A shield and a weapon: race and the justice system

By Adina Bresge

Robert Wright does not drive on America’s interstate highways without wearing a suit and tie.

“It’s the only armour I have,” he says, “because it is quite possible, as a black man driving in the United States of America, to be sighted down the barrel of a gun.”

Wright was one of four panelists who sat at the front of a small, overflowing room in the Dalhousie Student Union Building this week for the third installment of the “Racism is Killing Us Softly” seminar series.

Each speaker had personal and professional experience with the topic: “The Justice System as a Weapon and a Shield.”

As a prelude to the discussion, Martin Luther King’s voice rang over the speakers, commemorating what would have been his 87th birthday.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

All of the panelists were, in some capacity, agents of the justice system. Wright is a social worker. Amanda Reddick is a youth advocate. Shawna Hoyte is a defense lawyer.

And all of them, at some point, have felt the inequities of the Canadian justice system.

Wright studied in the United States, but says he grew up “black and poor” in the Halifax community of Spryfield. He recalls the police regularly roaming the neighbourhood in long boots, shields and helmets. He describes it as “combat gear.”

“I have seen both the law as a force for good in our society,” says Wright, “and I have seen, unfortunately, the disproportionate criminalization of people of African descent.”

In 2010-2011, black people accounted for about two per cent of Nova Scotia’s population, but constituted 14 per cent of admissions to provincial correctional facilities, according to a study in The Oxford Handbook of Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration.

Nationally, the number of African Canadians in federal prisons increased 80 per cent between 2003-2013, Howard Sapers, ombudsman for federal inmates, has reported.

“For a long time in my life, it was hard to imagine (the justice system) as anything but a weapon,” Reddick says. “Our lens is shaped by these things.”

Reddick was 18, pregnant and craving chocolate, so she and her partner went to the store to buy her a pack of Smarties. As they walked, five police cars surrounded them from all angles. Doors flung open and officers emerged, guns drawn.

“It was a case of mistaken identity,” Reddick says.

Reddick is the community programmer for Souls Strong, a crime prevention program in North Preston, and works to keep at-risk young men engaged with their community and out of the criminal justice system.

According to the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, 14 per cent of admissions sentenced to the provincial youth facility were African Nova Scotian.

Souls Strong is designing a re-integration program for former juvenile detainees. “They’re coming back (to the community),” Reddick says. “And there has to be a conversation about what that’s going to look like.”

Hoyte thinks efforts spent on punitive justice should be diverted towards rehabilitation.

Souls Strong  “should be well funded and supported, because the law supports it,” she says.

Any given day, when Hoyte walks into the courtroom as a lawyer with the Dal Legal Aid service, she says she feels like she walked into another country. By her estimation, black people at times represent 30 to 40 per cent of the people waiting to have their names and cases called from the docket.

Wright says that, despite inequities in the system, Nova Scotia has a long history of using the law as a weapon for justice.

Nova Scotia is the province of the Marshall Inquiry. Donald Marshall Jr. was a Mi’kmaq man wrongfully convicted of murder. The inquiry of his case raised questions about the fairness of the Canadian justice system.

“The legal system, we have been using it in Nova Scotia to win victories for race as and issue,” Wright says. “We have a history of the justice system being challenged to be fair to us.”