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Robert Wright: “All agencies that are responsible for upholding the civil and human rights of Black people have failed us”

Robert Wright

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – After Premier McNeil’s surprise apology for systemic racism in the justice system and the harm it has done, he announced the formation of a design team “to reimagine a system of justice in Nova Scotia”. 

That announcement was criticized by various members of the African Nova Scotian community for being vague, top-down and non-inclusive. 

Among the harshest critics is the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition (ANSDPAD). The ANSDPAD coalition represents thirty-five African Nova Scotian organizations across the province. 

In an open letter the coalition rejects the legitimacy of the design team for its “lack of independence from the government, and its  fundamentally flawed composition in terms of its failure to include ANSDPAD or its member organizations.”

ANSDPAD was especially disappointed because it had been discussing proposals for an African Nova Scotian Justice Institute, and an African Nova Scotian Policing Strategy, two initiatives that when implemented would fundamentally change how Black people in Nova Scotia experience the justice system. 

“When it comes to issues of pursuing and securing justice for African Nova Scotians, DPAD has been the leading voice in  coordinating the African Nova Scotian response, and has successfully achieved milestones as we move towards achieving justice for Black folk,” Robert Wright, a spokesperson for the coalition, tells the Nova Scotia Advocate.

We spoke with Wright, a sociologist and social worker in private practice, to find out more about its proposals for an African Nova Scotian Justice Institute and a Policing Strategy, and to better understand its criticism of the provincial justice initiative.  

Can you explain how the DPAD Coalition has interacted with the government for the last three years or so, and what to think of the exclusion of  the ANSDPAD Coalition in the premier’s design team. 

From the time that the data on street checks came out, ANSDPAD has had a very active Justice Strategy Working Group. We initiated a correspondence with the province, with the Police Review Board, with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, you name it. For instance, it was through our lobbying and dialogue that the Human Rights Commission got involved and that Professor Wortley was commissioned to write the report.

We had been discussing these issues with the province for three years, so to purposely sidestep ANSDPAD and not engage them at all in the development and membership of the design team is a racist act designed so that the province can have its control over it. I do not fault the Black individuals who were noted on the design team, each one of them legitimate Black leaders in their own right. But to ignore the African United Baptist Association, and to ignore the ANSDPAD Coalition is a very cowardly act.

Throughout the whole street checks process all of the government and state and formal agencies that are responsible for ensuring that the civil and human rights of Black people are upheld have failed us. The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission failed us. The Police Review Board, the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners, not only that they failed us, they demonstrated a lack of interest in doing their jobs.

Can you talk a bit about how the notion of a justice institute and policing strategy developed out of these discussions with the government?

We said, we need to establish a Justice Strategy Working group and an African Nova Scotia Justice Institute to ensure that Black people receive justice, but also to contribute to public safety in a systematic way. We imagined a Justice Institute, we sent that proposal to the provincial government, to say, we’d like to talk to you about how that could be implemented systematically.

Functionally, what would that Justice Institute look like?

“We created a costed model that we prepared in October of 2019. It would address issues of systemic racism in the criminal justice system, and promote fair, legal and constitutional treatment of Africana Nova Scotian community members. There would be several  elements within that Institute. We’d need a director, we’d need some kind of general administrative assistance. We would need a counsel’s office with this, perhaps a senior and junior counsel, and maybe an articling clerk.”

We thought we needed  a senior justice strategist, because there are programs that we think we should be running, like a Court Support Worker Program, something that used to exist. Also, something to assist people who are navigating their way through the court system, an African Nova Scotian Alternative Justice program. We also imagined an African Nova Scotian bail-alternative remand and reintegration support program, because we know that cash bail systems result in injustice, meaning that poor people go to jail and remand, and rich people don’t. And we know that Black people are overrepresented among the poor. We also imagined a clinical cultural assessment and treatment services unit. 

Some people might say, well, you don’t need your own infrastructure, because that’s why we have the Human Rights Commission or the Police Complaints Commission and all these sorts of things. And we’d say, Oh, really? How’s that been working for us?

You’ve got to remember, street checks is a police practice that has been going on forever, that Black people have been resisting and complaining about forever, and that ultimately, when push came to shove, was declared illegal. So our police have been engaged in illegal activity for a very, very long time. So we’re saying we need our own council office so that when the issues related to similar human rights concerns of Black people are in question, we have the resource to investigate, and litigate, if necessary. 

Similarly, what can you tell us about the proposed policing strategy?

We imagined a provincial working group that would include members of the African Nova Scotian community, policing-related organizations, government stakeholders, and legal and academic experts. We would work on addressing the past and thinking about the harms and damage caused by street checks and other historical police practices, making improvements in the present, and looking to the future, really thinking about what would look different and how could police and African Nova Scotian communities work differently, to promote public safety and to repair relationships. 

The nature of policing is that it can only happen in the context of a contract between police and the public that they serve. That social contract gives police legitimacy. Police are in danger of losing their mandate to police because that mandate comes from the community that is policed. 

There’s now a moratorium on street checks. Aren’t you beating a dead horse here?

Not only did our advocacy lead to the Human Rights Commission bringing Dr. Wortley here,  our advocacy also led to the Human Rights Commission requesting a legal opinion on street checks from the former Chief Justice Michael MacDonald.

That Michael MacDonald report came back in the morning to say that street checks are indeed illegal. That afternoon the minister had developed a new directive to govern how police interact with people. We believe it is simply a new form of street checks. Very few of the Wortley recommendations are incorporated, and it was instituted without any communication or dialogue with us. The MacDonald report came in in the morning, the new regulation went out in the afternoon.  

We believe that the minister’s directive itself gives police directions to do things that are illegal. Because the new standard for when you can do a streetchecks does not meet the Supreme Court of Canada’s directives around what is reasonable suspicion. 

See also: Robert Wright on the Wortley report: Street checks are illegal and should be banned

We’ve been told that street checks are no longer occurring, because what is currently happening comes under this new regulation, and whatever it is they’re doing is no longer called street checks. 

But our anecdotal data tells us that police are still stopping and talking to citizens on the street, people who are not in vehicles, and we have not seen the data on that, let alone the race-based data. 

And if coming out of the 2003 Kirk Johnson decision was this need for transparency and certainty that the police were not conducting themselves in a way that was racially discriminatory, why have they not been transparent in showing us these data since then? 

If they’re saying, well, there’s no data because we don’t do street checks, then Dr. Wortley was right, that the police are now undercover in a way that is no longer transparent and no longer is accountable.

See also: Robert Wright: In the Black community carding resonates with a history that is traumatic