Common perceptions in Canada hold that racism against black people is largely an American phenomenon. That slavery was something that happened in the United States, and that police shootings of unarmed black men occur in places like Florida and Missouri, not Ontario or British Columbia.
Robyn Maynard wants Canadians to know that that’s simply not true.
Ahead of a March 1 appearance in Vancouver, the author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada From Slavery to the Present told the Straight that contemporary protest movements like Black Lives Matter Toronto can only be understood if we acknowledge the histories from which they’ve emerged.
“Black communities that have been advocating against injustice are either disbelieved, or the kinds of discrimination that black folks have at the hands of the police continue to be minimized,” Maynard said on the phone from Montreal. “If slavery is mentioned at all, it often is very minimized. So it’s really important that we look at the fact that slavery was practised and legal in Canada for over 200 years. That is a very important part of the history of anti-blackness in Canada that is so often erased.
“It’s about identifying Canada’s history, in slavery, in formal and informal kinds of segregation,” she continued, “so that we’re able to better understand the present.”
Policing Black Lives serves as a concise encyclopedia of systemic racism against black people in Canada, as it’s existed in history and as it continues today.
Much of the book discusses physical violence as it’s exercised against black men. That attention is justified. In recent years, it’s become tragically common for videos to appear on YouTube that capture police officers killing black men. But Policing Black Lives also has a strong and conscious focus on black women.
“We think about the victims of racism as being black men, and we think about the victims of sexism as being white women,” Maynard said. “What that means is black women are so frequently overlooked. If you pay closer attention to the experiences of black women, it gives you a broader view of what racism looks like. It expands our scope and our analytical lens and allows us to see that not only are poor black women also subject to different kinds of police profiling and harm, but that it also extends into treatments within child-welfare and social services.
“Historically, black women have been erased or minimized in terms of those who experience anti-black racism and racism more broadly,” she continued. “So it is very important to talk about the experiences of young black men, because that is a really important manifestation of racism. But it was important for me to create a framework where we can see the experiences of black women, including black trans women, who experience really intense kinds of policing, poverty, and economic exclusion that are often ignored.”
Maynard said that ideas for the book circled in her head for several years before she felt she could no longer wait to put them on paper. She explained she was inspired by Black Lives Matter, its Canadian chapters, and police killings of unarmed black men in Canada—particularly Andrew Loku, who was killed by Toronto police in 2015, and Abdirahman Abdi, who was killed by Ottawa police in 2016.
“I want my book to be in conversation with that movement,” Maynard added. “I was really trying to help, to contribute to this sort of movement and work that we’re doing today, and this movement towards racial justice, towards a world in which black lives matter.”
The Vancouver launch of Policing Black Lives is scheduled for Thursday (March 1), 6 p.m., at SFU Harbour Centre (515 West Hastings Street), Room 1900. Maynard will appear there alongside a number of local activists, including Cecilia Point, a member of the Musqueam Nation and political activist; Cicely Blain, a writer and founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver; Jillian Christmas, artistic director of the Verses Festival of Words; Khari Wendell McClelland, an artist and musician; Lama Mugabo, a community organizer with the Carnegie Community Action Project; and Ruby Smith Diaz, an artist and youth facilitator.
The event is free and childcare is available on-site.