Who’s sorry now? Not the premier, not the justice minister, not the police

No one in authority seems willing to apologize for the decades of “disproportionate and negative” impact street checks have had on Nova Scotia’s black community. Worse, no one seems to committed to finally ending them once and for all.

Photo: Halifax Examiner

This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner April 22, 2019.

Our question for today: why is it so hard for the people in charge of policing in Nova Scotia to say, I’m sorry?

Last week…

  • nearly three weeks after a damning 180-page report by an independent outside consultant confirmed that black males are nine times more likely than whites to be stopped in “random” police street checks, that such street checks “criminalize” young black men and that stopping people for no reason beyond the colour of their skin has had a “disproportionate and negative” impact on African Nova Scotians;
  • two-and-a-half years after a United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent reported: “There is clear evidence that racial profiling is endemic in the strategies and practices used by law enforcement[in Nova Scotia]. Arbitrary use of “carding” or street checks disproportionately affects people of African descent;”
  • 14 years after police started collecting data on street checks it didn’t even bother to analyze for racial profiling until the CBC filed a freedom of information request for the data in 2016;
  • and 16 years after a human rights inquiry ordered Halifax Regional Police to pay boxer Kirk Johnson $10,000 in damages over a racially motivated street check…

… Justice Minister Mark Furey finally, finally, finally ordered a provincewide moratorium on street checks.

But he didn’t ban them permanently. That’s because Furey, a former police officer, appears to believe randomly stopping, say, nine random black people for every random white can still be a “valuable policing tool” if used with discretion. Rather than ban carding now and forever, Furey decided to simply press pause on street checks while a “stakeholder committee” comes up with ways to regulate the practice so it doesn’t look as racist as it is. How long will that take? Who knows?

Furey also refused to apologize, even for the “disproportionate and negative” impact police checks have had on Nova Scotia’s black community.

“I can stand here and apologize,” Furey offered blandly. “Is that going to change anything?”

Well, not nearly as much as if he had announced an actual ban on street checks but, in the obvious absence of that, an apology for the harm it’s created might be one small step for the people in charge.

But Furey was far from alone in losing the “sorry” word from his vocabulary last week.

Furey’s boss, Premier Stephen McNeil, as usual, claimed he’d already done the right thing. “We believe the street-check approach needs to change,” he told reporters. “That’s what we did.” He forgot to mention it had taken his justice minister three full weeks to half-do the right thing.

An apology? “Not something that I’ve considered,” opined the unconsidered premier.

McNeil — also hardly unusual — did punt the idea of an apology down the chain of command. “That’s a good question for the police department,” he declared.

Don’t hold your breath.

“Organizational apologies…” mused Halifax Regional Police Supt. Jim Perrin. “That’s a very complex, sensitive matter and right now we’re committed to addressing the ministerial directive and having those ongoing and respectful conversations with our communities.”

Translation: No.

Isn’t it interesting that everyone in charge seems to want to have “ongoing and respectful conversations with our communities…” “conversations with a variety of stakeholders” and blah blah blah.

But no one in authority seems to have listened to what those same communities have been saying. For years.

Interesting? Yes. Surprising? Not at all.

  1. I’ve been stopped during a random police check. In my case, it was in Ontario. I was in my early 20s, had longer hair and a beard and was carry my bamboo flute on my backpack as I walked peacefully on the sidewalk in Ottawa.

    Surprised as I was to be stopped by the two police officers, both of whom were Caucasian men, I answered all their questions politely. I was amused by the incident. And when I figured out they thought my flute looked like a martial arts weapon, I got a good laugh out of it. I even offered to play them a little tune on the spot.

    Given this article, it might be worth noting I am a Caucasian-looking Metis man and, I suppose, I was probably a bit intimidating a sight back then as I had just come from working in the woods in British Columbia and I’m pretty tall and broad-shouldered.

    Still, nothing about the police officers’ behaviour bothered me in the slightest. They have a job to do. I hadn’t done anything wrong. And I actually enjoyed meeting them and having a chat. Certainly, I didn’t feel singled out unnecessarily or criminalized.

    Granted, I’m not a visible minority. But it strikes me that if people haven’t done anything wrong, then talking to police officers for a few minutes shouldn’t be a big deal. It wasn’t to me.


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