Looking Across the Border at American Turmoil

Looking Across the Border at American Turmoil

Looking Across the Border at American Turmoil

Looking Across the Border at American Turmoil

The year 1967 stands out more than most in my childhood. That was when my family headed off to Montreal along with 50 million other people to celebrate Canada’s centennial, and to be dazzled by the futuristic buildings, multimedia films, space capsules and performances at Expo 67.

But it wasn’t an entirely carefree year.

I distinctly remember looking across the Detroit River from my aunt’s walk-up apartment in Windsor, Ontario.

Across the invisible line that separates Canada and the United States, smoke billowed up from Detroit neighborhoods ablaze from rioting. Emergency vehicles of every variety were racing around on the waterfront of Windsor’s much larger neighbor. As is the case now, the border between the cities was closed.

A lot of comparisons are being made between the unrest in the United States during 1967 and 1968, and the current turmoil that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis while he was in police custody.

[Read our complete coverage of protests around the world over racism and police violence.]

Then, as now, the United States is in upheaval over issues of racism and police violence. But here in Canada, we don’t have to look across the border to find instances of racism.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paused for 21 seconds of silence before not directly answering a reporter’s question about President Trump’s reaction to the unrest in the United States. Mr. Trump’s reaction was widely seen as fanning the flames of discord.

Declining an opportunity to take a shot at Mr. Trump personally, Mr. Trudeau cautioned Canadians about being complacent on issues of race.

“It is a time for us as Canadians to recognize that we too have our challenges,” Mr. Trudeau said. “There is systemic racism in Canada.”

The recent Canadian election was at least partly about race after it surfaced that Mr. Trudeau had repeatedly put on blackface and brownface at school and then as an adult before he entered politics, and couldn’t remember how many times he had done so.

But the sentiments he offered this week were different than those offered by Stockwell Day, the former opposition leader and Conservative public safety minister, during a television appearance. Mr. Day said racism in Canada was much like the hazing he received for wearing eyeglasses when he was a schoolboy.

After apologizing, Mr. Day also stepped down from a corporate board, an advisory role at a major law firm and as a commentator on the C.B.C.

Just this week, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer came under investigation after a video appeared showing an Inuk man in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, being knocked to the ground by the open door of an approaching police pickup truck.

The Ottawa police are now investigating five episodes involving the Mounties in Nunavut since the beginning of this year.

Cities throughout Canada have their own examples of episodes that have eroded trust between police and members of their nonwhite communities. In 2016, a police officer in Toronto was found guilty of attempted murder after he fired eight bullets and killed 18-year-old Sammy Yatim in an otherwise empty streetcar.

The episodes are not always deadly. Until a ban a few years ago, many police forces in Ontario routinely stopped and “carded” a disproportionate number of black people.

Like everyone at The Times, I fret about colleagues in the United States who are taking significant risks to report on the protests there, particularly in the midst of the pandemic. And it was chilling to hear the drone of a military helicopter over the home of an editor in Washington during a conference call.

In Canada, there have been some protests about the situation in the United States, including one, in Ottawa on Friday afternoon, where Mr. Trudeau knelt on the ground. The Canadian protests have been largely peaceful. But that does not mean that the country is without serious, unaddressed issues when it comes to race.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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