TORONTO — As protesters around the world continue to take to the streets to demand an end to violence and oppression aimed at Black people, a coalition of Black community health leaders is calling on the Ontario government to declare anti-Black racism a public health crisis.
“Our communities are grieving. This moment is unprecedented, yet in many ways we have been here before,” said a joint statement issued last week by the Alliance for Healthier Communities, the Black Health Committee, the Black Health Alliance and the Network for Advancement of Black Communities.
“We cannot be silent in the face of the ongoing horror Black people are experiencing in Ontario, across Canada, and in the United States. We stand in solidarity with Black people everywhere in calling for justice.”
In addition to the acknowledgement that anti-Black racism is a public health issue, the coalition wants to see stronger measures to “address police brutality, police violence and harms to Black communities,” along with a “clearly articulated, targeted, and systemic” anti-Black racism strategy, and more funds for health and wellbeing supports within Black communities.
Anti-Black racism is a “deep-seated, long-standing, and systemic issue,” says Liben Gebremikael, who is executive director of TAIBU community Health Centre in Toronto and a member of the Black Health Committee.
He says declaring racism a public health issue adds urgency to the response, and the ability to come up with multi-layered, long-lasting solutions.
“Ontario, like other provinces and territories in Canada, is a place that struggles to contend with the harms of white supremacy and where legacies of colonization, slavery, structural inequality and systemic discrimination deeply impact the lives of Black people,” says the coalition’s statement.
Racism can’t be solved by individuals or from within the Black community, says Gebremikael, but rather must be tackled by all of society as a pervasive issue.
“It is also impacting the health and well-being of a population, so it’s also a health crisis,” he told CTV’s Your Morning Monday.
Worldwide demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died after a white Minneapolis police officer held his knee to the back of Floyd’s neck for close to nine minutes, are heading into their third week. The protests show the crisis that killing, brutality and oppression are having on the community, says Gebremikael.
“So it is a public health crisis. It needs an urgent solution and everybody should be part of the solution.”
As of yet, the Ontario government has not responded to the coalition’s call.
In addressing the anti-racism protests on June 2, Ont. Premier Doug Ford initially said he doesn’t believe Canada has the deep systemic racism found in the U.S. Criticism was swift and he acknowledged in the legislature the next day that there is systemic racism in the province and in the country.
Gebremikael says there has been some recent progress in Ontario on collecting and analyzing race-based data.
“We need to know how much we’re affected, where we’re affected and what is the extent of the problem.”
Gebremikael says race-based data is showing that COVID-19 is disproportionately hurting the Black community in Ontario, for instance.
The Ontario Anti-Racism Directorate’s budget to carry out anti-racism initiatives for the 2020-2021 budgetary year is $4.92 million. But Liberal critics say that has been cut from the previous government’s $5.61 million for the directorate and that actual spending by the PC government came in about $3.6 million in 2018-2019.
Gebremikael says more resources are needed in mental health, educational and unemployment services for the Black community.
A 2018 Ontario Human Rights Commission report found, based on Special Investigations Unit data, that even though 8.8 per cent of Toronto residents are Black, they are involved in 28.8 per cent of police use use-of-force cases, 36 per cent of shootings, 61.5 per cent of deadly encounters and 70 per cent of fatal shootings.
The SIU, an independent agency that investigates any police-involved death, serious injury, or allegation of sexual assault, is probing the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, 29, who died May 27 after falling from her 24th-floor apartment following the arrival of Toronto police and that of D’Andre Campbell, 26, who was fatally shot in his home by Peel Regional Police on April 6.
The Black health coalition is also highlighting the deaths of Abdirahman Abdi in Ottawa in 2016 and Andrew Loku in Toronto in 2015.
“We need to move forward,” said Gebremikael. “We need some changes, we’re ready for changes, we just need the system to acknowledge and work with Black communities and Black stakeholders to bring about these changes.”
In 2018, the Canadian Public Health Association released a statement acknowledging that racism is a public health issue.
“Racism is insidious and affects all aspects of life. Those who experience racism exhibit poorer health outcomes including negative mental health outcomes, negative physical health outcomes, and negative health-related behaviours.”
Ontario was not among the seven provincial and territorial public health associations that supported the statement.