When Will The Justice System Value Black Lives?

Updated: Mar 29

Opinion by Zoie Sutherland

This piece is part of Kroeger Policy Review's first issue on Race, Religion, and Culture. The full issue is available here.


When protests erupted this summer in the United States after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, white people were forced once again to grapple with the racism and violence of the system that they actively lived in. However, something was different this summer, and it was not just Americans who were forced to grapple with their own complicity. Canadians had to do the same (1). As thousands of Canadians marched in solidarity with George Floyd, they were challenging the narrative that Canada was some sort of “post-racial” society (2). Everyday more and more Black, Indigenous and Canadians of colours were sharing their experiences with racism in Canada, as they had been for years, and it seemed that finally white Canadians were listening. The summer of 2020 became a period of protest and supposed learning from white Canadians, governments be it federal, provincial, or municipal were issuing statements in support in what seemed to be a racial reckoning in the country. Books about racism in Canada flew off the shelves (3). The summer was filled with statements about how this was unacceptable and had to change. Black Canadian lives mattered, and Canada would change accordingly.

Flashing forward to November 2020, and the question has become: what actually changed? Did the various levels governments take meaningful actions to address the deep and systemic racism that exists in Canada or was it simply lip service. In examining the actions of municipalities in post-summer, it is possible to see exactly that. One of the demands and refrains from the protests were to defund the police, as police officers are disproportionately responsible for the assault and murder of BIPOC in Canada (4). Protestors and activists have been demanding that police department budgets are instead invested into community improvement programs, such as housing or mental health initiatives (5). Acknowledging the active racism in the police system would go hand in hand with putting funding in different initiatives, such as crisis workers.

Municipalities have begun budget consultations for 2021, and those budgets include that information. Looking at the budget consultations for the five most populous cities demonstrates an interesting pattern. While the proposed budgets for Vancouver and Montreal are not yet available, that of Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Edmonton tell interesting stories. In Toronto, where a bulk of Black Lives Matter organizers are based, City Council voted against a measure to cut 10% of the Toronto’s Police’s budget and instead passed several motions to attempt further expansion of the police budget in the city (6). In Ottawa, OPS’s chief has presented a budget that would see police funding rise by 13.2 million dollars. Within that budget, there is 225 000$ put aside to train officers in de-escalation, despite many calls from activists who have demonstrated over the years that this time of reform policy does not work (7). In Calgary, a motion passed to consider reallocating five percent of CPS’s budget into community safety framework instead (8). In Edmonton, council voted to reallocate 11 million dollars over the next two years (9). Many of these budget decisions were considered either disappointments to the organizers in their cities or small steps in the right direction. Municipal budgets tell a very different story then what was promised in the summer. This shows cities and police forces who are still unwilling to listen to and take the actual advice of the organizers and Black Canadians that they said they were listening to. Giving more money to police has never been part of what people have wanted. It has always been to stop the murder happening and to reinvest in Black and Indigenous communities (10).

Another place where it is possible to see the reality of words is in the results of high-profile court cases against police who have either killed or assault BIPOC. In 2016, two OPS officer violently arrested Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali-Canadian man who later died in hospital from cardiac arrest caused by the injuries sustained during his arrest. Recently one of the officers involved, Const. Daniel Montsion was acquitted (11). Even after many of the words this summer, a police officer received no long-lasting legal punishment for his direct involvement in Abdi’s death. Another example is the case of Dafonte Miller, where he was beaten by off-duty Constable Michael Theriault. While Theriault was found guilty he was only sentenced to nine months in prison (12). Dafonte Miller lost an eye in Theriault’s attack, and yet his sentencing is comparatively a slap on the wrist. Both of these cases were high-profile example of police brutality against Black men, and they proceeded much in the same way that they would have before. The cases of Abdi and Miller demonstrate that the Canadian Court system is not living up to its lofty goals of the summer (13). Their names are only two of many, like Chantel Moore, or Regis Korchinski Paquet.

Overall, this analysis shows much of what Black Canadians already knew, that for many the rhetoric of this summer was simply performative. From municipal budgetary commitments to court cases, the system itself has only made incremental changes to what is necessary and demanded from the Canadians who are put in harms way every day (14). This is simply a snapshot of the continued systemic racism in Canada, it does not mention the many names of Black and Indigenous people who have died in Canada since this summer, in wellness checks, and in custody of the police. Canadian systemic racism is alive and well, and it will take far more then words and tiny steps to destroy it.

  1. Maynard, Robyn. 2017. Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.

  2. Cole, Desmond. 2020. The Skin We’re in: A Year of Black Resistance and Power. Toronto: Doubleday Canada.

  3. Cole, Desmond. 2020. The Skin We’re in: A Year of Black Resistance and Power. Toronto: Doubleday Canada

  4. Maynard, Robyn. 2017. Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing

  5. Maynard, Robyn. 2017. Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing

  6. Pagliaro, Jennifer. 2020. ‘Toronto Council Votes against Cutting 2021 Police Budget, Votes for Mayor’s Reform Plan’. Toronto.Com, 30 June 2020.

  7. Lord, Craig. 2020. ‘Ottawa Police Budget Proposed to Rise $13.2M in 2021’. Global News, 2020.

  8. Riger, Sarah . 2020. ‘Calgary to Look at Shifting $20M from Police Budget over 2 Years toward Crisis Services | CBC News’. CBC, 2020.

  9. Cook , Dustin. 2020. ‘Edmonton Council Votes against Police Budget Freeze, Opts to Reallocate $11M’. Edmonton Journal, 1 July 2020

  10. Defund the Police – Demands – BLM – Canada’. n.d. Accessed 6 November 2020.

  11. Jones, Ryan Patrick, and Laura Glowacki. 2020. ‘Sadness, Outrage after Officer Acquitted in Abdirahman Abdi’s Death | CBC News’. CBC, 2020.

  12. Carter, Adam. 2020. ‘Off-Duty Toronto Police Officer Who Assaulted Black Teen Sentenced to 9 Months in Jail | CBC News’. CBC, 2020.

  13. Harris, Kathleen . 2020. ‘Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Calls for More Diversity in Canada’s Legal System | CBC News’. CBC, 18 June 2020.

  14. Cole, Desmond. 2020. The Skin We’re in: A Year of Black Resistance and Power. Toronto: Doubleday Canada.


For more general resources on this topic: