July 24, 2016, was a hot and sunny Sunday in Ottawa. I had just completed the first of a three-week vacation from my job as minister of Parkdale United and was very much looking forward to leaving the next day for Barbados, the island of my birth.
That morning, I had decided to follow my vacation tradition: worshipping with a different congregation in my community. As my family members and I made our way to the new church plant on Fairmont Avenue, not far from Parkdale, I noticed a police car and an officer taking notes and speaking with someone just outside the door of a Bridgehead coffee shop. Only later, after hearing the news reports, did I realized that I had witnessed a small piece of a larger incident.
At 9:30 a.m., about a half-hour before my arrival on Fairmont Avenue, 911 calls were made to the police to report a man groping customers. Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali-Canadian who lived in an apartment building not far from the coffee shop, fled. A police officer chased the 37-year-old, catching up to Abdi as he reached his apartment building. Witnesses report that the officer beat Abdi with a baton. Another officer arrived, and a witness told the CBC that “the officer . . . immediately jumped into the altercation and administered a number of very heavy blows to the head and face and neck of Mr. Abdi.”
An unconscious Abdi was transported to hospital by ambulance. He was put on life-support and was pronounced dead the next day. A neighbour and friend later told the media that he had a history of mental health issues.
In my view, this tragic incident is a manifestation of a larger problem about which too many in our church and society are loathe to have a sustained conversation. I am talking about systemic racism, and in particular: anti-black racism.
“Race” is a contested concept. It is a political and philosophical invention that was created to serve political, social, colonial and military purposes. It was used to negatively categorize and dehumanize “non-white” peoples as a way of justifying the violent dispossession of their lands and resources.
Racism is not the same as prejudice or bias. It’s the combination of negative racial prejudice plus the advantage of institutional and systemic power. In other words, it’s about how a privileged “race” deploys power (political, military, educational, social, economic, etc.) to create advantage for its own members, while enforcing exclusion, oppression and disadvantage for those of another “race.”
It troubles me greatly that so many people still deny the reality of racism in Canada. This, even in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which poignantly chronicled the egregious actions of Canadian governments — past and present — toward Indigenous peoples.
Further, I reject the assertion that race isn’t a factor when Canadian police encounter diverse populations. Those who hold this belief usually justify it by saying that biased policing of racialized black people is a troubling issue in the United States, but not here in Canada.
We heard this narrative in the immediate aftermath of Abdi’s death. I’m not saying that the two officers who violently took down Abdi are racist; I don’t know them. But I do know that racism impacts the institution of policing, in particular in relation to young black males. Unless officers are trained to acknowledge, recognize and compensate for this bias, tragic outcomes are sure to follow.
Further, mental health professionals tell us that greater de-escalating skills are needed when apprehending citizens, like Abdi, who suffered from mental illness. Was the training of the officers in question sufficient to help them manage this situation?
The reaction to Abdi’s death was strong and immediate. His family reeled with grief as they witnessed the violent arrest and were prevented by police from coming to Abdi’s aid. Friends of the family spoke of their outrage and called for police accountability. Two days after the incident, hundreds of people gathered at a vigil. The following Saturday, a few hundred people of different ethnicities marched from Somerset Square Park (adjacent to the spot where Abdi died) to the police headquarters on Elgin Street. Many carried signs urging “Justice for Abdirahman.” Some also called for the two officers involved to be removed from active duty until the investigation is completed. Across the country, the Canadian expression of Black Lives Matter organized marches and disruptive action to draw attention not only to Abdi’s death, but also to similar acts of aggression and violence against racialized black people.
Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau acknowledged the impact of this tragedy on the family and the community, but said that the Special Investigation Unit had been called in and that it was important to allow that process to unfold. At the time, he did not offer any conclusive comment.
In the days following the tragedy, members of Parkdale United’s congregation — children, youth and adults — wrote letters of love, condolence and support to Abdi’s family. Some church members attended the vigil and march. We have continued to keep them all in our prayers.
When I returned from Barbados, I expressed my condolences to the family. Mayor Jim Watson convened a meeting of diverse faith leaders, which I attended, along with Bordeleau and some of his deputies. The goal was to provide wisdom on the most constructive way forward, but not before there was an honest airing of concerns about how racialized individuals are being policed. Questions were also raised about whether police are adequately trained to deal with citizens with mental health conditions.
A few days later, the Canadian Somali Mothers Association invited me to speak at an event intended to discern how best to mobilize allies and support healing among the affected communities. All of the presenters contributed to a therapeutic admixture of outrage, comfort and affirmation. Some of the dialogue following Abdi’s death was much less helpful. On a CBC radio show, Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, said that he was “worried that the conversation is even occurring, to be quite candid; to suggest that race was an issue in this, it’s inappropriate. The officers were called to the scene. The officers had to attend. Race, in this case, is a fact, just like your age, your gender, your height. It doesn’t have anything to do with our . . . decision-making. Our decision-making is based on our training, and our training has nothing to do with race. That’s unfortunate we’re seeing the bleeding of that very difficult rhetoric into Canada now . . . but it’s two separate conversations and not one that’s applicable here.”
The fact of the matter is that this opinion does not square with the research, the statistics and the lived experience of many racialized black people in Canada, myself included. My interactions with police have mostly been pleasant. But I too have been racially profiled. A number of times while driving, I have been followed, pulled over and questioned by police, without having committed any infraction.
Policing aside, I have also personally experienced racism many times. I have awoken twice to find Parkdale United defaced with racist graffiti, most recently this past November. In 1976, my brother, John, was murdered in a racially motivated attack in Montreal. He and I were assaulted on the street by four men with knives out to kill “n——s.” John was stabbed through the heart and lung and bled to death in my arms before help could arrive. Not surprisingly, the images of Abdi in the aftermath of his arrest, lying unconscious, bloodied and handcuffed, impacted me in a particularly jarring way.
Just days before Abdi’s death, Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders wrote an article entitled “Why black Canadians are facing U.S.-Style Problems.” He wrote that, “Black Canadians are demonstrably facing different outcomes in employment, in housing and especially in the policing and justice systems that can only be traced to discrimination.”
Saunders consulted with Queen’s University’s legal historian Barrington Walker, whose research into the history of race relations has led him to conclude that “Although there are certainly some differences [between Canada and the United States] in terms of broad historical contours, demographic patterns and patterns of migration, there are some really profound similarities.” Further, Walker maintains, “there is a kind of long, institutionalized state memory, the old idea that blacks do not belong as part of the Canadian landscape.”
There is much reluctance to acknowledge the scourge of racism in Canada, and particularly within the criminal justice system. But the statistics can’t be ignored. For example, in 1995, the Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System discovered that in similar circumstances, when convicted with a drug offence, that only 36 percent of white defendants were sentenced to prison compared to 55 percent of black defendants. Non-racial factors by themselves could not account for this variance.
In October 2002, the Toronto Star reported on its findings gathered from an analysis of 480,000 incidents dating back to 1996 in which persons were arrested, or ticketed. It was discovered that black drivers were significantly more likely to be stopped by police without evidence of committing an offence. Also, among people charged with simple possession of an illegal drug, most were released on a promise to appear in court. But whites were released 76.5 percent of the time, while blacks were released 61.8 percent of the time. Among those — white and black — taken to a police station, 7.3 percent of whites and 15.5 percent of blacks were kept in jail while awaiting a bail hearing.
Here in Ottawa, the Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project was initiated as a result of a 2005 incident in which Chad Aiken, a racialized black man from Ottawa, was pulled over by police. He filed a human rights complaint claiming that he had been stopped because of the colour of his skin. In a settlement agreement, Ottawa’s city police were made to record, between 2013 and 2015, the perceived race of the driver at all motor vehicle stops. The data analysis, which included 81,902 traffic stops, was released this past October. The data shows that black drivers were pulled over 2.3 times more often than you would expect, given their proportion within the general population, and Middle Eastern drivers, were pulled over 3.3 times more often.
In their recent book Racialization, Crime, and Criminal Justice in Canada, professors Wendy Chan and Dorothy Chunn of Simon Fraser University maintain that the “differential treatment of racialized minorities by police and other agents of the criminal justice system is related to racial discrimination” and that there “remains a wealth of evidence pointing to the presence of racial bias and stereotyping.”
As a racial justice trainer, I have consulted with and provided some training to the Ottawa police services, members of the Ottawa mayor’s office and City Hall staff. I believe the majority of police officers in this city want to perform their duties in a professional manner. However, I also believe that many of the contentious incidents that occur between police and black citizens result, in part, from a failure to acknowledge the scourge of racism and how it can infect our behaviour toward black peoples, and black men in particular.
A thorough discourse about how systemic racism can be exposed and dismantled is needed. But police also need better anti-racism, bias recognition and mental health training — delivered by competent trainers. We all have biases and it is important to recognize them. However, in the case of policing, failing to recognize one’s negative racial bias can have deadly consequences.
Kash Heed, former West Vancouver police chief and former B.C. solicitor-general, told Global News that police officers need training that enables them to privilege crisis intervention strategies over use of force. In 2013, Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé began probing use of force guidelines and police training after a Toronto police officer shot and killed Sammy Yatim, a Syrian-Canadian 18-year-old, on a streetcar. Dubé’s scathing report, released this past June, calls for more training on how to de-escalate tense situations. He told Global News, “The more skills, the better training that police have on de-escalation, when they come into contact with a person in crisis, I think the better odds are that the outcome will not be fatal.”
The United Church of Canada adopted an anti-racism policy in 2000, and racial justice training has been mandated for all active ministry personnel since 2006. But congregations should do more to engage with anti-racism, mental health issues and neighbourhood well-being. In our worship, our Bible studies and faith formation sessions, in our neighbourhood missional work, in our partnerships with others, in our outreach, and in our celebration of the diversity within our congregations, we must testify to an alternative way of showing love and fostering unity.
I believe that our most strident and prophetic contribution to racial justice must derive primarily from faithful worship. This might seem counter-intuitive and almost irrelevant. However, worship privileges the truth, exposes lies, confesses sin and penetrates illusion. Worship is, in the words of liturgical scholar Michael Warren, a “zone of contestation” where competing claims of truth, power and reality duke it out.
As followers of Jesus, it is through our communal life that we graciously receive the spiritual resources to support our struggle for peace and racial justice. This is the only way, I believe, to undertake this calling faithfully and over the long haul. At Parkdale United, by the grace of God, we are trying to do this, albeit imperfectly.
As of this writing, the two police officers under investigation for Abdi’s death are still on active duty. The Special Investigations Unit (the oversight body that investigates whenever a police officer is involved in an incident where a civilian is seriously injured, dies or alleges sexual assault) is still deliberating. In late October, Justice Michael Tulloch, tasked with reviewing the SIU and two other police oversight bodies, met with the wider public including some members of Ottawa’s Somali community. Their recommendations urged him to overhaul the SIU, making it more transparent and accountable. We are hoping and praying that substantive changes will be forthcoming.
I began this article by emphasizing the importance of worshipping, discussing and discerning with others. I know of no better way to discern a way forward, to seek justice, resist evil and mend this world that God so loves.
As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all . . . tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Rev. Anthony Bailey is a minister at Parkdale United in Ottawa.
This story originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of The UC Observer under the title, “A black and white problem.”