Living in Canada unfortunately often means living with one eye on the United States, whether you like it or not. Their population dwarfs ours and their cultural industries have tentacles reaching out to every spot on the globe, so if you happen to live right next door, the tentacles have a stranglehold. You grow up watching American TV, listening to American music, reading American books and magazines, and unwittingly absorbing a lot of information about American history, government, and legal structures. You also grow up puzzled about a lot of it, if you’re anything like me. Do they really wear shoes in the house like in every TV show? (Upon moving to Japan, I learned the answer to this is yes, they do wear shoes in the house. I will never not be stunned by this.) Are there really so many different accents, or is that just a TV thing? What is the purpose of homecoming? Why are there so many high school football teams? How much of the Sweet Valley High novels are true? (I was a very big Sweet Valley High fan as a child, but the many proms baffled me.)
And of course, whenever anything outrageous happens, we hear all about it up here. And outrageous things have been happening a whole lot more these days. Global pandemic, murder hornets, authoritarian governments, the not-so-slow slide into fascism—2020 is a lot. It’s a lot more in the US, which has prompted the usual reactions from the majority of Canadians. There’s the “meanwhile in Canada” crowd, who try to play up how great it is here compared with the US by tweeting pictures of the prime minister with a panda or smugly noting that our top news story is a moose in someone’s backyard. And then there are the people who shout indignantly about the injustices in America, yell at American politicians or whoever on social media, and generally get caught up in the drama, full of outrage on behalf of Americans everywhere.
What American drama almost never does is spark real Canadian conversation. We love to act like slavery was never a thing here, like we don’t have our own very real issues, like our own carceral state isn’t booming, like our government still isn’t doing a thing about the sickening number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, like so many of our First Nations don’t experience food scarcity and a lack of potable water. I’m not saying that people aren’t hard at work to try and change these things and improve life for everyone in this country. But the majority of Canadians don’t take to social media in outrage the way they do when an American politician says something horrible. I don’t either, but my social media is locked down to books, Japanese, and translation because I don’t like fighting with people on the internet. (Don’t come at me here, either. I am an iron-fisted moderator.)
But I decided that whenever Canadians get up in arms about America, I should hunt down some new information on all the terrible things that Canada is doing and educate myself so that I can fight with people in real life. With the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, it seemed like the perfect time to dig deeper into the way Canada has treated Black people, and fortunately, Policing Black Lives popped into view at the perfect moment. What a powerhouse of a book! I want to memorize every detail of it and become the most annoying person at your next party (if we can ever have parties again. Maybe I will be the most annoying person on your next Zoom call).
Maynard meticulously lays out the ways in which Canada has failed Black people from before the country was even a country, dividing her study up into sections on different aspects of how Black lives are systematically devalued such as in slavery, education, the legal system, social welfare systems and more. She is very careful to insist that we also pay attention to the different ways oppression affects people at the crossroads of intersecting identities, giving space at every turn to Black women (with a whole section devoted to misogynoir) and queers, and she is especially compassionate toward Black trans people, about whom there is not nearly as much statistical data, which leaves them to fall even further through the cracks in our society.
She also makes sure to weave the story of Indigenous people into her narrative and highlight how society at large marginalizes Black and Indigenous people in often different but parallel ways. Over and over, Maynard points out how settler culture and Canada tries to destroy Indigenous peoples and how that feeds into and off of violence against other racialized people. She also reminds us at every turn that even if someone did commit a crime, they are still a human being and do not deserve this kind of inhumane treatment, which is so true and something that often gets left out of conversations about crime, police, and prisons.
Maynard is an academic and this book, while highly readable, is very much an academic text. Her prose is accessible with an undercurrent of anger, which is only natural given the atrocities she describes (or maybe I am reading my own anger into these pages). But those atrocities are carefully documented and backed up with notes and the usual pages of references at the end. As she herself notes, most of this history is not what we are taught in school, and while I’ve encountered a number of the things she discusses in my post-school education, some bits were horrifyingly new to me. Like the fact that the last segregated school in Canada closed in 1983. (But we’re not racist, the “meanwhile in Canada” crowd cries.) Or the two pages Maynard takes to simply list some of the Black people who have been murdered by police and the lack of punishment their murderers received.
I have so many pages tagged with post-its that I couldn’t possibly share them all here, but I think this paragraph from the first chapter “Devaluing Black Life, Demonizing Black Bodies” at the end of slavery in the British empire really sums the whole thing up:
…Canada was far from the land of Black liberation, or even basic tolerance. Black lives in Canada were accorded far less value than those of white settlers, and Black unfreedom prevailed in various forms. The image of Canada as a safe haven from racial intolerance was then, as it remains today, complex, multilayered, ambivalent and equivocal.
If you’re Canadian, definitely read this book and educate yourself on how horribly racist our systems actually are. But even if you’re not living here in the icy tundras, it’s instructive to see how racism functions in different countries and how we can peel back the layers and push for justice for everyone instead of rich old men. In conclusion, Black Lives Matter. Defund the police. Abolish the prisons. Dismantle the white supremacist, capitalist, homophobic, sexist patriarchy. Let’s burn it to the ground, friends.