June 6, 2020
In the past week, I have stepped away from making personal statements on social media. The tragedies, the protests, and the voices rising from the streets must be heard, and you cannot listen if you are talking. I have tried to use the public platforms that flow from being a public official to amplify the voices that are demanding that Canada does better. While I’ve been outwardly focused on absorbing the words and voices of people impacted by Anti-Black racism, it does not mean that as a Member of Parliament, I have not been fully engaged in the fight and the work required to end Anti-Black racism in Canada – especially as action is demanded of the federal government. This is a struggle that I have been committed to long before I was elected to office, and in these extraordinary times, it remains a priority for me in my role as the representative for Spadina—Fort York.
Anti-Black racism is a deadly force in Canada. It produces tragedies that are both violently blunt and viciously subtle. It creates personal, private landscapes that saturate people of African descent in trauma and despair. It can be quiet or loud, but it is never invisible. Its roots run deep, regardless of how different it feels these days. Little has changed.
Occasionally in Canada, the issue lands on the front pages or leads public debates, as it has been doing during the last few days, but if you’ve listened to the voices from Black leadership, Black mothers, Black students, Black writers, and Black neighbourhoods currently rising from the streets, you must know and must acknowledge that Anti-Black racism is a constant, persistent, and shameful part of our country. It has been since the days of slavery in Canada and still is today. This should never be a point of debate. Ever.
These lessons have been on offer to Canadians for decades. The struggle for Black liberation has been penned in books, sung in songs, rhymed in poetry, seen on screens and stages, and heard at podiums and pulpits, and in classrooms and workplaces for longer than any of us have been alive. The only question being asked of us is: Will it end now?
There has never been a need to look across a border, sail across a sea, or climb a mountain to see what needs to be seen. It is also a failure of our civic responsibilities to only measure the violence of Anti-Black racism when it comes wrapped in yellow police tape. Anti-Black racism has been on a killing spree this year and has cut an incalculable path of grief.
Months before Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death as police watched, and before Dimarjio Jenkins’ death was mocked by the Toronto Sun, we know that Leonard Rodriquez died from COVID-19 while he was working to save others from that same fate. He died protecting others while that very same healthcare system he dutifully served failed to protect him and sent him home uncared for. It sentenced him to die.
I respect the rage that has given rise to the hashtag #JusticeForRegis. I respect the anger that Dimarjio Jenkins’ friends and family feel at having their loss mocked by mainstream media. I am at a loss as to why the protests, the social media outrage, the hashtags, and the demands for justice from so many outside of the Black community did not launch when Leonard Rodriquez also lost his life.
Leonard Rodriquez was sent to work without PPE in the middle of a global pandemic, while working for a long-term care home run by Access Independent Living Services. He was the only worker on site who had been assigned to care for others without the same care being extended to him. This is Anti-Black racism in its deadliest form. This is the silent and subtle form of Anti-Black racism that perpetuates trauma and despair and should have equally been a catalyst for all of us to protest and demand justice. While his loss has traumatized his community, his name is disappearing in the same way that Dimarjio Jenkins’ name is being erased. Leonard Rodriquez is just one name. There are others when you add the thousands of deaths in the United Kingdom, the United States, and around the world. Understand that thousands of families in our city are in lockdown while loved ones are being buried elsewhere. We ignore this grief at our common peril.
We do not know the names of other Black Canadians who have died because our government systems do not even care to count them. This is our Canadian system saying loud and clear that “They Don’t Count” precisely because we don’t count. This indicates to many that in the hearts and minds of those who govern our healthcare systems, Black Lives Don’t Matter. This is pronounced systemic racism, and when it targets Black people, it is just as deadly as that other deadly version of it: the one delivered by Canadian policing systems. In fact, I fear if we did the actual count, we would find out that it’s even deadlier.
Black Lives Matter is not simply a chant. It is not just about bad policing. Typing a hashtag in front of #BlackLivesMatter is a good gesture, but chants and gestures are only words in the wind without real action, without follow through, and without accountability. When the fight to end Anti-Black racism exists only on social media, it turns us all into characters on a reality TV show. When we think being really fake is an accomplishment, we are all in real trouble.
This is also why I’ve been relatively silent on social media this week. I have been examining my own commitment to fighting Anti-Black racism. What impact have my actions had? Where has my follow through fallen short? How am I holding myself accountable?
The honour and privilege of representing the people of Spadina—Fort York in the House of Commons comes with responsibilities. I’ve been elected as a Member of the governing party’s caucus, and in turn, I’ve been given additional duties as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development (Housing). I’ve sought public office and a seat in Parliament, because I believe that state-sanctioned policies that lock people into endless cycles of poverty are a gross violation of all people’s human rights. Poverty in Canada is racialized, and Anti-Black racism is a deadly form of our country’s profound inequalities.
The events of the last few weeks, however, are not just a call for social justice. As important as social justice is, the call is first and foremost a demand that our systems of justice must change. All systems of legal accountability – including policing, judicial, and incarceration – must change. Without it, there can be no social justice. Without this, we are saying that Black Lives Don’t Matter. Without these fundamental changes, systemic racism in all of its forms will continue its deadly march.
Commitment. Follow through. Accountability. These three standards must now be met. Here are examples of what the work must include. There are books full of more.
Policing: For a generation, we have asked police to do social work, address episodes of mental illness, and use their power to protect those whom the government has decided are powerless. This has proven to be a profoundly expensive and very deadly way to be ineffective. When we, as a government, choose to send in the police to deal with people experiencing mental health breakdowns, it is a choice. In fact, it is the law. It becomes the only way that families without medical support can access the mental health system to get help for loved ones. We have decided that this is the best way to deliver critical care to individuals in distress. It is not. It is just one of too many ways we deliver critical care to people in distress, and just one of too many ways we deliver care through armed intervention. When we are asked to defund the police, what we are being asked to do is to take this responsibility and the funding that goes with it away from the police, and to invest it in the Black community to create better outcomes.
Judicial: We know that our legal system jails some individuals more than others, and we know that those same people also end up being jailed longer. Race is a major factor here. Again. When people are locked in jail and race is a factor it is the very definition of the word prejudice. When it happens to people of African descent its additional evidence of Anti-Black racism that must not be ignored. By not responding to the over representation of people from the Black community in prison, we give consent and power to this system of Anti-Black Racism.
Governments use the criminal code and incarceration to solve social dysfunction that Government inaction itself plays a role in creating. Jail intentionally severs an individual’s attachment to their fundamental human rights. For those whose rights were not fully realized before incarceration, the impact of punishment can be even more severe. Jail is thus seen as the environment where often the most brutal and significant forms of Anti-Black racism are carried out. Mandatory Minimum Sentences are the most arbitrary way we have codified discrimination. It is how we have legally normalized a form of Anti-Black racism. We have not acted to end this practise even though we know that the people who are targeted are overwhelmingly Black. Even worse as we accelerate moves to privatize prison, and increasingly use inmate labour to subsidize commercial enterprise, we are actively evolving the Canadian Institutional System of Corrections into a modern form of slavery. These laws must change, and these practises must end immediately.
Social Justice: Police and legal reforms are critical, but they are measures to remedy a crisis after it has been allowed to happen. We wouldn’t need sentencing reforms if people hadn’t been arrested to begin with. Across Canada and around the world, crime rates are driven to extremes when societies ignore gross social, cultural, and economic inequalities. In Canada, poverty is heavily racialized. Poverty kills more people in the Black community than the police do, but as it has been argued, there are very rarely any hashtags or protests to mark these tragedies.
Historically, and right now, leadership from the Black community are on the front lines demanding an end to systemic inequities that surrender people to structural and near-permanent poverty. Anti-Black racism denies people access to good jobs, better pay, as well as safe and affordable housing. It restricts access to education and undervalues the credentials of those who navigate these broken systems. These failures do not just drive poverty into the Black community: they are the well-established, properly researched, and listed social determinants of health.
The absence of social justice is why poverty kills. Poverty reduction starts with safe, secure, and affordable housing. Homelessness and the housing crisis must end to halt this vicious cycle. Housing built by and owned by the Black community creates the needed sanctuary and economic protection for the community to heal itself.
Nowhere in Canada is this more historically demonstrable than in Nova Scotia. Families that have been in Canada for centuries and who were granted land on their arrival have been waiting centuries for title to that very same land. White loyalists were given more land and were able to own property. These rights were denied and continue to be explicitly withheld from people of African descent who still live on that land. This is the history of Africville, and it continues in East Preston and other communities on the east coast. As representatives of the Crown, Governments must invest and settle these claims to end one of the oldest forms of Anti-Black racism in Canada.
Cultural Practice: Just as land, resources, and people have been stolen from the African continent, this practice has been repeated across the diaspora. For example, another form of systemic Anti-Black racism is engrained in the capital “C” Cultural practice of this land. Black artists, writers and creators, when not tapped for free advice or “voluntary” contributions, often see their work discounted if paid for at all. More often and worse, when Canada’s Cultural Industrial Complex does pay attention and gets a glimpse of the joy that Black artists create for their own communities, the art is actively if not literally expropriated. Arts funding in this country steals creative resources from the Black cultural landscapes of Canada. Every time Black artists are redirected to “multi-cultural” funding bodies, instead of getting arts funding, it systematically degrades Black cultural productions. When capital investments are only available to “fine” art institutions, Black-led institutions are being told that they are not ‘fine’ enough for funding. Cultural segregation must end.
Pictures of Caribana appear next to photos of The Royal Ontario Museum in government-funded travel brochures. Equal in image but check the funding disparity. The pride may be equal, but the public investment is not. One organization in this scenario is given more tax dollars to store African Art than the other organization, whose funding goes towards producing and paying actual artists of African descent. It’s time for equal pay for equal work, but it’s also time for Black-led cultural organizations to get capital funding. In other words, stop giving grants to rent a microphone. It’s time to fund organization so that they can buy the sound equipment, the stage, and the building.
This is by no means a complete list. It is not an attempt to dismiss or edit demands coming from the protests from the streets, but just as the word “change” starts by typing the letter “c”, in this communication, the sequence of work ahead must start with specific action. Let it be restated. You won’t produce change if you don’t follow through, and even when you do, you must go back and check your work to make sure that the change you’ve produced is the change that was called for. Accountability matters.
Anti-Black racism is no different in Spadina—Fort York. Every call to action made nationally is needed locally. Just as we must stop pretending that reality TV shows are documentaries, and that hashtags will eliminate Anti-Black racism. Marching may feel like activism, and while it is absolutely essential to driving demands in a most public of ways, it is meaningless without those who benefit from these inequalities also challenging ourselves to step up and change even as we march.
We must concentrate on following through on the commitments we make to fight Anti-Black racism and we must play a role in holding governments, organizations, and ourselves publicly accountable. We who do not carry the burden of being subjected to Anti-Black racism must carry these obligations with focus and intention. It is on us.
If you donate, check your list. If you volunteer, examine for whom. If you hire, do it equitably. If someone has ever opened a door for you, return that favour. This too is part of the work being asked of us. Finally, if you ever reach out to leaders in the Black community to help us all realize this systemic transformation, pay the people you consult for the work you are asking them to do. Asking Black people to work for free is rooted in slavery. I’ll end here.
Black Lives Matter.
Don’t just tweet it. Act like it matters to you. Make change happen.
Member of Parliament