Canadian police harassment of prominent black citizens

Stuart Grant

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On May 14, 2021, Vancouver police questioned, detained and handcuffed eighty one year old, retired Provincial Supreme Court Judge, Selwyn Romilly. Trinidadian born Romilly was walking on the Seawall in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Police were monitoring the park when reports came in of a brown complexioned man punching, kicking and spitting at people on the Seawall. The correct suspect was eventually arrested and was roughly half Romilly’s age. Romilly was released shortly after by Vancouver Police.

The incident has drawn international attention with media coverage in the UK and US. Romilly’s detainment has put police treatment of Black Canadians back in the spotlight, all but confirming the criminalization of blackness in Canada. If this was the exception in interactions between the black community and police it could be dismissed as a mistake. Not only have other prominent Black Canadians been similarly profiled, Romilly’s brother has been wrongfully arrested on a previous occasion.

Selwyn’s brother and former law partner, Valmond, was wrongfully arrested in 1974 while Vancouver police had a warrant out for a black man named Hughie Saunders. Valmond was not carrying his wallet at the time and police did not accept his self-identification. There was no resemblance between he and Saunders. Valmond Romilly would eventually win a legal judgement against the three Vancouver police officers who illegally detained him. Like his brother Selwyn, he also became a judge in British Columbia’s legal system .

Prominent anchorwoman and talk show host, Marci Ien, has written about her experiences of Driving While Black in Toronto. An award winning journalist and former co-host of Canada AM (Canada’s former equivalent of Good Morning America) Ien had been pulled over by police three times in an eight month period yet never charged with an offense. One of Canada’s most recognizable media members, Ien has since left television for federal politics and was elected Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party in Toronto Centre in a byelection on October 26, 2020.

Selwyn Romilly was the fourth black student to have studied law at the University of British Columbia. After graduating, he practiced private law in the interior towns of Kamloops, Prince Rupert and Smithers before becoming a Provincial Court judge in 1974. Given the demographics of those towns in the sixties and seventies, Selwyn was likely the first black person many residents had ever seen in their lives, in or out of court. He was appointed to the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 1995 where he served until his retirement in 2015.

The Mayor of Vancouver has apologized publicly for Romilly’s treatment at the hands of police as has Vancouver Police Chief Constable Adam Palmer. Romilly has stated he has no plans to file a complaint or press charges but hopes changes are made in officer training and sensitization.

“I hate to say that this is a case where I was targeted because I was walking while Black, but you kind of wonder why those handcuffs were placed on me at such an early stage.”

If accomplished and respected citizens like Ien and Romilly are criminalized as they go about their daily life, how do we think Black Canadians of more modest standing are treated by police and the legal system? Being pulled over by police for no apparent reason is something Black Canadians have come to expect from life in Canada.

Our politicians prance around the world, gloating about Canada as some kind of multi-cultural Disneyland while wagging their moralizing finger at the US and other nations with overt racial conflict. In light of the ongoing criminalization of Black Canadians, this hypocrisy is embarrassingly out of touch.

It should now be painfully obvious that black people in Canada do not enjoy the presumption of innocence in their dealings with police or the legal system. Canada is not living up to the equality provisions in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Its leaders should prioritize this before performing acts of self-congratulatory virtue signaling on the world stage.

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