Rift between Muslim communities and police deepen

Two recent news stories have highlighted the declining trust between Canadian Muslim communities and law enforcement agencies.

By Amira Elghawaby
Toronto Star | August 17, 2016

The past few weeks have deeply shaken whatever trust exists between Canadian Muslim communities and law enforcement agencies.

First, news and video footage of the heartbreaking and unjustifiable death of a mentally ill Canadian-Somali man in Ottawa as a result of a police intervention.

Then, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that the RCMP were the key architects of a terrorism plot that was used to entrap two marginalized individuals who had recently converted to Islam.

Both of these cases have spotlighted some troubling excesses in our country’s security establishments. They further underscore the need for Canadians to continually question the unequal power balances in our society that can and do sometimes lead to violations of the human rights and dignity of fellow community members.

Those who would defend the established systems would argue that these two cases represent isolated incidents, if they would acknowledge mistakes at all. And for those of us who might not be paying close attention; or who are engaged in advocating on one front, and not another, we might just buy that.

Except these latest cases represent so many intersecting human rights issues that many who care about such things broadly will be compelled to consider matterss they might not have previously fully understood.

When it comes to Canadian Muslims, our public struggle has often centered on human rights violations in the national security context. The killing of Abdirahman Abdi in Ottawa made it critical that we collectively become more attuned to a battle that has raged long before his untimely death. It’s a struggle being fought by racialized, often black, communities (which include Muslims, too).

Abdi’s death raises so many questions, and highlights long unanswered ones, about how our police services can be held accountable when it comes to policing marginalized, racialized, mentally ill, poor, and Indigenous communities. Both the questions, and even proposed answers, have all too often been ignored. Thousands of inquest recommendations in this province alone have never been acted upon.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission recently stated that “the Ontario police complaints system cannot be relied upon to address racial profiling and is not sufficient to restore public trust,” following a recent decision to deny the commission the right to participate in a Toronto Police Service disciplinary tribunal investigating how police treated four young black men.

A prominent leader from within the Ottawa Jamaican community told me that he didn’t think anything would change following Abdi’s death, nor did he believe his family would achieve justice. “I’ve seen worse than this, and nothing happened,” he told me after reviewing the video of Abdi’s death, referring to similar cases in the nation’s capital dating back decades.

Others continue to call for an overhaul of our systems to reflect the evolving needs of diverse communities. “We need a fundamental and transformative cultural change to policing attitudes and practices,” argued criminology professor and policing expert Darryl Davies in a recent Ottawa Life Magazine article.

The same conclusion might be drawn from the RCMP’s role in manufacturing a terrorist plot, which points to deep flaws in how security agencies operate. Justice Catherine Bruce’s ruling in the case against John Nuttall and Amanda Korody should serve as a wake-up call for our elected leaders.

“There must be a balance between the need to protect the public from crime and what is tolerable police conduct in a free and democratic society,” wrote Justice Bruce. There is clearly an urgent need for adequate checks, balances, and oversight of those who hold incredible power and authority. With the federal government’s current consultations on the Anti-terrorism Act, the time for Canada to properly balance civil liberties with public safety is now.

Trust is fundamental to our collective well-being. We need more of it, not less. As the authors of a 2016 Kanishka research study of Canadian Muslim concerns around counter-terrorism policies discovered in their interviews, citizens are losing faith in the state. At the same time, the deeply troubling news of Aaron Driver’s alleged plan to carry out an attack in Canada underscores ever-present security fears. Mitigating such risks will require a multi-pronged approach built upon ongoing community engagement and cooperation.

Lawmakers at every level of government should pay heed to these complex anxieties and commit to fixing whatever is not working. Canada must remain safe and secure – for all.

Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).