Congress 2021 blog edition
By Valerie Leow, J.D. Candidate, University of Alberta
Systemic racism refers to racism that is embedded in the processes, laws, and regulations of an institution. It extends beyond individual attitudes or acts of racism to encompass broader patterns of harmful or exclusionary policies and treatment of individuals. As a settler colonial state, systemic racism is deeply rooted in every institution of Canada, and continues to be upheld and reinforced to the detriment of racialized and marginalized communities. “Systemic Racism Within the Justice System,” hosted by Correctional Service Canada, called upon a panel of practitioners and advocates who accept and admit that systemic racism permeates Canada’s criminal justice system to discuss the some of the challenges involved in addressing systemic racism and propose solutions to it. Warden Gary Sears and Assistant Warden Management Services Barbara Sagh from the Edmonton Institution, Correctional Service of Canada, acted as the moderators for this roundtable.
Lisa Dublin, member of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee for both the Edmonton Institute and the Edmonton Institute for Women, declared that “no matter the veneer of professionalism and official statements of tolerance and justice, these numbers don’t lie.” To this day, Indigenous and Black people are more likely to be incarcerated, stopped, searched, denied alternatives to criminal charges, have their rights violated, be subjected to demeaning police encounters, and, when they end up in prison, are also more likely to be subjected to abuse, denial of rights, and systemic indifference. “I am after the dream of an equitable society. I have Black brothers and a Black family. I’m aware that systemic racism in the justice system is related to the evil of prejudice and racism.” Dublin expressed hope for the future normalization of interactions between police and people of colour.
Sinela Jurkova, member of the Prairie Region Ethnocultural Advisory Committee, echoed the fact that, drawing from studies on criminology, minority groups have been disadvantaged in every step of the judicial process for more than a century now. She described the criminal justice system on the whole as “hierarchical and resistant to change.” Despite past attempts to address systemic racism, the fact that this roundtable occurred is testament to the lack of results we have had in completely eliminating systemic racism from our criminal justice system. Jurkova said that we should view this as encouragement to keep up individual and collective efforts to address systemic racism, as it will take a long time before we see major changes in the system. “As an educator, my role is to promote knowledge in order to prevent people from entering or returning to the system. I firmly believe each of us must be accountable and responsible in this mission.”
Executive Director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Edmonton Toni Sinclair opened with the statistic that the higher the classification for prison inmates, the more the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. “If we build a racist system, we shouldn’t be surprised that we are perpetuating a racist system in the spaces within our criminal justice system.” Sinclair also brought up the irony in that Indigenous peoples are both over-policed and under-policed, whenever it is convenient for the criminal justice system – Indigenous peoples are over-policed when they are systematically targeted and their “marginalization is used against them,” but under-policed when they need help and support. Instead, she envisions a world where we do not rely on prisons, a world “away from the criminal justice system and back to the roots of the community and our neighbourhood,” which she works towards through her involvement with the Elizabeth Fry Society.
CEO of Taccalusa Institute Mahamad Accord described the surprise that Black individuals, who left Somalia or Africa as refugees or immigrants because they were unable to get justice in their communities, experienced upon landing in Canada. “We were seeking justice. It is very challenging to find out that those countries that we were inspired by have the same problems.” While many of the individuals Accord referred to came to Canada by chance, all with the goal of looking for somewhere safe to raise their children, they found it a difficult truth to be facing the same colonial system in Canada that they experienced back home – “you have over policing; you have an overzealous prosecutor; you have an indifferent justice system.” Accord stated that, looking towards the future, the focus should not be on ‘being surprised,’ but on moving forward, away from the colonial system.
“To me, history is foundational. Our roots are foundational,” said Executive Director of the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights Renee Vaugeois. “We must understand our history as it is framed: where we stand right now; the state of our justice system; everything that we talk about.” Vaugeois stressed the importance of understanding the foundations on which we have built our country on – understanding the nature of criminalization and how our criminal laws came to be – such that we can see how we have framed a narrative that influences biased interactions within a system that “upholds a culture of genocide and violence.” In the words of Vaugeois, the harm we have done to racialized and marginalized communities “was a result of the criminalization deeply embedded into our legislation. Everything has been framed within that.” If you experience discomfort while attempting to confront these truths, Vaugeois invites you to go back and reflect on your discomfort – question why it makes you uncomfortable to begin with.
Mark Cherrington, Independent Community Advocate with the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, spoke on the intertwined nature of the criminal justice system with other systems, like the child welfare system or the education system. “You can’t say ‘it’s just the justice system’ or ‘it’s just the child welfare system.’ It’s all colonial,” arguing that systemic racism pervades not just the criminal justice system, but every other system as well. To combat this, we need advocates within the justice system that are legislated, have continual funding, and are independent. “We have very many people – academia, frontline workers – all expressing what the problem is. We have no one to advocate.” These advocates cannot be government-funded, said Cherrington, because if you dare speak out against the government, your funding may be at risk.