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Long past time

June 26, 2020

One of the books I read in May was Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers, an account of the lives and deaths of seven First Nations teenagers who were forced to leave their remote communities and travel to Thunder Bay if they wanted to continue their education into high school. The book is subtitled: “Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City”. It is a harrowing, heartbreaking read.

I was halfway through reading this book when, on May 25, footage went around the world of a white Minneapolis cop kneeling nonchalantly, hands in pockets, on the neck of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man. Kneeling on his neck for nearly 10 minutes while Floyd begged futilely for his life. The footage was so shocking it’s not surprising it sparked global protests about policing and injustice.

Nor is it surprising that, being halfway through that particular book when I saw that footage, I started thinking.

When you’ve grown up poor, as I did, you don’t tend to think of yourself as privileged. Quite the opposite. It takes a while to appreciate how lucky you are – if you are white.

As I’ve written about previously, I spent a chunk of my childhood in and out of the home of my best friend Linda, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants. By the time I was a teenager, ready to start high school, I was a long way away from that council estate, living with my mum in a leafy, fairly affluent area of Toronto. I have no idea if Linda’s brothers Johnny and Tommy were, in their teens, hassled by the police simply because they were walking down a street while black. I have a bad feeling they probably were.

The high school I attended, unlike the one in Thunder Bay where First Nations teens must go to further their education, was well equipped and well staffed. With very few exceptions, the student body was as white as could be.

In my first year I got to know a family – two sisters and a brother. Their mother, I learnt the first time I went to their house, was Ojibway, although, by marrying their white father, she’d lost all First Nations status under the terms of the sick and twisted, archaic 1876 Indian Act which remains on the books in Canada to this day. This status bit was not something that was ever discussed. It’s something I only came to realise years later. I’ll be honest: I never thought of these siblings as “Indians”. I don’t know if they did either. It just wasn’t something that ever came up. I don’t know if any of them (most likely the younger brother) ever experienced casual racism at the hands of law enforcement. I fear they may have.

The racist attitude of Canadian police forces (and some hospitals, as this disgraceful story from last week reveals) towards Indigenous people is a well documented national disgrace.

One evening back in the 1990s when I was walking home from work, I spotted an unconscious man on the lawn of a house a couple of doors down from my place. I tried unsuccessfully to rouse him, then went home and called for an ambulance. Then I went back outside to stand beside the man and wait. Before the ambulance turned up, a police car did. Two cops got out, one of whom shook the man quite harshly and said, “Okay, Chief, time to move on.” Chief? Yes, the man was First Nations. Chief? I couldn’t believe he’d just said that. The ambulance arrived. I can’t remember if they even checked him. What I remember is him being bundled into the police car. I did object. I said the man needed medical treatment. The cop rolled his eyes, informed me the man was drunk and needed to sleep it off. No point in wasting a hospital bed on him. The ambulance crew were already preparing to depart. Perhaps he had passed out because he’d drunk too much. Perhaps he was an alcoholic. I could have pointed out, as I knew all too well, that alcoholism is a disease and the place to treat diseases is in a hospital, not a police cell. I could have, but I didn’t. I went home. I could have rung the police to complain about the dehumanising behaviour I’d just witnessed. I don’t know if it would have done any good, but I could have. I should have. To my shame, I didn’t.

The only time in my life that I have ever been genuinely hassled by the police was when I was a hippie teenager. A few days later I got a call from a sergeant at the local precinct to inform me that a woman who’d witnessed the incident had called to complain about it. He wanted to know if I wished to pursue this and make a formal complaint. Not wanting to walk around with a police target on my back, I said no, I’d be satisfied to know they’d been reprimanded. The sergeant assured me they had. End of. If a nice lady could do that for me, why hadn’t I been able to do it for the man on the lawn? Perhaps she was just a better person than I am. I still regret not making that call.

I have no idea where I am going with all this.

I am inspired by the global response to the tragic murder of George Floyd. I am glad that the piece of shit cop who knelt on his neck until he was dead is being charged with murder and that other cops in the US are facing similar charges for similar crimes. I hope they can find juries who will actually convict. I also hope the New Brunswick cop who killed Chantel Moore, a young First Nations woman, during a “wellness” check is also charged.

We’ve been here before, but this does actually feel different.

It’s long past time for policing methods and, more importantly training (1) to be completely overhauled in so many countries.

It’s also past time for Justin Trudeau to stop paying lip service to healing Canada’s relationship with its First Nations. Taking the knee just doesn’t cut it.

No hope (on so many levels) for the UK whilst Bojo the clown remains on his throne, but with a bit of luck next January President Biden will start taking meaningful action, fully sanctioned by a Democratic majority Senate and House of Representatives.

We can but hope.



(1) Not sure what’s wrong with police training? I seriously urge you to click on this link and find out. He may be talking about police training in the US, but it could just as easily be in the UK, Canada or many other countries.

From → Columns

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