Policing Black Lives chronicles Canada’s long history of state violence

Robyn Maynard's book debunks the myth of Canada as a multicultural beacon of tolerance

In Policing Black Lives: State Violence In Canada From Slavery To The Present, author, activist and scholar Robyn Maynard debunks the myth of Canada as a multicultural beacon of tolerance and kindness. It’s a critical, sobering read for every Canadian.

Citing historical examples, government data and previously published work by Black academics, Maynard retraces the history of anti-Black racism in Canada: from slavery, which was practiced here for over 200 years from the mid 1600s to 1834, to segregated schooling (the last such school only closed in 1983), to the over incarceration of Black people and the disproportionate killing of Black civilians by police.

She spends two chapters specifically examining state violence against Black women and trans women, which remains grossly under-reported in the media, telling the stories of six Black women subjected to violence at the hands of law enforcement officers. We spoke with Maynard about some of the book’s key themes.

What inspired you to write Policing Black Lives?

The Black Lives Matter movement and their beautiful community response to violence really gave me the fire to write a book of this scope and length. It was also looking back at what was happening in Canada and realizing how little context there was for that information. I realized a lot of people weren’t aware of Canada’s history. This isn’t a crisis that started four years ago, it’s something that has been historically continuous. People would say things like, “Oh, Canada is starting to be like the United States,” and what I wanted to get out is that actually no, Canada is being like Canada.

You say that as Canadians, we have something called social amnesia of our country’s history of slavery. Why do you think that is?

The Canadian government and a lot of Canadian institutions have a long-standing investment in appearing benevolent and tolerant. This reputation dates back to the era of the Underground Railroad when Canada was celebrated as a land of liberated Black people, but we don’t talk about the fact that’s also when Ontario formalized segregated schooling and many other segregationist practices that continued deep into the 20th century.

While it’s affirming to have symbolic commitments to things like multiculturalism and racial equality, if the reality is that Black people are far more likely to be incarcerated, to be poor or have their families destroyed by the welfare system, then those words do not mean much.

In the chapter on state violence against Black women, you write that that there’s still not much data available. Why are Black women so often forgotten or ignored?

There’s a historical erasure of the particular experiences of Black women in Canada and the United States. The first book about police violence against Black women in the U.S., Invisible No More by Andrea Ritchie, only came out this year. When people talk about police violence, it’s always been focused on the realities of men. That means incidents [affecting women] are not often reported or not publicized, and I’m sure that’s also a deterrent for Black women to come forward with their stories because it isn’t seen as an existing problem.

Throughout the book, you link the struggles of our First Nations and Black communities, whether it’s how they both built infrastructure for white settlers or how they have the highest incarceration rates. Why was it important for you to include Indigenous struggles?

The book looks into state violence and argues that the various state institutions we have today – the criminal justice, education and immigration systems – have all been fundamentally racist from their inception. The history of policing is incomplete if we don’t talk about the role of the precursor to the RCMP [North-West Mounted Police] in quelling Indigenous rebellion and controlling their movement in public spaces. Their histories are very intricately bound and tied up in one another.

Who did you write the book for?

While I was writing the book, I attended so many vigils. Bony Jean-Pierre was killed. Abdirahman Abdi was killed. The day I sent in my final manuscript, Pierre Coriolan was killed by the Montreal police. In one way, I was writing to ground those of us involved in the racial justice movement. But at the same time, I wanted it to be accessible to anybody that was interested in the topic, whether that’s someone who wants to understand why people [like Black Lives Matter] are organizing, a professor teaching a graduate class that addresses criminalization or the 18-year-old Black teenager who’s wondering why he keeps getting stopped all the time.

Robyn Maynard launches Policing Black Lives at A Different Booklist on Friday (October 20). See listing.


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