Canada’s Ferguson/Falcon Heights/Baton Rouge is a Long Quiet Death

I wrote this piece for The Guardian a couple of years ago, just after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. As I post this, families of slain police officers in Dallas are trying to understand what life is like without the one they love. Others are waiting still in hospital rooms. I don’t have anything I can speak into this American war, invested as it is with rhetoric, violence, exclusion, and a desperate thrust for freedom and safety.

We Canadians have our issues too. This piece addresses that problem. Since I wrote it, the Murdered and Missing Women conversation has gotten some energy, and there is a new government. But my concern moves past the great, powerful people to the normal people who walk streets and shop at local stores and make posts on facebook. I can’t say anything about cops murdered for being white or young men murdered for being black, but I hope this is relevant to how we are supposed to live.


My own experience with police officers has been entirely positive. Sure, when I was young with long hair and an old VW Golf held together with duct tape, I was a road target. But to a man, every police officer I have ever gotten to know is a centred, stable, supportive community presence.

So when I had heard a story about Saskatoon officers picking up downtown aboriginal men and women and dumping them outside the city to freeze to death, despite years of TV stereotypes about corrupt cops I did not believe it.

I believe it now, since Ferguson.

Sheltered from overt racism here in Prince Edward Island, it wasn’t until I moved to southern Alberta that I saw the depth of the problem. As part of my youth work I had an office in student services at Lethbridge Community College. About one-quarter of our students were aboriginal — nearly 800 natives, as they were called then. I watched committed staff and hard-working students do their best. But it was not enough.

Racism was rampant through the city. It did not manifest itself in individual attacks or even hatred. It was worse than that. It was the constant, systematic use of stereotypes to confirm the alienation of aboriginal people. When I would point out the use of stereotypes, my conversation partner mentioned by name one or two or three Indians who conform to all our low expectations. When I suggested that decades of state persecution and cultural genocide might set a person back a few steps, the answer was simple: “Yeah, well, he should sober up and get a job.”

There are enough stories of prairie prejudice to freeze our blood, but it was actually worse in Vancouver, one of the great multicultural cities on the planet. Living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as Robert Pickton was being arrested, it was chilling to realize that many of the people who lived off Hastings between Main and Commercial knew a great deal about the missing women case that the police did not seem to know. The people who lived alongside the women — most of whom were aboriginal -— knew that the police were not interested in seeing justice done. No one thought the police were incompetent; everyone believed it was neglect, the most invasive form of corruption.

And I believe them.

Aboriginal women are four times as likely to be murder victims as are other Canadian women.

Upwards of 1,200 aboriginal women have been murdered or made to disappear in Canada since I learned to skate.

As the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. reminded us on Dec. 2, 40% of aboriginal children live in poverty — 2.5 times the national average.

And then there are the stories, the spirit-crushing stories of real men and women, boys and girls. That is, if we take the time to hear those stories.

It is true that the United States breeds a gun culture that has birthed violence after violence. It is also true that entrenched racism, street gangs, lack of resources, and police brutality tempt us to negate the good that America has done as we shake our heads at their systems. It is true that Ferguson has wrapped itself in hatred and desperation. Michael Brown is dead. #ICantBreathe is trending on Twitter.

I have been angry listening to story after story of black victims in the U.S.

But then I thought about Canada, and I realized the truth.

We have our own Ferguson in Canada, but it is a long, quiet death. We can blame the actions of brutalizing police officers. We can point fingers at MP Leona Aglukkaq who would rather look for jam recipes in the newspaper than address questions about food access in the north. We can shout with anger into the empty halls of history, or rail against a federal government that is either out-classed or indifferent on what to do with aboriginal exclusion.

We can point all these fingers at the system, but the prejudice in Canada is systemic. It moves through all of our communities, as does the racism in America. It is true that a nationwide answer is needed to the questions of aboriginal prosperity, education, and safety. In order to shape the system to be able to respond to those questions, however, we have to live lives of consistent, inclusive, hopeful resolution. Policy alone cannot fix this. We have to speak in support of those who are set aside or victimized.

Because the victims of this long quiet death cannot speak for themselves.

By Brenton Dickieson (guest opinion)

Brenton Dickieson of Charlottetown teaches religious studies at UPEI and has written a masters degree thesis on the development of prejudice.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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7 Responses to Canada’s Ferguson/Falcon Heights/Baton Rouge is a Long Quiet Death

  1. Charles Huttar says:

    Brenton,
    This is powerfully written and, to me, a rather sheltered American, eye-opening. My first response is to think if people I can forward it to, for you deserve to be very widely read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Charles, for this nice note. We Canadians are sheltered too, but the south-facing door of our shelter flaps open and closed on American winds. We care deeply for the American project, and are implicated with it. But we have our own struggles too.
      Thanks again,
      Brenton

      Like

  2. wanderwolf says:

    Thanks for teaching me a little more about the world. The case you write about in Canada is a powerful reminder that we all have a reason to become invested in examining and acting against acts of prejudice, even if the start is just to inform others that our own apathy may be a form of prejudice as well.

    Like

    • Thanks for this. Since I posted, American, UK, and Canadian cities have been besieged by protest. It may be a moment that will reshape things for the better.
      Or, it might be more reason for violence and apathy. I don’t know. My anxieties are that the police shootings and the exclusivist rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement will leave people feeling like they cannot say anything. And then the conversation dies.

      Like

      • wanderwolf says:

        As long as well keep opening the conversation, and are willing to explore causes as well as effects, and you actively engage in dissecting what causes us to think with prejudice, there’s a chance to alter our thinking patterns.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    My boyhood reading left me with the impression that Canada had basically, generally, managed matters much better than the U.S. – thanks largely to the R.C.M.P. (!)

    Skipping (I hope) to as converging line, reading detective fiction years later (I can’t remember by whom – there was some Buddhist element, though I don’t remember whether in the detective’s perspective, or the narrator’s, or both) made me sharply aware of the possibility of the police (et al.) facing the dangerous temptation of wanting ‘a solution’, the apprehension of ‘a [plausible] perpetrator’, rather than rigorously pursuing the truth of the situation in the hope of finding ‘the solution’, and ‘the perpetrator’ – if possible. Since then, I’ve encountered some reporting of hair-raising cases (without racial or ethnic dimension) where, if the reporting was accurate, it seemed the police (et al.) had succumbed to that temptation in real life.

    When you say, “Living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as Robert Pickton was being arrested, it was chilling to realize that many of the people who lived off Hastings between Main and Commercial knew a great deal about the missing women case that the police did not seem to know. The people who lived alongside the women — most of whom were aboriginal -— knew that the police were not interested in seeing justice done. No one thought the police were incompetent; everyone believed it was neglect, the most invasive form of corruption.

    “And I believe them” – I must confess I know nothing of the case or context (and have not tried to research them, yet). That being “not interested in seeing justice done” is imaginably another sort of temptation, succumbed to – with or without overlap with the sort I sketch of ‘better the wrong solution/suspect than none’.

    Now, since first reading this post the other day, I have come across quotations from a Facebook post by a Riviera Beach, Florida, policeman, Jay Stalien (with link: but I’m not on Facebook, given its ‘terms of usage’), including, “Suspect – Black/ Male, Victim – Black /Male.

    “I remember the countless times I canvassed the area afterwards, and asked everyone ‘did you see who did it’, and the popular response from the very same family members was always, ‘F[…] the Police, I ain’t no snitch, I’m gonna take care of this myself.’ This happened every single time, every single homicide, black on black, and then my realization became clearer. […] I was a target in the very community I swore to protect, the very community I wanted to help. As a matter of fact, they hated my very presence. They called me ‘Uncle Tom’, and ‘wanna be white boy’, and I couldn’t understand why. My own fellow black men and women attacking me, wishing for my death, wishing for the death of my family. I was so confused, so torn, I couldn’t understand why my own black people would turn against me, when every time they called …I was there. Every time someone died….I was there. Every time they were going through one of the worst moments in their lives…I was there. So why was I the enemy? I dove deep into that question…Why was I the enemy?”

    Again, I don’t know enough to know if any parallel with this might be an element in the case you relate. But it does raise the matter of problems where ‘many of the people who lived [in the area] know a great deal about the […] case that the police do not seem to know’ – and where even a policeman most truly “interested in seeing justice done” cannot easily come to share that knowledge.

    And, of course, various reasons for ‘not waning to get involved’ – not wanting it to be possibly publicly known that one ‘is involved’ are readily imaginable, and things like ‘what happens to stool-pigeons’ not only the stuff of popular fiction.

    Like

    • I think, in general, it was better in Canada than in the U.S. Partly, the French settlers actually thought that Indigenous peoples were humans, and so settled with them, made families and communities, etc. We call them Métis, and these communities continue still (perhaps 1/3 of indigenous peoples; my son has a middle name after one of their heroes). This happened some with English people, and pastors and priests were involved in the project of encoding aboriginal stories, but the mixing was less normal. There were more remote areas initially not effected by settlement, and places like territories in the Northwest that were American, Canadian, and European (so not a single contact).
      I don’t know if the smallpox that Canadian Indians got from European blankets was intentional ethnic cleansing or not, but the result was the same. In 1600 there were 1-2m aboriginal peoples. Today there are 1.4m. Hardly matching the European growth pattern, growing from a few hundred in 1600 to 35m today.
      Don’t research Picton! It’s gross. It’s a good question though: I don’t know how much the American anti-cop reality in minority communities parallels Canada’s. I’m not sure, but I think the Canadian first nations community feels betrayed by the RCMP. They want to trust in a way that American black communities are way past. There is also ongoing fear in the case you are talking about. I think, in general, the RCMP is trustworthy. But there are bad cops and bad divisions, and a weighty system that is largely male and largely middle class. That sometimes creates oppression.

      Like

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