Drawing parallels between Canada and the United States on criminal justice matters can be tendentious. Laws and practices differ, and so do circumstances.
But at least one aspect of the events in Ferguson, Mo., is relatable to the Canadian experience: Death often seems to be treated differently when that death is caused by a cop. Contemporary examples of the phenomenon are plentiful, and not just in the U.S.
There's been a litany of police-involved fatalities in Canada since the Braidwood inquiry probed Robert Dziekanski's entirely unnecessary death at the hands of the RCMP in 2007; the most recent to provoke an outcry cost the life of a five-year-old child in suburban Montreal.
Nicholas Thorne-Belance died last winter after the car his dad was driving was struck by an unmarked police car, travelling at 122 kilometres per hour in a 50 km/h zone. It wasn't an emergency, and the officer behind the wheel wasn't charged. Prosecutors defended their decision last week and even laid part of the blame for the crash on the child's father, citing a witness account. But that witness has since come forward to contradict the Crown's characterization. The provincial government has set up an independent investigation.
No, police officers don't always walk when someone dies in the course of their duties. Toronto officer James Forcillo faces murder charges for shooting Sammy Yatim on a streetcar in July, 2013, a case where prosecutors have the advantage of multiple witness videos. But more needs to be done to forestall a toxic perception from taking root – that once you don a police uniform different standards apply. Police officers, precisely because they are given unique powers and weapons, should if anything be held to an even higher standard.
There have been many calls for reform, and jurisdictions across Canada are grappling with various aspects of policing such as use of force, de-escalation and appropriate oversight. Part of the difficulty is institutional, with police often investigating other police, and police and prosecutors working cheek-by-jowl. But even in Ontario, which has a separate Special Investigations Unit to probe police use-of-force incidents, there often appears to be little enthusiasm for zealously prosecuting questionable police-involved deaths.
The events of Ferguson, Mo., serve as an object example of why the question – who is policing the police? – must be taken more seriously. In Canada, Quebec's new inquiry is just a start.