Some Initial Thoughts on Racial Profiling in Canada: Challenging the Myth of ‘A Few Bad Apples’

Racial Profiling in Canada: Challenging the Myth of ‘a Few Bad Apples’
by Carol Tator and Frances Henry. Published by University of Toronto Press, 2006

In their book Racial Profiling in Canada: Challenging the Myth of ‘a Few Bad Apples’, authors Carol Tator and Frances Henry – and contributors Charles C. Smith and Maureen Brown – examine four related aspects of racist policing practices. These are (1) how people talk about racist policing; (2) how people talk about “race” and crime; (3) what makes police so prone to racism; and (4) the lived experience of racist policing, both anecdotal and also as it plays out by the numbers, from the perspective of its victims.

Early on, Tator and Henry set themselves an ambitious, and important, goal. In their words, “To describe individual police as racist, or even to blame general systems of social control in society, is to evade the real question: Why does racial profiling occur in modern, industrialized nation-states such as Canada?” (p. 17)

Unfortunately, the method by which they hope to find an answer, and which really sets the tone of the whole book, is a weak one: “discursive analysis”. This involves looking at the ways in which journalists and government and police officials talk (or don’t talk) about crime and race and racism and the stories they tell about Black people and the police, and how all these “narratives” flow from different institutions throughout canadian society, holding up systems of power and privilege for the “elite”. Tator and Henry’s challenge to this power and privilege comes in the form of picking apart bits of these “narratives”, which is what i guess they would call “deconstruction”.

Discourse (what gets said) exists intertwined with ideology (what gets thought), and together these are said to constitute the wellspring of racism in canadian society. As the authors state in their introduction, “Racialization begins with ideology, which is then filtered through the everyday micro-interactions and discourses of police, security officers, judges, journalists and editors, educators, politicians, and bureaucrats, among others.” (pp.8-9)

This kind of argument has a certain appeal to people who do not want to think about political power or radical social change, as it confines the problem to the realm of speech and ideas, which are more comfortable things to challenge than class or the State.

Along with such fuzziness is an unfortunate masculine bias throughout this book, and this regardless of the fact that both Tator and Henry are women. In a quick footnote they state:

Because racial profiling is directed primarily against men, we exclude from our study discussion of racialized female body imagery. However, we recognize the importance of such imagery, especially in regard to the Black women as sexual object in history and in contemporary society. We also note that there are issues surrounding Black homosexual men, although we do not deal with this added dimension

(p. 23, Racial Profiling in Canada)

In this they are simply keeping in step with the overwhelming majority of researchers and activists who study police violence, almost all of whom describe this problem as one which almost only affects men. It is ironic that those who are so able to deconstruct statistics to show police racism and not crime is the cause of so many Black men being stopped, arrested and imprisoned, remain largely uninterested in why Black (and other) women remain “off the books”.

As has been excruciatingly detailed in the recently published book The Color of Violence (South End Press 2006 – soon available from Kersplebedeb), women of colour experience heightened police violence and State repression in a variety of ways that male-dominated movements and methodologies do not see. From being raped by police to having one’s children taken by social services to being physically attacked for defying gender norms and “looking like a man” to being ignored or criminalized when in need of help, women experience a variety of forms of State violence which men are often happy to ignore. This is all the more true for working class women. Especially so for working class women of colour…

While i will examine the problems and implications of “discursive analysis” as well as these sexist distortions in future postings, at the moment i want to focus on where Racial Profiling in Canada rises above its weaknesses and provides information useful to anti-racists in canada.

Learning from the Black Community

From an activist perspective, the two best chapters in this book were those that actually described the reality of racial profiling – and these sections were written by contributing authors Charles C. Smith and Maureen Brown.

It is worth noting that these chapters are each based heavily on studies that Smith and Brown were commissioned to write for the African Canadian Community Coalition on Racial Profiling in 2004.

You see, there were a series of revelations regarding racial profiling that appeared in the Toronto Star starting in late 2002, and these created a sense of crisis in “community-police relations”. The “best parts” of this book were written at the behest of community groups responding to this widespread community hostility to the police. Both of these original reports – In Their Own Voices by Brown and Crisis, Conflict and Accountability by Smith – are available in PDF format online, yet one is unlikely to come across them unless you actually know what to look for, whereas Tator and Henry’s book is available in stores across Canada.

(There is a lesson here. Much of what is most worthwhile in this book was in fact written separately as a result of political developments within the affected communities themselves. However these parts “enter the record”, and certainly i only encountered them, within this context of this academic post-structuralish post-modernish book… not that this is in any way Tator or Henry’s fault – in fact, it says something good about them that they chose to include these pieces – but you know: there most definitely is a lesson here…)

Brown’s In Their Own Voices contains insights and experiences which are essential to understanding the effects of constant racist harassment, documenting the experiences of Black people in Toronto. These testimonies end up giving meaning to any discussion of racial profiling – but for the purposes of this review, and of providing a statistical glimpse at the reality of racial profiling in Canada, Smith’s work is the place to start…

Racist Policing in Canada: Some Numbers

Chapter three (pages 55-91) by Charles C. Smith is entitled “Racial Profiling in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom”, and it aims to provide an overview of statistics and incidents in these three countries. As previously mentioned, it is largely drawn from a study Smith wrote for the African Canadian Community Coalition on Racial Profiling in 2004 – specifically from pages 27-75, the rest of the original report being devoted to official sounding recommendations for remedying matters. (Tator and Henry did well to cut these out.)

What emerges right away from Smith’s work is that all three countries have roughly the same thing going on: Black people getting harassed, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and killed by the police, and in numbers far greater than their actual proportion of the population.

For instance, in the united states:

  • In opinion polling, 72 per cent of African Americans between eighteen and thirty-four said they had been stopped by the police because of their race; 37 per cent reported having been stopped more than once, and 15 per cent more than ten times.
  • Between January 1995 and June 1996, in Maryland, 732 individuals were detained and searched by the state police. Of these, 75 per cent were African American and 5 per cent were Latino (Morris 2001, 80).
  • In Philadelphia, African Americans comprise 79 per cent of those stopped and searched even though they are only 42 per cent of the population;
  • In Illinois, Latinos comprise 41 per cent of those stopped and searched even though they are less than 1 per cent of the driving population. Furthermore, one in every 75 African Americans is stopped compared to one in every 163 Whites (Kearney 2001, 62-80)
  • In New York City, a review of 175,000 cases indicated that African Americans were stopped six times more often than Whites. Also, even though they were only 25 per cent of the city’s population, African Americans accounted for 50 per cent of all individuals stopped (Bobb 2002, 6).
(pages 59-60, Racial Profiling in Canada)

While in the united kingdom:

The 2001-2002 West Midlands statistics comparing resident populations tell us that 5 Whites, 41 individuals of African descent, and 17 Asians were stopped/searched per 1,000 of each of their cohorts. […] This is consistent with the national average of racial disproportionality across England and Wales: 13 Whites were stopped per 1,000 of their population, whereas people of African descent were stopped 106 times per 1,000 and Asians 35 per 1,000. Furthermore, stops/searches under CJPOA [the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act – st] indicate that per 1,000 population, 1 White is stopped/searched; 26 individuals of African descent and 7 Asians are similarly treated. In England and Wales this compares respectively as 0,5 per 1,000 for Whites, 5.5 per 1,000 for people of African descent, and 3.5 per cent per 1,000 for Asians; in other words, people of African descent are ‘28 times more likely to be searched and Asian people 18 times more likely to be searched in comparison with their White counterparts’ (Bowling 2003, 9-10)


Furthermore, people of African descent [in Britain] were subject to:

  • more multiple vehicle stops – 14 per cent were stopped five or more times compared to 4 per cent for Whites, 6 per cent of Indians, and 2.7 per cent of Pakistani/Bangladeshis;
  • more multiple pedestrian/foot stops – 18 per cent were stopped five or more times compared to 12 per cent of Whites, 10 per cent of Indians, and no Pakistani/Bangladeshis; and
  • increased traffic stops/searches – 9 per cent of White people were searched compared to 34 per cent of people of African descent and 14 per cent of Asians (Clancy et al. 2001, 59-71)
(pages 69-70, Racial Profiling in Canada)

Even legislation crafted to target disproportionately white forms of illegal activity ends up being applied unevenly, with an anti-Black bias. So “Afro-Caribbean people are 27 times more likely than White people to be stopped and searched under a special police power designed to tackle ravers and football hooligans” (“Black People 27 Times More Likely to be Stopped,” by Vikram Dodd, Guardian Unlimited 21 April 2003 – quoted on page 68) and “Stops under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1989, which was ‘designed specifically to combat terrorism from the Provisional Irish Republican Army,’ indicate that in 1996-7, 11 per cent of the 43,700 stops in England and Wales were of individuals from subordinated racialized groups. In 1997-8, 7 per cent of those stopped were people of African descent.” (p. 69)

As Smith points out, the UK is “94.1 per cent White, 1.8 per cent people of African descent, 2.9 per cent South Asian and 1.2 per cent Chinese,” which as he says, makes the whole situation “mind boggling.” (p. 71)

By examining the “hit rates” – the number of people who, once stopped, are found to actually by committing a crime – Smith shows that the victims of racial profiling are in fact less likely than others to be committing the crimes they are investigated for. If you think about it for a moment this makes sense: if something other than actual likelihood of having broken the law is motivating police checks, then the total number of those who suffer these checks is likely to include a higher and higher proportion of people “doing nothing wrong”.

Unfortunately, Smith offers little in the way of explanation of these facts, or analysis of the societies within which such racist policing occurs – other than indicating (somewhat tautologically) that they sure are racist. Somewhat strangely, he describes canada, the united states and the united kingdom as being three countries with “vastly different historical developments”. This seems particularly odd from a canadian perspective, seeing as the history of repression and social control here since 1763 is largely a byproduct of american and british developments… but i guess once imperialism and colonialism are wiped from the blackboard, these three imperialist and colonialist countries do suddenly look quite different. This weakness is exacerbated by the rest of Tator and Henry’s book, i’m afraid, but more on that another day…

For obvious reasons i found what Smith had to say about canada to be the most interesting, and it is also certainly the most detailed and historically grounded. That said, a note of caution is in order: Smith’s original study was commissioned for an organization in Ontario, responding to a crisis in “police-community relations” in Toronto. As such it was really just about anti-Black racism in that province. When transplanted into this book on racial profiling “in Canada”, the author was obviously asked to add sections on other realities, but he did so with only mixed results. Whereas he does include some detailed – and harrowing – examples of racist treatment of Indigenous people west of Ontario, that’s about it. A failed attempt to deal with Quebec should have been rejected by the editors, as it seems solely informed by a few superficial articles in the Montreal Gazette and Montreal Mirror, failing to go beyond the threadbare and anecdotal. Nothing at all is provided about Atlantic Canada, Northern Canada, or the experiences of other oppressed communities throughout the country.

Anti-Black Racism in Ontario

Smith begins by refuting the argument that racist policing in Canada is some kind of recent phenomenon. This is of some consequence, as he is trying to argue that despite the major changes in the country’s demographic makeup over the past forty years, present day racism is largely a continuation of past practice.

In regards to Black people in Canada, he reminds us that:

People of African descent have a long history in Canada, one which has been marked by racist laws that have severely impeded African Canadians’ advancement. In early Canada, the enslavement of Blacks was legal, and even after slavery was abolished here, the law forbade Blacks to own land. This included those Blacks who had come to Canada with the British Loyalists during and after the American Revolution. Subsequently, laws were passed so that schools and residential areas were segregated.

(p. 72, Racial Profiling in Canada)

Smith draws on the work of Clayton James Mosher (Discrimination and Denial: Systemic Racism in Ontario’s Legal and Criminal Justice Systems, 1892-1961, Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1998), providing the following evidence of racist policing throughout Ontario’s history:

  • In six cities in Ontario, including Windsor, Hamilton, London, and Toronto, 12 per cent of all public order charges were against African Canadians, 11 per cent against Aboriginal people, and 2 per cent against Chinese. This was vastly disproportionate to their actual numbers in these cities. Of those charged, African Canadians and Aboriginal people were the most likely to be imprisoned.
  • In their efforts to control public order offences, the police in these Ontario cities tended to focus on African Canadians. This led to the use of ‘disorderly-house and other public-morals laws … to control Black populations.’
  • African Canadians were required to appear in court more often than other groups to defend themselves against charges of property crime, and they received longer sentences when convicted.
  • African Canadians found in areas where property offences had occurred ‘were often identified as suspects, and the courts often found them guilty on the basis of such limited evidence.’
  • The mean sentence length for African Canadians for property offences was 10.51 months, compared to 8.33 for Aboriginal people and 6.26 for Whites.
(p. 73, Racial Profiling in Canada)

Now while i found the above to be “of interest”, i question whether this kind of statistical approach tailored towards proving discrimination is really the most appropriate way to discuss anti-Black racism from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. While racism does run like a thread through Canadian history, adopting such a narrow statistical approach to “race” shorn of class or nation can only be misleading. It leaves unspoken who these Black, Chinese and Aboriginal people were, what was their relationship to the State and capitalism, what were their political and economic trajectories… instead such a statistical account simply gives evidence that racism existed in 19th and 20th century canada, not an especially earth-shaking revelation…

Really, this all begs the question as to why discrimination exists, and who profits from it. As we shall see, some very incomplete and unconvincing answers to these questions are provided elsewhere in this book, Smith’s work clearly being used to contextualize and ground Tator and Henry’s “racist discourse/ideology” argument. So perhaps it is too much that we look for explanations here – instead, let’s stick to the numbers.

Smith draws on recent studies by University of Toronto scholars Phillip Stenning and Scot Wortley, and from the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System as well as the radical grassroots Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, to show that the tradition of anti-Black discrimination carries on into the present.

Quoting Stenning’s 1994 study Police Use of Force and Violence against Members of Visible Minority Groups in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Police and Race Relations) he shows that:

  • In responding to ‘minor offenses,’ police drew their weapons when arresting African Canadians more often than with other groups (25 per cent of the time, compared to 6.7 per cent for Whites and 6.7 per cent for ‘others’)
  • Rates of police use of force – at the time of arrest as well as after arrest – were significantly higher for African Canadians (33.3 and 31.4 per cent respectively, compared to 25.0 and 25.0 per cent for Whites and 30.8 and 23.1 per cent for ‘others’) (ibid.m II.9-II.24)
(p.74, Racial Profiling in Canada)

i think it is worth mentioning the other finding from Stenning’s study, which made it into Smith’s report to the ACCCRP but not this book:

  • [African Canadians were ] sworn at more often by police (58.8% v. 38.3% for Whites and 43.6% for Others) and subject to racial epithets more often as well with 31.4% indicating they had been subject to racially derogatory remarks from police officers v. 5% for Others

Certainly these findings explain much.

The already predictably tragic consequences of this police violence are aggravated by the fact that Black people are more likely to find themselves stopped by police in the first place. Drawing on findings in Wortley’s 1997 paper “The Usual Suspects: Race, Police Stops and Perceptions of Criminal Injustice” (presented to the 48th Annual Conference of the American Society of Criminology in Chicago), Smith tells us that:

  • 28.1 per cent of African Canadians reported having been stopped by police, compared to 18.2 per cent of Whites and 14.6 per cent of Chinese Canadians;
  • 16.8 per cent of African Canadians reported having been stopped twice by police, compared to 8.0 per cent of Whites and 4.7 per cent of Chinese Canadians;
  • 11.7 per cent of African Canadians reported having been stopped by police ‘unfairly’ in the past two years, compared to 2.1 per cent of Whites and 2.2 per cent of Chinese Canadians;
  • 42.7 per cent of African-Canadian males reported having been stopped by the police in the past two years, compared to 22.1 per cent of Whites and Asians; and
  • 28.7 per cent of African-Canadian males reported having been stopped twice in the past two years, compared to 9.9 per cent of Whites and Asians (ibid., 18-19)
(p. 75, Racial Profiling in Canada)

So Black people are twice as likely as whites to be stopped by police. Once they are stopped, they are more likely to be subjected to (often racist) insults. When these situations degenerate into an arrest, Black people are more likely to be subject to violence, and with tragic concsequences, they are four times more likely to find the cops drawing their guns on them.

Is it any wonder that so many Black people end up getting shot by police? And given all the racism leading up to the shot being fired, is the classic excuse that “It just went off by accident” really enough to say that race is not a factor in these police murders?

Even though the majority of police stops may not end in death, the sorting of people into different racial streams continues in many different ways. Drawing on findings of the 1995 Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System, Smith shows that:

  • The police stop African Canadians (especially African-Canadian males) twice as often as Whites.
  • Whites are less likely to be detained before trial than African Canadians (23 per cent against 30 per cent), especially for drug charges (10 per cent against 31 per cent).
  • Between 1986-7 and 1992-3, incarcerations of African Canadians for drug trafficking rose by 1,164 per cent, from 25 per cent of 524 admissions to 60 per cent of 2,616 admissions. This compares to a 151 per cent increase for Whites during the same period.
  • With regard to drug charges, White accused were released more often than African Canadians. Also, African Canadians were denied bail more often, and the conviction rate was higher for African Canadian men: 69 per cent, compared to 57 per cent for White men.
  • In the six years leading up to 1993, the African-Canadian population of Ontario increased by 36 per cent; over the same period, the number of African-Canadian prisoners admitted to Ontario correctional facilities increased by 204 per cent! The numbers of White prisoners admitted increased by only 23 per cent.
(p.75, Racial Profiling in Canada)

Finally, in regards to Black people in Ontario, Smith reminds us of the findings of the Toronto Star’s 2002 series on racial profiling:

  • Although only 8.1 per cent of Toronto’s populations African Canadians accounted for 34 per cent of drivers charged with out-of-sight violations.
  • African Canadians were overrepresented by 4.2 times for out-of-sight driving offences, by 3.8 times for cocaine possession and by 2.1 times for simple drug possession.
  • Though Whites comprised 63.8 per cent of those charged with simple drug possession (more than ten thousand cases), Whites were released at the scene 76.5 per cent of the time, compared to 61.8 per cent for African Canadians.
  • After being taken into custody, African Canadians were held for court appearance 15.5 per cent of the time, compared to 7.3 per cent for Whites;
  • For cocaine possession (more than two thousand cases), 41.5 per cent of African Canadians were released at the scene, compared to 63 per cent of Whites.
  • African Canadians comprised 27 per cent of all violent charges, even though they were only 8.1 per cent of the population.
  • In 51 Division [in Toronto – st], 40 per cent of African Canadians charged with one count of cocaine possession were held for bail hearings, compared to 20 per cent of Whites.
  • African Canadians were overrepresented at police divisions with low African-Canadian populations. For example, they were four times overrepresented in out-of-sight traffic offences at 42 Division and seven times overrepresented at 52 Division [in Toronto – st], even though these divisions do not have significant number of African-Canadian residents. These data supported the African-Canadian community’s anecdotes that they were being singled out by police (Rankin et al. 2002).
(p. 90, Racial Profiling in Canada)

Such a plethora of numbers and statistics can be alienating and discouraging to read, both because of the reality they represent and because most of us find long lists of numbers somewhat mind-numbing. Truth be told, they do a poor job at conveying any of the real life results of racist police harassment (for that, see Brown’s In Their Own Voices!). Yet i found this section to be so useful, and worth quoting at such length, because these figures clearly establish two of the characteristics of racial profiling: that it is a mass phenomenon affecting most if not all members of targeted communities, and that it is diffuse, occurring everywhere and anywhere and yet much more often on the level of (for instance) harassment and intimidation than murder. Furthermore, by establishing this context empirically Smith helps us to counter the deniability of almost any single incident of racial profiling when it is viewed in isolation.

Racist Treatment of Indigenous People in the Canadian Prairies and West Coast

The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression.

– Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

The statistics and experiences of Indigenous people in Canada are harrowing. As i mentioned above, this section of Smith’s chapter was obviously written separately from his work for the ACCCRP, and for someone like me who is ignorant and not from “out west”, it seemed a good overview of how the Indigenous relationship to colonial police plays out, in terms of harassment, imprisonment and murder.

For instance:

According to Corrections Canada’s own statistics, Aboriginal adults are incarcerated over six times more often than anyone else. A one-day ‘snapshot’ of all offenders in this country’s correctional facilities by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics conducted in 1996 (see Hylton 2002, 140) showed that although Aboriginal people are 2 per cent of the adult population of Canada, they account for 17 per cent of federal inmates. In Saskatchewan, Aboriginal people were being incarcerated at almost ten times the overall provincial rate; they were 76 per cent of that province’s inmate population. In Manitoba, 61 per cent of inmates were Aboriginals; in Alberta, it was over 35 per cent. Another shocking statistic: in Saskatchewan, 70 per cent of sixteen-year-old Treaty Indian males can expect to be incarcerated at least once by the time they reach twenty.

(p. 81, Racial Profiling in Canada)

Understand that: in Saskatchewan seven out of ten sixteen year old Indigenous guys will be imprisoned at some point before their twentieth birthday. In a province where 25% of the youth are Indigenous, this is a particularly horrendous level of racist mass incarceration, of a kind more commonly associated with the united states than with canada…

(For more on the nature of colonial imprisonment in canada, i suggest readers check out Prison Justice dot ca’s Facts and Stats page)

Of course, this kind of mass incarceration is one result of a highly focused sort of police repression. Another result of this highly focused repression is plain old murder, as white police officers partake in the time honored canadian tradition of killing Indigenous people just for the hell of it. Smith continues:

In recent years, several Aboriginal men have been found frozen to death in Saskatoon following police interventions. In November 1990 the body of an Aboriginal teenager named Neil Stonechild was found frozen in a field just outside the city. The injuries and marks on his body were probably caused by handcuffs. A friend reported that he last saw Stonechild bleeding in the back of a police car, screaming that the police were going to kill him. […]

In January 2000, the body of Lloyd Dusthom was found frozen to death outside his locked apartment after he had been seen in police custody. That same month, the frozen body of Rodney Naistus was found on the outskirts of Saskatoon near the Queen Elizabeth II Power Station. Five days later, Lawrence Wegner, a social work student, was last seen alive banging on the doors of relatives’ homes in Saskatoon. Later testimony would indicate that he ran away when the police were called. His frozen body was later found near the power plant. After Wegner’s body was found, another man, Darrell Night, came forward. Night reported that he had been dropped off by the police south of the city on a bitterly cold night but had managed to get to a nearby power station for help. These deadly excursions became known among Aboriginal people as ‘starlight tours.’ Two Saskatoon police officers were found guilty of unlawful confinement in the Night case and were sentenced to eight months in jail (ibid.).

(pp. 81-2, Racial Profiling in Canada)

Nor are such police murders of Indigenous people confined to Saskatchewan:

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2005, Aboriginal leaders demanded answers after the police shot and killed two young aboriginal men within a few weeks of each other. In January in Norway House, an RCMP officer shot and killed Dennis St-Paul after trying to arrest him for parole violations. The following month, Matthew Dumas, eighteen, was fatally injured when the police fired two shots during what they referred to as a ‘scuffle’.

(p. 83, Racial Profiling in Canada)


In Vancouver, a public inquiry was called by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs as well as the B.C. Police Complaints Commissioner in the matter of Frank Paul, who froze to death in 1998 after police dumped him in an alley. In 2000, the Vancouver Police department suspended one of the officers involved in Paul’s death for two days; another officer received a one-day suspension. When rumours began to circulate that [Vancouver] police were dumping ‘drunks and troublemakers’ in remote areas, police chief Jamie Graham defended the provision in the Criminal Code that allows police to remove citizens to other parts of the city for breaching the peace: ‘It’s a good law. It’s a good tool for police officers to quell those disturbances that require people to be removed from certain areas’ (Carmichael 2004)

(p. 83, Racial Profiling in Canada)

All of which is horrific, and Smith provides activists with some valuable information here; and yet… the great levels of structural violence we’re talking remain unexplained. Or should i say, unconvincingly explained. A section on “Public Perception and the Media” and a gushingly naive section on the court system seem to suggest that for Black and Indigenous people, it is simply white people’s racism that it to blame for the discrimination they suffer. Not racism as in “capitalism in inherently racist” or “the State is white supremacist”, but structural racism reinterpreted in its most timid and narrow sense, namely that the courts and law enforcement agencies are staffed by prejudiced white folks, and changing this (partly through education and mainly through hiring and promoting more people from racialized communities) is the best way to end racist policing. This is Tator and Henry’s argument throughout the book.

But colonialism and white supremacy are more than just irrational grudges or malicious prejudice, they’re actual ways of building an economy and government. What i mean is: “discrimination” is an essential feature of capitalism. Which is why you can’t have an unracist capitalism, even though there are no rules as to which group might end up suffering racist subjugation. As radical intellectual J. Sakai has pointed out, “‘Class’ without race in North America is an abstraction. And vice-versa. Those who do not get this are always just led around by the nose, the manipulated without a clue – and it is true that many don’t want any more from life than this.”

The quote by Frantz Fanon that began this section is not from anywhere in Smith’s chapter, or elsewhere in this book. (The two times the revolutionary theorist gets mentioned, it’s all about that “White gaze”, making him sound like a pomo academic.) For colonialism remains the elephant in the room here… clearly present, but we’re not gonna talk about it…

Perhaps this is why, unlike his discussion of anti-Black racism, Smith’s section on anti-Indigenous racism lacks any attempt to provide historical background. This makes perfect sense, for to do so would be to strain the meaning of “racism” beyond recognition, as what we are talking about is centuries of national oppression and military conflict, woven together in a unique yet unmistakable tapestry of genocide. That this resulted in, and was reinforced by, racism, certainly does not mean that it can be reduced to racism alone!

After all, it wasn’t “racial profiling” that all the children in residential schools were Indigenous, any more than it was “racial profiling” that only Indigenous people were subject to pass laws in Canada (these were the laws South Africa copied for its apartheid system). It was a national thing, a military thing… police and prisons being important weapons in the ongoing colonization of the First Nations. Not colonization as a consequence of “discourse”, but of policy. And not of policy passively reflecting ideology or “bad ideas”, but policy with a clear and conscious goal: the destruction of Indigenous sovereignty and the genocidal reduction of Indigenous peoples to a tiny minority within the Canadian mosaic.

The oppression of Black people in North America also has a national dimension, but it is true that within Canada this is far less obvious than in the united states. Certainly the neo-colonial immigration policies of the past forty years have created new (though not better) realities for the historically oppressed Black communities in this country, with a majority of Black people being first or second generation immigrants. While racist discourse and ideology – and policing! – certainly play an important part in ensuring that these immigrant communities will be oppressed, the racial segmentation of the canadian economy seems to me to be a central piece of the puzzle.

Specifically: since Canada abandoned it’s “whites first” immigration policies in 1967, there has been an increasing trend to reconfiguring the country’s class structure along new racist lines. Proletarian immigrant communities from Third World countries are being formed and forced into the areas of greatest exploitation. At times this may represent a continuation of the exploitation suffered by Canada’s historic Black communities – i don’t know this, but i’m open to believing it – but in other instances (i.e. the Filipino and Arab communities) these people are being forced into new proletarian communities with specific characteristics and trajectories of their own.

This is important, as i would argue that these colonial and class imperatives – the war on Indigenous sovereignty and the proletarianization of Third World immigrant communities – form the not-so-hidden foundations upon which the new 21st century canadian capitalism is being built. As such, they also form the backstory to canadian racism today, the missing element explaining the connection between people across this country who suffer from “targeted policing”.

So the long history of canadian racism is not insignificant, but on its own it falls short of explaining the ongoing reality of racist oppression. Rather than simply reflecting grand-dad’s bigotry, canadian racist ideology is an expression of today’s racist canadian class structure, and the ongoing canadian dependence on colonialism.

Is this nitpicking?

Well, it all depends.

Given that a central feature of racial profiling is its deniability, the mere act of documenting all this crap is certainly worthwhile. So regardless of possible political differences, i obviously find Smith’s work worth discussing – and recommending as a source of information.

In a sense am not sure how much of what i am getting at is a fair judgment. i mean Smith only wrote one chapter of this book, and not every chapter of a book has to contain both facts and explanation. So perhaps i am holding him unfairly responsibly for Tator and Henry’s exclusive reliance on “discursive analysis” and the like… but whoever is to blame it must be said that by not engaging in any kind of economic or political analysis of the communities which suffer racist abuse – or the classes which profit from this violence – Smith (or perhaps just Tator and Henry) incorrectly cuts the world of speech and ideas loose from the realities of class and power.

Admittedly, the “semi-autonomous nature of ideology” is not clearcut, or easy to stuff in a box. It would be foolish to mimic certain ultraleftists and ascribe any and all racist abuses to economic imperatives. Furthermore, ideology and discourse can have real effects, including material effects. Given the petit bourgeois class origin of many immigrants – who find themselves once in Canada working in the shittiest working class jobs, often part-time, casual or under the table, hardly ever unionized – one could make the argument that discourse and ideology, combined with the racist policing practices they encourage, together push immigrant communities into a proletarian position. Perhaps.

However, even though that may be one part of what is going on, it would be a mistake to not see that Canadian immigration policies are based on the need for certain kinds of labour which most Canadians are privileged enough to be able to refuse.

Let me give one galling example.

Over the past twenty years over 100,000 women from the Philippines have come to Canada under this country’s Live-In Caregiver Program. These women, many of whom have trained professionally as nurses in the Philippines, must work for 24 months of their first three years in Canada as “live-in caregivers”, meaning that they must reside in their employers’ home during this period. The work they do can fall under many categories: childcare, healthcare, homecare and more. While they receive a wage calculated on a 40-hour workweek, given that they are always “at work” they suffer from all the joys of highly flexibilized labour. Plus all the joys of being a highly gendered and atomized workforce, with employer-employee relations marked by inconsistency and paternalism. Needless to say, sexual and other forms of abuse are prevalent.

In previous generations, the work that these women do would have mainly been done by Canadian women, either paid or unpaid, as wives, daughters, mothers, nuns or “domestics”. But changes in gender relations and in the Canadian economy have created a new international “demand”, just as capitalist development of the Philippines countryside pushes people off the land and creates a convenient “supply”.

Once these women have worked all of their required (indentured) months, most of them join the Filipino working class communities that are growing in major cities across Canada.

So certain processes are maintaining Third World women, even those with university degrees, in a subservient relationship to First World citizens. How is this “proletarization” being accomplished? are Filipinos being proletarianized as a result of “discourse”? or “ideology”? or the Philippines’ Labour Export Program combined with Canada’s Live-In Caregiver Program? or a bit of all the above?

To return to the point at hand: across Canada the past years have seen a number of cases of anti-Filipino violence, including racial profiling. In one particularly horrific incident, on May 24th 2004 Toronto undercover police shot and killed Jeffrey Reodica, a Filipino teenager who at the time was running away from them.

Chances are Reodica was killed because he was Filipino – but my point is that the reason why being Filipino might be enough to get you shot by the police is because the Filipino community is at this point working class – and one role of the police is to discipline, control and intimidate working class people, especially working class youth. That some people get killed as a result of this process is one of those things that the white middle class can live with.

So once and again: am i nitpicking?

How we understand the relationship between racism and capitalism will have important long-term consequences as to what kind of political work we engage in, who we work with and what we work for. This is true whether we are organizing around police brutality or so-called hate groups or gentrification… or anything else for that matter!

In regards to racial profiling, concentrating on the interplay between racist policing, colonialism and Canada’s racialized class structure provides us with an entirely different set of solutions, and alliances, than a view which confines racism to the personal realm of malice, speech and ideas.

Firstly, it lays the basis for an alliance with other people who are victimized by the police, as class runs like a thread (or chain) connecting and revealing the various different groups who are targeted for such abuse. Without forgetting the fact that racism and national oppression are important factors in many cases of police abuse, there are sections of the white working class which also suffer targeted police violence. Not only semi-criminalized groups like prostitutes and street people, but also those sections which for whatever reason have reaped scant benefit from the general imperialist bonanza. These sections are likely the least committed to the pro-capitalist politics which infect most white society – including most white workers – and as such constitute a potential base of support for our politics. (A base that those of us who are white should pay particular attention to…)

Secondly, while warding off the lure of easy (and doomed) solutions like electing social-democrats or hiring Black cops, integrating class into our analysis can lead us to the most reliable avenue of social change, namely mobilization of the oppressed in their own interests and on their own behalf. Rhetoric aside, the ability to relate one’s work around a particular issue (i.e. racist treatment by police) to other parts of your life (i.e. economic discrimination and super-exploitation) is a skill that strengthens one’s position on all fronts. Middle class people might object that adding class to the mix makes things too complicated, or constitutes too big a challenge – but for working class people, for the vast majority of people who suffer at the hands of the police, class already is part of the mix. Acknowledging this can only help us actually take up the work that needs be done.

Finally, and conversely, anti-police work will sharpen our class analysis, as the reality of police oppression can help bring people’s actual position (and their communities’ position) within capitalism into greater focus than simple income analysis. It also deepens our ability to understand colonialism, as the police remain the frontline occupation troops on Indigenous land across this continent.


This has been a very long review – and of just one chapter! My thoughts on this matter are not crystal clear, but i’m working on it – i’m hoping some of you will help me out and let me know where you think i’ve gone wrong…

i have obviously taken the liberty to use Smith’s work to broach several subjects well beyond the scope of Tator and Henry’s book. If i have been somewhat critical, it is because this question is one which is important, and prone to easy confusion, but i should point out that “on its own merits” as a “progressive” study included in a fairly liberal anti-racist book, Smith’s work remains an ok contribution.

Though remember – you can read much of it online for free!


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