The double standard of driving while black – in Canada

Posted on in Equality Debates – Opinion
February 26, 2018.   MARCI IEN

Marci Ien is a broadcaster and co-host of The Social

Another sleepless night. I keep thinking about what happened. I keep thinking about what could have happened. What was meant to be a quiet Sunday evening last week turned into something else. That I am an award-winning journalist didn’t matter. That I co-host a national television show didn’t matter. That I have lived in the neighbourhood for 13 years didn’t matter.

But being black mattered. Maybe the hooded parka I was wearing mattered, too. I was being stopped by a police officer in my driveway outside of my house in Toronto.

I was at home. My safe place. And I was scared.

How often does this scenario play out? A lot more often than we want to admit. Canada is one of the most diverse countries in the world, but racism permeates every aspect of our society. We like to point fingers at the racial discord in the United States, but fail to acknowledge our shortcomings here at home. Our country has to get its own house in order before patting itself on the back for being a paragon of racial harmony.

The black community’s relationship with the police in this country has been well-documented and much written about: If you are a person of colour in Canada, you experience a profoundly different – and sometimes troubling – relationship with the law. When we hear about incidents involving people of colour and the police, or other enforcement agencies, they seem to mostly involve black men – my father and husband included. But this is not an experience limited to men, as I have personally come to understand.

For the third time in eight months, I was being questioned by a police officer – and I had broken no law.

I had just driven my daughter to my sister’s house for a sleepover. The streets were unusually quiet as I pulled into my driveway. A police cruiser was parked behind me – lights flashing. I got out of my car to ask him why he was there.

“Get back in your vehicle!”

“Pardon?” I asked, alarmed by his tone.

“Get back in your vehicle!”

I quickly got back into my car and shut the door. As he approached, I cracked the door open to hear what he had to say. He told me to close it, and then gestured for me to lower the window. As the window lowered, I looked up at him – at his uniform, his stance, his eyes – and wondered: “What now?” I felt a queasiness in my stomach. I felt powerless, but summoned some strength. I’m not going to break, I told myself. I will remain calm.

But I’m not calm. I’m frustrated. I’m angry. I don’t deserve this. Not now, nor the previous times I had been pulled over. “I want to let you know you’re being recorded,” he informed me. “You failed to stop at a stop sign back there. That’s dangerous, there’s a school there … lots of kids.” I told him my daughter attends that school, silently giving thanks she wasn’t with me. He asked for my ID, and I handed over my licence, registration and ownership.

As he perused them he asked me if I live here. “Yes,” I said. When he returned to his cruiser, my reporter instincts kicked in: I texted my family to let them know what was happening, so there was a definitive record of time and place. My phone started ringing – it was my sister.

I answered and quickly explained what was going on. She told me, repeatedly, to get his badge number. In the background, I heard my mom asking if I was okay. I hung up.

Next came a panicked text from my daughter asking why a police cruiser was in our driveway – apparently a friend and neighbour had seen the flashing lights and contacted her to ask what was happening. I texted back that an officer said I had rolled through a red, referring to the flashing red stop light in front of my daughter’s school. A couple seconds later, the officer returns. “I’m going to give you a warning. Be careful driving out there.”

“If I’ve done something wrong give me the ticket,” I said. “I’m prepared to pay it.”

I went on to tell him that this marked the third time in the past eight months that I had been stopped by police. Every time the initial questions had been the same: “Do you live around here? Is this your vehicle?” In every case, I wasn’t issued a ticket.

Then I asked the officer point blank: “How do I explain this to my kids? I teach them to be respectful, fair and kind, but I’m not feeling respected, served or protected right now.”

He looked at me, bid me good night and walked away.

But there is no walking away from the truth. The stop signal at my daughter’s school is half a kilometre away; why wasn’t I pulled over there? Why did he follow me home? Why, after seeing the address on my driver’s licence, did he still ask if I lived at my home?

Who you are doesn’t matter; it’s what you are. If you are black in Canada, you are subject to a different standard and, often, seemingly, different laws.

So how do we fix this? There are no easy answers, but one solution would be to start with our kids. We know that children are not born with prejudice. Racism is learned. A study by renowned Harvard psychologist and racism expert Mahzarin Banaji shows that biases can be instilled as early as 3.

What if tolerance and empathy are prioritized in the early stages of childhood? We’ve seen far too many times what happens when they’re not. Bottom line – when we do better, our kids do better. Only then can we precipitate change.

I lingered behind the wheel for a long while, too shaken to go inside. So many thoughts. I finally forced myself to get out of the car, walked to the front door and slowly turned the key.

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4 Responses to “The double standard of driving while black – in Canada”

  1. hugh says:

    You say that you were stopped by the officer because you were black. However, you said the event occurred in the evening. I assume it was dark during that time. So I do not believe the officer would have been able to tell if you were black. Just saying.

  2. Steve says:

    Let’s Break This Down
    What happened? – you rolled through a stop sign and got a warning… and yes, you did break a law contrary to your statement in the article.
    What could have happened – you could have been fined, which could have amounted to several hundred dollars.
    If it was me, I would have gone to bed very grateful and fallen asleep quickly.
    Now, the statements about being an award winning journalist and co-hosting a national television show and that not mattering – nor should it matter. I certainly hope you didn’t get the warning simply because you were one or both of those things because then the system wouldn’t work.
    You being scared in your own driveway – I’m a little scared too when I get stopped by the police because I wonder what I did and whether I’m going to have a fine to pay. Maybe try attributing it to those things instead of sensationalizing it as racism.
    How often does this scenario play out? – every minute of every day, to people of all races and religions; try not to turn it into something it is not. You are right, it is not limited to men.
    Why did the officer get upset when you got out of the car and later tried to open the door? – standard police procedure… they don’t like it when you do those things and they will freak out. If you didn’t know that now you might, provided you let go of your sensationalized racism bias and just learn something from this. When the police stops you, just stay in your car, roll down the window and hand them the relevant documents. You should know this by now having been “questioned by a police officer” for the “third time in eight months.” I have a prediction, at he rate you are going, you will likely have an opportunity to try it my way some time in the next three months. Maybe watch for a pattern in your behaviour or driving that is leading to “being questioned”. If you can eliminate the behaviour, the questioning will decrease in frequency.
    Why did he ask if you lived there? – sounds like a good cop, they often try to trip people up with questions like that. Sometimes they can catch people lying to them, which would lead to further inquiries or a search of the vehicle. Sometimes they can upsell people to a violation for not having their current address on their drivers licence. If the address on your DL matches the one on the house, like yours did, no problem. Just answer the questions honestly and don’t read too much into them.
    One other suggestion for you – don’t ever let a cop catch you phoning or texting while they are checking your documents. They will freak out the same way they do when you try to open the door and get out.
    Let me get this straight, you are three for three on warnings??? That is unheard of! I called you a sensationalist before, I was wrong, you are an extremely ungrateful sensationalist. I’m astonished the officer extended your warning streak to a hat trick after you treated him so rudely.
    Why were you not pulled over in the first half kilometre? They often follow you a ways before they pull you over; in your case you happened to be in your driveway. During this time, they observe your driving, try to gauge whether you realize, what you did, etc. It sounds like you are a distracted driver because you didn’t realize that you rolled through a stop sign and didn’t even notice the police were following you until you got home. Those are not good signs. As I said before, watch for patterns in your behaviour.
    I how do we fix this? – in your case, a defensive driving course from the provincial automobile association would probably be the mot effectiveness fix. What would

  3. Tyrone says:

    I’m sure that you asked for a ticket because it would make for a better story for the societal martyrs against racist cops

  4. ThisIsSilly says:

    I’m white and all the following has happened to me, if I get out of the vehicle they command me to get back in. I thought that was a well understood rule… The officer could have easily been following you to witness what kind of state you are in to do some investigative work. Maybe he thought you could have been DUI. There is an incredible lack of evidence for you to make the claim that a cop pulled you over because you’re black. A cop pulled you over because you drove through a stop sign, attribute it to that and that’s what you tell your children.


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