Canadians rally against racist brutality

Canadians rally against racist brutality

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

Mohammed Azhar Ali KhanMohammed Azhar Ali Khan

Canadians from different walks of life have rallied against racism and police brutality following the death of a mentally ill Canadian Somali in Ottawa.

The coalition of community groups, called Justice for Abdirahman Abdi, 37, includes mainly black organizations with supporters including Amnesty International, Jewish Family Services and others who want to end the police’s targeting of blacks.

The case is being probed by the Special Investigation Unit that is staffed mostly by former police officers and determines whether officers broke the law.

Yasir Naqvi, Ontario’s attorney general, who was among the politicians who spoke at Abdi’s funeral stated that such tragedies must stop. Bob Chiarelli, Ontario’s minister of infrastructure, recalled the death three years ago of his son who suffered from schizophrenia. He called mental illness challenging but also an area “where we can make very significant improvements.”

Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, stated at City Hall that black mentally ill people have died in confrontations with the police all over Canada for decades. Criminologist Scot Wortely reported in 2006 that while blacks constitute three percent of Ontario’s population, they are 10 times more likely to be shot by the police and constitute a third of the deaths caused by the police.

The Abdi case highlighted police brutality, according to the media. Abdi is said to have groped a female at a coffee shop. He stopped and was leaving when customers called the police. Eyewitnesses said the police chased him, sprayed pepper at him and beat him with a baton. Another officer according to eyewitness Ross McGhie “administered a number of very heavy blows to the head and face and neck of Mr. Abdi.”

Witness Shukri Samater said police knelt on Abdi’s head as he lay on the ground. Eyewitnesses said police attempted to seize cell phones of people who were recording the incident. The media said that videos showed a police officer using his boot to roll Abdi, who was lying on his stomach, his hands tied behind his back. Videos also showed police standing over him while waiting for paramedics. Abdi showed no vital signs when the paramedics took him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Hawa Shafi, president of Canadian Somali Mothers, thanked Canadians, including the media, for their fairness and support and for demanding an end to violence against the mentally ill and blacks. The community wants a full report on what happened, measures proposed to prevent such tragedies, actions taken against the officers and a meeting of officials with the entire Somali community instead of with just hand-picked individuals.

Justice for Abdirahman coalition has made 10 recommendations including a task force to examine the problem and propose solutions, a mechanism to hold police accountable for systemic discrimination, reassigning the police officers being investigated for causing death or serious injury to stop their interacting with the public, training police throughout Canada to deal with mental-health issues, reporting of race-based data on police encounters with civilians, review of all coroner’s inquest recommendations since 2001 and identifying those still needing implementation and requiring police to wear body cameras and install cameras in police vehicles.

Nimao Ali, a family friend, said that doctors told the family that Abdi had died 45 minutes before reaching the hospital. Family members described Abdi as “an amazing son and brother and a kind-hearted uncle.” The Ottawa Muslim Association paid his funeral expenses.

In June, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dube issued a report urging that police training in Ontario be overhauled to focus on “de-escalation” in dealing with people in crisis. “Whenever an unarmed individual comes into contact with police and ends up dead a very short time later, we have to ask serious questions,” he stated. Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister David Orazietti has accepted his recommendations.

Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau is seeking to improve relations with all communities. Naqvi organizes an annual basketball game between Ottawa Police Services and the Somali community to foster trust.

Ironically, most Somalis did not come to Canada as immigrants. Rather, Canada accepted them under the Geneva Convention because they faced persecution or risk of cruel and unusual punishment in their own country. They sought safety in Canada.

By and large, they are contributing to Canada while enjoying its privileges. Ahmed Hussen, a former president of the Canadian Somali Congress, was elected to the House of Commons on the Liberal ticket in last year’s election. The federal cabinet includes Aboriginal, women and visible minorities but no blacks.

Mental illness is a problem in Canada, with one in five Canadians facing serious depression at some point. Refugees from war-torn countries are particularly vulnerable because of the trauma of war and broken families.
In their new country, they need support, which most people get. Some, unfortunately, meet the very fate they had sought to avoid when they came to Canada.

— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.