Black Canadians Face a Challenging Existence


After holding consultations in Quebec, Nova Scotia and Ontario earlier this month, the United Nations Working Group on People of African Descent issued a statement that sheds light on realities, too-often invisible to most Canadians, that should be seen as a national shame.

The group’s preliminary findings confirm what is already well known in Canada’s black communities: that systemic discrimination has subjected black people to racial profiling by law enforcement, soaring incarceration rates, disproportionate poverty and poor health, the over-apprehension of black children by child welfare agencies and lower graduation rates. Black women, they note, face a rate of poverty that is almost five times higher than that of white Canadian women, and are one of the fastest-growing groups in federal prisons.

Underlying these injustices, the UN Working Group has made clear, is systemic racism.

The UN is right to be concerned, and Montreal is by no means exempt from this criticism: Both its historical and contemporary realities are defined by a systemic anti-blackness that goes too frequently un-named. The enslavement of black (and indigenous) persons was not an uncommon practice in New France, and indeed was legal until 1834. The fact of slavery remains all around us: acclaimed art historian Charmaine Nelson reminds us that many present-day Montreal streets, buildings and institutions are named after white businessmen like James McGill and John Redpath who traded in plantation crops worked by slave labour.

Enslavement may be over, but centuries later black Montrealers — the largest visible minority in the city — continue to experience dehumanizing treatment across institutions. A 2010 study by sociologists Léonel Bernard and Christopher McAll found that it was over-surveillance, and not the rates of so-called “black crime,” that accounted for up to 60 per cent of the over-incarceration of black youth in Montreal.

A report commissioned by the Montreal police, leaked to La Presse, found that in St-Michel and Montréal-Nord, up to 40 per cent of black youth were stopped in 2006-2007, a rate that indicates a high degree of racial profiling by police officers. Much of this heightened policing was justified to the public as curbing “gang activities,” when in reality, in 2009, only 1.6 per cent of crimes were gang related. High profile cases of police abuse of black Montrealers and alleged abuse continue to surface, including the recent case of Veckqueth Stevenson, a legally blind black man in his 50s, who has accused the police of using excessive force and unjustly arresting him, ironically, while he was at Nelson Mandela Park.

Black women and girls are not exempt, though we hear even less about their experiences locally; the case of Majiza Philip, a black woman who says she had her arm broken by police in 2014, is one example, however. A 2008 study found that black girls in Montreal are three times more likely than white girls the same age to have been arrested two times or more.

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Source: Montreal Gazette | ROBYN MAYNARD