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Desmond Cole Wants You to Know That Canada Isn’t All That Nice

In his new book, ‘The Skin We’re In,’ he clearly outlines the systemic racism that makes our neighbor to the north anything but the affable bastion of progressivism we like to think it is

One of the most mind-boggling PR feats of the last 120 years has been the playful pop-culture neutering of Canada’s real identity: a white supremacist settler state propped up by extraction capitalism. As Alex V. Green puts it, “Canada is three mining companies in a trench coat, wearing a stupid hat and carrying a gun.” Yet for some reason, Canada is positioned by others — and positions itself — as the affable, progressive, center-left American relative giving out gentle noogies and free health care.

Toronto-based writer and activist Desmond Cole has no patience for this message. In 2015, the local magazine Toronto Life published Cole’s groundbreaking reporting on his experiences being targeted and stopped more than 50 times by Toronto police. The piece, which was titled “The Skin I’m In,” forced nation-wide conversations about systemic anti-Blackness, a huge feat in a country both touted as a culturally-diverse paradise and allergic to suggestions of wrongdoing.

The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, Cole’s first book, continues this work. Each chapter is committed to one month of 2017 and the events of that particular span of time. Most chapters center on significant, usually traumatic displays of anti-Blackness, but one, the month of May, breaks from this pattern. It details quiet, nourishing moments of kinship, community and connection. They’re beautiful and rare, and for Cole, they’re also a reminder of what Black people in Canada don’t get to enjoy.

“What those parts of the book reflect are what I wish I could be spending more of my time on,” Cole tells me. “I’ve always been a nature lover, but I don’t have time to do that as much as I want to, because going out for a walk as a Black person in Toronto can cost you your life. Being in a store where you’re trying to buy something and being accused of stealing, [or] trying to get somewhere on public transit but hopping on without paying because you didn’t have enough money that day, these are things that cost Black people our lives in this city and in this country.” 

“To paraphrase Angela Davis’ book,” he continues, “freedom is a constant struggle. When people like Audre Lorde talk about [how] taking time out for ourselves is an act of revolution, I’ve come to see that more and more in my life. Being gentle and compassionate with ourselves and with one another as Black people is truly revolutionary in a world that’s always telling us we have no value.”

His writing career hasn’t been without its struggles either. After the original Toronto Life story ran, Cole was approached by the Toronto Star to write a weekly column for the paper. The day he started, it put him on the front page and repeatedly identified him as “activist and freelance journalist Desmond Cole.” After a few months, he was told he wrote about race too often. A few months after that, he was forced out on the basis that his activism disqualified him from writing about racial issues. (White columnists haven’t faced these same repercussions at the paper.)

“Why is it so easy for white storytellers in this country to say to us, ‘Your stories aren’t that interesting, I’ve heard worse from Black people’?” he asks. “Why is it so easy for them to tell us about the conditions in another country? Canada’s cultural claim to fame is this naive innocence that’s not really real, but that we just love to preserve about everything. Black Canadians are just told to shut up because it’s not actually happening. That is how power maintains its grip. For me, the actual state of Black life in Canada today, without comparison to another country, is what matters.”

This line of argument, Cole argues, is a critical deflection in maintaining the Great Canadian Lie. When ignorance fails, avoidance and denial are employed. “This country still has a legal form of racial segregation called the Indian Act. While we talk about other countries being racist, we have an act that separates you based on the notion of race that the government gets to decide. Who are we to talk to Americans or anybody else when Black and Indigenous people are the ones disproportionately in our jails, are the ones disproportionately taken away from our families by child welfare, are the ones disproportionately kicked out of school?” 

“The imaginary differences between these two countries are exactly that: The border is imaginary, many of the cultural differences are imaginary,” he adds.

In an interview about his book with The Tyee’s Olamide Olaniyan, Cole drew a distinction between racism and the lived violence of anti-Blackness: “I don’t care if you’re racist. I care if you’re hurting me.” This difference — and the avoidance it punches through — is illustrated in The Skin We’re In when Cole describes how Nancy Elgie, a white York Region District School Board trustee, referred to a Black woman as “the n***** parent” in the presence of other York School Board officials. (None of these officials called for Elgie’s resignation.) “There was kind of this idea that, that word just slipped out,” Cole explains. “So even if you say that word to a Black person, if your intentions are good somehow, then it doesn’t really count.”

“What this obsession with intentions does is that it re-centers whiteness,” he continues. “White people get to say, ‘It doesn’t matter what’s happening to you. What matters is what I’m projecting in my mind. We don’t even have to talk about how you experience white supremacy in Canada, because as long as I can tell you I don’t mean it, you have to forgive me, you have to continue living in whatever conditions you’re complaining about.’ But it should be about what we’re living, and what we’re living isn’t acceptable.”

Interestingly, the book’s release coincided with the most powerful display of direct action in Canada in recent memory. After the Royal Canadian Mounted Police invaded sovereign Wet’suwet’en land and arrested land defenders on their own territory, Indigenous communities led solidarity rallies and blockades across the country. 

In The Skin We’re In, Cole, whose parents are from Sierra Leone, links the struggles of Black people in Canada with Indigenous people. “Knowing my own history, knowing that my parents also come from a country colonized by the British, this informs my solidarity with Indigenous peoples and makes it my fight, too.”

The actions of the land defenders and their allies was perceived — as oppressed folks proactively attempting to remove a boot from their neck often is — as violent and anti-Canadian. The premier of Quebec suggested falsely that Mohawk land defenders had machine guns. “Them standing up is conceived by the country as itself being an act of violence,” says Cole. “The violence of the state is simply presumed.”

While on tour for The Skin We’re In, Cole learned about other direct actions in Black communities across the country. In particular, he connected with a group of Black youth in Hamilton, Ontario who organized a walkout in response to cuts made to a Black mentorship program at their high school. After arbitration, the program was reinstated. Some of those students were involved at Cole’s book event in Hamilton. “I’m getting to meet Black people who are doing the work all across the country, and that’s really special,” says Cole.

The 13th and final chapter of The Skin We’re In is committed to January 2018. It shares the story of Abdoul Abdi, his sister Fatouma Abdi and his aunt Asha Ali, who together with their community organized to prevent Canada from deporting Abdoul to Somalia. The story is critical and worth celebrating, but Cole points out that this 13th chapter is structurally significant, too. “The struggle doesn’t end with a year,” he tells me. “The struggle is ongoing. To end in January where we started was a way to show that the cycle isn’t complete, and that the work has to continue.”