June 7, 2020

"Wellness Checks" and Racism in Ontario Policing

By Bronwyn Cragg, YCL-LJC member in Toronto

The past few weeks have seen a rise in mass movements against the racist and ableist history of police killings in both the United States and Canada. The widespread notion that the kind of virulent systemic racism present in the United States does not exist to the same degree in Canada, a notion supported by figures like Doug Ford, is demonstrably false. The perversity of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kneeling with protestors, while refusing to acknowledge that he himself holds power over the same police force that has caused centuries of displacement and the genocide of Indigenous people is a perversity that progressive Canadians, unfortunately, are not at all surprised by. Protests for Black and Indigenous lives are quietly being rebranded as protests against the killings of George Floyd and others in the U.S., rather than the constant killings in our own streets, and brands and corporations are calling for “peace and solidarity” in order to minimize the real impact of these movements. Ultimately, these actions by the ruling class serve to distract from the issues at hand -- Canadian white supremacy and the oppression of mentally ill people in Canada.

The death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, like all police-involved deaths of Indigenous, Black, and mentally ill people, has been met with intense pushback and controversy from all sides: some skeptics question the gullibility of protestors, protesters themselves see just one more mark of the white supremacy of Canadian police, and the police deny involvement. Online comment sections are rife with support for police actions, and distrust of those calling for justice: “Sorry… but this is just absurd and so ridiculous on so many levels. Just read the quotes of the morons who packed the streets during a health crisis to make no point whatsoever.” “Toronto is ranked the safest city in North America, and the 6th safest in the world. I think the police are doing a fantastic job!” “So now BLM is dictating policy that concerns our safety?” “Sometimes criminality deserves brutality.”

Ultimately, this wave of protests is neither a comment on the “gullibility” of protestors nor their so-called “poor understanding” of the current pandemic. The fact that it is actually believable to the thousands of marchers who participated in the initial protest that a police officer in Toronto would be involved in the death of a young Black Indigenous woman is not the result of ignorance or false equivalence between Canada and the United States. According to the CBC, 461 people were killed in interactions with police from 2000 to 2017 in Canada, with only 18 of these leading to criminal charges. In Toronto, where Regis Korchinski-Paquet was killed, Black people make up only 8% of the population, but 37% of police-involved deaths. Black people in Ontario, according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, make up nearly 29% of police-involved use of force cases, 36% of shootings, almost 62% of police-involved deaths, and 70% of fatal shootings, despite making up less than 5% of Ontarians. Statistics for Indigenous people are similarly grim: 36% of people fatally shot by the RCMP are Indigenous, according to a 2019 study, despite being only 4.8% of the Canadian population. This comes as no surprise, considering that the RCMP was initially created in order to systematically and forcibly remove Indigenous men, women, and children from their land. 

Despite this spotlight on issues of white supremacy and police brutality in Canada, London police have managed to mirror the events leading to the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet: a 26-year-old Black man, Caleb Tubila Njoko, fell 15 floors to his death during a “wellness check” on May 5th. Even more recently, Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old woman from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation was shot to death by a New Brunswick police officer during a "wellness check". Further, a video from 2019 of Durham Region police beating a Black teenager to the ground during another so-called “wellness check” has also gained traction online. Simply browsing the Wikipedia entry for “List of killings by law enforcement officers in Canada” is enough to see that police brutality and killings of mentally ill people, especially people of colour, has a long and consistent history. Still, there seem to be questions of the exact details of these deaths, and whether the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet and others constitutes reason enough to defy quarantine and protest. 

The fact of the matter is, mental health, race, and police brutality have long since been tangled together. No matter the minute details of Korchinski-Paquet’s death, police involvement is the ultimate cause. Anyone who has experienced mental illness in Toronto will recognize that, even for the best-equipped people with the most stable safety nets and support systems, wait times are brutal and even emergency rooms will turn you away. It is extremely difficult, especially during a mental health crisis, to find how to access even simple resources like transportation to an adequately-equipped hospital (which are often over-cramped, dirty, and frightening for patients). Regis Korchinski-Paquet died due to police involvement, because police are seen as the only way for mentally ill people to “safely” get help in a city where mental health care is crumbling or nearly non-existent. Perhaps she would not have fallen to her death if a) police were not called as a first-resort for a mental health crisis, and especially if b) Black and Indigenous people did not have a longstanding history of fatal police encounters that would cause a young woman in distress to have rather had put herself in danger on an unsteady balcony than confront the police force that serves to uphold the tenets of capitalism in Canada: white supremacy, ableism, misogyny, and the oppression of the working class.

The ongoing peoples’ uprising against racist police murders and white supremacy in both Canada and the United States must be supported whole-heartedly. We cannot trust the Special Investigations Unit, a team of police investigating their fellow police, to bring justice in these cases. Similarly, we cannot concede to comments by those like Doug Ford claiming a non-involvement of Canadians in the long history of racism and white supremacy -- this is not simply an American issue, but one that clearly extends to Canada’s history of displacement and genocide of Indigenous people, racist immigration policies, and violent murders of Black and racialized people. Justice against police oppression and violence does not come without massive struggle in Canada or the United States, and the time for justice passed hundreds of killings ago. We must wage a unified struggle in order to call for murder charges to be laid against police who murder civilians, and for police forces and the SIU to be put under real civilian control. So long as capitalism thrives in Canada, so too will the police uphold the racist, sexist, and ableist capitalist system and serve to protect not the working class and those in need but the wants of the bourgeoisie. Black, Indigenous, and mentally ill people should not have to face murder in their own streets and homes -- enough is enough.

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