Systemic racism in our little corner of the world – it’s real and it’s everywhere

I have mentioned in previous posts that our little province in eastern Canada usually flies under the radar. This can be both a good thing and not so good thing, but by and large it brings a peaceful lifestyle in a beautiful place where, for the most part, people get along well. We’ve had a few horrifying and heartbreaking policing events gone wrong, like the rest of the world, but we’ve lived in a little bubble where the public trust for the police has been high. At least I thought so. Until now, the recent police tragedies have been cops being killed by perpetrators. To be clear, those two tragic and senseless acts were carried out by two separate (white) men in two different towns over a 6-year period; it’s not a frequent occurrence, thank God. But this time is different, very different.

Our little backwater has become the national story of the moment for fatal police shootings – in these two cases Mounties – while responding to incidents with people with mental health issues. Shooting to kill. That is not supposed to be the Canadian way. What happened to de-escalation? One of these two cases – less than two weeks ago, in the midst of a worldwide movement calling for a less aggressive and race-targeted approach to policing – was a call from the victim’s home for a wellness check. A wellness check, for crying out loud. That screams out as a cry for help from someone with a mental health issue. And the end result was a 26-year old mother shot to death. By a Mountie. And she was indigenous.

Healing walk for 26year old Chantel Moore in Fredericton, NB. Excellent tribute for Chantel here: With heavy hearts, furious minds, and gentle spirits.

Then just 4 days ago, as astounding as this is to believe – still in the midst of a worldwide movement calling for a less aggressive approach to policing and with awareness of the tragic case of a young indigenous woman having been killed by a police officer the week before – another 911 call came in about someone who was having a mental health episode in another part of the province. And, although it defies belief, this person was also shot and killed by the attending Mountie. A 48-year old father and friend who had been at a BBQ at his pastor’s house. And he was indigenous.

Rodney Levi. Victim of RCMP fatal shooting, June 12, 2020

The news reports say that both these people had knives. They also were suffering from mental health crises. That was known. Is shooting to kill the way police in our province usually approach charged situations? If so, we sure as hell need a discussion about that. Are they trained to de-escalate mental health crises? If not, why are they there? And – I hate to ask this question – would they have done the same thing for anyone, white, indigenous, black, or Arab? I’m not sure what I want the answer to be. The only other fatal shootings by police in New Brunswick I could find listed in the national registry was one in each of 2013, 2014, and 2015, none of which were indigenous people. So, no, killing by police officers is not something that happens here often. And the fact that it has suddenly happened twice in less than two weeks when called to attend to something other than a clear-cut crime, while the world is protesting the use of extreme force by police, is hugely troubling. And both victims were indigenous people.

These two troubling cases may prove to have nothing to do with indigenous racism – maybe – but they certainly raise flags about how police here are trained to handle situations appropriately and whether they should be responding to mental health checks at all. In both cases they unnecessarily escalated the situation, shot to kill instead of contain, and ended the life of someone whose help they had been called to provide. And we talk about reconciliation. Right.

I said at the outset that by and large New Brunswickers lead a peaceful lifestyle in a beautiful place where, for the most part, people get along well. To qualify that, I say that from my experiences as a white person. The overwhelming majority of New Brunswickers are white. They don’t have any experience with being targeted or suspected without cause. I’ve lived here happily for 50 years and it was only after reading an article in our local paper on the weekend that I fully realized how naïve and sheltered I’ve been from the reality others have faced during that time. Those others would include people I know well. The article, in the Daily Gleaner, was entitled “Black in Fredericton: three residents tell their stories”. (This is the link, but you won’t be able to read it unless you can get past their subscription firewall.)

The three people include a 25-year old woman, a 40-year old man, and a 64-year old woman. All three are native-born Canadians, one a first-generation Canadian raised in Ontario and now living here, one a 5th generation Fredericton native who now lives in Calgary, and the other a 6th generation descendant of Black Loyalists. The man speaks of being the target of bullying throughout school with nobody (not even a teacher) sticking up for him, of being stopped in his car several times by cops with guns drawn, being told to get out of the car and lay on the ground. With a gun drawn? What?? Lay on the ground? For a traffic stop?? Here???!

Image credit: Daily Gleaner, June 14, 2020

The 64-year woman speaks of being stopped by cops and them not believing she would own her own car; must belong to someone else. This a gentle older woman whose family has lived here for 6 generations, treated with such disrespect … here. And on it goes. They all spoke of having to learn to always have their guard up, always be extra polite just to be safe, no matter what, and to get used to the fact that assumptions of poverty, poor education, and potential crime are always there in the public’s expectation and that of the police, just because of the colour of their skin. And these are people who lead the same kind of lives all of us do. Except that their skin has a different colour. Here, in the sparkling little town of Fredericton, New Brunswick.

My guess is that our indigenous neighbours would have similar tales to tell … or worse. [And for those readers who aren’t from New Brunswick, of the 15 Mi’kmaq and Maliseet First Nations in our province, 3 of our First Nations communities are within the greater Fredericton area, my home town.] Walk a mile in their shoes.

The outrage and screams for societal and structural change that began with the murder of George Floyd is light years late in arriving. Those of us without colour have lived parallel lives to those of our Black and Indigenous neighbours for centuries. We have been blind, some knowingly and some not so much so, and by being blind we’ve been enabling. We’re all meant to be treated equally and justly. This movement must continue without pause until true change is enacted and working justly and with compassion.

A blogging friend of mine, Irma, at her blog I Do Run, ended a recent post on racism with these words. They now serve as my mantra:

“I don’t have the answers … But one thing that I have learned from running – the more you do it, the better you get at it.  The more we are actively anti-racist, the better we will be. We just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.” 

 

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18 Responses to Systemic racism in our little corner of the world – it’s real and it’s everywhere

  1. It’s been interesting, to say the least, to read about the systemic racism that exists with policing and other facets of life north of the border. Needless to say, issues with systemic racism against people of color is not limited to the states.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      No, Brendan, very sadly, racism seems to be alive and “well” everywhere you find human beings. Having leadership that leads the fight against racism rather than enabling it helps, but it is such a tough battle in some quarters. We must prevail.

  2. When I first heard about ‘defunding’ the police, I thought that was crazy. But what sounded crazy to many people like me has led to much thinking about what the police should be doing and how. They have shown that they are not mental health experts, yet they attend to mental health crisis calls. Why on earth? It is time to question whether policing – formed as a military force — should be changed to serve the needs of the societies they serve.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I felt the same way, Cynthia. I wish a different phrase had been used than defund, not just to make it clearer what changes are needed but to make it less easy for those who see this as an anti-police movement to have a case. Answering (mental health) wellness checks is a huge case in point. There was another egregious case near Toronto even more recently, with an ill immigrant who didn’t speak English being killed. Changing how we support mental health is critical; making some policing more community-based needs serious consideration.

  3. Roy McCarthy says:

    A saddening story indeed. Re police forces generally, a glimmer of light I read from Camden City in New Jersey where the police dept. was deemed to be beyond reform and was disbanded. The new force is built on the idea of de-escalation and policing by consent. The horrendous crime rate has plummeted.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Yes, Camden does seem to be a positive example. One thing that really needs to change in Canada is that police shouldn’t be called out on mental health wellness checks, where family members or the victim him or herself called for help. They just don’t have the training. The victim should be taken to a hospital, not shot. It happened again outside of Toronto two days ago. 😥

  4. debscarey says:

    There is a terrible misconception that mental health = violent, whereas most people who suffer with a mental illness are far more likely to harm themselves than others. Unfortunately print media and depictions on big screens & little, continue to perpetuate the myth for the sake of “drama”. It’s enormously frustrating, and this type of outcome leaves me so very sad.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Debs, you have that so right. And police just aren’t trained for providing that kind of help. It is excruciatingly sad. It just happened again outside of Toronto, even with the relatives trying to explain the situation, including that he wouldn’t hurt anyone but himself and that he didn’t speak English. Everything is so wrong about this scenario.

  5. Jean says:

    Honest, I wouldn’t want to be black. Did I ever wish I didn’t have a Chinese last name? Yes. Police aren’t trained to be social workers and some get into policing for the wrong reasons. Strangely these 2 cases, once reported nationally, disappear off the map in other provinces.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      In other words, racism is alive and “well” in all its hideous forms. Everyone should be able to feel pride in their heritage; to be made to feel otherwise or to rightfully fear the police is a tragedy for those who feel it and a mark of shame on our society. Re our province’s RCMP killings being off the radar screen outside our own province – see what I mean! Thanks for commenting, Jean.

  6. barryh says:

    Well said, Jane. Thanks.
    There’s something to be said for police not generally being armed, as here. But it’s the underlying attitude that really matters. Racism is alive and well – certainly in US where it was white supremacism that won the last pres election.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Barry. Yes, you’re right on both counts. The underlying attitude, those bigoted assumptions, is what we as a society have to change. God help us, we have to find ways, as complex and ingrained as it is. But you’re right about weaponised police as well. We don’t have a gun culture like the U.S. – nowhere else does – but our police carry guns. The idea that they actually take them out of their holster and point them at people in anything less than a life-threatening situation just blew my mind. There was an intriguing interview on BBC World News America the other night where the news anchor, Katty Kay, was speaking with the London chief of police, asking him if Britain could provide any advice to US police in lowering the number of shootings by cops. She didn’t get far because he pointed out that (1) British police don’t carry guns (along with Japan and a few other countries) and (2) he couldn’t imagine policing in a country where everyone can walk around with a gun! You’re right, it’s the racist attitude that needs changing.

  7. So very sad. But the quotation at the end is excellent. One foot in front of the other.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I’m glad you agree, Laurie. It seems that’s what we have to do, all right, without let up. Fortunately, more and more people are prepared to do so.

  8. Marilyn Noble says:

    Again, you’ve nailed it. I developed and for ten semesters taught a course on diversity and inclusion, with many guest speakers from the margins bringing their voices to the dialogue. And yet I’m as shocked as you are by what has happened in our little picture province in the past two weeks. I’ve also worked with marginalized populations throughout this city, and yet these recent events have left me reeling. Marilyn

    >

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Marilyn. That is really telling, and profoundly sad, that you, too, with all your close experience with our marginalized communities, can feel similarly overwhelmed. I have to find a way to put my ‘overwhelmed-ness’ to work!

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