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Protests Spur Canadian Activists To Confront Racism In Their Own Nation

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn to Canada now, another country where there have been protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd and where there are also growing demands to address cases of police brutality and racism involving local law enforcement. On Friday, an Indigenous man named Rodney Levi was shot and killed by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in New Brunswick, raising questions about whether the officers used excessive force. And in Toronto, thousands took to the streets to protest the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a black and Indigenous woman who fell 24 stories to her death after police entered her family's apartment last month - just two of the cases that have caused outrage north of the border. To hear more, we reached out to Desmond Cole. He is a writer and activist in Toronto. And he told us that Canada has a lot in common with the U.S. when it comes to racism, even if the idea of Canada as a more tolerant nation endures.

DESMOND COLE: Unfortunately, it does because we as Canadians consume a lot of American media. And we are probably the largest purveyors of this idea that things are very different in Canada. But let's look at what Canada and the United States have in common. They are both countries dominated by settler colonial white governments and white majority populations. They are both places that displaced and killed Indigenous people to take their land. And so the legacies of colonialism are the same in both countries - not identical, but those legacies carry on in our institutions today. And just like the United States, our police forces were designed to do these things - to catch slaves who were running away, to push Indigenous peoples off of their territories. And those police functions are the same today and the institutions are the same. They're giving us the same outcomes as you would expect.

MARTIN: You know, at a press conference this week, the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, did seem to acknowledge systemic racism across Canada, including in the country's Royal Canadian Mounted Police - and he said that the country needs to do better. And I just want to play a short clip from his remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: I think we've seen examples of systemic discrimination, of systemic racism in in the past days in many different ways. That's why we need to address it seriously.

MARTIN: How do you respond to these comments? I mean, first of all, are they noteworthy? I mean, in the U.S., as I'm sure you know because as you mentioned, Canadians consume a lot of American media, there have been a number of figures acknowledging these facts and patterns that are - it's quite surprising to many people that individuals who had previously been skeptical, dismissive or just uninterested in these claims are now embracing them and saying, yes, I see what you're telling us. So first is, is this statement by the prime minister noteworthy? Do you consider it significant, a significant step?

COLE: No, I do not. I consider it to be the lip service that it is. And I consider it to be lip service from a man who, if he really wanted to acknowledge the deep legacy of his own racism, would have resigned when all of those photos of him in blackface surfaced. I think we're seeing - I saw the pictures of Nancy Pelosi and other U.S. leaders kneeling. We're seeing this all across North America as institutions become afraid that the demands for justice by black people and others are getting very loud and very persistent, and that black people are willing to do just about anything it takes in order to get a new system of accountability and of safety. So Justin Trudeau and others are responding to that by trying to give us half measures. He is trying to give the appearance of change instead of delivering change itself.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, that was going to be my last question is, what are some of the specific things you would like to see? I mean, as you know, in the U.S., this - there has been this call to defund the police. And people are interpreting that in very different ways. Could you just give me some sense of what it is that you would like to see when it comes to addressing these issues which have such a deep stem?

COLE: I believe in abolishing police. I don't believe in reforming systems that cause the amount of death and racist targeting that our police systems do. But we can't even stop at police. The mentality that tells us that you can only get people to do what you want under threat of punishment, loss of freedom or even death - that mentality has to be challenged in every institution. And then we'll know that we're really moving towards a more safe and just society for black people, for Indigenous people and for all those who have been held down for so long.

MARTIN: That's Desmond Cole. He's an activist and author of the book "The Skin We're In: A Year Of Black Resistance And Power." We reached him in Toronto. Desmond Cole, thanks so much for joining us.

COLE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.