How a Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder sees Canada

Janaya Khan speaks out on BLM Toronto’s sit-in at Pride—and why marginalized groups shouldn’t always bear the burden of truth
Janaya Khan of Black Lives Matter. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
Janaya Khan of Black Lives Matter. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
Janaya Khan of Black Lives Matter. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Black Lives Matter Toronto claims that Canadian police, media, and society at large are inundated with anti-black racism. The organization, which started in the United States, is spreading across Canada, with protesters from Vancouver to Halifax chanting their slogans. Janaya Khan, one of the co-founders of the Toronto chapter, has been attending Pride for 10 years. On July 3, Khan helped lead the sit-in at the Toronto Pride parade that halted the march for half an hour. Khan sat down with Maclean’s on Thursday afternoon.

Q: What was it like growing up as a black queer youth in Toronto?

A: Difficult. Difficult. There are very few resources for someone with an intersectional identity in general, let alone someone who is black, who identifies as queer and as gender non-conforming. Fast forward to my first Pride where I was really out for the first time. Having been there only about 20 minutes I had my first interaction with the police at Pride. I have a history with interaction with the police that hasn’t gone very well for me. They’ve been very aggressive, often demanding ID and wanting information about where I’m going. I didn’t have the language then. I didn’t know I was being carded. It was so routine for people in my community that it just seemed like a natural occurrence that there would be that much police presence, that there would be that type of questioning. That was my first experience with a police officer at Pride, but that had been my experience my entire life in this city.

Q: There have been well documented attempts by organizations such as Blackness Yes! to get Pride to give more funding and provide more support for events like Blockorama [a stage set up during Pride featuring music, dance, and performances from black members of the LGBTQ+ community] for well over a decade. They’ve written letters and held public meetings and tried to have their concerns addressed through less confrontational means. Why did you feel it was time to escalate and stage a sit-in?

A: Because we were the honoured group. We needed to act honourably. We were the honoured group for reasons that were in alignment with our politics. We were the honoured group because we had critiqued the status quo, because we’d challenged police brutality, because we’d named anti-black racism. Why would we change our tactics at Pride?

Q: This year who specifically from Pride did you contact to get your concerns addressed before deciding to stage the sit-in?

A: Blackness Yes! and BQY [Black Queer Youth] had spoken to Pride Toronto organizers on several occasions. First and foremost we’re accountable to the community members that we serve. We are not a small group of people who make decisions. That’s what Pride Toronto is. We are a small group that represents a lot of people and we do not make the decisions for them, they make the decisions for us. They were like, ‘Okay, we’ve tried months prior to have those kinds of conversations and they haven’t worked.’ So they asked us to use our platform and of course we would.

Q: Between 2005 and 2015 the federal black inmate population in Canada grew by 69 per cent. That’s the fastest growth rate for any group of people. For comparison, the number of Aboriginal people in prison grew by a little over 50 per cent during the same period. Right now the incarceration of black people in Canada is triple their representation in society. What would you like the federal government to do to address this?

A: I think there needs to be an intervention on several levels. We can easily say eliminate carding and that would suddenly be it. The reality is: so long as racism exists, prisons will exist. They work hand in hand together and so it’s not a coincidence that the dramatic increase did go up in line with when carding practices became very normalized. On a federal level, look at Howard Sapers, who was the former prison watchdog who was fired by the Harper government [an election was called before Harper could replace Sapers and Trudeau has kept him on]. On a federal level the government is mandated to collect data on Indigenous populations. They’re not mandated to collect data on black populations. So Sapers created a special report because of the dramatic way that black people’s numbers were astronomical compared to their population. We make up 2.9 per cent of the population. We represent 10 per cent of the federal inmate population. As Black Lives Matter, we’re an intersectional movement. We are not a movement that is only fighting for black people. And so what happens in the Indigenous communities are often in line with what’s happening in black communities. We are the two largest populations in the Canadian federal inmate population, so our struggles are intrinsically linked.

Q: Let’s talk about Justin Trudeau. On May 17, he introduced legislation to protect the rights of transgender Canadians. Do you think he’s doing enough to support black trans people and black LGBTQ+ people?

A: No. I think any time that we’re changing legislation to make it more inclusive for people it’s important, but I think we also need to ask the question, always at the end: “For whom does this serve?” “Who is this going to be transformative for?” And often times because legislation isn’t considering anti-black racism, black people are lost in the holes, in the spaces, in the channels where racism exists, where disenfranchisement exists.

Q: In March, the United Nations commission on economic, social and cultural rights harshly criticized Canada for the disproportionate number of black children in the foster care system and the high dropout rate amongst black youth. Are there things that Black Lives Matter is calling for in the way that federal or provincial policy deals with the foster care system, deals with the education system?

A: What we’ve been calling for recently and since our founding is the need for data and the need for research. When we are looking at these massive gaps where black youth are falling through, we need data to substantiate what we’re seeing and what we’re experiencing. I can say that especially because I was one of those black youth that grew up in the foster system. I grew up in group homes and spent time in women’s shelters as a teenager. When you have that type of experience it becomes very deeply personal to you. We shouldn’t always have to use our personal experience to validate what we’re saying when it’s happening across the board. If we are making up 40 per cent of the youth that are in the foster care system [in Toronto], that is a state of emergency and it needs to be treated as such.

Q: How do you respond to people who say BLM “bullied” Pride or “hijacked” the parade?

A: We really need to interrogate the language being used. When we use language like that it suggests that we have some kind of social, systemic, and structural power. We’re a group of marginalized people coming together fighting against the police, fighting against a not-for-profit that provides governance for one of the largest Pride celebrations in the world. That manoeuvres over a million people. So when we say this is the group, I don’t think that’s in alignment with what bullying is or what bullying looks like, I really don’t. I think when people are fighting because we have been marginalized, because we have been brutalized and we’re actually standing up for ourselves, and people use a word like “bullied,” that’s anti-black racism to suggest that. When people are using the word “hijacked,” I think it really reflects that, because we have Muslim people on our team, how quickly we’re falling into anti-Islamic sentiment.

Q: You think “hijack” is a reference to the Islamic people on your team?

A: Oh, absolutely it is. I think there’s an investment with certain people to frame us as the type of organization that has the type of power to incite change in a particular way that we could have the power to hijack something so large.

Q: Do you see a difference in the way that anti-blackness manifests in Canada versus how it does in the United States?

A: We see two very different streams here than you find in the United States. A lot of how anti-black racism manifests here is in conjunction with anti-immigration sentiment because of the Somali community and also because of Islamophobia. The majority of black people in Canada actually don’t identify as black Canadians. Our experience of being racialized in Canada is: “Where are you from?” “But where are you really from?” You know? You don’t see that narrative in the States where it’s like: “You don’t belong here,” “This isn’t where you’re from.” African Americans and black Americans have been terms that people have used for decades, but the mainstream media doesn’t refer to us as black Canadians. We don’t refer to ourselves as that. So in a way you have the Canadian identity and you have the black identity and they’ve been separated.

Q: Do you think that’s a reflection of how Canadian immigration policy for decades tried to foster a mosaic, as opposed to a melting pot in the United States? People are encouraged to sort of subsume themselves in the United States and consider themselves American whether they’re Asian American, African American. Whereas, not only are black people in the Canadian media often referred to primarily as Somali or Guyanese, but you’d also see that with other communities where people are being referred to as say, Venezuelan not Latino. Is that part of it?

A: Yeah, that’s bigger than blackness. Racialized people are not often allowed to identify as Canadian, are not believed to be Canadian here. That type of nationality, I think that’s reserved for white Canadians and I think white Canadians reserve that for themselves.

Q: What do you think of the way you’ve been covered in the media? Do you think there’s anti-blackness in the Canadian media?

A: When language is being used like “hijacked,” when language is being used like “bullied,” when language is being used like “hostage,” these are really problematic and very dangerous, particularly when we hosted a sit-in in a public place. So the question that always comes up is: would this have been different if we were six white men? Would they be using that language then? I don’t think so. I’ve never seen that language used when white people have demonstrations. We didn’t see the media cover Occupy the way that they covered BLMTO Tent City. We saw the police treat Occupy in a certain way. They were allowed to have tents and fire. We were not allowed to have those in the middle of winter at Tent City for all 15 days that we were there. So I think the media has been deeply irresponsible. I think the media has been anti-black in its practice. The media is a reflection of society, and I think we’re seeing also a shift in how people understand what happened, we’re seeing a debate. We’re seeing tension, and that to me is a sign of growth and I think the media is reflecting that and that’s integral.

Q: You’ve said that you’ve received death threats since the sit-in, primarily from gay men.

A: Yes.

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: Gender and sexual diversity doesn’t negate racism. I think that Pride has turned into something that is primarily for gay white men. In 1981, when the bathhouse raids took place, the population that was most deeply impacted, at least according to the media, was gay white men. Gay white men can assimilate into heternormative culture, into straight culture in a way that someone like me never could. And because they’re able to assimilate, they’re able to create change and really inform what Pride Toronto is, what the Pride marches have looked like, who’s a part of it and who isn’t. So our action has challenged gay white men specifically and they’ve responded in white supremacist ways. That’s really what we’ve seen.

Q: Have you informed the police? Have you asked for any kind of protection?

A: That would suggest that I believe that the police could protect me and that they were invested in my protection. I don’t believe that.

Q: Are you afraid for your life?

A: The reality for black people now, in this moment in time in the world, is: whether you fight or not, you die anyway. So I’m going to fight. I think that fear is always a part of change, and I think fear is what makes people resist change, and I think we have to confront that fear head-on.

Q: You’ve called for an end to carding. Apart from carding, what would progress look like in terms of the relationship between police and black LGBTQ+ people?

A: You know, someone very smart said, “I’m an optimist by will and a pessimist by intellect.” That is a very, very complicated thing to respond to, because at this particular moment I’m not sure what that would look like, because the entire institution and the entire practice of police officers are informed by racism and so…

Q: You’re saying all police officers are racist?

A: No, I’m saying the institution.

Q: Can you explain the distinction as you see it?

A: There’s police who are individuals. Those individuals are not the problem. The problem is the institution that houses them. The problem is the institutional practices that sort of perpetuate anti-black racism, and so long as those systems are in place the police are going to act out in ways that are racist, and they’re going to act out in ways that are homophobic and transphobic, because that is the society that we live in. The police are a direct result of the society that we live in.

Q: I’m sure you saw the letter from the gay police officer who was trying to argue that exclusion is not inclusion and that by keeping police officers within the parade, there would be opportunities for reconciliation and for progress.

A: Thirty-five years, there’s been Pride. Thirty-five years. This is the first time that Pride has ever discussed the inclusion and participation of black people: because of Black Lives Matter Toronto, because of our participation in it. Entire groups of people have been committed to it for years. You know of course Pride is for you, of course. But what we are fighting against are the institutions, so police floats that are representatives of the institution. Police booths that promote the institution. Police uniforms, police being armed. I don’t want to be criminalized in the one place that I can bring my intersectional identity. Why is it that police officers who are, you know, LGBTQ-identified feel that they can’t participate just because they can’t participate as police? That’s really the question here.

Q: There has been criticism from people saying that Black Lives Matter is speaking for a variety of different groups such as Indigenous organizations, such as South Asian organizations. Are these communities working with you…

A: That’s correct. It’s always interesting to me who truth is required for. Who must bear the burden of truth? It’s not the police. It’s not governmental bodies. It’s not Pride Toronto. The burden of truth often falls on some of the most marginalized people. We have to prove that racism exists. There was some criticism that came out that said: if police have been aggressive to you, where’s the proof? That would suggest that somehow footage would change that but we know that that doesn’t change that either. Body cameras haven’t changed the ways that black death has occurred. Particularly in light of what we’re seeing in the States with Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, there’s video footage. There was video footage for Eric Garner. Video footage doesn’t mean that justice is served. Video footage doesn’t mean that we’re believed. I really think we need to shift the culture of who is supposed to be the burden-bearers of truth.