Matthew Nathanson: Complaint against Vancouver mayor for acknowledging systemic racism exists is a farce

Opinion: The existence of systemic racism is a fact. Unless the VPD as an institution speaks up against meritless complaint filed by Vancouver Police union leader, it risks being tainted by it

Senior VPD officer and Vancouver Police union leader Sgt. Blair Canning filed a complaint against Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart (above).

Vancouver Sun columnist Dan Fumano reported this week that senior VPD officer and Vancouver Police union leader Sgt. Blair Canning filed a complaint against Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart. The complaint is a farce. But the apparent motivation behind it is troubling and very dangerous.

The complaint accuses Mayor Stewart and other city councillors of “spreading misinformation” to “drive (their) agenda.”

What is the alleged misinformation that prompted this unprecedented complaint? The mayor’s acknowledgment of what everyone already knows — that systemic racism exists in many public institutions, including the police.

The existence of systemic racism is a fact. And if you have any doubt about its presence in policing, keep in mind that the national head of the RCMP and the president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, among many others, have accepted that as truth. But Canning apparently knows better. Which means leading police officials from across the country are part of a nefarious disinformation campaign to discredit themselves?

It would be deceptively simple to focus on Sgt. Flat Earth and his easily disproven views. Study after study has shown that racial minorities disproportionately feel the brunt of law enforcement in this country. The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized this repeatedly. Academics have written articles. Civil libertarian associations have published compelling statistical analyses. Several weeks ago over 600 British Columbia lawyers and judges attended a daylong conference addressing these issues. This is not a made-up problem.

Yet according to this ridiculous complaint, there is nothing to see here. The police are the victims, not the grossly disproportionate number of minorities that find themselves the subject of street checks and other discriminatory practices. As if their shared experiences were figments of their imagination, an amazing series of coincidences, day after day, year after year.

If there is any doubt about the person who filed the complaint, his own words put that to rest. Canning described the murder of George Floyd by a police officer who knelt on his neck for over eight minutes while he was gasping for breath and pleading for his life as “an interaction with Minneapolis Police.”

This euphemism is shocking. It’s like calling every street check of a racialized person “a conversation with police” and every incident of racial profiling “a vehicle stop.” Except that George Floyd was murdered. By someone who was sworn to protect and serve him. That this fact is lost on Canning is incomprehensible. So too is the fact that this officer has risen to a senior position in the VPD, has a badge and a gun, and is patrolling the streets of our city.

But the issue goes much deeper than this one officer. In policing, like other institutions, leadership comes from the top down. Canning, who incidentally is Chief Adam Palmer’s old partner, felt emboldened enough to file this specious complaint. To think that he didn’t discuss it with his fellow officers/union members defies credulity. That no one apparently pushed back against him is frightening for what it says about the VPD as an institution. We cannot lay the views of Canning at the feet of all members of the VPD. They should not be painted with the same brush as him. But unless the VPD as an institution speaks up against his ill-advised and meritless complaint, it risks being tainted by it.

Even after the recent wrongful arrest of a retired Supreme Court judge for walking the seawall while black, Palmer still refuses to walk back his denial of systemic racism’s existence. Or his insulting suggestion that even asking him about systemic racism is “offensive.” Such obstinacy is unbecoming of someone we entrust with so much power, and who rank and file officers take their cue from. How can we expect front line officers to be sensitive to the reality of racial injustice if the chief of police says it doesn’t even exist?

In order for change to occur, you have to admit there is a problem in the first place.

Take the recent seawall arrest as an example. If the wrongly arrested black person hadn’t been a retired judge do you really think the cuffs would have come off? Or would he have been put in a police wagon, taken to jail, and held until the police finally acknowledged that he was 40 years older than the suspect they were looking for, and was an innocent person going for his morning walk? And after he was eventually released, do you think any of us would have heard about the incident, or Palmer would have apologized, if he was just a regular guy, not a well-respected retired judge?

Significantly, Palmer’s apology failed to acknowledge that the police did anything wrong. He sought to excuse the officer’s “mistake” by suggesting he made a difficult decision in the heat of the moment. Just like the VPD originally said that officers who arrested and handcuffed an Indigenous man and his 12-year-old granddaughter for the egregious crime of trying to open a bank account were “following procedure.” Only after outrage erupted did they change their tune and apologize that time.

I guess the next time this happens to a black, Indigenous or other racialized person, the “oops, we got it wrong” explanation excuses all. And this keeps happening. Over and over again.

Where is the commitment to better train, or retrain, all front line officers to combat the over policing of racial minorities? Where is the pledge to ensure this won’t happen again? Nowhere. That would require an acknowledgment that there is a systemic problem. And Palmer and his former partner have made it perfectly clear where they stand on that one.

So what is the take away from all of this? That racialized and marginalized peoples should just keep quiet and not pursue equal treatment under the law? That the police are above reproach and should not be called upon to do better? That the best way to stifle debate on important issues is to file frivolous and meritless complaints designed to muzzle people like Stewart who have the temerity to advocate for racial equality?

I certainly hope not. It is the job of our civic leaders to speak up for equality and racial justice. No, it is their duty. And any attempt to silence them should be seen for exactly what it is.

Matthew Nathanson is a criminal defence lawyer in Vancouver.

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