, Abbott was acquitted on all charges. Abbott, who sustained several injuries during her arrest, successfully filed a human rights complaint and won a $5,000 settlement. The tribunal found that Sergeant Stephen Ruffino’s actions were “consistent with a manifestation of racism whereby a white person in a position of authority has an expectation of docility and compliance from a racialized person and imposes harsh consequences if that docility and compliance is not provided.”
Maynard notes that the case of Chevranna Abdi, a 26-year-old Black transgender woman taken into police custody in 2003, was a reminder “that Black transgender women often live at the intersection of both the societal demonization of Black women and a societal hostility towards transgender persons.” Law enforcement officers in Hamilton, Ontario, arrested Abdi then handcuffed her and dragged her, face down, down seven flights of stairs. She died soon after.
In each of her book’s chapters Maynard pays particular attention to Black women, sexual minorities across the gender spectrum, and people with disabilities and-or mental illnesses. Determined to centre “historically expendable lives,” Maynard writes that it is her intention “that this work also challenges widely held dichotomies of who is innocent-guilty and how this affects our perception of who is undeserving-deserving of state violence or protection.”
To that end, she emphasizes the need for a recalibration of how we see all members of the Black community, regardless of where on the spectrum of “good-bad” they are placed by the law or “Euro-Christian morality.” (The two are sometimes inseparable.) Whether “community members stigmatized by real or imagined involvement in illicit economies, those youth or adults who have used or sold illegal drugs, those whose gender presentations or sexualities have been deemed deviant, sex workers, undocumented migrants, and incarcerated persons,” these Black persons, Maynard says, are “stigmatized and rendered disposable,” leaving them the “most vulnerable to state abuse, exploitation, confinement, and even death with little or no outcry.”
Similarly, Maynard clearly details the criminalization of ways in which poor Black women survive their poverty, and the accompanying accusations of “welfare fraud.” She reminds us of the slavery-era stereotyping and demonization of Black women as “jezebels” who were sexually insatiable—“unrapable” is Maynard’s chilling description— and whose mere presence in public space indicated a criminal sexuality. The echoes of that today are found in the ways that many Black cis and trans women are profiled and prosecuted as sex workers.
In that regard Policing Black Lives joins revolutionary texts by Black women scholars and feminists that are helping to unpack centuries of toxic and dangerous intersections of anti-Blackness and misogyny, such as the groundbreaking study Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie, and to popularize the use of the word “misogynoir,” coined by queer Black feminist Moya Bailey to identify the various forms of hatred directed at Black women.
Maynard is a fierce advocate. And a fierce optimist. “Being uniquely positioned at the intersections of multiple forms of societal and state violence has allowed Black women to be at the forefront of community-based anti-racist, feminist, queer-friendly, and class conscious responses to gendered and state violence in Canada,” she says.
What would such responses be like? It is testament to Maynard’s tenacious determination that she ends a book that focuses on oppression, violence, pain, and death with an affirmation of life and liberatory principles. Our world can be better, she says, and means it. Our imagination is bigger and better than borders, prisons, policing, and state surveillance, she tells us. “It is a matter, that is, of prioritizing life over death.”
— Literary Review of Canada, March 2018