You are now in the main content area

Race and state power - what changes do we need?

Law dean Donna Young leads discussion around what the social contract means for Black Canadians
July 03, 2020
A man in a face mask walks by a Black Lives Matter banner

Law dean Donna Young led a panel of four through a discussion around legacies of injustice and racial oppression as protests about anti-Black racism form around the world.

In the wake of the anti-Black racism protests that have erupted around the world after the murder of George Floyd, Ryerson’s Faculty of Law dean Donna Young moderated a panel, Black Lives Matter: State Power and the Breaking of the Social Contract to grapple with anti-Black racism and systemic discrimination that is so entrenched in the lives of Black Canadians. The panellists included:

  • Annette Bailey, professor in Ryerson's Faculty of Community Services, who researches gun violence prevention and survivorship, with a focus on understanding the grief and trauma experiences of survivors of gun homicide. 
  • Graham Hudson, professor in the Faculty of Law and the Department of Criminology. Hudson's research is in the areas of jurisdiction, the local governance of migration, urban securitization, constitutional law and legal jargon for the Access Without Fear movement in Canada.
  • Shawn Richard, external link, a litigator and the past president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers. Richard represented the organization before standing committees and members of provincial and federal Parliament, to address issues of anti-Black racism and human rights. He has explored issues affecting Black lawyers and Black communities.
  • Kikélola Roach teaches in the Department of Politics and Public Administration and at the School of Social Work. She was counsel for individuals in civil lawsuits for assault and battery, wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution, negligence and breach of Charter and has represented clients at all levels of the court. 
A screen capture of a zoom call with the four panellists and Dean Young.

From top left: Dean Donna Young, Annette Bailey, Graham Hudson, Shawn Richard and Kikélola Roach.

DY: We must grapple with questions about our legacies of injustice and racial oppression, and though it’s a difficult discussion to have, it’s an absolutely necessary one. Our social contract is the agreement by which we give up some of our liberties, abide by the rules of government and, in exchange, the state protects us. 

What does the routine harassment, assault and killing of Black and Indigenous people by the state mean for our understanding of the social contract? I think it’s worth asking: what is the social contract for Black people? Is there one? 

Our four panellists will help us understand how anti-Black racism infused in state power and the social contract results in legitimate questions about whether Black lives matter, or have ever mattered in Canada.

Question 1: What is important for us to know about the lived experiences of Black people in Canada? And how might that shape how we witness the protests?

AB: I believe the protests are awakening many of us to what we already know: systemic racism is alive and well and it continues to affect people of colour in deathly ways. I think about my own research with Black youth and gun violence in Canada, that is so limited in the Canadian context in the first place. But when you start peeling back the layers of Black youth experiences with gun violence in Canada, you see grief and trauma that they have harboured from witnessing and losing loved ones to gun violence. 

I think we have to be very careful not to compare the Canadian experience with the U.S. experience and then conclude that racism is not so bad here, because, in my opinion, racism delivered in any form and in any dose is racism - whether it's delivered through exclusions in  hiring and promotions, or excessive school suspension for Black youth, or it’s exerted through a knee on the neck, it drains the life out of those who are most affected and it weaves this legacy of trauma and death.

GH: When I look at the protests now, I see alienation and solidarity, the interaction of these two important themes suggest the protests are a bit different from what they used to be. Alienation is something that a lot of people are experiencing, not just in terms of race: the breakdown of the welfare state, the rise of undervalued, underpaid work, less and less representation in our government than there should be. The protests today cut across a spectrum of issues that unite diverse communities, geographic spaces, and national borders. This contrasts with  populist movements that try to capitalize on alienation to divide communities, build borders, and conceal exploitation. I hope that in the future with the Black Lives Matter movement and other protests we see a push for more community and solidarity as a counter-narrative.

SR: Rather than talk about my own experiences, I’d like to talk about the results from my work: the review of the Peel District School Board, where approximately 10.2 per cent of the student population are Black. We know anecdotally that these students have reported being arbitrarily suspended and arbitrarily not put forward for things that are beneficial for other students, and this is happening at a disproportionate rate. Kids are being excluded, so where do they go? We know that at Peel, 34 per cent of those kids don't pass Applied English – a mandatory course, so they're not going on to graduate from high school. If systemic racism doesn't exist, the question is: what is this? It's systemic, it's individual, and has to change.

KR: We've heard Canadians say, "It’s so much better over here, we’re not like the U.S.” Those myths are not just frustrating, but deadly. Because through this process of erasure and amnesia, we’re covering up a long-standing history of slavery, segregation, police brutality and exclusion. And it guarantees inaction and perpetuates a system that’s killing us. Now we’re in a radical time and the global movement that we are seeing is people responding, knowing that we have been subjected to a kind of judicial and political gaslighting.

Question 2: What are the questions that we should be asking ourselves and our leaders? What should be our demands?

AB: I’m looking at the protesters and seeing that they are willing to risk COVID-19 in this process. And it tells me that people are hurting from racism today, as they have for years. And that the long battle against racial injustice has not yet been won. So my demands would be that leaders in organizations and government are representative of the people that they serve. And that leaders build a culture of equity, compassion and peace for everyone to thrive, and that they’re brave enough to hold people accountable to upholding this culture. 

GH: I have two questions for our leaders: what are you afraid of and what are you defending, and why is it so important to suppress reality, to hide numbers? What is being defended and why should that matter? 

I’d focus on oversight and accountability, starting with the federal level – RCMP, CBSA – all the way down to the city.

SR: Do you have competence to have power over Black people? If you’re a police officer and your prejudices make you see Black people as bigger or more dangerous than they are, are you competent to police Black people? If you’re a teacher who sees Black children as more of a risk in the school yard, are you competent to teach Black children?

KR: Right now we need to be asking ourselves much more fundamental questions: what is the role and function of police? How has it impacted Indigenous and Black lives, poor people, queer people, the homeless? How do we end the Prison Industrial Complex? Is there a different way we could deliver safety and security? What does it mean to live free?

Question 3: Many members of our audience are members of the inaugural class of Ryerson’s law school. What is their role in addressing some of the issues that you’ve identified?

AB: I urge you to see law as a profession for humanity and approach every situation with humanity and compassionate empathy. Be advocates for people who need you to understand their situation and predicaments. You’ve heard about the high suspension rates for Black youth, these are Black youth that have been traumatized and criminalized by the system, the school system is the first point of contact with racism for many. And it has lasting impact. Law is not for the 1% who have the resources to pay you for your services, it’s for the most vulnerable. Look at people as people and be mindful of the biases that you approach people with. 

KR: I’ll say that we don't need more lawyers who defend the indefensible, such as drafting laws that exclude women who wear hijabs. We don't need more lawyers who chip away at legal protections for tenants or who represent the government and block the human rights tribunals order that the Canadian government pay compensation to Indigenous children in this country who have been wronged. 

We do need more lawyers who are going to use their legal imagination and their courage, who are going to understand the treaties and make sure that our government upholds them. Who are going to breathe life into Section 15 of the Charter that talks about inequality and that talks about our government's ability to take affirmative action to correct the historical wrongs. 

Stay connected to your community because in a society that remains fundamentally unequal, true justice does not emanate from a courtroom. True justice lies with the people mobilizing to create change. You will need those people to rally around your case.

DY: This has been a really tough time I think, for many Black people in Canada and the U.S. Because we feel it personally. It's also hard because as lawyers, all of us have a professional interest in this topic, no matter what our race. 

But this is the kind of discussion that is so necessary for people who are entering the legal community. Our system needs fixing but also we need the commitments of the people who are getting into the system to do something real.

This panel discussion has been condensed for Ryerson Today; the full discussion can be seen on Ryecast

More News