Anti-Black Racism - Inquiry—Debate Continued

Anti-Black Racism

Inquiry—Debate Continued

May 10, 2018


The Honourable Senator Kim Pate :

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Senator Bernard’s inquiry into systemic anti-Black racism in Canada.

As Senator Bernard remarked about another parliamentarian last week, “It takes a lot of courage to stand against racism and oppression.” I commend Senator Bernard for her courage in addressing the roots and harmful consequences of anti-Black racism, particularly by sharing her own experiences of racism encountered in this very place, and her leadership in urging us to take a stand against racial injustice.

In its 2017 report, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent drew attention to systemic racism within the criminal justice system that has resulted in the overrepresentation of African Canadians in prisons.

The working group reminds us that anti-Black racism is a reality at all levels of the criminal justice system, from racial profiling and carding to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, the imposition of pre-trial detention, incarceration, and disparities in sentencing.

African Canadians make up 3 per cent of Canada’s population, yet they represent 9 per cent of those in federal penitentiaries. In 2012, 53 per cent of Black women in federal prisons were serving a sentence for a drug-related conviction. According to the Office of the Correctional Investigator, in their attempts to negotiate poverty, many of those women were recruited to carry drugs, sometimes across international borders. Too many were coerced — most forced — to do so by threats of violence against them or their children.

Despite being at low risk of further convictions, these women and other Black prisoners are 1.5 times more likely to be classified as maximum-security prisoners than are non-racialized prisoners. For women, a maximum-security classification means that they are segregated in high-security isolated units within the federal penitentiaries for women. These segregated conditions of confinement severely limit opportunities for programming, for education, for visits, as well as temporary absences and other forms of conditional release that facilitate safe and successful community integration.

The evidence of discrimination within the prison system is undeniable, and its effect on the lives of Black Canadians ensnared in the criminal justice system is abhorrent. I strongly support a number of recommendations of the UN working group in this regard, in particular urging that the Government of Canada “Develop and implement a national corrections strategy to address and correct the disproportionately high rates of African Canadians in the correctional system . . .,” and “Abolish the practice of segregation and solitary confinement and explore alternatives to imprisonment.”

I also want to draw particular attention to the UN working group recommendations regarding education, namely, that governments study “. . . the root causes of overrepresentation of African Canadians in the criminal justice system,” and preserve and educate Canadians about our country’s history of enslavement, including by the development of textbooks and educational materials that accurately reflect historical facts relating to enslavement and other atrocities.

Like the United States, Canada has a history of slavery. Unlike the United States, however, the harms and horrors of this part of our history are unknown or ignored by far too many. I recall when my son, Michael, was in school, an extraordinary teacher, unable to find any materials for his students, wrote his own books about slavery in Canada and the history of Black loyalists in the Maritimes and Black leaders internationally. During Black History Month, he also developed a series of dramatic productions for his students to produce for parents in the community. I can’t tell you how many times I would hear in the audience whisperings such as “Wow, I had no idea, this happened in Canada.”

Like other components of Canada’s history of racial discrimination vis-à-vis Indigenous peoples, far too few know that for a period of 200  years slavery was legal here. In 1689, the King of France granted a petition from French settlers that formally allowed slavery in Canada, despite the fact that it was illegal in France. When loyalists arrived in Canada following American independence, they brought those they had enslaved from the United States.

In 1792, 6 of 16 of Upper Canada’s elected legislators and 9 of its appointed representatives owned slaves. Quebec historian Marcel Trudel reports that enslaved Black Canadians worked in the Montreal Gazette’s print shop. Mr. Trudel has recorded the stories of enslavement of at least 4,200 people during two centuries in Canada. Two thirds were believed to be Indigenous; one third were Black.

While slavery was abolished in 1834, anti-Black racism persisted. The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent has noted the role that the criminal justice system has played and continues to play in perpetuating discrimination, a relationship that the Vera Institute of Justice has studied in depth in the United States.

The Vera Institute’s 2018 report on overrepresentation of Black Americans in the criminal justice system documents how, following the abolition of slavery, criminal law became a tool for targeting Black Americans and allowed for continued surveillance and exploitation. In the South, “Black Codes” prevented African Americans from voting or testifying in court, and permitted the arrest, under vagrancy laws, of any Black person who could not prove that he or she worked for a White employer. Those convicted of crimes such as “walking without a purpose” or “walking at night” were often forced into private incarceration, known as convict leasing — slavery by another name. In other parts of the country, racism drove disproportionate enforcement of laws against “suspicious characters,” disorderly conduct, drunkenness and violations of city ordinances.

In the decades following the Civil War, scholars, policy-makers and reformers held up the results of these racist laws as empirical “proof” of the “criminal nature” of Black Americans they disproportionately criminalized. Their legacy continues today in the persistent and pernicious discourses about high crime in urban areas that result in over-policing of Black Americans. Today, African Americans are more likely to be subject to the three-strikes law or live in neighbourhoods targeted by drug-free-zone laws, which impose harsher and mandatory minimum sentences even for minor offences.

Black Americans, like Black Canadians, are more likely to be stopped by the police, have force used against them, be detained pretrial, charged with more serious crimes and sentenced more harshly. In Canada, however, failure to name the root causes of these forms of marginalization and criminalization, combined with the failure to situate the harmful stereotypes that drive them in a legacy of colonialism and discrimination, only risks exacerbating and perpetuating anti-Black racism.

I was reminded of the importance of educating Canada about the history of Black Canadians when I learned about and visited Saint-Armand, Quebec. There, only an hour outside of Montreal, is the only known cemetery for those who were born and died enslaved in Canada. This site and its history are at risk of being lost due to a lack of support from the government to recognize it as a historically significant location for Canada’s Black communities.

The experiences of African Canadians are an integral part of Canada’s history and identity. As the Human Rights Committee is directly hearing and observing in our study of the human rights of prisoners, the legacy of anti-Black racism persists today, resulting in unacceptable racist attitudes and actions and, for far too many Black Canadians, their disproportionate marginalization, criminalization and imprisonment.

Honourable colleagues, let us honour and support Senator Thomas Bernard’s call to action by working together to remedy past and current racist injustices and discrimination.

Meegwetch. Thank you.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Senator Pate, would you accept a question?

Senator Pate: Yes.

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: Senator Pate, you have worked on these issues ever since I’ve known you, which is a long time, and you continue to highlight these issues to us here in the Senate.

The question I have is related to something you said: Black people are punished more harshly. Can you clarify what you mean by that?

Senator Pate: Actually, there are a number of cases that pick up on the issue of over-policing. We know, for instance, from Black Lives Matter the impact in terms of that issue.

When it comes to corrections, which is, I think, what you were asking about more directly, we see that not only are African Canadians more likely to have longer sentences, more likely to be subjected to the mandatory minimum because of the charges that I spoke about, but also they are more likely to be classified as a higher security once they get to prison because of the discriminatory nature of the classification system. For women, in particular, if you’re classified as a higher security level, you’re kept in more segregated conditions because they don’t have specific security level institutions as they do for men. Women end up in a maximum security segregation unit within the penitentiary.

As we’ve been visiting the prisons, the Human Rights Committee has been seeing first-hand that it’s disproportionally Indigenous and Black women who are in those units.

Senator Jaffer: Senator Pate, as a young lawyer, I remember my principal saying to me that when he was the judge and was sentencing people, he always knew that you don’t throw the key away. Sooner or later those people have to return and be integrated back into society.

When I hear what you’re saying and about the work that the Human Rights Committee is doing, have we forgotten that sooner or later these people will integrate into our community? How will they be able to integrate if the treatment they have received in prison does not help them to rehabilitate?

Senator Pate: Thank you very much for that really more of a comment than a question, but I’ll take the opportunity to underscore, yes, that’s exactly part of the challenge. We send people into prisons and they’re kept in harsh conditions. As noted by the UN working group, we should be getting rid of segregation. If women are classified as maximum security, they end up living in segregated conditions. That’s one of the observations that has been made internationally.

If you’re in that condition, you’re less likely to have access to programs, less likely to have visits, and you then cascade through the security system. You are therefore less likely to be released on conditional release into the community. All of this hinders your ability to move back into the community in a way that’s safe for you and the community if you’re one of those individuals.