History as a discipline has a unique role to play. Examining how the past shapes the present, on campus and off, is a critical element of our scholarship and teaching. The current struggle is embedded in the long history of slavery, racism and colonialism that is worldwide, but has particular relevance for Canada and the United States. In the U. S., the colonizers’ choice to build and sustain a society based on slavery profoundly shaped its development to 1865, and then exerted tremendous influence over its post-emancipation history. There was a close relationship between Euro-Americans’ efforts to assert control over the enslaved and the development of professional policing, and the deployment of that policing after slavery’s end to maintain racial hierarchy. This past directly ties to the rise of mass incarceration in the United States, which disproportionately impacts African-American communities. To fully understand why George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and so many other African-Americans have died at the hands of police in the US for basic human behaviors such as sitting in a car (Floyd), sleeping (Taylor), playing (Rice), driving (Bland), and standing outside a store (Garner), we need to know and understand the lasting influence of this history.
In Canada, the histories of slavery, anti-black racism, and settler colonialism are unique yet interconnected in entrenching structural whiteness and privilege. Too many Canadians dismiss the seriousness of police brutality in Black communities. Historical narratives that insist that, in comparison to the United States, Black Canadians have experienced benign racism inform these misperceptions. The important work of Black scholars and activists has belied histories that argue that slavery was less violent in New France and British North America and that segregation was less destructive to Black communities in Canada. Yet these myths persist. The erasure of Black histories is itself a form of epistemic violence that fuels claims that Canada is not a racist country. The deaths of D’Andre Campbell, Nicholas Gibbs, Abdirahman Abdi, and Albert Johnson at the hands of police in Canada stand as stark examples that these claims are wrong. At the same time, Indigenous peoples were also enslaved in New France and British North America and have faced many forms of state violence, including the dispossession from their lands and resources and state policies that attempted to destroy Indigenous forms of governance, kinship networks, and spiritual practices. The violent arrest of Allan Adam, Chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and his wife Freda Courtoreille are not exceptional; the tragic death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet (an Indigenous-Black woman) and the police shootings of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi are a few of the known recent examples of the vulnerability of Indigenous peoples in Canadian legal justice systems. Police brutality against Indigenous people coincides with the failure to act on the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada.