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Policing Race: Rethinking the Myth of National Exceptionalism in a Canadian Context



Wendell Adjetey wrote “Policing Race: Rethinking the Myth of National Exceptionalism in a Canadian Context” as part of the 2014 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.



In one of the most significant speeches of the last century, Malcolm X admonished African Americans to embrace zealously electoral politics (i.e., the ballot) and resort to arms if the United States government continues to be obstructive of these civil and other human rights. “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, which Malcolm X delivered throughout 1964 during the apex of the freedom struggle in the United States, is imbued with the revolutionary fervour of Thomas Jefferson, whose preamble in the Declaration of Independence justifies such an act of defiance against tyranny. On April 12, 1964, at the King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, Malcolm X delivered a variation of this speech to an eager audience, clearly identifying the animus of racism that permeated the entire United States – not just the Jim Crow South. (1) “Stop talking about the South,” he warned. “As long as you south of the Canadian border, you South” – to which his audience chuckled and applauded. (2) As loaded as this statement is, even Malcolm X (and those in attendance) accepted the myth of a benign Canada free of racism.

Toronto police are statistically more likely to “stop and frisk” African Canadians compared to the rate at which African Americans are in New York City. (3)

That Canada and the United States share an integrated and unique history, as well as a mutually beneficial relationship, is axiomatic. It is a different narrative, however, and perhaps polemical, to suggest that the ways in which racism plays out in the two countries, even historically, is much more similar than perceived, and that it is misguided to think of racial oppression in Canada as a mild or innocuous phenomenon. Take, for example, the fact that Toronto police are statistically more likely to “stop and frisk” African Canadians compared to the rate at which African Americans are in New York City. (3) When one takes into consideration that these two liberal democratic nations are the products of fierce European imperial rivalry, violent settler colonialism and the subjugation and suppression of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans, it becomes easier to recognize and understand current structural injustices as processes steeped in history. These historical events stood in flagrant contradistinction to virtuous Western Enlightenment principles of liberty, equality and justice, which the architects of Canada and the United States subscribed to. Moreover, the extent to which European settlers zealously guarded their citizenship and circumscribed the liberties of non-whites, be they indigenous or of African or Asian extraction, is a clear indication not only of the preservation of racial hierarchy, but also of white hegemony.

When all else fails, the myth of a benign and harmless Canada, unsullied by racism and intolerance, reverberates off the national sounding board.

Notwithstanding the similar strands that make up the fabric of Canadian and U.S. histories, a general exceptionalism on both sides attempts to set one country apart from the other. This consciousness, of course, is heightened on the Canadian side of the border given, on the one hand, their neighbour’s pre-eminence, and historical struggles with racial discrimination on the other. For example, Canadians take immense pride in their post-World War II embrace of human rights and liberal internationalism, particularly multilateralism, collective security and peacekeeping. When this noble national orientation lacks punching power, Canadians rely on their moral authority and capacity to encourage other nations, the United States included, to doing good in the world. When all else fails, the myth of a benign and harmless Canada, unsullied by racism and intolerance, reverberates off the national sounding board. On balance, Canadian society, when juxtaposed to other diverse and advanced liberal democratic states, is often more progressive and egalitarian, but it is not without real and serious challenges.

Contextualizing the Past, Understanding the Present

This paper focuses broadly on the myth of national exceptionalism in Canada by looking at the interaction between African Canadians and the police, as well as how state authorities address the challenges and public safety concerns that inner-city youth are perceived to represent. Where the treatment and surveillance of criminality is concerned, neither Canada nor the United States is exceptional: both societies have demonstrated historical anxieties over persons of African descent – one that translates into over-policing, harsh sentencing and over-incarceration. (4) Given the pervasive and enduring legacy of a benign and tolerant Canada, it is difficult for some to reconcile effectively how misguided U.S. policies such as mass incarceration and intrusive surveillance of a racial minority can take shape and even thrive in a Canadian context.

The Canadian government has historically perceived interactions with its Indigenous peoples with a great deal of suspicion and angst

.In settler colonial societies like Canada and the United States, it is arguable that policing remains an essential part of an ongoing colonial project that is firmly rooted in preserving a racial hierarchy. As the state attempts to resolve the exclusion of some of its racialized members as a result of subaltern schools, residential segregation and lack of access into labour markets, policing becomes integral to the overall management of these groups. Constant surveillance and arbitrary use of force thus leads to further alienation and increased encounters between police and marginalized groups. Canada is hardly unique where state control and surveillance of an undesired group of peoples is concerned. The Canadian government has historically perceived interactions with its Indigenous peoples with a great deal of suspicion and angst. For example, the Canadian federal government established the Royal North West Mounted Police – a predecessor of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and one of the first official paramilitary organizations in post-Confederation Canada – to safeguard western Canada for capitalist expansion, which first meant subduing the native problem forcefully and violently. (5)

To develop the ideas in this article, I identify the unmistakable parallels between the New York City Police Department’s reliance on “stop and frisk” and the Toronto Police Service’s policy of “carding” (6) – two law enforcement practices that overwhelmingly target young black men in dense urban neighbourhoods. Bringing carding and stop and frisk into conversation reveals the contours of transnational concepts and the ways in which racial fault lines in Canada and the United States are part and parcel of broader structural inequalities rooted in discrimination, state control and social exclusion. Drawing on interviews with community members and activists, (7) I then provide an overview of policing and black youth in the past decade, followed by a third section on media exposés of police bias in Toronto.

The notion of a tolerant, multicultural Canada and a post-racial United States are but empty rhetoric, at least when one takes into consideration racial minorities’ experiences of equity and race relations. For African Canadians and African Americans in post-industrial urban spaces, the trope and rhetoric of national exceptionalism is not borne out by reality. The two groups, in fact, are in many ways inextricably bound. Notwithstanding the heterogeneity of current African North Americans, (8) major historical events going back to the United States Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Underground Railroad, twentieth-century cross-border migrations, immigration from the Caribbean and the civil rights freedom struggle, not to mention similar benevolent organizations and institutions of worship, have provided persons of African descent in Canada and the United States with a shared consciousness as diasporic peoples living in settler colonial societies with complicated racial histories. This cross-border consciousness, however, is particularly heightened where inner-city African Canadian youth are concerned. Black (9) youth in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, perceive their urban struggles against poverty, subaltern schools, drug-infested neighbourhoods, gun violence and police brutality and bias – among other challenges – within a similar vein as the structural inequalities and injustices that limit the life outcomes of inner-city (i.e., urban ghetto) African Americans, albeit on a different scale.

The Albatross of Policing in New York City and Toronto

As a key determinant of social wellbeing and intergroup relations, the concept of race is mutable across time and space. (10) In pluralistic and democratic polities such as Canada and the United States, not only is race a fluid concept, but also an enigma whose effects appear strikingly similar beyond national borders. The ongoing controversy over police contact cards in Toronto and stop-question-and-frisk or “stop and frisk” in New York City is a significant lesson in the ways in which race single-handedly disrupts narratives of national exceptionalism. Stop and frisk and carding are purportedly public safety measures. As policies intended to remove illegal firearms and other contrabands from the streets, they differ; in practice they are strikingly similar. Moreover, the frequency with which police come in contact with blacks in Toronto and New York City, not to mention the underlining tension of these transactions, could explain recent shocking events of police brutality from Eric Garner and Michael Brown to Sammy Yatin and Junior Alexander Manon. (11) The over-policing of racial minorities, militarization of police forces and the frequency with which police bias and worse, brutality, occur in Canada and the United States further underscore the linkages between state authority and racialized or “colonized” subjects.

In Terry v. Ohio, the Court concluded that when a police officer has probable cause that a person has or will commit a crime or that the individual is “armed and presently dangerous,” it is within reasonable grounds to stop and search or apprehend the suspect. (12)

Unlike contact cards in Toronto, stop and frisk is rooted in a 1968 landmark decision where the United States Supreme Court found reasonable grounds for searches and seizures – an outcome that essentially hamstrung the Fourth Amendment. In Terry v. Ohio, the Court concluded that when a police officer has probable cause that a person has or will commit a crime or that the individual is “armed and presently dangerous,” it is within reasonable grounds to stop and search or apprehend the suspect. (12) The Terry stop provided the legal framework for what became stop and frisk. Constitutionally, persons in Canada and the United States are protected under section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, respectively, against unreasonable and arbitrary searches and seizures. Given the enduring legacy of racial injustice in both countries, minorities are protected against discrimination under special provisions such as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and section 15 of the Charter.

The statistical breakdown of documented police-civilian interactions in New York City and Toronto reveal how intractable racial profiling is as a social phenomenon. From January 2004 to June 2012, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) completed 4.4 million stop and frisk cases. African Americans made up 52% of those stopped and frisked, Hispanics 31% and whites 10%. In 2010, African Americans made up 23% of the NYC population, Hispanics 29% and whites 33%. In essence, the rate at which NYPD officers conducted stop and frisk investigations against African Americans is more than double this group’s census size. In a shorter time frame from 2008 to 2012, the Toronto Police Service (TPS) administered over 1.8 million contact cards in a metropolis three times smaller than New York City. In Toronto, African Canadians made up nearly a quarter (23%) of carding cases, although accounting for a little more than 8% of the population; whites made up 42% of contact cards and just over 50% of the population. In NYC, only 12% of stop and frisk incidents required additional law enforcement and judicial measures, compared to 7% in Toronto. (13)

Blacks in Toronto almost made up a quarter of all carding incidents from 2008 to 2012.

The moral here is sobering: there is a greater propensity for police bias against blacks in Toronto than in New York City. That blacks in Toronto almost made up a quarter of all carding incidents from 2008 to 2012, coupled with the fact that the police are an apparatus of the state, is a strong indictment of a minority group whose presence and visibility in Canadian society continues to be a source of angst. The lived experience of African Canadians vis-à-vis the police reinforces their affinity with African Americans when discriminatory and other oppressive practices trigger public dialogue about arbitrary and unjust police authority. These ideas of cross-border kinship will remain strong and appealing, so long as bias and profiling remain a de facto police policy for managing members of Toronto’s African Canadian communities.

The Politics behind Policing Race in Toronto

Surveillance and coercion against those whom the Canadian state has deemed undesirable, of course, has deep roots, most of which are linked to Canada’s first peoples. In other words, the hyper-vigilance and biased policing practices that characterize the transactions between many African Canadians in Toronto and the police did not unfold in a vacuum. Canada’s past, as distant and even disjointed as it may appear from our contemporary vantage point, has shaped fundamentally the ways in which law enforcement and the justice apparatus presently oversee their relationship with black (and Aboriginal) youth. In the past decade, the debate over policing bias and Toronto’s African Canadian communities has become highly charged – perhaps the ideological battleground from which to resist arbitrary use of state authority, as well as to champion the constitutional civil liberties which make Canada formidable.

The year 2005 stands as a watershed moment for policing and African Canadians in Toronto. Due to the sudden spike in public gunplay, the Toronto news-media infamously dubbed 2005 the “Year of the Gun” – arguably the most significant year in recent history concerning how law enforcement and municipal, provincial and federal governments manage racial minorities and crime in Toronto. Of the 78 homicides in Toronto in 2005, perpetrators committed 52 with firearms – a national record and more than double the gun-related homicides in the previous year. According to Statistics Canada, firearms violations increased by 5% nation-wide in 2005. (14) Statistics Canada also discovered that gang-related homicides increased by 16% in 2005, with the biggest spike occurring in Ontario where the handgun was the weapon of choice. (15) Despite this surge in gun violence in 2005, Statistics Canada confirmed that the overall crime rate fell by 5%, especially violent crime, and that Ontario and Quebec had the lowest levels per 100,000 people. (16) It is also worth noting that gun-related homicides have steadily declined after an anomalous 2005.

This infamous event projected, more than any event prior to or after, the plight of young black men onto the national consciousness.

A thorough search of the Toronto Star’s photo database and the Toronto Police Service’s website revealed that African Canadians, especially youth, made up 55% (29) of the 52 gun-related homicide victims. The most notorious and widely publicized gun-related homicide in 2005 occurred on the busiest shopping day of the year. On December 26, 2005, a brazen shootout between two rival factions of young black men in Toronto’s bustling downtown core cut down Jane Creba, a shopper in search of post-Christmas bargains. After the “Boxing Day Shootout,” Torontonians, as well as provincial and federal government officials, no longer perceived gun violence as a problem solely confined to the inner city. The December 26 shootout illustrated the spillover effect of inner-city social disorganization. The shootout had the effect of galvanizing citizens and the three levels of government to address collectively the manifested problem of youth gun violence. This infamous event projected, more than any event prior to or after, the plight of young black men onto the national consciousness.

After the Boxing Day shootout, the local and national media, to borrow Stanley Cohen’s phrase, turned gun violence into a “moral panic.” With increased support from the three levels of government to ensure that Toronto did not end up with another record-breaking year in firearm-related homicides, Police Chief Bill Blair created the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy after the 2005 – an aggressive initiative that promotes intelligence gathering and regular contact and documentation of residents in neighbourhoods with a history of violence. In an interview, a community activist expressed her disappointment with the media frenzy, as well as the swift police crackdown on racialized neighbourhoods in our discussion of the Year of the Gun:

“I believe that what were highlighted [by the media and police] were some very ugly activities being pursued by a segment of the black male population, a population that still struggles with a variety of socio-economic issues – some imposed, some self-perpetrated. There should have been more emphasis on the work being done within the black community to combat this problem [i.e., gun violence], as well as the achievements of many youth and young community activists that were not engaged in such activity.” (17)

The dedicated women and men working in community development in the trenches of inner-city Toronto neighbourhoods perceived the events that transpired throughout 2005 as an aberration, not the norm or baseline or even orientation of African Canadian youth in Toronto. Moreover, community sentinels argue that the negative perception of black youth is closely related to a lack of support and state funding for vulnerable communities. It is not uncommon, in fact, for activists in Toronto to contextualize and even situate the Year of the Gun within the 1990s when conservative Ontario Premier Mike Harris implemented an austere platform known as the “Common Sense Revolution” – a political gambit premised on significant retrenchment of government spending on social programs, tax breaks and the elimination of Ontario’s $11 billion record deficit.

The magnetic pull of images and concepts from the United States should not be understated, especially because similar processes of disenfranchisement affect the same racialized peoples in Canada.

Although the majority of Canadians take strides to distinguish their country from the United States, the same cannot be said about the majority of African Canadians, especially those familiar with the sting of institutional racism and complex social dynamics of inner-city neighbourhoods. Many blacks in Canada share a special kinship with their southern diasporic neighbours, to the point where it has become commonplace to draw parallels between injustices in the two countries, believing that the antecedents are so closely related and rooted in forms of white supremacy and exclusionary practices. In response to the challenges facing black youth in Toronto, one prominent black journalist explained:

“All you gotta do is see the neighbourhoods in the United States where they have this type of gunplay and you can see the conditions in those neighbourhoods, and so when you see similar social conditions, similar housing conditions in Toronto, then you’re bound to know that it’s gonna lead to the same deadly outcome.” (18)

Another interviewee, a teacher in a tough inner-city school in north Toronto, echoed a similar sentiment:

“It can be said that the very same factors contributing to black youth crime and gun-related violence in the United States are much the same as in Canada. Most neighbourhoods run by the city’s social housing are the most depraved and also the most dangerous – neighbourhoods where the majority of youth homicides and drug peddling is a regular occurrence. Community members are mostly from racial minority backgrounds and are also very poor.” (19)

That members of Toronto’s African Canadian communities see strong connections between inner-city struggles in Canada and the United States makes it less alarming, on balance, that the police and government officials in Toronto would embrace misguided U.S. policies of abrasive policing and draconian sentencing. (20) The magnetic pull of images and concepts from the United States should not be understated, especially because similar processes of disenfranchisement affect the same racialized peoples in Canada. My interview with a community activist revealed the undercurrents of these Canada-U.S. dynamics and how embedded perceptions of cross-border oneness are.

“A couple of years ago, I did a conflict resolution/anger management workshop for a wonderful youth program in Toronto that provides holistic counselling and workshops for male and female youth who have had contact with the law. I asked the participants if they felt that life for [them] was a lot rougher than depicted in the media or understood by parents, teachers, et cetera. A male participant proceeded to tell me about street life and peer pressures – constantly referring to “living in the States” and New York. I was confused by his example, as he was describing life from a personal perspective, and I thought it was merely a slip of the tongue. I asked another follow-up question and he answered again, using the same references. In confusion, I interrupted him and said, ‘Sorry, you mean Toronto, right?’ He shrugged his shoulders and said ‘New York – Toronto, same thing,’ and he and others proceeded to tell me the ways in which they shared the same hustle and struggles [as] their cross-border kin.” (21)

This interviewee’s interactions with Toronto inner-city youth not only underscore the pervasiveness of diasporic identity among African Canadian youth, but also the extent to which structural inequality, whether it flows from the police or a housing authority, is perceived to be a baseline reality for residents of inner-city neighbourhoods in Canada and the United States. Her sentiment encapsulates the complexity of living as a second-class citizen.

“To my amazement, although a couple of participants snickered, a large portion of the youth were nodding their heads in agreement. Here were teens that neither lived in the U.S. nor grew up there, but had become so entranced by the supposed glamour of ghetto and gangster life that not only did they strive to emulate it, but they believed it was their individual and corporate realities. I proceeded to tell them the ways in which the States, particularly New York, was different, and was told that I was wrong.” (22)

The ways in which the media covers black communities in Toronto parallels the U.S. experience, thus lending credibility to the urban identities of Toronto’s African Canadian youth.

Media Exposé of Policing Bias in Toronto

In 2002, the Toronto Star began a series of investigative articles that illustrated forcefully what many African Canadians knew first-hand or intuitively: Canada is not exceptional where the United States is concerned, and that both societies are akin when we examine urban social challenges, especially police bias. In their first groundbreaking series entitled “Singled Out,” Star journalists, following a freedom of information request, analyzed a police database consisting of nearly half a million cases where Toronto police arrested or ticketed a person dating back to 1996, the first of its kind involving the TPS. Star investigators discovered that police treat African Canadians much more severely than whites. For example, when police charge blacks with minor drug possession, there is a greater likelihood that they would apprehend the accused and take them to a police station. “The findings provide hard evidence of what blacks have long suspected – race matters in Canadian society especially when dealing with police,” wrote Star reporter Jim Rankin. (23)

These revelations about Toronto appeared counter-intuitive given its reputation as one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the world. For the liberal Toronto Star, these revelations represented a major accomplishment of sorts, one that would help strengthen the mortar of Canadian democracy and civil liberties for racial minorities. Critics, of course, vociferously rejected these findings. Then chief of police Julian Fantino adamantly defended his officers and organization. In a Star interview, Fantino asserted that “we don’t do profiling” and “there’s no racism.” Fantino stated that “we don’t treat people differently,” and assured his interviewer that “Nor do we consider the race or ethnicity, or any of that, as factors of how we dispose of cases or individuals.”

Police documentation during arrests often includes identifiers such as skin colour and country of birth. (24)

In theory, the police chief had reasonable grounds to make such statements, as inaccurate as they may have been. Since 1989, the Toronto police board, an appointed civilian oversight committee, proscribed the Toronto Police Service from collecting race-based crime data out of concern that these statistics would support notions of criminality among some minority groups. Notwithstanding this policy, police documentation during arrests often includes identifiers such as skin colour and country of birth. (24) A troubling finding, in fact, revealed that Toronto police are more likely to book black motorists for “out-of-sight” offences such as driving without insurance or a valid licence, which strongly suggests some form of profiling.

In 2010, the second publishing of a major exposé on police bias, the Star revealed findings from another freedom of information request, a procedure that gives citizens access to classified government data, showed that factors such as race, age and gender determine who Toronto police stop and question. Black males aged 15-24 are stopped and carded 2.5 times more than their white counterparts. These findings justified community mistrust of law enforcement and further underscored a reality for many in Toronto’s black communities. According to criminologist Scot Wortley, “It doesn’t matter what type of neighbourhood you live in or what type of neighbourhood you’re travelling through, if you are black you are much more likely to attract the attention of the police and therefore have a contact card filled out.” (25)

In 2012, a decade after the Toronto Star began its critical investigation of racial bias in the TPS, the left-leaning newspaper published a third analysis of stop/search data from 2008 to mid-2011. This data uncovered that in one inner-city police patrol zone, officers carded “four times as many young black men” even though municipal data indicate that a smaller percentage of this demographic actually resides in that neighbourhood. It is likely that some of these individuals reside elsewhere; however, the frequency of police contacts is alarming, especially because of the steady decline of crime in Toronto. Although blacks make up over 8% of Toronto’s population, Star analysis uncovered that they accounted for 25% of police contact cards between 2008 and mid-2011. (26)

That a single racial group could draw a disproportionate amount of attention from law enforcement suggests that the overwhelming majority will either harbour angst towards the police as a result of first-hand or proxy interactions, an assertion that available research corroborates. (27) Moreover, this mutual mistrust between members of Toronto’s black communities and the police challenges popular notions about Canadian society – one that is more representative of the United States or another country’s experience. The Star conveys the underlining problem with this form hyper-surveillance: “at some point, the benefits of heavy policing come at the cost of the freedom to move without being watched, stopped and questioned.” An Ontario justice, in response to the surveillance of young black males, averred that “this kind of daily tracking of the whereabouts of persons – including many law-abiding persons – has an aspect to it that reminds me of former government regimes that I am certain all of us would prefer not to replicate.” (28)

In 2014, the Star released the fourth edition of its investigative work on racial profiling in Toronto. Analysis of police data indicated that although the number of police stops and searches dropped in 2013, the number of black and brown individuals increased. The Toronto police, on the one hand, maintain that the propensity with which blacks are stopped and documented has very little to do with race and much to do with the neighbourhoods in which crime often occurs and overall patterns of victimization. On the other, officers have demonstrated that internal accountability measures impact their approach to policing racialized communities. In July 2013, for example, police completed 75% fewer contact cards compared to July 2012 – a steep drop attributable to the implementation of a receipt system whereby officers who card have to provide the individual with a receipt. Furthermore, the TPS, in an effort to improve relations with racialized communities and, more important, reshape the conversation around profiling, changed the name of contact cards to “community safety notes” in 2013. (29)

Conclusion: Retreating from a Social Precipice

In a robust democratic society like Canada with constitutional protections that safeguard citizens against discrimination and arbitrary use of state authority, it becomes difficult for some to regard the criminal justice system and, more important, the state as a legitimate entity.

As an advanced liberal democracy, much of Canada’s strength and position in the world stems from the diversity of her parts and her ability to champion the banner of equality and pluralism. After the United Nations landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Canada has sought distinction and admiration by gaining moral authority from progressive, humanistic policies. A persistent challenge for Canada – and for many other states – has been the slow process of reconciling a past mired in exclusionary practices with present-day universalistic ideals. This inability, of course, makes the reconciliation of current injustices complicated. Given that Canada, like the United States, is a product of violent settler colonialism, any injustice and social inequality with a racial undertone will appear more pronounced.

The ongoing controversy over racist policing practices pinches an exposed nerve for most racial minorities, especially African Canadians. In a robust democratic society like Canada with constitutional protections that safeguard citizens against discrimination and arbitrary use of state authority, it becomes difficult for some to regard the criminal justice system and, more important, the state as a legitimate entity. Unlike in the past when the upper brass of the Toronto Police Service would categorically deny any forms of bias or racial profiling, the current chief has embraced a more conciliatory tone – one that tempers accusations of bias with notions of humanity and fallibility. In a recent Toronto Star op-ed, Chief William Blair averred that “We are not racist but we are all human. The science of bias teaches us that even the best-intentioned, most decent and honourable people can be influenced by the implicit bias all people have.” (30) While seemingly progressive, the chief’s statements are indicative of a new racism. Rather than taking responsibility for the actions of his officers and the effects of the policies that he oversees, the chief instead blames society for the failings and shortcomings of his service.

As a society that prides itself on the exceptionalism of its pluralistic liberal democracy, Canada can become a model for other advanced democracies that are grappling with the imminence of minority-majority constituencies and best practices for social inclusion and cohesion.

Moving forward, it will take more than rhetoric for Canada’s largest city and one of the most diverse places in the world to undo the damage that years of institutional discrimination has created in some racialized communities. Toronto is not alone, however, where patterns of institutional inequality is concerned. This trend is evident nationwide. An important proxy for understanding patterns of inequality is the rate at which some groups are incarcerated in Canadian society. In Canada, a staggering 22% of federal inmates are of Aboriginal extraction. However, Aboriginals make up only 4.3% of the population. Since 2003, the number of African Canadian federal inmates has increased a whopping 80%, with the overwhelming majority serving their sentences in Ontario penitentiaries. Overall, blacks account for nearly 10% of federal inmates, although a mere 2.9% of the national population. (31) Because of these gross disparities, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada (i.e., the prison watchdog) explained that the “disproportionate rates of incarceration of some minority groups, including Black and Aboriginal Canadians, reflect gaps in our social fabric and raise concerns about social inclusion, participation and equality of opportunity.” (32)

From this vantage point, narratives of Canadian exceptionalism where some racial minorities are concerned lose traction. In Canada, the painful historical memory and ongoing lived-experience of African Canadians and Aboriginals reveal serious fissures in an otherwise robust democracy and peaceful society. One can, of course, surmise much about a free society by the treatment afforded to its minorities. Given that the police, even in advanced democratic societies like Canada, are the visible strong arm of the state and a principal executor of its will, there must be a heightened sense of alarm to prevent state-sanctioned injustices such as police bias – a malpractice that creates serious divisions in pluralistic societies. It is for this reason that Canadian authorities must first acknowledge Canada’s past where racial minorities are concerned in order to ensure a safe retreat from the precipice of inter-racial antagonism. The inherent lesson within racial profiling in Toronto and the fact that African Canadians experience higher police contact than African Americans in New York City should be of great concern.

That the problem of discriminatory policing remains an intractable and divisive issue in heterogeneous societies rooted in settler colonialism means Canada can achieve true exceptionalism – that is if she takes the lead to improve the ways in which racial minorities are policed. And as a society that prides itself on the exceptionalism of its pluralistic liberal democracy, Canada can become a model for other advanced democracies that are grappling with the imminence of minority-majority constituencies and best practices for social inclusion and cohesion. It is worth noting, however, that in non-settler colonial societies like England and France, racial bias remains evident in policing practices, too. (33) This persistence of bias strongly gestures to the negative legacy and ongoing conflation of race and criminality given the extensive role that both countries, as empires, played in constructing offshore colonial societies based on white supremacy and racial hierarchy. It is this lineage from which Canadian ideas and institutions emerge. It should, therefore, be this lineage that Canadians must squarely confront to address the shortcomings of our imperfect, though admirable democratic society.


•     •     •


Adjetey, Wendell. “Policing Race: Rethinking the Myth of National Exceptionalism in a Canadian Context.” Article, “Knowledge & Action,” Humanity in Action, 2015. Humanity in Action, Inc.


  1. Jim Crow was a racial caste structure that relied on violent oppression to render African Americans, especially in the southern United States, to second-class citizenship.
  2. Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet.”
  3. African Canadian Legal Clinic, 2013. Comparison Chart – NYPD ‘stop & frisk’ v. TPS ‘carding’.
  4. Before Canada finally abolished capital punishment in 1976, African Canadians in Ontario suffered this fate disproportionately. See Barrington Walker, Race on Trial: Black Defendants in Ontario’s Criminal Courts, 1858-1958 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).
  5. See Lorne Brown and Caroline Brown, An Unauthorized History of the RCMP (Toronto: James, Lewis and Samuel, 1973).
  6. Toronto police use “contact cards,” known internally as “208’s” or “field information reports” or “community engagement reports,” when an officer uses a police stop for intelligence gathering. Contact cards reveal information about the police-civilian encounter, as well as the individual’s age, sex, and skin colour. Not all stops are “carded.”
  7. I collected the interview data in this article while conducting field research on gun violence and black youth in Toronto for my master’s research project at the University of Toronto in 2009.
  8. I use African North American to describe persons of African descent in Canada and the United States to illustrate the shared history and diasporic consciousness of the two groups.
  9. I use black and African Canadian (or African American) interchangeably.
  10. See Kwame Owusu-Bempah, “The Mutability of Racism,” in Saths Cooper and Kopano Ratele eds., Psychology Serving Humanity: Proceedings of the 30th International Congress of Psychology: Volume 1: Majority World Psychology (Psychology Press, 2014).
  11. Sammy Yatim and Junior Alexander Manon both died tragically due to excessive and deadly use of police force in Toronto. See Tim Alamenciak, “For Sammy Yatim’s father, ‘horrible nightmare’ continues,” Toronto Star, 31 July 2014. See also Patty Winsa, “Teen died quickly in police custody.” Toronto Star, 16 January 2012.
  12. See Delores Jones-Brown and Brian Maule, “Racially Biased Policing: A Review of Judicial and Legislative Literature,” in Stephen Rice and Michael White, eds. Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings. New York: New York University Press, 2010.
  13. African Canadian Legal Clinic, 2013. Comparison Chart – NYPD ‘stop & frisk’ v. TPS ‘carding’.
  14. Maire Gannon. “Crime Statistics in Canada, 2005.” Juristat, 26(4): 1–23.
  15. Mia Dauvergne and Geoffrey Li. “Homicide in Canada, 2005.” Juristat, 26(6): 1–26.
  16. See Gannon. See also Betsy Powell, “Gun violence on the wane; Following the Year of the Gun in 2005, major crimes are down in Toronto. Police point to crackdowns as a key reason but studies argue the need for more investment in social programs.” Toronto Star, 27 December 2006.
  17. Interview with Marsha, 14 April 2009. I use pseudonyms to protect my respondents’ identity.
  18. Interview with Reggie, 10 February 2009.
  19. Interview with Chauncey, 16 April 2009.
  20. It is difficult to ascertain if Canada’s tough-on-crime approach is partly attributable to U.S. influences, a conservative federal government or a combination of the two.
  21. Interview with Marsha.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Jim Rankin et. al, “Singled out.” Toronto Star. 19 October 2002.
  24. See Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Paul Millar, “Research Note: Revisiting the Collection of ‘Justice Statistics by Race’ in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 25, No. 1 (2010): 97-104; Paul Millar and Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, “Whitewashing Criminal Justice in Canada: Preventing Research Through Data Suppression.” Canadian Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 26, No. 3 (2011): 653-661.
  25. Jim Rankin et. al, “Race Matters: Blacks documented by police at high rate.” Toronto Star. 6 February 2010.
  26. Jim Rankin et. al, “Known to Police: Toronto police stop and document black and brown people far more than whites.” Toronto Star. 9 march 2012.
  27. See Scot Wortley and Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, “The Usual Suspects: Police Stop and Search Practices in Canada.” Policing and Society, Vol. 21, No. 4 (2011): 395-407.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Jim Rankin et. al, “Carding drops but proportion of blacks stopped by Toronto police rises.” Toronto Star. 26 July 2014.
  30. William Blair, “Chief Blair: Racial profiling not tolerated in Toronto police force.” Toronto Star. 28 July 2014.
  31. See “Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2012-2013.” The Correctional Investigator Canada, 2013.
  32. Ibid, 4.
  33. See “Stop and search: Police code of conduct launched.” BBC News. 26 August 2014.