As Ontario enters a state-of-emergency and people are told to inside unless they absolutely have to go out, racialized people in the region are worried they’ll be targeted by police and bylaw officers enforcing the stay-at-home orders.
“There are a lot of holes and a whole lot of room for interpretation, which is terrifying if you’re in a marginalized group. There’s been a lot of conversation swirling before the actual stay-at-home order dropped on what it could mean, and in reading it, there’s a big grey area,” said Frances Elizabeth Moore, an Anishnaabe woman from Timiskaming First Nation who lives in London.
“I’ve definitely had some serious conversations with my son, with a lot of friends and family members and my nephews especially, about how they can make sure to remain safe.”
Premier Doug Ford has told Ontarians to stay home and to only go outside for essential trips, but what that means remains open to interpretation.
The province has empowered local police services, bylaw enforcement and OPP officers to issue tickets to people who aren’t complying with the stay-at-home order or who are not wearing masks inside public places.
“We’ve had conversations about not going out alone, making sure that they’re always with someone when they go out, not to go out at night because that’s when you’re more likely to be stopped,” Moore said. “We’ve talked about how to interact with police, what our rights are, to make sure that you have your I.D. with you, make sure you’re polite, that kind of thing, because if you’re stopped, it could escalate very quickly.”
‘Essential’ trips ambiguous
The fear about the orders and their enforcement is heightened because police services have, in the past, targeted marginalized communities, said Alexandra Kane, one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“If you’ve followed issues around carding or racism in the police force in the past few years, you would be greatly concerned about the ambiguity of the recent orders. Even the police forces themselves aren’t clear on what this means or how to enforce it,” she said.
“There are no clear guidelines on what is ‘essential,’ the premier has pretty much left it to the discretion of individuals. An awful lot of people think this is as simple as following the rules, but when Black skin is weaponized, it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do.
“Our skin colour has always been the overarching reason to give us higher fines and place us in jail. Ultimately, the police, who have historically proven themselves incapable of respecting human rights, will be encouraged to use force, arrest, detain and further displace Black and Indigenous bodies. This is a volatile situation that must be approached with more care than Canadian police forces have proven capable.”
Officers trained, chief says
London’s police officers have anti-bias and implicit bias training, Chief Steve Williams told CBC News,and while he’s aware that people in the community are worried about low-income and racialized people being targeted, he said the speculation is unfounded.
“All of our members are committed to bias-free policing and I have faith that our officers will deliver professional and bias-free policing in relation to this matter, just as they would in an other matter.”
The province’s solicitor general said Wednesday that that police officers can ask for a person’s name, age and address in order to write a ticket for violations of the stay-at-home orders.
London’s bylaw officers will also enforce the new rules, said bylaw manager Orest Katolyk, and respond to complaints.
PSA for white folx. White privilege means that in the last 48 hours you likely haven’t had serious conversations on how to stay safe if you have to go out. Meanwhile, I’ve had discussions about having the “how to interact w/ police” talk & “these are your rights” /1 <a href=”https://t.co/ugvne2mMkP”>https://t.co/ugvne2mMkP</a>
It’s when there is police discretion that Black, brown, Indigenous and otherwise marginalized people are most worried, said NDP MPP Laura Mae Lindo, who represents the riding of Kitchener Centre and is the critic for anti-racism issues.
She said it’s inevitable that racialized people will be stopped more than those who look white.
“We know that racialized people are primarily the ones working in the factories that have been deemed essential. We know that racialized people are primarily our nurses, are our frontline health care workers that are doing home care with elders in community,” Lindo said.
Complaints also flawed
The pandemic has hit racialized and low-income people harder than other groups. In London, those in racialized communities make up 27 per cent of COVID-19 cases, but 17 per cent of the general population.
“There’s enough data already collected that demonstrates that when you give this subjective space to police officers, what has happened in the past is now going to happen again because there are no checks and balances that this government is putting into place,” Lindo said.
Relying on complaints has its own pitfalls, said Moore.
“You have to remember the person that’s picking up the phone and saying, ‘Hey, I’m seeing two Black kids’ or ‘I’m seeing two Indigenous kids doing something suspicious,’ has their own biases.”
What police chiefs say:
- London Police Service Chief Steve Williams: “All of our members are committed to bias-free policing and I have faith that our officers will deliver professional and bias-free policing in relation to this matter, just as they would in an other matter.”
- London byaw enforcement manager Orest Katolyk: “The plan moving forward is to continue the current process of triaging complaints, responding using a risk based protocol focused on pubic safety and taking enforcement actions based on officer discretion.”
- Water Waterloo Regional Police Services Chief Bryan Larkin: “I firmly believe that this is designed to target those who overtly endanger others, and I don’t think that people in our Black, Indigenous and people of colour communities are setting out to endanger others.”
- St. Thomas Police Chief Chris Herridge: “Police will respond to offence-based complaints where it is determined that the police are the most appropriate agency to address the situation. Police will not stop a pedestrian, vehicle or enter a dwelling for the singular purpose of checking compliance with the Stay-At-Home Order.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.