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Alberta Shining a light on the police: Five questions with activist Desmond Cole

Former Toronto Star writer Desmond Cole speaking about the issue of Canada wide police carding in Calgary, Alberta, July 13, 2017.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Desmond Cole, a Toronto-based journalist, has led a crusade against carding, the contentious police practice of stopping citizens not accused of specific crimes and recording their personal information.

In Edmonton, black and Indigenous citizens, especially women, are overrepresented in instances of police street checks, according to recent reports. The city's police commission has initiated a third-party review of the situation. During a visit to Alberta, Mr. Cole spoke with Jeffrey Jones about what is often cited as a form of racial profilings.

How big and different is the issue of carding in Alberta?

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I've come here to learn and what I'm seeing is that targeting of Indigenous people, particularly women, in Alberta is a dramatic difference to Ontario. Police are obviously seeing Indigenous women in a way that they believe they need to stop and document them more often than other groups of people. That's significant, because Indigenous women are facing myriad challenges already without having all of this police scrutiny. I just can't imagine that the decision to deploy so many police resources could ever help. I can see lots of reasons why it would make the situation more difficult. It's quite terrifying that the answer to poverty and violence and displacement and disappearance and murder is to put more police on them.

Edmonton has been particularly under the microscope on this issue after statistics were revealed.

The stats are a mechanism for accountability for the police and for the general public. Those in the community have always known that their people were being treated this way. But yes, the publication of those statistics in Edmonton has been embarrassing for police. They now plan a third-party review. I think that is deeply insulting. Using a third party suggests that the community members who have been speaking their truth about this cannot be trusted to speak about carding that they've experienced. That's nonsense. The other thing is that the real aim here ought to be to end this practice. Politicians who say they understand what's wrong need to act. There's nothing to review. The review in Ontario did not bring about an end to carding formally, so I don't have a lot of faith it will do so here.

What do you think is the effect of this practice on Indigenous communities?

As someone who is not a member of that community I don't feel comfortable speaking about it, but I can talk about black communities, who are also being overrepresented in Alberta – and what it does to us. It instills a permanent sense of fear into our daily lives. I met a 16-year-old in Lethbridge who's been stopped by the police eight times. He's furious because he knows that the white friends he goes around with are not being treated this way. So it creates a sense of injustice and that we can never trust or work with the police under those circumstances. So when something goes wrong in our communities we're often characterized as people who don't like to co-operate with the police. I think people need to consider that we're being put in an impossible situation in our communities, where if a crime occurs, if victimization occurs, we don't have any formal authority to turn to because we're terrified that the ones who have been appointed are not on our side.

Who gives you the most push-back?

The police services themselves, who are represented by chiefs, don't like the pressure we're putting on them on these issues. But the associations, the unions, they're the attack dogs. They're the more vocal parties than the chiefs of police. I think that's inappropriate, because nobody appointed an association to speak. They are attacking and trying to delegitimize members of the public who criticize their officers. They are also working very hard to say this is not about race. The media need to examine why you would ever talk to an association about this rather than the chief, who is accountable to our elected officials.

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When we push, police commissions, the watchdogs, feel compelled to respond. It was the police commission, for example, in Edmonton initiating this review. What we're not getting from them is that they have power over police. They often come to us with compromise positions. They want us to compromise between abolishing carding and giving the police whatever they want. They need to lose this fear they have of upsetting police by exercising the authority that we have given them.

What should average citizens, even those not directly affected by this practice, do?

I think the rallying cry is, 'We believe our black and Indigenous friends.' It's really that simple. Statistics have to be brought to bear for white residents – and I say white people because they are the majority in this country – before they will get up and open their mouths. That tells me they are not hearing, and particularly not believing, everyday stories and experiences of black and Indigenous people. If they do, they have to go out and say to police commissions, to police chiefs, to the media, that it's time for the government to act.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Globe and Mail's Hannah Sung explains what carding actually means and why people are upset by the practice. Globe and Mail Update
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