Debra Thompson has dealt with racism most of her life.
Growing up as a Black woman in Oshawa, Ont., in the ’90s, she said some salons wouldn’t cut her hair, she felt watched in department stores, and couldn’t find makeup to match her skin tone.
“I was brought up with the understanding that Black people have to work twice as hard to get half as much,” says Thompson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon who specializes in race and ethnic politics.
Thompson made the move to the U.S. to begin a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University in 2010, and as one of many who have lived in both countries, she says Canadians can no longer ignore anti-Black racism at home.
“It was really challenging to convince Canadians that race mattered.”
Protests have been ongoing in Canada and across the world, as thousands of people are calling for an end to anti-Black racism and police brutality in response to the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
Protests in several Canadian cities also sought to bring attention to the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. The 29-year-old Black and Indigenous woman fell from her high-rise balcony following an interaction with police. The case is currently being investigated by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit.
Communities have been speaking out about systemic racism for years, both at home and across the border, but as protests grow, experts say it’s time for Canadians to clue in: Canada is not immune to racism.
“It’s only recently that we’ve been reckoning with the legacy of colonialism,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
“It’s been heartening to see movement in a policy sense here in Canada and in the United States in context of these calls to defund the police; we’re already seeing motions being moved.”
Efforts to defund the police are gaining momentum in cities like Toronto, Vancouver, New York and Minneapolis.
Community leaders and experts say funding from police budgets should be redirected to social service programs like mental health resources.
But most of all, experts say people want to see decision-makers held accountable.
‘Meaningful change requires action’
Dexter Voisin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash faculty of social work, spent most of his life in the U.S. before moving to Canada.
He was the first person of colour within the 120-year history of his faculty at the University of Chicago’s 120 years to be promoted through the ranks to professor and is recognized as one of the most influential Black scholars in premier schools of social work in North America today.
While Voisin says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to admit that racism is a problem in Canada along with kneeling amongst protesters in Ottawa last week shows a shift in the political landscape, meaningful change requires action.
“It has to move now from taking a knee to taking a stand. Policies are not made on pavements and sidewalks.
“Policies are made among key constituents. It has to move now from the attention-grabbing to policies.
“I think we’re in the midst of history and how we react to these times is definitely going to shape history.”
Black Lives Matter Canada has also been calling for policy action for years.
The group believes police should not be involved in instances of mental health emergencies, for example, and that instead there should be other services to aide in incidents of mental health crisis and gender-based violence.
“A number of different measures (for) defunding the police have already been put in place in different places all over the world,” says Sandy Hudson, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto.
“We can learn from those places and get started right away instead of dilly-dallying on this yet again and waiting for more people to die — (which) is unacceptable.”
Hudson is studying law at the University of California, Los Angeles, and says these types of policy changes are needed in both Canada and the U.S.
“I have experienced institutional and embedded racism on both sides of the border,” she said. “To be honest, I don’t see much difference.”
‘Tackling anti-Black racism on a global stage’
North America also saw protests against anti-Black racism in 2014 in response to the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, a young Black man who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
While these protests drew attention to police brutality and resulted in some change, the death of Floyd has brought the topic of anti-Black racism to a global stage, Thompson said.
“These protests have been sustained for much longer than we’ve seen in previous mobilizations,” Thompson says. “This is a monumental change in people’s understanding of the issues.”
Sasha-Ann Simons, a Jamaican-Canadian journalist living and working in the U.S., has been reporting on the protests and stories of police brutality since the end of the Obama administration.
She said her work has taken a toll on her mental health.
“To be honest, it’s been a daily struggle,” Simons said.
“I’ve had to take significant breaks from the work because it’s so near and dear and so close to my heart that I have had to try to not get too immersed in what is really happening in this moment.”
Living and working on both sides of the border, Simons says there isn’t much of a difference in either country when it comes to racism.
“Systemic racism, micro-aggression, those all exist in Canadian institutions as well as U.S. institutions.”