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Insights for Canada: George Floyd and the Anti-Racism Revolution | Op-Ed

Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, protests against state-sanctioned violence, police brutality and anti-Black racism have taken place in over 58 countries and counting. Canadians in every major city in the country have taken to the streets in protest. This is no longer a period of civil disobedience, but one of revolution.  

Not Protest, Revolution: Columbia University historian Laura Neitzel notes that “revolution” as a “word itself refers to radical, transformative change.” In the course of recorded history, revolution has been used to articulate the phenomena of fundamental societal change. 

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As a word, ‘revolution’ refers to the major societal changes like those seen in 10,000 BCE during the Neolithic Revolution. A time that observed the world transition from hunting and gathering to a model of controlled agricultural farming and settlement. In more modern times, ‘revolution’ can refer to the first, second, third, and now fourth Industrial Revolutions.   

When applied to and utilized by people, the word ‘revolution’ makes its transitions to a process that aims to rewrite the societal rule book and transforms the human position in the world around them. 
As Neitzel wrote:

“As a historical process, ‘revolution’ refers to a movement, often violent, to overthrow an old regime and effect complete change in the fundamental institutions of society.”  

The current calls for police reform echoed in the burning of a Minneapolis police precinct would see the modern police service fundamentally reconceptualized. In an institution that has existed in Canada since 1835, state-sanctioned use of force would be re-evaluated.

  • The mission of police services would align with seeking justice and not just upholding the letter of the law.
  • The defunding of police services would see social and health organizations given more resources and looked to more significantly to fight the social determinants of crime.  

In the protests that have emerged around the globe, protestors are not only outraged by the murder of George Floyd but by the structures that continue to sanction the deaths and suppression of racialized individuals, in what is a highly colonial exercise. Calls in Canadian streets and online to the hashtag #EnoughisEnough is indicative of the call for change. A call to rewrite our societal rule book. 

Violence: A Tool for Change? There has been criticism of the use of violence in protests in response to George Floyd’s death. However, we can not forget that the most celebrated and cherished values in the world – those of liberty, democracy, freedom, the rule of law – were birthed through often violent revolutions. In the Atlantic world:

  • The American Revolutionary War of 1775-1783,
  • The French Revolution of 1789–99,
  • The Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804,
  • The Irish Rebellion of 1798, and
  • The rebellions in Spanish America from 1810–25

Each birthed entirely new systems of governance following violent revolutions.  

Violent revolutions are no stranger to Canada, as they earmarked the Canadian path to democracy. As students of Canadian history know, the Durham Report set the course for a unified confederacy and responsible government. Yet, the report’s drafting was only commissioned by Britain due to the armed Rebellions of 1837-38 in Upper and Lower Canada.  

The intention of revolutions was not to arrive at violent outcomes but to lay claim to territory where people could dictate the rules that govern them.

The Americas has never seen a revolution that utilized violence as a tool of first resort. Violence in the history of revolutions was utilized only after decades and centuries of repeated failings to reflect the needs of marginalized voices in the societal rule book. And even when violence was invoked, its overall objective was to arrive at peace.

The drawback, especially in Canada, was that at times of revolution there was no major method to observe the inequalities among those who considered themselves ‘marginalized’. White male property holders fought British rule as ‘marginalized’ subjects while holding a greater degree of privilege than women and racialized persons. In the fight for what has emerged as the Canadian nation, white male property holders were simultaneously attempting to subjugate Indigenous peoples and colonize Indigenous lands.

The use of violence in times of revolution was something that not every person bore freely and its enactment only furthered pre-existing inequalities. A violent fight called attention to those that were positioned to fight and their objectives. In what became Canada, white male property holders fought for responsible government that would represent them while leaving so many behind.

If the history of revolution is any teacher, violence used as a tool for change is only of benefit to those who are capable of directly engaging in it and emerging victorious in the light of opposition.

The looting, vandalism, and destruction by protestors in the wake of George Floyd’s killing echoes the once armed battalions that roamed through the streets in search for autonomy and freedom. Yet still the same negative consequence remains; direct violence can only ever deliver for some and never for all.

 The ‘Nonviolent’ Turn: During the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King used the tradition of nonviolent protest as a method to showcase racial inequalities. In his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” King wrote that:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

Demonstrators purposefully gathered in large numbers and created ‘such a tension’ so that the prejudice and racists assumptions of society would result in fear-charged violent responses by police services. When police sprayed water, threw fists, and shot bullets into crowds the nonviolent movement pressed on “so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored,” King wrote.

For Simone Sebastian from the National Desk, “violence was critical to the success of the 1960s civil rights movement, violence was not something that simply happened to activists; they invited it”.  

King’s invitation of violence was an invitation to choose. Rather than dictate what should work for Black people, King worked to bring people to the realization of what ought to work for all. In a dramatic display in 1963, King’s Children’s Crusade forced the world to choose between justice for all or only justice for some. As images emerged of over 1000 unarmed Black children and teenagers being beaten by police, set upon by police dogs, and jailed there was no denying the severity of racial inequality that enabled such deplorable actions to occur. The return of the same children to protests in the streets of Birmingham the day after their arrest further elevated the need for change. King wrote in his autobiography that “looking back, it is clear that the introduction of Birmingham’s children into the campaign was one of the wisest moves we made. It brought a new impact to the crusade, and the impetus that we needed to win the struggle.”

The killings of  Trevyon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and George Floyd is violence that only adds to the dramatization of racism and the need for change. The racism that resulted in the death of George Floyd and so many others is indeed the very same that has seen Black, Indigenous, and Canadians of colour killed by Canadian police. As protests continue to emerge, they can and should be seen as flashpoints in time that are transitioning the world from one historical stage to the next. For Karl Marx, such a transition was an inevitable and universal process of world history and revolutions were an integral part of that.

Yes, Canada’s Societal Rule Book is Structurally Racist Too: Canada has a racial prejudice that subjugates and attempts to dominate Black and Indigenous bodies. Structural racism is not isolated to the United States and it has historical roots in Canada that continues to be supported by our own institutions.

From the point of their inception in Canada, national police services had as its aim to target Black and Indigenous peoples. The Dominion Police, the first national police service (est. 1868), and the North-West Mounted Police (est. 1873) were created to act on behalf of the state and police Indigenous-dominated Territories. With the abolition of slavery in 1834, Canada’s institutions began “exerting control” over Black people in place of slave holders, author Robyn Maynard stated. In Maynard’s book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present she wrote that “the idea of associating Blackness with criminality and characterizing Black communities as dangerous is perpetuated by bodies like the police”.

Effective racialized data is not regularly collected and reported on by Canada’s policing services but through countless research reports, civil lawsuits, and journalistic reports there is no denying the over policing of Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

A CBC database of every person killed during a police intervention from 2000 to 2017, found that Black and Indigenous peoples were “overwhelmingly over-represented”.

  • Indigenous people in Winnipeg made up 10.6 percent of that city’s population and yet 60 percent of those who died in police encounters were Indigenous.
  • In Toronto, Black people accounted for about 8 percent of the city’s population and 37 percent of those killed by police.
  • In the 461 cases tracked by CBC, charges were only brought against officer in 18 instances with only two convictions.
  • The Globe and Mail’s November 2019 report indicated that Indigenous people (less than five percent of Canada’s overall population) made up more than one-third of people shot to death by the RCMP between 2007 and 2017.
  • In 2018, a report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that Black residents in Toronto are 20 times more likely to be killed by police than white people.

Investigation launched after northern Alberta chief accuses RCMP ...
On June 6, 2020, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam explains how a Wood Buffalo RCMP officers assaulted him in a Fort McMurray parking lot in March (Source: CBC/ Jamie Malbeuf)

The excessive use of force against Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam in March is a reminder of the current pervasiveness of systemic racism in Canada. RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki released a statement Friday saying that “throughout our history and today, we have not always treated racialized and Indigenous people fairly.” Lucki also stated that “I did acknowledge that we, like others, have racism in our organization, but I did not say definitively that systemic racism exists in the RCMP. I should have.”

On Thursday the Prime Minister acknowledged that “systemic racism is an issue right across the country, in all our institutions, including in all our police forces, including in the RCMP.”

Not only do our social structures continue to subjugate Indigenous and Black people but active racial barriers remain at every avenue of success.

Indigenous and Black people are less likely to have access to economic prosperity tools such as higher education and more likely to be passed over for positions of leadership, initial job hiring, and promotions.

So yes, Canada’s rule book is structurally racist too.

The bottom line: This past week Canada observed how citizens in Seattle laid claim to the city’s Capitol Hill neighbourhood, declaring an autonomous police-free zone. The area that as recently as last week experienced nightly teargassing and flash-banging often for hours has emerged “as a safe and peaceful place”. Seattle and the move from a majority of Minneapolis’ city council to support disbanding the police force is, like in Camden, New Jersey, a testaments to not only reforming a broken system but getting to work to build an entirely new one that holds anti-racism within its make up.

There is a need to confront Canadian processes and institutions and implement policies that are better than what we have. However, there is no reason we can not also get to work to write entirely new societal rules and envision new institutions that learn from this Anti-Racism Revolution that Canada is very much a part of. It is up to every person to not assign blame for the state of our societal order but to take ownership of the racial injustices that exist within it and work to rewrite the societal rulebook.