Racial profiling is alive and well in Ontario, according to a new survey by the province’s human rights commission — with more than 1,500 Ontarians reporting experiences of being racially profiled not just by police, but also at their workplaces, schools, hospitals and shopping malls.
While police encounters remain a common situation where racialized groups have experienced profiling, respondents reported being targeted because of their race in a broad range of contexts, the Ontario Human Rights Commission writes in its new report “Under Suspicion,” released Wednesday.
“Concerns about racial profiling are broader than policing,” the report says. “Racialized and Indigenous peoples may experience unwarranted heightened scrutiny in education, stores, shopping malls, housing and workplaces, on buses, subways and trains, at airports and border crossings, in health care and by private security and child welfare agencies.”
The report is based on consultations and survey results from 1,650 individuals and organizations, gleaning wide-ranging personal experiences of racial profiling and data shedding light on the places and scenarios in which the phenomenon occurs. The survey, conducted in the summer of 2015, was not meant to capture the average Ontarian’s experience; rather, it draws from a “non-random sample,” specifically targeting members of the indigenous, racialized and Muslim communities, as well as experts in human rights, academia and law.
The commission states that the individual reports of racial profiling have not been independently verified and that it cannot determine with certainty that they stem from discrimination.
However, the accounts highlight concerns and themes that help understand where and when racial profiling occurs, the report says.
The experiences of those surveyed varied depending on gender, ethnicity and racial background. For instance, the most common scenario where women were racially profiled was shopping in stores, while men were most likely to report be racially profiled in a police encounter.
A large proportion of indigenous people said they were racially profiled in health care — a complaint that was not common among other racialized groups — while those who were Muslim, South Asian, Arab or West Asian were most likely to report racial profiling at airports, in employment contexts, and on buses and subways.
The human rights commission says there was a need to specifically examine racial profiling because it’s a type of discrimination that is not widely appreciated to be as damaging as others, such as denying someone a job based on race.
Additionally, “many institutions, police leaders and people in the general public have denied the existence of racial profiling, or have viewed it as warranted,” reads the report.
The research comes at a “critical juncture” when the province is becoming more diverse in racial, ethnic and religious terms, but increasingly concerned with assessing safety threats, such as terrorism and violence.
The report included anonymous personal stories of racial profiling in its report. Below are summaries of some of those accounts.
A black woman recounted the time police approached her son as he was walking home from school. The officers asked what he was doing in this particular neighbourhood, and he responded he was just going home. They didn’t believe him, however, and demanded his identification, threatening to take him into the police station for questioning. “He gave them his student ID for the bus,” the mother said. “My son was 11 years old.”
A midwife who works with indigenous women said she often sees “racist assumptions and mistreatments based on race” — for example, calling social workers or child protection services simply because the parents are young and indigenous. “Once that involvement starts, Aboriginal women are much more likely to have their babies removed for much more dubious reasons.”
An Iranian man was waiting for his bus one day inside a TTC station when he noticed the booth collector looking at him strangely and speaking into the phone. The next thing he knew, three “big guys” accosted him and flashed their badges, accusing him of intimidating the TTC worker — who was several feet away and fully enclosed behind glass. “I was scared and shocked,” he said.
“Then came the same question, ‘Where were you born?’ and I had to answer with shame ‘Iran,’ as if it had anything to do with it.” When the man asked why he was treated this way, he was told there was a policy against standing inside the TTC for more than three minutes. To which, he points out: “I was waiting for the bus…??!!”
A black woman said she and her 7-year-old son have faced “numerous incidents” of racial profiling by their local school board. Her son has “been criminalized, bullied by students and administration, and accused of having behavioural problems, even though specialists say otherwise.
And despite getting “exceptionally good grades,” her son has been told that he isn’t succeeding in French immersion. “I have faced racial profiling at their hands as well,” she said.
An indigenous woman said her pregnant daughter-in-law — a dark-skinned status Indian — went to the hospital because her baby had stopped moving.
A medical resident was working but there were no doctors on staff to make a decision, so they didn’t do anything. “They made my daughter-in-law wait for hours,” she said. “My husband and I went to the hospital to help. I am fair skinned and my husband is not aboriginal.
It was only when they saw what looked like two white people that they started to move and act, and she got a C-section.” But by that time, the baby had already been deprived of oxygen for five hours and was born clinically dead. After the baby was revived, hospital staff asked her daughter-in-law “what she took to harm her baby.”
They repeated the question four times. Today, the baby is 7 years old and living with many disabilities, including an inability to speak.
Retail and private security
They call it “Shopping While Black.” One black woman says that when she goes shopping, she is regularly followed, watched carefully, or asked “Can I help you” — not because they are offering customer service, but because they are questioning why she is there. “At the same time, I have numerous experiences where I am ignored or have to assert my position in line, as they skip over to the white person,” she said. “I am sure that most black people can relate to the shopping experience where the teller drops your change into your hand from a height, while somewhat recoiling, and you see them place the change into the hand of the white customers.”
A woman at an Ontario university says she works with Muslim students who are routinely called upon by CSIS to discuss potentially “radical” peers on campus. “These visits are not only intimidating but clear instances of racial profiling based on religion,” she said. “These types of meeting requests have been met with little to no challenge by higher education institutions and I have not seen any other racial, ethnic, religious groups targeted in this way.”
A middle-aged white woman said she once accompanied an indigenous friend who was looking for an apartment. “The prospective landlord made a point of mentioning that there were mice, which reinforced my friend’s already strong sense that this person did not like aboriginal people and that she was an unwelcome prospective tenant. She has since died on the street in 2006.”
A South Asian Muslim woman described an experience at her workplace, where employees have to swipe cards to access certain rooms. “I went into my office and immediately security knocked at the door,” she recalled. “They said they wanted to check who had gone in. I am pretty sure they got alarmed because all they could see was someone wearing hijab walking into an office.”