Black Lives Matter (BLM) is the hashtag, the organization, and the rally cry at the center of this generation’s fight for social justice. It broke through the seams of racism’s taboo and forced problems facing Black Americans into mainstream consciousness. The outpour of grief, anger, and frustration was a discomfiting scene for many Americans. Today, the continued trend of Black men killed by police has become just a thread in a larger patchwork of issues surrounding systemic anti-Black racism.
But while Americans have been compelled to confront and reassess their understanding of race relations, Canadians have been allowed to watch this contentious dialogue play out with fleeting interest. Sometimes that interest is sympathetic, laced with pity for a nation whose history is so marred by inequality and sometimes it’s prideful, bloated with self-righteousness over Canada’s superiority as a multicultural haven. Regardless, it seems as though we’ve been content with thinking of Black Lives Matter as a distant, American affair.
That is, until BLM inched its way up north, turned our self-satisfaction on its head and acquainted us with some cold, uncomfortable truths. The first truth materialised from the very foundations of BLM in Canada. As BLM’s first and only official international chapter, BLM-Toronto (BLM-TO) was initially driven by solidarity over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. However, the murder of Black Torontonian Jermaine Carby inspired a distinctly Canadian vision for BLM-TO. Carby died at the hands of Peel police during a routine traffic stop in September 2014 — a tragic sequence of events known all too well — and the police’s tampering of the crime scene only deepened the air of injustice following his death. This began a series of protests led by BLM-TO, condemning the perceived excessive use of force by police and lack of transparency regarding Carby’s murder investigation.
But their demands for stricter penalties and clearer investigations for cases of police violence are perhaps most productive at illuminating a larger theme of police brutality against Black Canadians. Since Carby, BLM-TO has become a mouthpiece for a number of Black men killed by Toronto-area police. The shooting deaths of Marc Ekamba-Boekwa, Alex Wettlaufer, Andrew Loku, and most recently, Ottawan Abdirahman Abdi have each been met with calls for justice. In addition, BLM-TO has drawn attention toward the racist nature of ‘carding’, a practice whereby police arbitrarily stop, question, and document people — a practice that disproportionately targets people of colour. A concept once confined to “an American issue” in the Canadian imagination, racism in policing has suddenly been reconstructed by BLM-TO as a valid Canadian issue as well.
Beyond directly addressing instances of racism in Canada, the group has also inadvertently exposed Canadians’ capacity to listen to such concerns. One example of this is BLM-TO’s ‘tent city’ demonstration in March where protesters camped outside police headquarters. Despite standing their ground for a total of 15 days, community officials like Police Chief Mark Saunders and Mayor John Tory declined requests to speak with activists in a public forum. Premier Kathleen Wynne only agreed to meet with organizers after they visited Queen’s Park following their two-week protest.
BLM-TO encountered similar hostility from the city this summer when they interrupted Toronto’s Pride Parade. Halting proceedings for 30 minutes, protesters raised concerns over Pride’s apparent marginalization of the Black and Indigenous LGBTQ communities. Though the sit-in was brief, their message soon became lost in a heated discourse over whether their timing and tactics were appropriate. Again, this instance helped challenge the prevailing notion of Canada’s utter separateness from the United States’ racial conflicts. While Canada’s national narrative might be one of tolerance and diversity, our response to BLM-TO’s presence suggests that our willingness to discuss racial inequality is comparably limited.
Undeterred by negative reactions, BLM-TO has forged ahead with its mission to “dismantle all forms of state-sanctioned oppression, violence, and brutality committed against African, Caribbean, and Black cis, queer, trans, and disabled populations in Toronto”. So far, the group has run a three-week Freedom School for Black youth in Toronto, inspired other unofficial BLM chapters in Vancouver and Ottawa, and successfully pushed through some of its agenda— like getting the province to enact a ban on carding. It’s clear BLM-TO will continue to make their voices heard in the city, even in loud and disruptive ways, and that might just be a good thing. Injustice in reality is a cold, uncomfortable truth.