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Racism in the justice system is real, we all need to fight it

The murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police has sparked worldwide protests against police violence and racism. As the world watches law enforcement officers brutalize peaceful protesters and target the media, cries to #DefundThePolice and tear down a justice system built on racism have grown in volume and attracted the attention of politicians and others in power.

In Canada, some have dismissed the problem of systemic racism. Doug Ford quickly backtracked after he said that Canada doesn’t have the same “systemic, deep roots” of racism that the United States does. After expressing solidarity with protesters, Quebec premier François Legault said there was no systemic discrimination in his province. And in the face of multiple allegations of RCMP abuses against Indigenous people, Alberta RCMP deputy commissioner Curtis Zablocki denied there is any systemic racism in policing in Canada.

Yet Canada is not immune to bigotry, hate, and deeply entrenched racism. And yes, our justice system and the police are systemically racist.

A 2016 study of traffic stops by the Ottawa police found that Middle Eastern and Black drivers were pulled over and detained more often than white drivers. The same study found that those same racialized drivers were less likely to have committed a traffic infraction than the white drivers. This is racism.

Historically, Black men were disproportionately charged for minor marijuana and drug offences. This is racism.

Study after study has shown that visible minorities are more likely to be carded, meaning stopped by the police while simply walking the streets and asked to show ID. This is racism.

And our jails are disproportionately filled with racialized and Indigenous people, who are granted bail less frequently and sentenced to longer prison time than white offenders. This is racism.

So yes, Canada has a big problem with systemic racism in the justice system.

But worse than the blindness of those who deny the problem is the hypocrisy of politicians who pretend to care.

At Ottawa’s #NoPeaceUntilJustice protest, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a knee to honour George Floyd and protest the Black lives lost to police violence. It was a gesture that rang hollow.

Remember when Trudeau visited Indigenous activists who had set up a teepee on Parliament Hill? Remember when an emotional Trudeau shed tears as he apologized for Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people?

Remember when Trudeau, as he promised to, implemented the calls to action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in June of 2015? Of course you don’t remember this, because the government has made slow and “dreadful progress” in fulfilling its promise.

As the National Post’s Chris Selley laid bare, the Liberals talk about combatting racism but ignore their own broken promises to help. But I suppose that is what you get when you kick the first Indigenous minister of justice out of the party and install Bill Blair, a former cop who oversaw police brutality against G20 protestors in Toronto in 2010, and embraced carding, as minister of public safety in charge of the RCMP.

But hypocrisy is not limited to federal politicians. Ottawa’s mayor Jim Watson has installed himself as the poster boy for the type of dangerous inaction that lets systemic racism grow and flourish.

You see, at the beginning of the COVID crisis the city of Ottawa clamped down on enforcement of public health rules in an attempt to police its way out of the pandemic. As part of the law enforcement crackdown an Ottawa bylaw officer punched a Black man in the face. The man’s crime? Playing some basketball in a park. At the time of the assault the city’s Bylaw and Regulatory Services department denied “any improper conduct and the characterization of the incident.”

Two months later and on the same day as the #NoPeaceUntilJustice protest, which Mayor Watson attended, it came to light that the bylaw officer did, at least according to the Ottawa Police Service, commit a criminal assault during that COVID ticketing.

Following a criminal complaint by the victim the police investigated and determined that the bylaw officer did trip and punch the Black man, just as he alleged. The assault was even witnessed by two police officers. Later, the bylaw officer confessed to his crime.

But even though the police determined an offence had been committed, there were no criminal charges. The police, against the wishes of the victim, offered the bylaw officer pre-charge diversion. Ottawa police policy states that any candidate to be considered for pre-charge diversion must be “a first-time non-violent offender.”

I guess punches are now deemed non- violent when delivered by law enforcement?

There is no better example of systemic racism than a white law enforcement officer, against police policy and with the approval of prosecutors, being cut a break for a violent assault against a Black man.

What would the result have been if the Black man had punched the bylaw officer in front of two armed cops?

There would be no diversion. He would be in the hospital, facing criminal charges and incarceration.

Mayor Watson, in the face of these damning details, remained silent. For almost a week he did not comment on the incident. And when he did finally tweet that he had “serious concerns regarding the serious allegations facing a bylaw officer,” there was no expressions of sympathy for the victim, no mention of race, and no comment on the need for police accountability and reform.

Watson’s weak and politically cowardly response is the hidden face of systemic racism.

But maybe this should not have been a surprise. After all, in 2016, a year that saw the release of the Ottawa study on race and traffic stops, an Ottawa police sergeant posting racist Facebook comments in the wake of the death of Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, and the death of Abdirahman Abdi at the hands of the police, Watson said the “police service continues to do a great job in our community.”

Sometimes a hypocrite is nothing more than a man in the process of changing, but in this case, it is just Watson being Watson and Trudeau being Trudeau.

And their hypocrisy is more damaging than any of the absurd denials that racism is not systemic in Canada.

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