Playing the Race Card: Policing Toronto the Good
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Playing the Race Card: Policing Toronto the Good

Before people bring up the idea of "playing the race card" in the debate over policing, we must first consider the history and context of what that means.

Torontonians protest carding and show solidarity for Freddie Gray in a march on May 2.

Toronto journalist (and Torontoist staff writer) Desmond Cole has recently captured the Canadian media’s attention with an excellent memoir in Toronto Life on racial profiling and policing in Toronto. Cole’s piece, “The Skin I’m In,” centres on the ubiquitous practice of what has been dubbed “carding,” whereby officers’ contact with citizens who have not been accused of any crime is meticulously entered into police databases.

The targets of these encounters are disproportionately black and dark-skinned South Asian men who find themselves subject to repeated and unwarranted attention from law enforcement officials. These officials arbitrarily stop, interrogate and even search these men under the flimsiest pretexts. This is the quintessence of racial surveillance and profiling in 21st-century Toronto.

All this talk of race and cards brings to mind the expression “playing the race card,” one that I have always found grating. This notion betrays the lack of even a rudimentary understanding of the lives lived by those branded racial “others.” It suggests that we brandish this mystical talismanic card to either gain unfair racial advantage or to explain away our individual or group failures. But this is a lie. Cole’s work ably shows that race in Canada is not a card one plays but a hand one is dealt, often with devastating—and even deadly—consequences.

At this particular moment, North American society is having a conversation about race and policing, the scope and intensity of which we have not witnessed since the height of the Civil Rights movement. Against the recent historical backdrop of a number of high-profile police and vigilante killings of blacks in the United States, we are having our own conversation about race, policing, and public order in Toronto. Undoubtedly some Canadians may take comfort in the fact that we are not witnessing the same level of violence that is currently rocking many U.S. cities. Certainly the Canadian media often views these instances through the lens of barely concealed moral superiority and condescension. It is true that in the current moment Canadian policing of black and other racialized communities is not currently characterized by the sorts of overt violence that we have witnessed in U.S. cities. But we must be mindful of the (seemingly forgotten) social and historical context that frames and informs the recent debate around policing and carding in Toronto.

Dating back to the mid-19th century, blacks in Canada have been unfairly treated in the criminal justice system, subject to higher rates of arrest, conviction and longer terms of imprisonment, particularly if their crimes crossed the lines of race and sex. These patterns endured over the course of the 20th century. Indeed, the opening up of Canadian immigration policy to the new black immigrants of the Caribbean in the late 1960s gave way to a host of anxieties about race, crime, and public order in Toronto from the 1970s until the mid-1990s.

Police shootings of black men such as Albert Johnson and Lester Donaldson gave rise to the Black Action Defence Committee in 1988, an advocacy organization founded by a handful of committed activists who demanded police protect and serve all of the city’s citizenry regardless of race or origin.

In 1992, a sympathy riot erupted on Yonge Street in Toronto in the wake of the acquittal of four L.A. officers for the violent beating of Rodney King, an incident captured on video and broadcast across the globe in the early days of the 24-hour cable-news cycle. In its aftermath, the Ontario government commissioned “The Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System.” The report found alarming inequities in the dispensation of justice between blacks and whites in the province in terms of policing, sentencing, and rates of imprisonment. The report came with a host of recommendations which sought to remedy the stark racial inequities that pervaded Ontario’s criminal justice system.

And yet, some 20 years later, it seems we have learned little from the lessons penned in that report. The current practice in carding is a product of this long and violent history of police interactions with the Toronto’s black community and it is embedded in a larger web of social relations that have consigned blacks to a limited form of quasi-citizenship that is marked by the presumption of their guilt in the name of maintaining public order.

Carding is an inherently violent practice precisely because of the ways it both informally and formally tramples the rights of those who are targeted; police violence need not only be at the barrel of a gun. And sadly it seems very likely this practice will continue although the Toronto Police Services Board just appointed its first black police chief. A 32-year veteran of the force, Mark Saunders is heralded as a “trailblazer” by some, but others among us are a bit less effusive with our praise in the very early days of his tenure. Chief Saunders has publicly come out and said that the practice of carding will continue under his leadership, arguing that suspending the practice would deprive the police of an important tool in their crime fighting and public safety arsenal. He has, disappointingly, only pledged to try and limit the “collateral damage” of the practice.

Saunders needs to carefully rethink his position on these important matters. He needs to be cognizant of the vast disparities of wealth and power that endure between black Canadians and their white (and some non-white) counterparts. He needs to reflect on the fraught history of policing, race, and criminal justice in Canada. He needs to consider the idea that the police—for very good reasons—are regarded as little more than an occupying army in many of Toronto’s most socioeconomically and spatially marginalized communities. He needs to recognize that there is more than one model of policing and that the hyper-militarized confrontational style that has come to dominate the North American urban landscape will result in more protest, more unrest, more fire, and more smoke, and that this will eventually reappear in Toronto’s own backyard. But above all, Chief Saunders must have the grace and humility to realize that simply being the first black police chief of Canada’s largest city does not secure his place in history. His appointment does not in and of itself represent progress.

Playing the race card for racial advantage is a myth. If such a card does exist, however, it is only granted to and deployed by those racial minorities who willingly serve in the name of those who would use them to maintain the status quo. Hopefully Toronto’s first black chief will not squander the fragile support he has in the black community by falling into this trap. No police chief—even one of African descent—has the right to trample the civil liberties of his city’s most vulnerable citizens.


Barrington Walker is an Associate Professor of History at Queen’s University. He is the author of Race on Trial: Black Defendants in Ontario’s Criminal Courts, 1858-1958, and the editor of The African Canadian Legal Odyssey: Historical Essays.

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