Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella made an historic apology on Friday for decades of discrimination against African Nova Scotians.
His audience was silent as he spoke the words, “Far too many times. Far too many times, we have failed you.”
But as community members later pointed out, there’s deep meaning behind that silence – a processing that take places as community members relive untold stories of intergenerational trauma, pain and anger.
It’s for that reason, said advocate Kate Macdonald, that the African Nova Scotian community is cautiously accepting “we’re sorry,” as a first step in mending the broken trust that exists between its members and law enforcement.
“I think it’s fair that the African Nova Scotian community continues to be skeptical of the Halifax Regional Police until proven otherwise,” she told reporters after the ceremony at the Halifax Central Library.
“So when we’re looking at how long the history of trauma and disproportionate stopping has been happening for, we’re going to need equally as long to heal those wounds and actually move forward in the spirit of understanding.”
Street checks, the police practice of stopping or observing an individual and recording their personal information, was banned in Nova Scotia last month after an independent legal opinion found it to be illegal.
A report preceding that opinion found that black people are six times more likely to be street-checked than white people in Halifax, with black men being nine times more likely.
This controversy prompted Kinsella’s apology on Friday, but it follows decades of advocacy from the African Nova Scotian community, which seeks to hold not just police – but all Nova Scotians, accountable for systemic racism in the province.
“Our parents, and their parents before them been through it, ancestors way before that been through, so why give up? Why not just keep pushing?” said Trayvone Clayton, who has shared his experience with street checks publicly, time and again.
“That’s a worldwide thing for black folks. We have to keep pushing through because systemic racism is never going to stop.”
African Nova Scotian youth told media they don’t want their sacrifice – or this momentum – to end with an apology in Halifax. As the street checks issue heats up in cities like Montreal and Toronto, they’re encouraging other jurisdictions to follow suit.
And to Canadians more generally, they issue this challenge:
“Everyone should care… everyone has a heart, so you use it,” said Clayton. “Because us four, right here, we wear our heart on our sleeves and look what we’re doing for the public. We’re not just doing this for the black community, we’re doing this for all of Nova Scotia, all of Canada.”
They’re challenging police to follow their apology with action that will produce tangible results, and asking the public to choose a path forward that reflects empathy, true appreciation for diversity, and the inherent worth of all human beings.
“If you’re looking at it from an outside point of view… Looking at the separation. Everyone reporting is white, everyone sharing their pain is black,” said DeRico Symonds, gesturing to reporters.
“When it comes to salt trucks not being out yesterday or your grass not being cut, people are pissed. But when it comes to these issues of racism and actually affecting humanity for people, as a society we don’t have the same energy… We need to make sure people understand, there’s actually humans at the end of these decisions.”
In his apology, Kinsella outlines five pillars of action Halifax Regional Police will focus on as they strive to eliminate bias from policing activities and repair their relationship with the African Nova Scotian community. Those are: 1) establishing a direct conduit with the community; 2) community outreach; 3) training for officers; 4) diverse recruitment; and 5) youth engagement.
The police chief said work will begin soon to set up an advisory committee, consisting of community members, that will keep him in touch with local concerns. He also said the force will launch a public education campaign on individual rights, how to challenge police, and how to become an officer.
“As chief, I want to be clear,” said Kinsella. “We are committed to providing dignified treatment to everyone that we come in contact with. Stopping or questioning anyone based on race, religion or ethnic background, or any other discriminatory reason is wrong, and it will not be tolerated.”
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