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New book on Canada's racism shuts down ‘We’re not as bad as the U.S.’ sentiment

A painstakingly-researched book by Black feminist, activist-writer Robyn Maynard draws a straight line between past state-sanctioned injustices and current tensions, writes Shree Paradkar.

Robyn Maynard's new book, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, is written for academics and lay people alike. The book weaves in Indigenous experiences in Canada and addresses how racial violence specifically impacted Black women.

Courtesy Robyn Maynard

Robyn Maynard's new book, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, is written for academics and lay people alike. The book weaves in Indigenous experiences in Canada and addresses how racial violence specifically impacted Black women.

Self-deception has repeatedly served as a bedrock of cruelty.

It has transformed greed into gallant heroism, where invasion of lands is adventure, displacement of natives is about saving the savages, and theft and self-enrichment is ingenuity.

It has rationalized subjugation as the “natural order” of things. Women — at home; gays — in the closet; natives — in reserves; and Blacks — in farms or in ghettos.

And when there emerges an equal and opposite reaction — resistance that challenges that deception — it is met with denial (Brutal — us? No, we saved you!) and dismissal (You’re not qualified to speak on this) and demand (Can’t we just leave the past behind and get along?).

In this, I include groups around the world that have utilized cruelty to enforce domination.

Settler deception in Canada, however, is unique in the euphemism it employs.

A new, painstakingly researched book debunks the myth of Canadian white benevolence and draws a straight line between past state-sanctioned injustices and current tensions.

In Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, Black feminist, activist-writer Robyn Maynard analyzes the work of dozens of scholars to pierce through centuries of deception and offer us a bold, unblinking — and frankly, shocking — rebuttal to the widespread sentiment that “we’re not as bad as the U.S.”

The book weaves in Indigenous experiences and addresses how racial violence specifically impacted Black women. It is written for academics and lay people alike.

“One of the things that prompted me to write it is that working in Black communities, growing up Black in Canada, there was so much history of anti-Black racism that even I was not aware of for much of my life,” Maynard told me.

“People would experience anti-Black racism, but it was so negated by non-Black people around them. Their experience was seen as exaggerated or treated with disbelief. A lot of that disbelief stems from the broader disbelief that anti-Black racism has been in place for 400 years.”

Just as “climactic unsuitability” was long used to disguise the racist motivations behind demographic selections, Maynard writes, so was a desire to avoid the “Negro problem” that existed in the United States.

Irony alert! Canadians believed the best way to keep racism out of the country was to keep Black people out altogether.

“It was in the interest of coloured people themselves not to encourage their settlement in this country,” Maynard cites William D. Scott, a superintendent of immigration from 1903 to 1924. In private correspondence, though, he doesn’t hold back. “Africans, no matter where they come from, are not among the races sought.”

This, although slavery was practised in Canada for more than 200 years.

This, although 4,000 enslaved Indigenous and Black people helped build infrastructure and wealth for white settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Michael Highgate (right) leads the choir in song during Stewart Memorial Church's Emancipation Day Celebration on August 6, 2017. Emancipation Day is to remember the date of August 1, 1834, when the British government officially abolished slavery in all colonies, including Canada.

Scott Gardner/ Torstar News Service

Michael Highgate (right) leads the choir in song during Stewart Memorial Church's Emancipation Day Celebration on August 6, 2017. Emancipation Day is to remember the date of August 1, 1834, when the British government officially abolished slavery in all colonies, including Canada.

While the absence of plantations meant there were fewer enslaved Black people, leaving them acutely isolated, white settler society here was not benign. It brutalized them physically and psychologically. Black women would be beaten, sexually abused, used for “breeding” and have their children torn from them.

“The inferiority ascribed to Blackness in this era would affect the treatment of Black persons living in Canada for centuries to come,” Maynard writes.

Maynard also exposes the hollowness of the claim that Canada was a sanctuary for runaway slaves from the U.S. and for “Black Loyalists.” Few freed Black people to whom the British promised land and equality if they fought on the British side of the 1775-1783 conflict received that promised land. Those who did were given land that was known to be infertile. Instead, Black people were forced to become cheap labour for white farmers and domestic help in white homes.

On the other hand, in the early 20th century whites from Europe were promised and given 160 acres of free farmland.

White landowners refused to lease or sell land to those with African features well into the 20th century. “In 1959, over 60 per cent of landlords surveyed (in Toronto) said they would not be comfortable renting to Blacks,” Maynard writes.

This is the face of structurally enforced impoverishment.

It continues with segregation of schools, the last of which closed in Canada in 1983. Segregated Black schools were underfunded and even abandoned by governments. Many children studied in dilapidated unheated buildings, Maynard says, taught by poorly trained teachers.

This is the face of structurally built inequality.

Perhaps knowing this will give pause to those among us who say things like, “These people are poor because they’re lazy.”

Since 1444, the year that Maynard says marked the beginning of the global devaluation of Black bodies, when European raiders captured and chained Africans into ships, “rebellion was so ‘incessant’ that they were chained right hand to right leg, left hand to left leg.” This also marked the beginning of the institutionalized belief that Black movement needed to be surveilled and contained.

In the 1920s in Canada, Black presence in public spaces continued to be restricted, in some places with “sundown laws,” or curfews imposed on Black people to be indoors by a certain time in the evening.

“The fact is this is ongoing,” Maynard told me. “Look at how we devalue Black people’s lives.”

The 2016 case of a six-year-old Black Grade 1 student, in a Mississauga school, written about in the Star and detailed in the book, marks the continuing containment of Black bodies.

The child was handcuffed by attaching her hands and feet together at the wrists and ankles for apparently acting in a violent manner.

Peel police deemed this containment necessary in the interest of safety of the 48-pound, unarmed child who was considered that dangerous even in the presence of school officials and two policemen.

This, too, is the face of state-sanctioned racial violence.

Maynard’s investment of emotional labour situates her book in continuing Black resistance to this violence.

Supremacist values were foundational for the creation of white wealth.

This does not mean all whites are supremacist. Nor does it mean all whites are wealthy.

But perhaps it will help clarify what people mean when they say racial violence benefits all white people.

Shree Paradkar writes on discrimination and identity. You can follow her @shreeparadkar

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