El Jones is a poet, journalist, community activist and professor in Halifax.
In 2003, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission found that Kirk Johnson, a champion boxer from the African Nova Scotian community of North Preston, was discriminated against when police repeatedly pulled him over while driving. The Commission directed the Halifax Regional Police to collect data on police street checks, but those statistics were buried for 13 years until a CBC request brought them to light. What an independent report found in March, 2019, was that Halifax Regional Police were stopping Black people six times more often than white people.
Even with this report, it took seven months, as well as an independent legal opinion written by lawyer Jennifer Taylor and former provincial chief justice Michael Macdonald, declaring street checks illegal, for Nova Scotia’s government to ban them.
Officials could have intervened at any point following the 2003 Johnson decision. Instead, they ignored, denied, and delayed, only apologizing for systemic racism in November, 2019. But then, just two months later, Santina Rao, a young Black mother, was approached by police while shopping in a Halifax Walmart. They asked for her ID, and then allegedly beat her in front of her young children before arresting her.
On Tuesday, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil issued his own apology – again, for systemic racism in the justice system – and announced a “restorative process” to address it. “I see you, I hear you, I believe you and I am sorry,” he told Black Nova Scotians. In doing so, he echoed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s words to the Black community in June: “I hear you when you say that you are anxious and angry … I want you to know that I am listening, and that your government will always stand with you.” Of course, Mr. Trudeau’s government delivered a Throne Speech last week that had nearly no details on how it would actually address systemic racism in the justice system.
Mr. McNeil’s apology and announcement took most members of the African Nova Scotian community – some of whom had been meeting with the province with their own proposals for a Justice Institute and a policing strategy – by surprise. As the Decade of People of African Descent Coalition observed about the government’s efforts, which are not led by the community: “We are now experiencing another form of anti-Black systemic racism and assault to our human dignity in how this process has unfolded.”
Mr. McNeil would have done well to remember the quotation made famous in Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” The Premier’s latest apology comes more than 30 years after the Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Jr. Prosecution recognized systemic racism in the justice system and proposed recommendations – most of which have still not been implemented. In 2019, meanwhile, the province tabled yet another restorative inquiry – this time into systemic racism and the abuse of children in the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children.
My father once joked that committee work is like going to the bathroom: there’s a sitting, a report, and then the matter is dropped. Apologies and reports become ends in themselves. I have observed up close what I have called “the violence of the paperwork”: the ways files are opened on Black people, data is kept, and checks are instituted, these records following us through the systems of child welfare, justice, and immigration that criminalize and even kill us. We can add apology and inquiry to the ways the state uses paperwork to oppress and control Black people: endlessly recognizing and sympathizing that racism exists, yet never managing to do anything about it.
As our politicians tell us they’re “listening,” Black people are dying. It is no comfort to the Black people in our jails that our officials “recognize” racism, perhaps in the manner that we recognize a stranger’s face, but just can’t recall their name. These apologies become about performances of compassion and humanity, rather than about the humanity of Black people who continue to be brutalized. Black people have already made our solutions clear: stop punishment and policing, and invest in community supports and services instead.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a coalition of lawyers, advocates and service providers worked together to release 41 per cent of Nova Scotia’s jail population. No inquiry was necessary. Yet even as our Premier pledges to reform the justice system, the grants providing supportive housing at a fraction of the cost of incarceration have been cut, and people are being returned to jail.
Our politicians know what to do; they just don’t want to do it. Continuing to involve us in their charades of empathy may be personally fulfilling, but we are not here for their therapy. We demand justice.
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