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Why black Canadians are facing U.S.-style problems

The Canadian black experience should be very different from the American black experience.

To be black in the United States, nine times in 10, is to be part of a founding population who spent a century as property rather than citizens and then endured generations of overt racial subjugation. To be black in Canada, with small but important exceptions, is to be from a fairly recent immigrant background – either to be, or to be descended from, a postwar immigrant from the Caribbean or Africa.

You would think that this would make a big difference. The challenges faced by black Canadians ought to be those of the new immigrant family: the struggle to gain a foothold, to be culturally accepted, to make the tough climb up the employment, housing and education ladder; it should be similar to the experiences of Italians or Greeks in the same cities.

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Yet it's increasingly apparent that that this is not always the case. 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.

So the emergence of the Black Lives Matter campaign against police discrimination in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver is not some copycat echo of a far more violent U.S. crisis; it is a reflection of the lived experiences of many black Canadians, which are measurably different, on average, from those of white and other minority Canadians.

"Although there are certainly some differences in terms of broad historical contours, demographic patterns and patterns of migration, there are some really profound similarities," between Canada and the U.S., says Barrington Walker, a legal historian at Queen's University. "I do think that the history of anti-black racism that exists in Canada, that there is a kind of long, institutionalized state memory, the old idea that blacks do not belong as part of the Canadian landscape."

Dr. Walker's research has found a consistent pattern in Canadian courts of sharply different treatment of black defendants in trials, judgment and sentencing, and in likelihood of running afoul of the law.

These findings have been confirmed over and over. In 1995, a high-profile Ontario government commission (struck in the wake of the 1992 Yonge Street protests and riots against police discrimination) reported that black and white citizens were treated dramatically differently in policing, charges, court procedures, sentencing and imprisonment. For example, when faced with identical drug-crime charges in similar circumstances, 55 per cent of black defendants but only 36 per cent of white defendants were sentenced to prison – a difference that could not be accounted for fully by non-racial factors. A 2002 Toronto analysis found that black drivers were disproportionately more likely to be pulled over by police without evidence of an offence; they are 24 per cent more likely to be taken to the police station on minor charges and more than twice as likely to be held in jail while awaiting a hearing. (This was strictly a black phenomenon: the data for suspects listed as "brown" was nearly identical to that for whites.) And research in the last two years has shown that random police stops without evidence ("carding") happens to black Canadians to a hugely disproportionate degree.

What's the root of this discrimination, which takes place even when officials are racially diverse and liberal-minded? In part, it's institutional path dependency: Police and judges have always responded to suspects based on traditional patterns (and on patterns learned from the U.S. media and justice system), and it's hard to break those ugly traditions.

That's dangerous, because black Canadians are also inordinately excluded from home ownership, neighbourhoods with good public transit and key employment markets. That's partly due to the timing and economic circumstances of Caribbean immigration, partly due to racism.

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Either way, it creates a spiral of discrimination: A group of Canadians who live in fringe rental-only neighbourhoods, with less secure employment and access to resources, who face a more hostile police and justice system, hurting their chances of advancement. It's not too late to stop this spiral. If we want to be different from our southern neighbours, we need to stop reproducing their most infamous form of inequality.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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