Systemic racism appears to be a dangerous influence in Canada’s criminal justice system. According to data from the Correctional Service of Canada, Indigenous prisoners make up 30 per cent of the population in federal correctional facilities despite representing a mere five per cent of the Canadian population. Indigenous women were significantly over-represented, accounting for a whopping 42 per cent of the female prisoner population. The data shows that Black people are overrepresented in the federal criminal justice system, making up seven-and-a-half per cent of the federal offender population, but only three-and-a-half per cent of the Canadian population.[i] In this post, we will discuss how we got to this point, the impacts this over-incarceration has on our communities, and something you could do to take action and help.
What is Systemic Racism?
Systemic racism is often interpreted as a direct accusation that you and everyone in society is choosing to be a racist person. On the face of it, it’s seen as a ridiculous concept we should reject out of hand because most people in our community are good-hearted — not out there doing racist things every day. Keeping this focus on individual racist actions actually makes us miss the bigger picture. We have systems and institutions that produce racially discriminatory outcomes regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them. [ii] The criminal justice system for example, still disproportionally punishes racialized communities despite there being a large number of police officers, judges and lawyers who do not do racist things. We should try to tackle individual racist behaviours and subtle systemic racism issues at the same time as a part of a holistic approach to make lasting changes in society.
How Did Canada Get Here?
Re-examining the history and foundations of criminal justice and policing in Canada can give us a sense of how systemic racism has been baked into this system for a very long time. In 1873 the North-West Mounted Police (which eventually became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was created to advance the agenda of the newly established country of Canada. As authors Brown and Brown wrote in An Unauthorized History of the RCMP, “[The NWMP] was designed to keep order in the North West, to control the Aboriginal and Métis populations, and to facilitate the transfer of Indigenous territory to the federal government with (in theory) minimal bloodshed.” In this way, the police were essential to force assimilation among First Nation communities being moved onto reserves. Implementing other oppressive laws, like forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families to attend Residential School was another example of how the police enforced assimilation in Indigenous communities. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Canada explicitly describes this history in their final report that the central goal of Canada’s policies was to eliminate First Nations, Inuit, and Métis as distinct peoples and forcibly assimilate them into the white majority. While these laws may have been 100% legal at the time, the Commission described these government actions as cultural genocide.
Other racialized communities have experienced systemic racism at the hands of our legal and criminal justice system. Two of the most infamous examples include slavery and the hundreds of discriminatory laws implemented against Asian-Canadians. For over 200 years, until 1834, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade forcibly brought millions of African men, women, and children to British colonies including Canada to be enslaved. Black people were not seen as “fully human” and were not equal to Caucasian people under colonial British law, so it was seen as fine to treat them like animals or property. The destructive effects of this horrifying system were most visible in the slave plantations of the southern United States of America (USA) and in the Civil War (US) where the southern states of the Confederacy rebelled in 1861 to maintain their oppressive system of slavery. However, it’s important to remember that slavery was legally permitted in Canada, and it was supported by many Canadians for hundreds of years. This isn’t just a shameful part of American history, it’s a part of Canadian history too.
Another influential part of our racial history was the longstanding legal discrimination against Chinese and other Asian communities. As British Columbia joined Confederation in 1870, legislation was quickly introduced and expanded over the next decades to disenfranchise Asian-Canadians. In the 1872 legislative debate to expand provincial voting rights, one legislator very explicitly said, “We might, after next election, see an Indian occupying the Speaker’s Chair, or have a Chinese majority in the House.” Legislators resolved their racial anxiety by inserting a special clause that “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to extend to or include or apply to Chinese and Indians,” thereby banning these communities from voting in B.C. for decades. In fact, Chinese / South Asian-Canadians didn’t win the right to vote until 1947, and Japanese-Canadians and First Nations weren’t able to vote in provincial elections until 1949. This lack of political representation also allowed racist laws like the 1885 Chinese Head Tax or the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act to go unchallenged.[iv]
The Impacts of Systemic Racism on the Justice System
When systemic racism is built into the fabric of our society, government, laws, and culture, it has significant effects on our criminal justice system. When racialized communities are positioned as “foreign, alien, or threatening” the criminal justice system and the people working in it tend to adopt this mindset and therefore treat racialized people unfairly. For example, Canadian police officers are three times more likely to charge and send First Nations people to court after an arrest than non-First Nations. Therefore, the individuals working in the legal system are more likely to see a lot of criminal cases involving Indigenous people. This then provides fertile ground for stereotypes amongst law enforcement to grow that Indigenous people are “inherently criminal or deviant” based on the disproportionate number of negative interactions that they have with Indigenous people about criminal complaints. This is exacerbated by the fact that Indigenous people are under-represented as police officers, judges and lawyers, which means that people working in the criminal justice system are far more likely to interact with Indigenous people as accused criminals than as colleagues.[v] Unfortunately, all of these examples of discriminatory treatment and under-representation can also be expanded to Black, Brown and Asian communities as well. In the Black community, the relationship with the police and criminal justice system is particularly strained. Recently, 80 per cent of Black citizens surveyed in Ontario said that they saw or experienced anti-Black racism in policing and this 80 per cent proportion of reported racism has not changed since 1994.[vi] People can see this disproportionate treatment of their communities and it understandably creates a toxic climate of fear that negatively impacts everyone. With such a high level of distrust of law enforcement, many racialized individuals don’t report crimes or get help when they need it. Regaining trust in the criminal justice system cannot be achieved until many of these well-documented disparities in outcomes for racialized communities can be reduced.
You can help by emailing your Member of Parliament and asking them to support Bill C-22 An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. This bill removes mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug and other offences, removes limitations on the use of conditional sentences of imprisonment, and requires prosecutors to consider diverting people to treatment programs or other support services rather than prosecuting them for simple drug-possession offences. Racialized communities are subjected to a disproportionate amount of mandatory minimum sentences, therefore removing them should help reduce the over-incarceration of racialized people in Canada.
If you’re not living in Kamloops right now, feel free to visit the House of Commons website here to find your Member of Parliament and their email address.
For more information contact:
Vice President Equity
[i] See: Office of the Correctional Investigator, Indigenous People in Federal Custody Surpasses 30% Correctional Investigator Issues Statement and Challenge, News release, 21 January 2020
[ii] Balko, R. (2020, June 10). There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal justice system is racist. Here’s the proof. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/opinions/systemic-racism-police-evidence-criminal-justice-system/.
[iii] Morin, Brandi. “As the RCMP Deny Systemic Racism, Here’s the Real History.” Thestar.com, Toronto Star, 11 June 2020, www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2020/06/11/rcmp-deputy-commissioners-words-on-racism-fly-in-face-of-150-years-of-history-and-pain-for-indigenous-peoples.html.
[iv] Claxton, N., Fong, D., Morrison, F., O’Bonsawin, C., Omatsu, M., Price, J., & Sandhra, S. (2021). Challenging racist “British Columbia”: 150 Years and Counting. University of Victoria.
[v] Roy, J. (n.d.). Racism in the Justice System. Canadian Race Relations Foundation. https://www.crrf-fcrr.ca/images/stories/pdf/ePubFaShRacJusSys.pdf
[vi] Stewart, N. (2021, February 16). Little done to stop anti-Black racism in policing, criminal justice in last 25 years: Ontario report. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/7634725/report-anti-black-racism-racial-bias-ontario-criminal-justice-system/