Robyn Maynard’s book Policing Black Lives charts the history and implications of anti-Black racism in Canada, spanning slavery, education, immigration, policing, and criminal justice. The book is not specifically intended for participants in the criminal justice system: Maynard states in the introduction that her goal is to make anti-Blackness legible for activists, policymakers, students and concerned community members. However, the book provides important insight and background for those involved in the justice system, particularly for defence lawyers.
Maynard begins with the history of slavery, challenging the notion that slavery did not exist in Canada. She outlines the ways in which Black people were forced to work in early Canada, arguing that slavery set the stage for the devaluing of Black lives throughout Canada. This fear of Black people informed and continues to shape policies in education, immigration, and employment, contributing to the heightened surveillance and over-policing of Black people. Despite the diversity of Black people in Canada, ranging from long-established families to newcomers, Maynard notes that statistically, the statistics around poverty and unemployment are remarkably similar. Ultimately, Maynard argues that the control over Black people in slavery has been reconstituted in the criminal justice system, with disproportionate numbers of Black people being stopped by police, charged, and jailed.
While the histories are vastly different, the parallels between Black and Indigenous populations in Canada are hard to ignore. Indeed, the book acknowledges that the same systems that allow for settler colonialism in Canada enable anti-Black racism, and that the struggles for racial justice are intertwined. The Criminal Code specifically requires judges to examine an Indigenous person’s background in sentencing them, and to consider how the history of colonialism has contributed to their being before the court. While there is no similar provision for Black people, Maynard provides a persuasive background for a corresponding argument with respect to anti-Black racism.
In practice, this means that lawyers can use a lens of race to understand what social and economic factors might have lead their client to be before the courts, and within the specific context of Canada’s policies and history. Often, with an Indigenous client, we look back at how their family might have been affected by residential schools, addiction or family violence. Policing Black Lives gives a similar framework to use in crafting arguments for sentencing or bail, linking a client’s specific background with the larger history of anti-Black racism in Canada, whether it is through employment, immigration or child welfare. We should consider how police agencies have used street checks or ‘carding’ to monitor Black people and how the ‘War on Drugs’ has affected Black people disproportionately. Furthermore, we should highlight the disparities in pre-trial detention and release conditions as well as the length of sentences for the same crimes committed by white people.
Ultimately, the book serves as an excellent resources for anyone interested in racial justice, and dispels myths of Canada as a country devoid of discrimination. It also provides important history and context for advocates, particularly in the criminal justice system, to work towards just results for our clients.