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A hard truth: Canada’s policing style is very similar to the U.S.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga where he researches issues related to race and policing. Anthony Morgan is a civil rights lawyer and associate at Falconers LLP. He has advocated on the issue of anti-black racism in Canada at the Supreme Court of Canada, and before United Nations human rights committees.

As racial unrest reignites south of the border, we shouldn't allow ourselves to become complacent in the belief that anti-black racism is not a threat, here in our own backyard.

As Canadians, we often pride ourselves on the diversity and inclusion of our nation. Indeed, measures intended to protect the rights of our population are enshrined in the constitution, the Charter, and the Multiculturalism Act, and provincial human rights codes. We routinely come together to celebrate the various nationalities and cultures represented in this country. Because we enjoy these racially inclusive features of our nation, as we see the U.S. becoming more racially divided, it's tempting to believe we're morally superior to the U.S.

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But in terms of policing and racial profiling, we are not as dissimilar as we might want to believe.

The United States has a much larger population and a different makeup than Canada. While blacks make up approximately 13.2 per cent of the American population, they make up only 2.9 per cent in Canada. The U.S. also has very different gun laws: Americans are constitutionally entitled to freely own, and in some states, openly carry handguns. The U.S. also experiences higher rates of violent crime and when compared to Canada, has more police officers per capita, with upwards of 17,000 police departments.

Yet, our approaches to policing black, indigenous and other racialized communities are remarkably similar.

Canadian policing officials pride themselves on having attended the FBI's National Academy and American police leaders frequently address Canadian police conferences. For example, Operation Pipeline, the drug interdiction strategy pioneered by the Los Angeles Police Department, which was brought to Canada by the RCMP in 1980s and 1990s. Operation Pipeline has come under fire because it directs police officers to routinely engage in police stops that are motivated with racial profiling.

The dramatic racial lines along those who Canadian police forces target for carding and street checks is also eerily reminiscent of the practice known in New York City as stop and frisk. What few Canadians know or are willing to confront is that a black person's chances of being carded in Toronto have actually been found to be higher than their chances of being stopped and frisked in New York City.

The rate of over-representation of black and indigenous people in instances of police use of lethal force and incarceration rates are two critical areas in which Canada and the U.S. are alarmingly similar. Controlling for variables such as differences in population size, demographic make-up and frequency of police use of force incidents, it becomes less and less clear whether policing interactions with black people are better in Canada than they are in the US.

How different can Canada truly be from the U.S. when, since 2005 to present, the rate of federal incarceration of black Canadians has exploded by 70 per cent, resulting in black representation in federal prisons that is three times what blacks represent in the general population. Black and indigenous people are simply more likely to be ensnared by the criminal justice system because they are over-policed and subjected to harsher treatment and longer sentences than other groups.

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As immigration continues to make the Canadian population more diverse we must ensure ours is truly an inclusive and equitable society. Although police action has sparked a new wave of unrest in the U.S., underlying problems related to anti-Black racism, marginalization and social exclusion are generally to blame.

Canadian institutions and our leaders must demonstrate an honest and courageous commitment to acknowledging, naming and constructively responding to the manifestations of anti-black racism as they exist in Canada. We can no longer maintain the false illusion that by not naming anti-Black racism in Canada, the problem doesn't exist in our country. This only leads us to continuing to avoid taking targeted and meaningful action to ensure that there is greater equity and equality for Canada's Black citizens and community members.

We can change this by facing the tough truth about how policing is experienced by far too many black people in Canada. We can do this by collectively calling for legislation against racial profiling, the collection and publication of race-based disaggregated data across all sectors of the criminal justice system and truly introducing or restructuring police oversight institutions so that they successfully consistently uphold accountability, transparency and public trust in policing.

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