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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

Part of the system

Being part of a racist system doesn't make you racist. Refusing to acknowledge and stand up against system racism is what makes you racist.

Last week the OIPRD released its findings of an investigation into the Thunder Bay police. The report, at over 200 pages, is the culmination of two years of investigation. It unequivocally states that systemic racism exists within the Thunder Bay Police Service. Also last week, a second report from a separate investigation, this one done by Senator Murray Sinclair at the behest of the OCPC, came out. It too found racism—this time from the Thunder Bay Police Services Board, which oversees the police. As a result of the report, the OCPC appointed an interim administrator to oversee the board until its members have undergone training and taken other required steps.

Both reports also made very specific recommendations for how to address the systemic racism.

None of this is news, really, for those of us in Thunder Bay who haven’t buried our heads in the sand, but now there are hundreds of pages of documentation backing up what is pretty common knowledge here: the police are racist, and it’s killing Indigenous people.

Reaction though, of course, has ranged largely from lukewarm to ludicrous in the denial and shifting of accountability. Police Chief Sylvie Hauth (who took on the job after our former chief retired amidst the cloud of a trial over obstruction of justice, for which he was acquitted), to her credit, acknowledged the racism. Other authorities? Not so much. Our brand new mayor, Bill Mauro, would prefer to talk about how other cities have similar problems and he’s here to restore Thunder Bay’s “reputation.”

And now the President of the Thunder Bay Police Association has, once again, denied that there are systemic problems with the police service:

If not one but two reports comprising over 360 pages, in total, both conclude that racism is a significant factor in policing … the mature, responsible reaction is to acknowledge that, yeah, there’s a problem here. To do otherwise, as is happening right now, isn’t just a ridiculously narrow reading of the reports or a rejection of their findings, it’s tantamount to sticking your fingers in your ears and saying, “Nah nah I can’t hear you.”

But let’s remember what this is about. Because it isn’t about us.

This is about the people we serve. Both the police and teachers serve their community. Police ostensibly exist to protect members of the community from harm. Teachers ostensibly exist to educate members of the community. In both cases, we have very real legal and ethical responsibilities towards these members, particularly the young and vulnerable. And now we have 360+ pages of documentation saying that we are failing to protect a certain part of that population—namely, Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous youth and women. That’s … that’s what racism is.

We’re so afraid to acknowledge racism and accept the r-word as a label, like it’s some bad thing—because it is. Are you wary of being called out for racism? Good. You should be. It’s bad and you shouldn’t feel good about this, and I don’t really know why that has to be spelled out for you.

Yet it’s an accurate label here. If I were busy texting while walking and then bumped into someone, and we both said sorry (because we are Canadian), and then an observer called me “careless,” they would be right. I wouldn’t stand there, denying that label, saying that it’s easier to “direct blame” instead of being “part of the solution” and blame the technology. That isn’t responsible, and it isn’t right.

Neither is what the TBPA, our mayor, or others are doing. You all are so offended at the prospect of being called racist, so fragile in your conception of how your attitudes and actions might collectively be construed, that you care more about how you are perceived by the public than about the lives of the people you are supposed to serve.

I could go on, at length, about these attitudes of denial upset me, as a citizen of Thunder Bay. But other people have spoken at length, and with far more knowledge and passion than myself, about these specific issues. Just listen to the recent Thunder Bay podcast from CANADALAND if you want to learn more about this. Read Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga. As I said above, none of this is news. This is an open secret in Thunder Bay. Similarly, the constant refrain of “there is no problem, we all make mistakes, nothing to see here” isn’t news or surprising.

So I’ve spent some time trying to put myself into their shoes. Thinking about what I would do in their place. What if a report labelled local teaching as being complicit in systemic racism? How would I want my union and other local authorities to react publicly on my behalf, and how would I react personally?

Because here’s the thing: the structural racism in Thunder Bay, and in Canada, neither begins nor ends with the police. The police are not a broken system. They are part of a much larger broken system (or perhaps, as McMahon asserts in the Thunder Bay podcast, the system is not broken and working instead as intended).

The education system in this province has historically (in quite obvious and painful ways) failed, and presently fails, Indigenous youth quite spectacularly. It’s true we’ve had some reckonings with this, and I would like to say that we’re working towards reconciliation on every level, from curriculum initiatives (at least, until the most recent government has started quashing those) to school board policies to school programs and individual teacher actions. Yet such progress is no reason for celebration when Indigenous youth continue to have difficulty accessing a quality education (because most reserves don’t have proper school facilities or teachers for them), or when the system still sometimes perpetuates colonial attitudes and ways of thought.

So I find myself in this interesting position of empathy for the police officers and staff of the Thunder Bay Police Service, because I too belong to a profession with a history and present status of systemic racism. I get it. It's not easy, seeing your livelihood—your passion—besmirched in national media. And while there hasn’t been quite so scathing a report released about teaching, at least not recently, that doesn’t mean systemic racism isn’t still a problem here.

So, yes, like police officers here in Thunder Bay, I exist and operate within an atmosphere of institutional racism. I could choose to be offended by that prospect, say that, “Well, I'm not racist,” and ask my friends and family members to vociferously protest that I’m not racist on my behalf. Or I could stop and actually ask what will benefit the people I serve.

I can’t change the system all by myself and certainly not overnight. I can change how I act, and I can lobby and use whatever voice and privilege I have to try to change the system. I can work as hard as possible to unlearn internalized racism and stereotypes. I can try to make my classroom welcoming and inclusive. I can teach lessons and create assignments that help my students upend the colonial history they’ve learned and challenge their thinking about our society. Above all else, I can remain humble: none of what I’ve just said means I’m immune to doing or saying something that perpetuates the racism of our system.

We must understand that accusations of systemic racism are not accusations of individual racism. If someone says teaching in Canada is racist, they aren’t calling me, personally, a racist. They aren’t saying I harbour racist thoughts and beliefs. Instead, they are (rightly) pointing to an established pattern of behaviour across the system that shows discrimination based on race. That’s exactly what’s happening here.

So, look, if you’re just a police officer in Thunder Bay, I get that you alone can’t do much here. But you can do some things. You can ensure that your personal conduct is consistent with the principles your service espouses, that you serve and protect people—regardless of who they are. You can work, every single day, to avoid succumbing to stereotyping. Most importantly—and crucially—you must agitate for change. You must speak up when you see things going wrong. You cannot stand idly by.

If you’re someone in a position of actual power, like President Stephenson or Mayor Mauro, and you’re not acknowledging what’s wrong with the system … shame on you. You have the power to change things to save lives, but instead you’re using your platform to talk about how you’re offended. To talk about how your feelings are hurt.

I’m not sorry your feelings are hurt when people are literally dying because you refuse to do anything.

I am a teacher, and I am a part of a racist system. In fact, all of us who are settlers on the stolen lands of Indigenous peoples—in my case, the Anishnaabeg of Fort William First Nation—are part of a legacy of racism. This is the truth, and it is not comfortable or easy, but it is our truth to accept and live with. When we deny it, when we centre our feelings of guilt or offence, we uphold that legacy. When we accept it, confront this our, then and only then can we actually start to change the system.