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February 12, 2020

The Skin We’re In, by Desmond Cole

It makes sense that a writer who has insisted on blurring lines between journalism and activism would create a book that’s such a powerful blend of reporting and memoir, and it’s the extraordinary framing of his story that helps makes Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In a rich and enveloping read.

“A Year of Black Resistance and Power” is the book’s subtitle (except, YIKES, it almost wasn’t), and indeed, this is the story of 2017, which was two years after Cole’s Toronto Life cover story about his experiences with carding and the Toronto police force, which elevated his profile as a writer and an activist. Except that it’s not just the story of 2017, which is the book’s greatest strength, the way the single year frames the work, but Cole moves forward and backward in time to contextualize his stories, using experiences from his own life growing up Black in Canada, and also details from the historical record. In the book’s first section, he references an 18th century bylaw in Shelburne Nova Scotia “forbidding Negro dances and Negro Frolikcks in this town” in the story of Toronto artist John Samuels, whose gallery space was raided by the police and was physically attacked by them on the eve of the New Year 2017.

“White supremacy, which informs and fuels anti-Black racism, is an insatiable force White supremacy is never personal, never individual, never isolated. The historic problems I explore in this book are not a matter of some police being too rough or some government programs being too poorly funded, They have nothing to do with the political leaning of a particular government or the intentions of powerful people. We’re talking about a system of power that seeks to benefit white people above all others.”

You can’t make this stuff, I guess is what I mean. How a single year can be picked out of the air to demonstrate the ways the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism and white supremacy in Canada. In the school system—Cole gives examples of a six-year-old girl put into shackles by police, and the appalling behaviour (and even worse, refusal to accept responsibility for it) by a York Region school board trustee, and this is only February. In March, police officers across Canada rise up in support of an Ottawa police officer charged with fatally beating a man on his doorstep. In April, Cole leaves his column at the Toronto Star after being called out for his activism after demonstrating at a police board meeting, never mind that his white colleagues at the paper have been lauded for such things—and in this chapter, he connects police surveillance of Black and Indigenous people to a tradition of slavery, “suggesting that our very presence as free people on the street is suspicious and in need of investigation.”

In June 2017, Black Lives Matter Toronto blocks the Pride Parade in the city, and here Cole makes the connection between Black activists and the LGBTQ movement, especially pertaining to their relationships with police—and the way that Black people been left out from the story of gay rights, as symbolized by Blockarama, a celebration of Black queer culture since 1999, getting squeezed out of Pride events in favour of corporate sponsors. The Black Lives Matter protesters didn’t just “show up” to Pride, Cole shows, but instead they’ve always been there, and in 2017, they just insisted on finally taking up their space.

July is #Canada150, celebrating what Cole calls “this round number of colonial conquest.” He reaches back to 2011 to write about the advent of Idle No More, noting the parallels with Black Lives Matter, and explores the Indigenous resistance to Canada’s anniversary celebrations, including the tipi that was built on Parliament Hill (but not before RCMP officers had arrested demonstrators—are you seeing the theme?). Later that same month, Cole, who was born in Alberta and lived there until he was five, travels to Western Canada to learn more about police carding practices in the province, and learns that Indigenous women are disproportionately affected.

“My year had begun with news of a police attack on a young Black gallery owner,” writes Cole at the beginning of August. “I thought then about how attacks like this happen every day, that they are too common to be documented and investigated.” It was during summer of 2017 that media began reporting on Dafonte Miller who was brutally beaten with a pipe by an off-duty police officer and his brother in Whitby, Ontario. Miller sustained horrific injuries, and lost an eye, and for months, there was no investigation by the SIU, which is what’s called for when a police officer is involved in a death, injury or assault of a civilian. Cole would help bring the case to public attention, and also to the Toronto Police Services Board, where he’d be thrown out of a meeting and bring 100 protesters to another the following month. It would come out that the men accused of Miller’s assault were the sons of a veteran Toronto police officer who would be put under investigation himself for interfering with the investigation of his sons.

Not shockingly, police violence doesn’t end with the summer, and Cole writes about the way that racist police violence, to the majority of white Canadians, “is the cost of being ‘free'” And then later that September, he joins demonstrators to block one of Toronto’s busiest intersections to protest the deportation of of a wife and mother for overstaying her visa. “For as long as Canada has been a country, it has gone to great lengths to keep Black people out, and to deport thousands who arrive,” Cole writes. Slavery was legal in British North America until 1834, Cole reminds us, and he notes that the Underground Railroad ran both ways, and also that Black Loyalists who fled north at the Revolutionary War had their homes burned, were driven out of town in places in Nova Scotia.

“In October of 2017, the RCMP detained 1,755 people who had entered Quebec from New York State without permission from the Canadian government.” Cole makes a distinction between immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in general and those who are Black, noting that “the mass arrival of Black people to Canada has historically been marked by the strictest regulation our government can design.” In the 1950s and 1960s, a demand for cheap labour brought Black Caribbean domestic workers to Canada, and racist rules would exclude them from more lucrative professions once they’d been established here. Later that month, Cole travels to North Preston, NS, to learn about racial profiling and racist stigma in that community, and the struggle for Black life in other Canadian places. (Though this bit of the book really surprised me, because I’d only heard of North Preston through Shauntay Grant’s picture book Up Home, which paints the community as such a vibrant and special place, and I love that that’s the only story I knew.)

November was when the debate finally came to a head over community policing in Toronto schools, a situation born out of rising school violence in the early 2000s, which Cole connects to a radical change (and subsequent decrease) in the school funding formula during the 1990s—which seems incredibly pertinent at a moment right now in 2020 when Ontario teachers are standing up again even more cuts to education for a system who hasn’t seen a proper investment in decades, and underlines the urgency of their fight. A cheaper solution than investment, however, was putting unarmed police officers in schools, which made schools unsafe and welcome to many Black students. In 2009, a student was arrested in his school hallway for not identifying himself to an officer. It would take years of protest, but finally in November 2017, the SRO program in the Toronto District School Board was finally abolished. (It remains in the Catholic Board).

“…so much of the public conversation surrounding our work focuses on what we call ourselves and on what right we have to speak and act as we do. People who have time for these questions are dodging much more important ones: What is the purpose of activism? What are we all responsible for in the world, whether we call ourselves activists or not?”

Cole writes about an invitation to be part of the National Black Canadians Summit, which turns out to be very much an establishment operation and committed to the status quo, which Cole is having none of. While in the company of Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, Cole speaks out about the risk of deportation for Abdoul Abdi, a 23 year old refugee from Somalia serving a prison term. Abdi had come under the wardship of the state at age 7, who would have been the only entity with the authority to apply for his citizenship, which never happened. That he should be deported years later to a dangerous place he barely knows (and where known members of racist skinhead organizations had served in the Canadian military two decades before, when a group of soldiers had tortured a teenage boy to death—facts that are not so far outside the frame) seems obviously immoral, wrong and dangerous. Cole had learned about Abdi from his friend, Halifax writer (and former Poet Laureate!) El Jones, who has worked with incarcerated people in Nova Scotia, and unsurprisingly they do not receive a helpful response from the Minister, but with help from other activists (“They say luck happens when opportunity meets preparation.”) continue the fight to keep Abdi in Canada, bringing the issue right to the Prime Minister.

2017 was not special. This is the point of the book. That anti-Black racism is so entrenched in Canadian society that a single year contains so many stories of its insidious threads, but it was also a turning point as Black activists met with successes and had their messages amplified. Or we might hope so—though Cole doesn’t tie the story up on a bow, or end on a note of optimism. The fight goes on. Another month, another year.

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