Speaker Series: Policing Black Lives

A ‘national issue with longstanding historical roots’

Robyn Maynard, Black feminist writer, activist, educator and author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, will be speaking as part of the Uniter Speaker Series on Nov. 22.

Originally from Winnipeg, Maynard has been living in Montreal for the last 11 years. Ever since the move, she has been involved in different struggles around racial profiling.

“I started out working with racialized youth when I first got involved in the city, and I’ve been involved in different mobilizations around the issue of racial profiling in this country since then and documenting it and protesting it in different ways,” she says.

Policing Black Lives evolved out of this work.

“This book was in many ways an outgrowth of a lot of the activism that I’ve done over the years in this city. Particularly, trying to address a gap in terms of (frameworks for addressing) anti-Black racism in Canada,” she says.

The book is described by Fernwood Publishing as “the first comprehensive account of nearly four hundred years of state-sanctioned surveillance, criminalization and punishment of Black lives in Canada.”

“We were all taught about the history of slavery in the United States in our basic education,” Maynard says, drawing attention to the lack of awareness around Canada’s own history.

“Every book launch ... I ask the room, ‘How many people in this room have heard about American slavery when they went to school?’ and everyone always raises their hand.”

Yet when Maynard asks “‘How many of you have heard about the fact that slavery was legal in Canada for 200 years?’ nobody raises their hand,” she says.

Maynard believes that the history of Black slavery in Canada is an essential starting point for understanding modern anti-Black police violence and racial profiling.

“When slavery was abolished, policing became another form of racial control over Canada’s Black population,” she says, citing the police killings of Anthony Griffin (Montreal, 1987), Andrew Loku (Toronto, 2015) and Abdirahman Abdi (Ottawa, 2016).

“There’s just this level of violence, of systemic violence that Black populations continue to be exposed to that I think is really related to the fact that Black people had been so dehumanized, that Black people had been associated with traits like danger and criminality ... stemming back centuries.”

Policing Black Lives takes up the intersections of gender, mental illness, documentation and Blackness.

Maynard counters the myth that slavery and anti-Blackness are only American issues, discussing the harms of settler deception and white benevolence.

“I think that (myth is) something that’s always been used in order to camouflage the kind of racial injustices that are very ‘made in Canada,’” she says. “There’s actually a longstanding history ... if you look to the Canadian media, if you look to Canadian politicians, of pointing to the United States while also enacting very similar things towards Black populations here.”

She gives an example found in Robin Winks’ The Blacks in Canada: A History. “By some point in the 1860s, Canada had actually already removed any reference to Canadian slavery (from school textbooks),” she says, “which at that point (Canadian slavery) had only been abolished 30 years ago.”

References would solely be made to American slavery. All the while, Black students in Canada were still legally segregated from white students (Canada’s last segregated school didn’t close until 1983).

“You still always have this long-standing comparison that says ‘Oh, we’re not like the United States.’ But Canada is very much exactly like Canada.”

A relation can be drawn between the ways that policing, the criminal justice system, schools and state violence impact Black communities and Indigenous communities in Canada.

“There’s a big relationship between both of these two historical legacies of settler colonialism and slavery that are now reflected in Indigenous populations – the way that Indigenous populations are treated by police particularly in the Prairie provinces – and the way that Black people are treated in the cities where their populations are higher,” Maynard says.

For example, Maynard says that Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal and Halifax see an overpopulation of Black folks in federal prisons. A similar trend can be seen with Indigenous people in the Prairie provinces, she adds.

She describes the ways in which both Indigenous and Black families have been “pulled apart by child welfare,” and compares federal underfunding of on-reserve high schools to high expulsion and suspension rates of Black students in Canada.

“These aren’t identical (situations),” she says, “but they really are institutions that are fundamentally, what I would have to say is, violent towards Indigenous youth ... and Black youth.”

Looking to the future, “the book points to demands made by Black activists past and present,” Maynard says. She gives the examples of community-based oversight of police forces, as well as an end to anti-Black police violence and immigration detention and deportation policies.

Policing Black Lives also urges readers to reflect critically on the role of police and prisons in today's society, supporting the more radically transformative and abolitionist demands made by Black Lives Matter in Canada, the United States and around the world,” she says.

The erasure of the history of racial oppression in Canada also indicates an erasure of histories of resistance.

“When you deny that these histories have taken place, then you often have people either not even acknowledging that Canada has, say, long-standing Black populations,” she says, “but it also denies the brilliance and fierceness and resilience that different Black folks of all genders have always undertaken.”

Maynard discusses the lost histories of migrant justice work, exemplifying Black domestic workers that fought against racism and sexism in the 1960s and ’70s, as well as anti-police brutality organizing done by Black communities and the Black Action Defense Committee in Toronto in the 1980s and ’90s.

“Those resistant histories help to remind us that the situations that we’re facing today aren’t new, and that Black people have been fighting these situations for a long time.”

See Robyn Maynard speak at the Uniter Speaker series at 8 p.m. on Nov. 22 at the West End Cultural Centre (586 Ellice Ave.). The event is free to everyone, and will be emceed by local Uzoma Chioma.

Published in Volume 72, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 16, 2017)

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