When most people hear the phrase “police brutality,” the images that come to mind are typically from the United States. In 2015, nearly 1200 people were summarily executed by American law enforcement, according to a conservative estimate by PLoS Medicine; if anything, that trend has only accelerated. But Canada is hardly exempt from the phenomenon despite its polite facade and spit-shined public relations. After taking population into account, Canada still experiences half as many police perpetrated homicides, even if they aren’t as widely publicized or recognized. It’s a fact — among many others — I have seldom seen mentioned in the debates following this year’s protest against police participation at the Edmonton Pride march.
To briefly recap, a grassroots collection of local members of the LGBTQ+ community, most of whom were also people of colour, held up this year’s Pride march in protest for about 30 minutes. They issued demands specifically to the organizers of the Festival to reject the participation of the Edmonton Police Service, the RCMP, and the military as institutions. Individuals in these institutions were invited to participate next year — out of uniform — but there would be no official representation from any of the organizations themselves. The Edmonton Pride Festival Society’s board of directors accepted the demands, the protest disbanded, and the march resumed. The protesters were profoundly successful in starting a conversation, but many responding to the event have charged forward with their perspectives, evidently unaware of the context that informed this protest.
The first Pride March in Edmonton coalesced around the fallout of an event now described as the “Pisces Bathhouse Raid.” Police raided the club in the summer of 1981 at approximately 1:30 in the morning, mass-arresting the 56 patrons inside. No one was shot or ground into the pavement, but their photographs were taken by police before being released to the media (who then outed the men with the coverage). The courts provided cover for this gross invasion of privacy by pressing laws of so-called “sexual morality” against detainees to retroactively justify the police raid. All 56 patrons were either convicted or pled guilty to their charges.
These were the seeds of Edmonton’s first Pride March: The backdrop of an unnecessary public shaming, facilitated by the exploitation of power by the police who carried out the raid, inserting themselves into private business in which no harm was being done.
Nearly four decades have passed since the raid, widely recognised at the time as an abuse of power and a waste of public resources. Since then, much has changed about the march. Not only has it ballooned into a festival spanning the entire month of June, but the very institutions which carried out the abuses that inspired Edmonton’s first Pride found themselves welcomed years later. Though I will note that many of the skeptics of this year’s protest were never aware of this preferably-forgotten piece of history, a common response from those who concede it is that it was “long ago” and doesn’t reflect the attitudes of those in the institution today. I would reply that this is still false. The problems with policing, as an institution, not only remain every bit as salient as they were 40 years ago, but in fact have only grown more complex with the onset of extensive surveillance technology.
In June of just last year, Black Lives Matter Edmonton released data acquired through a freedom of information request on the Edmonton Police Service’s practice of “carding,” also called street checks. Street checks are a form of surveillance where the police arbitrarily stop citizens and ask to see their ID so the police can collect their demographic information as well as their whereabouts that day. The data acquired by BLM Edmonton show that Black and Indigenous Edmontonians are disproportionately targeted by the police for street checks. Police claim these data help them close unsolved cases, but track no statistics as to which files they claim they can close because of street check data.
In 2012, the federal government announced in partnership with the province that the RCMP, among several other law enforcement agencies, would come together to form a “counter-terrorism unit” designed to “protect Canada’s oil and gas infrastructure.” It took a lengthy investigative column published by the Intercontinental Cry just last winter to reveal the stunning depth of what this actually meant: Peaceful environmentalists, and other activists and advocates, were profiled as dangerous terrorists, with extensive surveillance networks tracking their every step. The majority of these activists were Indigenous, due in no small part to the hazards Indigenous communities are expected to shoulder by Settler Canadians in the name of developing infrastructure, and now their names were entries in a terrorism database.
As for the military, it’s been resisting efforts to secure restitution for the purge of gay and trans service members from its ranks between the 1950s and 1990s. The reasoning behind the purges was that a gay service member’s sexuality could be used as blackmail against them by communist spies, thus turning them into informants… but this conveniently glosses over the fact that such could only be blackmail in part because of the shame cultivated by the military’s actions. Rather than confront the environment they themselves created, they chose to scapegoat the gay and trans people in their ranks for the better part of 40 years, and shirked financial responsibility for their actions. Only days ago, a federal judge finally approved compensation for a class action lawsuit of members of the Canadian military and government agencies.
I could keep going.
Take for example Derek Huff’s whistleblowing in 2013, where he alleged the EPS facilitated brutality by closing ranks around wrongdoers in uniform under “a code of silence.” Or consult the arrest of Christian Duck, an Indigenous man savagely assaulted last year because he was startled by an early morning raid conducted unnecessarily by the RCMP. Or maybe I should mention that the Canadian Correctional Service tortures transgender prisoners as a matter of policy through the use of indefinite solitary confinement, despite repeated commitments to change. There are numerous examples of misconduct one can find from the three institutions mentioned in the protesters’ demands, and other policing organizations, if one cares to look.
Ah, but there’s the rub. Not everyone does care to look, do they? For some people the very concept of turning scrutiny to our authorities is so alien I might as well be asking them to grow a second head. Yet it was this scrutiny that laid the foundation of Edmonton’s Pride Festival. Whether or not critics of the protest realize it, the protesters this year channelled the original spirit of Pride exactly as it was conceived in 1981. It was a rally for liberation, not tolerance; its northern star was equality, not some tepid request for inclusion; its intent was defiant happiness in the face of shame, not to become a circus exhibit to be gawked at while contemporary problems are swept under the rug.
It was always supposed about securing material safety for LGBTQ+ people, especially those who are also of colour. Unfortunately that means having tough conversations about the ways we are made unsafe, even when that means casting a critical eye to institutions so highly valued outside of Pride. So I suppose the only question I have left to ask is: Do you value those institutions more than you value us?
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