'We have nothing to lose but our chains': Desmond Cole's conversation with four Black Canadians

Esi Edugyan, Robyn Maynard, Syrus Marcus Ware and Ian Williams speak with Desmond Cole about protesting anti-Black racism in Canada and what this moment signifies

On May 25, a 46-year-old Black man named George Floyd was killed in Minnesota by a police officer who kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes while three other police officers stood by. In the hours and days and weeks following, protesters filled streets around the world, demanding an end to anti-Black police brutality. As part of the Maclean’s Live series, Desmond Cole, journalist, activist and author of 2020’s The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, hosted a roundtable discussion about systemic racism in Canada and whether this moment will result in long-lasting change. Joining him were Esi Edugyan, author of the Giller Prize-winning novels Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black; Robyn Maynard, a Vanier scholar, Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto and award-winning author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada From Slavery to the Present; Syrus Marcus Ware, a Vanier scholar, Ph.D. student at York University, visual artist, community activist, researcher, youth advocate, and educator; and Ian Williams, a poet and novelist, professor of creative writing at the University of British Columbia and the author of the Giller Prize-winning novel Reproduction. Cole, Edugyan and Williams also contributed to the Maclean’s series “Letters to America,” which was published on June 4. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

READ MORE: Letters to America from Black Canadians

Q: In the last few weeks, we’ve been seeing things like the release of prisoners from jails in Canada. We’ve been seeing the growing calls for police abolition, which are louder in the mainstream than I can ever remember. And people feel like this might signal a hopeful shift. Syrus, having done this work for so long, how do you feel about this current public discourse and, in some cases, the public policy shifts that we’re seeing happen in Canada?

Syrus Marcus Ware: Yeah, I mean, this is such an exciting time. As someone who’s been an abolitionist for 25 years, never would I have thought that it would be so taken up in the mainstream. And we’ve got to be careful of that, and make sure that it doesn’t get co-opted. But I think what we’re seeing right now is this sort of rapid revolution in people’s consciousness, where they’re recognizing that hey, wait a minute, what exactly are the police doing right? They’re not particularly good at resolving crisis or conflict in a good way. Those [interventions] are often resulting in fatalities. They’re not particularly good at solving crimes and actually reducing crime rates in our streets. They’re not resolving harm in our communities. They’re not supporting people who are in psychiatric distress.

So people are starting to think, okay, well, what would we rather imagine? And that’s where the abolitionist dreaming comes in. We start to imagine that we could have these communities that are actually rooted in safety and security, and social justice. We could build something different. We could build something better.

Q: Robyn, in the advocacy to abolish policing that we’re witnessing right now, Black people assert that policing is a relationship of dominance rather than one of care, safety and protection. You’ve written about this relationship of dominance between Black people and the Canadian government and how it extends well beyond policing. Can you talk a little bit about this, please?

Robyn Maynard: Absolutely. The fact that we’re seeing these large revolts, uprisings [and] organizing moments all across North America and around the world right now shows us that of course it’s about policing. But also, if we look to the context of a pandemic in Canada, we see that it’s Black and Latino agricultural workers who are being exposed and becoming ill, gravely ill, at vastly disproportionate rates; it’s undocumented Haitian women at the forefront as personal care workers who may face deportation after exposing themselves to this virus to protect white people in this society. We see the ways racism has been embedded not only into policing but [also with] incarceration, in terms of immigration detention, where we had Black migrants undertake an eight-day hunger strike because they were being exposed to COVID-19. It’s also always been part of child welfare, of our education system, of our immigration system. This institutional anti-Black racism is something that we’re still very much reckoning with today. And when people are out demanding an end to racial injustice, that goes well beyond policing. It’s really about who has access to a decent life and who does not.

IAN WILLIAMS: The cameras on your phones make Black people invisible

Q: In the last three weeks, there’s been this nearly unprecedented visibility of Black writers and thinkers and actors [in the media]. There’s so much put upon us to respond, to be visible, to speak, to explain, to teach. Ian, how does it strike you to see this very jarring shift, where Black people can be invisible in Canadian media one day and then so visible for weeks at a time before, we fear, disappearing again?

Ian Williams: Well, it shows you that invisibility is really a trick of the mind, right? That people know we are out there, and we are out there invisibly until we are necessary, until we are called to speak on a particular subject. And when we’re no longer necessary, we can go back into invisibility. That is in fact really exhausting on the Black person, both physically, to sort of get things done, but [also] emotionally, to have your existence kind of flicker in and out of public consciousness at the whims of some larger universal or psychic demand.

I find it very difficult, this moment. There’s only so much of it that I can process before my voice starts to waver like this. Every time these moments occur, [I am] barely able to contain myself. The emotion is right below the surface, and the body betrays it all the time. When do we see Black folks gather to talk about other things? I would love to talk to Esi and to Robyn and to Syrus and to you about other things. But it’s this emotionally charged thing that brings us visibility, and it’s costing us, in [terms of] our health and in other ways.

S.M.W.: There’s this beautiful book called Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power that Susan Cahan wrote. It looks at how it’s only in these moments of extreme racial tension and racial violence in the streets, in these moments of upswings of protest, that they condescend to engage with us, to engage with our art practice. This has been a documented practice, and I’m very curious to see how we push back.

Esi Edugyan: My sister has always worked in finance or some kind of a corporate space, and people have been reaching out to her constantly, white people, to check in with her and to ask about her experiences. And somebody said, “I’ve been watching When They See Us on Netflix.” And I think she was a little bit taken aback by that. I mean, it’s great that people are willing to engage with this and learn about anti-Black racism and really try and understand it, but I think she also feels like there’s some tokenism involved and that, once this moment has passed, these people are not going to be reaching out to her anymore.

But who can say? I mean, it’s a start. It’s good that people are wanting to engage now, and hopefully this is something they will carry forward.

Q: Robyn, you’ve done a lot of media in the last couple of weeks, and I don’t want to speak for you, but I’m sure part of your reason is to engage in a sort of public education.

R.M.: I think the media’s systematic erasure of Black people almost all of the time, unless there’s a protest in the United States, is something that is just insulting. To be called on to panels [for the media] continuously, to have to ask “Is there racism?” This constant demand for proof, the interrogation that we are forced to undergo, I find it exhausting. And sometimes I take it up, because I believe that the public education is in itself a little bit helpful. It’s not the only way to engage, but it’s something that can be helpful, particularly in times like this.

But what I do see right now, and where I’m getting energy from, and why I’m finding this actually really invigorating at this time, is that young Black people are incredibly passionate, incredibly courageous, risking their lives in the context of COVID-19 to be out in the streets to demand something new. So it’s not only about naming and explaining racism over and over again; it’s people demanding things like defunding the police, pushing police out of schools, a fundamental transformation in how we actually govern our society. I’m also seeing this incredible energy and curiosity, 18-year-olds suddenly for the first time organizing demonstrations, wanting to learn about the history of slavery [and] segregation in Canada, and deciding to move into action. So that’s why I’ve chosen to engage my energy in media, where I often don’t necessarily give so much of myself to that.

ESI EDUGYAN: ‘The weight of change should not rest on the shoulders of Black people’

Q: Syrus, we know that Black people are overrepresented in our prisons, overrepresented in immigration detention within Canada. But these are some of the most hidden places in our society in Canada. How do you and others make the struggle of Black people inside these walls, behind these cages, where the government doesn’t want us to see what’s going on, more visible?

S.M.W.: Yeah, there is this practice of disappearing people through putting them into prison camps and prisons. People are removed from their communities, they’re removed from their families, they’re removed from their support networks. This is the strategy of the state, this is part of what is intended to happen.

For every story that we see on the news of a Black person who’s killed by a police interaction that goes wrong, there are countless others where there isn’t a fatality in that moment but the person is still taken away from their community. They’re incarcerated. They may not have died, but they’re being sent away, sometimes for life, for things that other people would get a charge of maybe 18 months. There’s a hugely disproportionate sentencing practice that makes sure Black people have longer sentencing, have higher security ratings.

We need to demand that, first of all, prisons are part of our communities, and prisoners are part of our communities. I think that one of the things that happened when they moved everyone from the Don Jail to the South Detention Centre was [it removed] the opportunity for us to come in contact with the prison, for people to do organizing and activism. And that’s a strategy, right? But we continue to fight and we continue to say, prisoners’ rights for all, and free them all.

Black Lives Matters protesters in Toronto demanding justice for Regis Korchinski-Paquet (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

Black Lives Matters protesters in Toronto demanding justice for Regis Korchinski-Paquet (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

Q: The COVID-19 pandemic, as has been mentioned already in this discussion, has put a lot of non-citizen Haitian asylum seekers in grave danger as they work in the long-term care homes. We know that personal support workers and nurses across Ontario and Quebec are disproportionately Black and other racialized people. With all of the other things going on for Black rights and Black survival, people around us keep talking about this idea of a new normal or getting back to normal. I just want your reaction, Robyn, to this idea that we can or should return to normal after this pandemic subsides.

R.M.: The COVID-19 pandemic has really exposed the functioning of our society. So I think there’s a very strong reason that we’re seeing the kinds of protests we’re seeing right now, [and] it’s precisely not about a return to normal. What we’re seeing is not only a response to a crisis of the present moment, but to a historical crisis, to the embeddedness of racial and economic violence that has really been part of the founding of this society. We’re seeing a reckoning with the legacy of slavery and the legacy of colonialism, which have not yet been meaningfully addressed. What we’re really witnessing is a strong urgency, particularly with young people, [not] to go back to SWAT team raids of Somali grandparents over the criminalization of drugs, for example, a refusal to accept the status quo any longer. We’re seeing echoes of protests that happened a few years ago, that happened in the 1990s, that happened in the 1960s. This is a long-standing struggle.

Q: I’ve been thinking about the words and thoughts of Black people that inspire me and give me strength in this moment, and help me to dream. James Baldwin ended his address in that very famous debate he did so many years ago in England against William F. Buckley [by saying that] there’s scarcely any hope for the American dream because the people who are denied participation in it by their very presence will wreck it. And if that happens, it is a very great moment for the West. So I think James Baldwin could have anticipated these cars on fire, these buildings on fire, and people lighting a fire in their hearts to try and make change.

I.W.: There’s something really comforting and profound about seeing Baldwin’s prophecies come to fruition, the kind of otherworldly working out of his logic. He’s not always optimistic, but [he envisioned] clear-eyed realities, and now we see it just kind of unfolding.

DESMOND COLE: ‘Canada insists on being surprised by its own racism’

E.E.: You know, Desmond, I recently finished reading your book, and I just got so much out of it, these stories of policing that don’t get widely reported; of the gallery owner who had been sort of harassed by police for months and months until it ended with him being tasered on the floor of his own gallery in front of friends who had gathered for an opening. I was very struck by the story of the six-year-old girl who the school had called the police on because she was behaving in a, quote, violent fashion. And she [was] handcuffed. It’s these kinds of very eye-opening stories that make you realize that the system is truly, truly broken.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about how we institute change that’s lasting. And having read that story and thinking my way through things, really, this is something that has to start happening in grade schools. We need to be educating all students about Black histories, not just the history of the Underground Railroad but the history of slavery in this country; the history of the Last Best West campaign, where the Canadian government invited people from the United States to come up and populate the land, and when they received a thousand freed slaves from Oklahoma, there was a huge campaign to stop that kind of immigration because that was not at all who they wanted homesteading the land. I live in British Columbia, and we have deep roots there, in the Gulf Islands. [There] was a substantial population of Black people on Salt Spring Island, for instance, and this isn’t something that is widely known. I mean, you tell people about this and they’re quite shocked.

Q: To end this evening, I would like to ask each of you, how do we honour the memories and the lives of Black, Indigenous, other racialized people, queer and trans people, people living with disabilities, people who don’t have enough to eat? This struggle is about unseating the comfortable and shining a light for those who don’t have privilege, protection and safety right now. How do we honour the lives of those who we mourn and who we’re out in the streets fighting for?

E.E.: I think we refuse to let them be forgotten. We keep discussing them. We keep going into the streets. We write about them. You refuse to let forgetting prevail. You refuse to let it truly extinguish these people. It’s so important to keep the discussion alive, and to keep saying their names. Once we forget, or allow ourselves to collectively forget, that is when we add another name to the list, right?

Q: Ian, I’ll go to you next.

I.W.: Desmond, I don’t know. I wish I could have something a bit more hopeful to offer right now. But I honestly don’t know.

Q: That’s okay. That’s a real reaction that I think a lot of us can relate to. Robyn, would you like to go ahead?

R.M.: Sure. I think that any time I need words to ground myself in what it means to be responsible to those who have been stolen from us, to those many lives that have been senselessly lost, senselessly destroyed by state violence in this country [and] around the world, I need to ground myself in the words of others, [of] other generations of freedom fights. That continuity of struggle is something that grounds me, at least.

So I’m paraphrasing loosely the words of Assata Shakur, who says it’s our duty to fight for freedom, [and] it is our duty to win. We must love and respect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains. To me, that really captures the essence of duty in this moment and this duty that we always have, not only to the dead but to those who are still with us, so that we can keep them with us.

Q: Syrus, finally.

S.M.W.: I think that we remember them and hold onto them—we say their names, we make sure their names are familiar in our mouths, and then we fight like hell to make sure that there’s not one more person taken from us. I think of our ancestors who had their children taken from them, who were brutalized on slave labour camps, all of those moments where they would be praying and hoping that their children or great-grandchildren would be born free. We haven’t quite completed that process of emancipation, and I’m going to fight like hell to make sure we do.

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