Street checks, or “carding”—a police practice of stopping individuals and recording their information, even if that person isn't suspected of a crime—has become one of Toronto’s highest-profile controversies this year.
Many organizations and prominent citizens have fiercely criticized the practice, and protests against carding and police brutality have been organized in front of Toronto Police Headquarters. Last April, journalist Desmond Cole documented his own experience of being stopped by police over 50 times in a widely shared cover story for Toronto Life, which brought international attention to the issue as well.
However, the practice of carding extends beyond the Greater Toronto Area—and with it, so does public opposition to a practice that critics say specifically and unfairly targets people of colour, particularly black youth.
On July 22, 2015, city councillors Mohamed Salih and Matthew Green, of London and Hamilton respectively, wrote a joint letter to Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Yasir Naqvi through Deputy Premier Deborah Matthews, asking for a province-wide consultation on street checks. (Matthews is also the MPP for London-North Centre.)
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“Although there has been a media focus on the Toronto experience for racialized populations targeted by this policy,” the letter read, “it is our intention that other municipalities be considered for inclusion in any discussion that may occur at the government of Ontario.”
Carding in both cities, police data has shown, is a prominent practice, with Hamilton Police conducting between 10 and 15 per day—roughly 3,000 to 5,500 per year between 2010 and 2013—and London a total of 8,400 last year alone. In the case of London, where race-based data is available, carding affected a disproportionate number of black and Aboriginal people.
On July 30, 2015, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional services announced a consultation tour in a handful of cities in Ontario. Members of the public were also provided an online document to record their experience with street checks. The deadline for comments is Sept. 21. Those consultations included stops in Ottawa, London, Brampton and Thunder Bay, and wrapped up on Sept.1 in Toronto. Hamilton, however, was not included on this list.
Green says he’s frustrated Hamilton wasn’t included in the list of cities, but understands the government couldn’t host consultations in every community in the province. He’s spearheading a town hall meeting on street checks in Hamilton on Sept. 15, which will give Hamilton’s residents the opportunity to go on the record with their experiences being stopped by police.
“I’m not interested in presenting to the community my take on it, the Police Service’s take on it, or the province’s take on it,” he says. “My purpose and my intention is to provide to the community directly the ability to go on the record about this issue,” he says. Minister Naqvi’s office recently confirmed he will be attending the meeting, scheduled to be held at Hamilton City Council hall chambers.
Councillor Green says the carding issue affects a cross section of the city’s population. “What I’m finding is that the lived experience corroborates a lot of what was revealed in the recent Hamilton Police Service presentation on the issue,” he says. Hamilton Police had previously told anti-racism advocates they don’t keep race-based statistics. In July, a report was provided to the Hamilton Police Services board on street checks that found police do in fact keep race-based information on file. Last month, the CBC obtained the paper form Hamilton police use for street checks which was nearly identical to the carding forms used by Toronto police. Both include a box for “race.”
“The first thing that I always try to state is that this is not primarily a question of race, although it disproportionately affects marginalized communities,” Green says. “This is a question of our Canadian Constitution, and I believe this issue to be important to all Canadians who believe in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
In London, Councillor Salih says he wants carding abolished.
“I don’t believe it should be regulated. I believe it should be something we get away from altogether and find another way to make sure the community remains safe.”
Grassroots organizations have also sprung up in opposition to carding. Ismael Traore, co-founder of the group Black, Brown and Red Lives Matter in Hamilton, says his organization formed last December, beginning with a march to Hamilton Police Service in solidarity with the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri.
Traore says they only expected 30 to 40 people to show up to their first march in December. They were surprised when 150 to 200 people showed up instead.
“We were like, ‘wow!’ This resonates with the Hamilton community.”
It has since become a more formalized activist group, he says, and has reached out to advocacy groups in other cities where carding is a publicly contested issue.
“Our main focus right now is stopping the police from engaging in the practice of carding and empowering the community with knowledge and skills on knowing their rights when they’re stopped by the police.”
However, with Toronto being the focal point of much of the activism against carding, to what extent are smaller cities such as Hamilton being left out of the conversation?
“In general, it’s not surprising the solidarity tends to be more one-way as opposed to mutual,” Traore says, pointing to Toronto’s size and large number of activists and students involved in social justice work.
“I think that part of the reason why you’re seeing more people out in Toronto and not in other places is because we’re not organized enough to take all of these organizations and all these people to other spaces,” says Elizabeth Adekur-Carlson, a community activist in Toronto who is working with Traore. “Really what we have are a bunch of organizations, and everyone saying the same thing: ‘No, we don’t like this.’ But we’re saying it for different reasons, and some of us are saying we need to eliminate the police entirely, and others are saying we just need to make these policies a little more palatable and it’ll be ok,” she says.
“I think there needs to be a more collective conversation here around what our strategy is.”
Black, Brown and Red Lives Matter will be holding a two-day event in Hamilton on September 24 and 25 including panel discussions, a legal clinic and public rally.
“I think this is an issue that is beyond Toronto,” says Traore. “It’s Canada-wide, all the way to Saskatoon, Alberta, you name it.”