The death of George Floyd in Minnesota following a police intervention has spurred massive protests in both Canada and the United States and societal soul-searching on the need to fight racism on both sides of the border.
But while many Canadian leaders have denounced the death of Floyd, who died in Minneapolis last week after pleading for air while a white police officer pressed a knee on his neck, his death has also prompted some public figures to claim systemic racism doesn’t exist in Canada as it does in the United States.
The Canadian Press asked several black Canadians to share their experiences with racism and their thoughts on systemic discrimination in both countries.
McRae, 49, said Floyd’s experience in the United States hit home with him, because it has echoes of his own experiences with Montreal police.
“What I’ve been seeing (in the United States) is a reflection of what I went through,” he said. “In my cases, if there were no video recordings, these police here in Montreal would have gotten off.”
In March 2017, McRae was stopped by police who claimed his car’s licence plate light was out. When he argued that the light was working and got out of the car to film the officers, he says, they rushed at him, tried to take his camera, and arrested him and held him in their car for 90 minutes before releasing him without charges.
In a 2019 decision, the police ethics board upheld McRae’s complaint and concluded that the two officers had illegally arrested and detained him during a stop that was “founded on his race.”
McRae, who now keeps several cameras to film his interactions, says this incident is one of dozens over the years in which he’s been stopped and harassed by police without cause.
“I would say in an average of two years (I’ve been stopped) over 25 times,” he said. “And out of the 25 times, there’s never been a ticket, for anything.”
Newton, a Vancouver-based actor and writer, says he’s experienced racism both in that city and in Montreal, where he grew up.
He recalled one time when he was pulled over by police when driving home from an intramural basketball game with three black friends and one of their girlfriends, who is white. He said he was initially confused when police started flashing their flashlights and demanding ID.
Eventually, Newton said, the officer leaned in to ask the sole white passenger if she was OK.
“She’s confused. She’s like ‘Yeah, what are you talking about?’ ” he recalled. “The cop says ‘You’re here on your free will?’ ”
He said he then realized what was happening.
“These cops decided that four brothers with a white girl in the middle, clearly, this is like a kidnapping or potential assault situation. There’s no way that these guys are friends,” Newton said.
Newton, 40, said those who deny there is racism in Canada “don’t know the history of our country’s formation.”
“I’m proud to be Canadian. We’ve come a long way as a nation, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. That doesn’t mean we are a utopia,” he said.
Nelson, who works with Montreal’s Jamaica Association, believes firmly that what happened to Floyd could have happened anywhere, including Canada.
She said most black people, including herself, can tell stories about being followed by sales staff while shopping, being treated differently depending on whether they’re wearing business attire or clothes perceived as “ethnic,” and being told to “go home.”
Nelson, 49, bristles at Quebec Premier Francois Legault’s statement this week that there is no systemic discrimination in Quebec.
“Why is it harder for people of colour to find a decent apartment, or housing or places to live?” she asked.
“Why is it that when racialized people move into certain neighbourhoods, certain people start moving out of that neighbourhood? Those are the questions that those individuals who say there’s no systemic discrimination in Quebec need to ask.”
“As a black and an Indigenous woman, I don’t have the privilege to think of the police force as a helpful resource,” says the burlesque performer known by her stage name Lou Lou la Duchesse de Riere.
“I’ve been pulled over with an ex, and then I was accused of being a prostitute once my band card was taken as an ID. I was 17 years old. I’ve been detained at the border and accused of smuggling cigarettes when I was 18, and I’ve been directly assaulted by police when I was 30.”
She said she regularly has her accomplishments diminished and accredited to some form of affirmative action. “I was accepted to McGill’s law faculty when I was 19, straight out of (junior college) without a bachelor’s degree. It’s really hard. I was told by a lawyer, a potential colleague and employer, that the only reason was because it looked good for the university.”
Jiles, 32, says that while working in clubs, she has been exoticized and targeted as an Indigenous woman and has repeatedly watched as black people are not let in, are kicked out or are given poor service.
“Racism is more in your face in the U.S., and I feel like here (in Canada) it’s insidious and it intrinsically hides into our policies, into our legal system, into all of our infrastructures,” she said.
“We have just as much work to do in our own backyard, and this lie, this narrative that things are so much better here, it’s a form of racism. It’s a form of blindness.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2020.
Julian McKenzie and Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press