Racial Profiling 101

Saturday 1 February 2003, by Jason GONDZIOLA


A landmark decision by the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) has led Canada Customs to adopt a pilot project that will help determine whether or not Customs uses race as a criterion for determining who is searched at Canadian borders, a practice more commonly known as racial profiling.

Legally, racial profiling is when "there is a decision to investigate someone solely on the base of religion, race, or national origin," according to Kent Roach, a professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in Canadian constitutional law.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission decision was sparked by an incident involving Selwyn Pieters, a Toronto law student and civil servant. On May 24th, 1999, Pieters was detained for five hours by Canada Customs under suspicion of possessing drugs. He was the sole black person of the 70 passengers on the train, and was the only person searched at the border crossing.

Pieters took his case to the CHRC, and was to be heard by a tribunal, but settled before the hearing began. He received an undisclosed sum of money and Customs was instructed to take appropriate measures to combat racial profiling. Anti-racism experts were hired to educate staff and Customs recently launched a pilot project to collect statistics based on race, ethnicity, and country of origin for all people searched by Customs officers. Additionally, Customs must inform suspected violators why they are being searched.

Roach sees the decision as important, but was quick to warn that this case only begins to address the problem of racial profiling. "As important as these cases are, they are only going to catch the tip of the iceberg," he said.

"My sense of it is that, on paper, Canada’s come a long way, but I think obviously there’s a lot of systemic racism that still exists," said Toronto lawyer Ziyaad Mia, a member of the Muslim Lawyers Association. "Systemically there’s racism in the sense of the backgrounds of people who are judges, who are lawyers, who are police," he said.
Mia and Roach both spoke at hearings before Parliament and the Senate in late 2001. The subject was Bill C-36, now Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act, warning that the then proposed bill could pave the way for even more severe racial profiling. Despite recommendations from a Senate committee calling for an anti-discrimination clause, the bill was adopted as law and faces an annual review later this year.

Mia and Roach felt that in the current political climate, Muslims are more likely to be profiled and intimidated by law officials, a practice that Roach feels is unfair. "[Racial profiling] is an inefficient way of targeting terrorism, in addition to it being discriminatory," he said. "It encourages people to stigmatize and stereotype people as criminal simply because of their color, where they were born, and how they worship." "It’s lazy policing," said Mia. "And really it’s insidious, because if the profile is Muslim, then what are you saying about the Islamic community?" Mia suggests shifting the focus away from racial and national markers. "Your criteria should be true markers for terrorist activity," citing group affiliation and travel patterns as two likely candidates.

"In the context of an airline, you need better technology so that everyone’s luggage is subjected to detection for bombs," said Roach. "In that context and in the border context you need better technology so that everyone is subjected to the same security measures. Hopefully with the use of technology these security measures will be effective and relatively quick."

Finally, Mia believes education is needed to address the underlying causes and effects of racial profiling. "The real challenge, to me, is to make it human," said Mia. "The only way to win this is to win over people’s opinions. All of this ultimately boils down to citizen action. We’re fortunate to live in a country like this. With all its flaws it’s still better than a lot of other countries."

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