Department of Research and Policy

Unemployed, Under-Educated, and Over-Incarcerated: The Macro-Streaming of Black Canadians

Melissa McLetchie

A major research paper submitted in conformity

 with the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts

Department of Sociology

 York University



In Canada, Black people are over-represented in jails and prisons. Our diverse population and multicultural policy are often used to challenge and ignore the ways anti-Black racism contributes to the disproportionate realities of Black-Canadians. The purpose of this report is to explore how social systems like the labour and housing market, and the education and criminal justice systems, contribute of the high levels of Black men in prison. Using critical race theory, this paper will demonstrate how anti-Black racism in Canadian society acts as the catalyst to discrimination in various social institutions. It is my hope that after reading this report, Canadian social scientists interested in exploring the causes and consequences of incarceration will be diligent to critique and question macro-level inequalities.

Introduction: From “Kingston Pen” to York U

            I recall the long and uncomfortable bus ride to the prison. It was my first time travelling out of Toronto to visit my boyfriend in jail and I didn’t know what to expect from the experience. The small bus picked me up in Scarborough, Ontario at 9 am on a Saturday morning and set out for Kingston Penitentiary. I was surprised to see that almost every seat on the bus was occupied by other women, few of whom looked like me. By the time we made the rest of our stops, the bus was at full capacity.  Prior to this journey, I had never been to Kingston, Ontario. The scenery on the way to the prison was almost hypnotizing. Tree, after tree, after tree. Town, after town, after town. No one on the bus spoke to each other. Some women slept while others attempted to entertain small, restless children. Most of the women sat silently staring out the bus windows, appearing deep in contemplation.

            After travelling for almost four hours, the occupants began to stir. Clothes were being changed and shifted, and make-up was being applied. I got the sense that we were getting closer to the prison, and my stomach was sick with anticipation.  An older woman seated across from me took two zip-lock bags out of her purse, one filled with loose change and the other held her driver’s license. She took a small vial of hand sanitizer from her bag and began to rub it on her hands and jewelry, passing it on from seat to seat. When the bottle reached me, I was confused as to what it was for.

            The woman in front of me looked back and told me that I needed to make sure I was “clean.” What did that mean? She could tell by the confused look on my face that I was new to all of this and proceeded to explain that the guards would use an “ION Scanner” to check me for drugs. I told her I didn’t do drugs and she said it didn’t matter. She explained that residue from everyday items could be on my hands or identification which may cause me to “hit” on the scanner. If this happened, I wouldn’t be able to visit that day and would be a target for the guards from then on. After travelling on the bus for four hours I didn’t want to be turned away, so I cleaned myself as I was told.

            Kingston Penitentiary looked big, grey, and cold. The bus pulled up at the front door and a few of us came off (I learned later that the bus made stops at other prisons in Kingston). We rang the buzzer and the heavy metal door “cracked.” I followed the other women as they removed their bags and personal items, placing them in available lockers. One by one we went through the process of checking our names on the visitor list, being swabbed, ION scanned, and security wanded by a guard. I was so nervous I thought I would be sick. The guards were rigid and impersonable. Being in their presence, under their gaze just made me feel guilty. Of what?… of anything!

            After the last woman had checked-in, we were led into a small waiting area and told to stand side-by-side. A drug dog was brought in to smell us for illegal substances. As the dog weaved between us, I remember thinking, “Is this really necessary?” Once the dog cleared us, a second door cracked, and we moved into the main visiting area. The room was large with about six glass tables, each surrounded by four chairs; all bolted to the floor. There was a small play-area in the corner for the children of inmates, and an outdoor area with picnic tables. One wall of the visiting room was covered in “one-way” mirrors, and there were cameras in every corner.

            Once again, the women all sat quietly waiting for their loved ones to enter the room. One by one, each woman’s somber expression was lightened at the sight of the man they had travelled so far to see. I was among them. It had been six months since I had seen my boyfriend after he was sentenced. We had spent almost every day together for two years prior to him going to prison, and the time apart was difficult on the both of us. At the end of our visit, he asked if I would come back. I thought about everything that had taken place that day and although it had been emotionally and physically exhausting, I told him that I would. After that day, I travelled eight hours, every two weeks for two-and-a-half hour visits, for five and a half years.

            It is the experiences during this time that led me to pursue a degree in sociology. My story, along with the stories of countless women and men I met at various prisons, inspired my interest in the Canadian criminal justice system. During my visits to correctional facilities in Kingston, Lindsay, and Toronto, Ontario, I noticed similarities in the demographics of correctional officers (CO) and inmates. In Kingston and Lindsay, I did not see a Black[1]-Canadian CO although I heard there were a few who were employed at the penitentiary. In the courthouses, I did not see a Black-Canadian judge, and the entire parole board (at the time), was comprised of older white women. Through listening to the narrations Black inmates told of their interactions with the police officers, lawyers, judges, and guards I began to see how their experiences with the criminal justice system varied significantly from both white and non-Black inmates.

            The community in Kingston is predominantly white and I always felt uncomfortable moving about the city. I often received nasty stares, was pointed at, and whispered about in local establishments. It was as if the white people who lived there just assumed that anyone Black in their city was visiting someone in prison. My experience in a predominantly white community caused me to wonder what it was like for my partner, a Black man, inside Kingston penitentiary surrounded by mostly white guards. I set out in my undergraduate studies to learn more about the Black experience in Canadian prisons.

            While conducting a literature review on the “Impact of Prison Education and Vocational Programs in Canada and the United States” for a fourth-year course, I was surprised by how few articles were relevant to the Canadian context. There were articles that acknowledged the overrepresentation of Black men in Canadian prisons, however, few of the studies provided empirical evidence as to why this was the case. I discussed the paucity of literature with other Black students looking for information on the Black-Canadian experience, and it became clear to me that our realities were being overlooked and under-studied. But why? As a Black-Canadian academic who has spent many years visiting family and friends in prison, I was curious to know how researchers understood my experience and that of my recently released partner.

            For me, this gap in the literature could only be explained by anti-Black racism, an issue that has caused hinderances throughout my life. In 2017, a report titled “The Black Experience Project” was released which examined “the lived experiences of people who self-identify as Black and/or of African heritage living in the Greater Toronto Area, or GTA (the City of Toronto and the regions of York, Durham, Peel, and Halton) (p. 7). This report is the most recent comprehensive study to explore what is means to be Black in Ontario. While the report is beneficial to my understanding of the successes and challenges of Black people individually and collectively, it doesn’t directly tackle the causes of the high levels of Black men in Canadian prisons or the impact of their incarceration on their families and communities.

In 2013, the Office of the Correctional Investigator released a report on “The Black Inmate Experience in Federal Penitentiaries” which found anti-Black racism to be prevalent within Canadian prisons (pp. 28-29). However, these findings once again don’t discuss the systemic causes of the overrepresentation of Black men in prison. Given the socio-political interest around anti-Blackness and criminal justice in the GTA, I am surprised that I was unable to find a Canadian study that explored how anti-Black racism and incarceration are interconnected.  In the United States, there are numerous studies that explore these implications and compound the experiences of discrimination found in the labour and housing market, as well as in the education and criminal justice systems.

As a Black-Canadian academic, I feel a moral and cultural responsibility to shine a light on this interconnection from a Canadian perspective. I began by asking what has led to my experience (and that of many other Black-Canadians) of having to support family members and friends in prison? In this MRP, I will use existing literature from Canada and the United States, along with my own experiences through storytelling, to answer the following question:

How do social institutions in Canada contribute to the overrepresentation of Black men in Canadian prisons?

            It is my hope that by earnestly and honestly exploring the Black-Canadian experience, we can begin to permanently change the discourses, policies, and practices that are perpetuated by anti-Black racism in this country. In this paper, I will use the definition of anti-Black racism (AB-R) provided in “The Black Experience Project” report which states:

Anti-Black racism is prejudice, attitudes, beliefs, stereotyping and discrimination that is directed at people of African descent and is rooted in their unique history and experience of enslavement. Anti-Black racism is deeply entrenched in Canadian institutions, policies and practices, such that anti-Black racism is either functionally normalized or rendered invisible to the larger white society. (p. 22)

Theoretical Framework

Critical Race Theory will be the main perspective used in this major research paper because of its ability to “deconstruct oppressive structures and discourses, reconstruct human agency, and construct equitable and socially just relations of power (Ladson-Billings, 1998, p. 9). Within this framework, the concept of “intersectionality” is significant to this report as it highlights how Black men and women are “multiply-burdened” (Crenshaw, 1989, p. 140) by racist and sexist policies and practices throughout various social institutions. Intersectionality will be used to explore the multi-faceted dimensions of the Black-Canadian experience.

In this report will use storytelling to demonstrate how AB-R has impacted my life along with the lives of other Black-Canadians around me. The practice of storytelling is often used in CRT to provide a counter-narrative to the dominant discourses around race. Stories are deemed important in CRT primarily because, “they add necessary contextual contours to the seeming ‘objectivity’ of positivist perspectives (Ladson-Billings, 1998, p. 10). My experiences as a Black person in Canada will not only challenge the idea that multicultural policies are widely practiced and supported, but these experiences will also highlight the short comings of our current system.

By using Critical Race Theory in my exploration of the causes of the high levels of Black men in Canadian prisons, I can gain a better understanding of how, “a regime of white supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been created and maintained” (Ladson-Billings, 1998, p. 12), which can hopefully lead to a “change (in) the bond that exists between law and racial power (Ladson-Billings, 1998, p. 12). CRT challenges mainstream liberal assumptions of a just and equitable society in which all citizens have equal access to opportunities, and the potential for success is solely based on hard work.  In other words, CRT “draws attention to the ways a system of racism operates to marginalize people of colour in a context supported by inequitable policies and practices, and to the challenges presented by liberal ideas of objectivity, neutrality, color-blindness and meritocracy” (Schroeter & James, 2015, p. 21).

Some of the scholars referenced in this research paper, like Rinaldo Walcott and Robyn Maynard, would not consider themselves to be critical race scholars. Their work comes from a tradition of Black Canadian studies which theorizes the Black Canadian as “wholly outside the biological and the national” (Walcott, 2003, p. 103).  Like these scholars I also consider the “Black Canadian” identity to be “syncretic, always in revision and in a process of becoming; constituted from multiple histories of uprootedness, migration, exchanges and political acts of defiance and self-(re)definition” (Walcott, 2003, p. 103). Both CRT and traditional Black Canadian studies are significant to my exploration of the causes of the high levels on Black men in Canadian prions because they highlight the historical and contemporary obstacles encountered by Black individuals and communities in this country.

The first section of this research paper will be used to situate Blackness within a Canadian context. I will begin by exploring how Canada’s history of AB-R through colonial laws and practices impacted the lives of the earliest Black inhabitants in this country, subjecting them to harsh and oppressive conditions. Using the recent “Black Experience Project” report, I will then examine what it means to be Black in a contemporary colonial society. From here I will explore AB-R as it is experienced in the labour and housing markets, and the education and criminal justice systems in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). I will use available literature to highlight the consequences of AB-R in each of these social institutions, and how they work to compound the Black-Canadian experience contributing to the disproportionate level of Black men in prison today. 

From here I will move onto discuss the social consequences of removing large numbers of Black men from their families and communities, concluding by encouraging social scientists who explore instances of inequality (particularly in the criminal justice system) to look beyond Canada’s multicultural policies to critically question how AB-R contributes to the disproportionate levels and unique experiences of Black-Canadian men in our jails and prisons. Anti-Blackness is the main discourse linking the generational path of inequality and discrimination from employment all the way to the incarceration. It is evident in all social institutions (employment, housing, education, and criminal justice) which operate in the macro-streaming of Black-Canadians into subordinate circumstances.

In this MRP, “macro-streaming” is defined as the process by which social institutions through their discriminatory policies and practices, intentionally segregate individuals into various life-courses based on their ethno-racial differences. In this process, opportunities are not equal, and some ethno-racial groups experience a more favorable life outcome over others.  The term “macro” will be used to signify the larger society and the institutions/structures that keep it functioning accordingly (labour and housing markets, education and criminal justice systems). And the term “streaming” will be used to signify the interconnected flow of racialization and marginalization experienced by Black-Canadians throughout these institutions/structures.  “Macro-streaming” will be the term used to expose the way anti-Black racism in Canadian society acts as the catalyst to discrimination in various social institutions, accounting for the disproportionate outcomes of Black-Canadians.

Blackness as “Foreign”: Anti-Blackness in Canadian Society

In a Canadian context, writing blackness is a scary scenario: we are an absented presence always under erasure”.

Rinaldo Walcott

For months I have tried to put into words what it is like to be Black in Canada. Over this time, I considered approaching this challenge with statistics to show the disproportionate outcomes for Black-Canadians, however that approach felt far too impersonal. As I sit pondering my Blackness in this country, my mind drifts off to the numerous instances throughout my life where I was “Othered” by whites and non-Black minorities. The memories I was confronted with have helped me to answer the question: What does it mean to be Black in Canada?

Being Black in Canada is often a contradictory existence. It means having an elderly white-European woman call you “nigger,” while another complements the texture of your hair. It means embracing the cultures of other minorities while they openly reject your own (unless it relates to music or fashion). Being Black in Canada means having your white-European “guidance” counsellor in high school tell you that you shouldn’t consider attending university because “most Black people don’t do well,” while other white teachers reinforce to the class that “the sky is the limit” and we can “achieve anything we put our minds to.” It is a country where some white-European politicians attend Caribbean festivals donning brightly-coloured costumes, while others visit predominantly Black neighborhoods donning bullet-proof vests (Hayes, 2018).

 For me, being Black in Canada is a love-hate relationship at times. On the one hand, you feel proud to live in a country that has internationally respected Human Rights[2] and Multicultural[3] policies, and on the other you’re infuriated by the way those same policies are manipulated and corrupted to ignore your humanity. Canada is a country where the historical contributions of Black people are often ignored, slavery is heavily denied, and skin colour makes Black-Canadians prone to discrimination in every sector of society. In other words, “to be black and at home in Canada is both to belong and not belong” (Walcott, 2003, p. 147), to be Black in Canada, is to be in the nation, but not necessarily of the nation.

While most people would reject the idea that races exist as genetic categories, the fact remains that biological differences are used to group individuals within society. Even with our historical understanding of how races were constructed, and the disastrous consequences biological determinism and racial essentialism has had on Jews, Blacks, and other groups, our society continues to perpetuate many of the same ideologies. We give power to the concept of “races” because “we pick out certain features, such as skin colour, decide to notice them, and not others, and ascribe importance to them usually in a negative way” (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017, p. 476)

 As of 2016, the Black population in Canada accounted for 3.5% of the entire Canadian population and 15.6% of the visible minority population (Statistics Canada, 2019, p. 4). Of those who identified as Black, 56.4% were first generation Canadians and 35% were second-generation (Statistics Canada, 2019, p. 5). The vast majority or Black-Canadians live in Central Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) like Toronto (7.5%) and Montreal (6.8%), but these numbers differ significantly in terms of cities like Halifax (3.8%), Winnipeg (3.6%), or Vancouver (1%) (Statistics Canada, 2019, p. 16). As the province with the largest Black population in the country (4.7%) (Statistics Canada, 2019, p. 17), instances of AB-R in Ontario are more prevalent (Under Suspicion, 2017a, p. 4).

In Canada, Blackness is criminalized in much the same way as it is in the United States. Black children are disproportionately represented in protective care (Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, 2015), Black youth are suspended and expelled from schools at higher rates than any other group in Toronto (Zheng & De Jesus, 2017, p. 25), and Black men are overrepresented in Canadian prisons (Canada & Bureau de l’Enquêteur correctionnel, 2013). Our conception of “race” is so embedded into society that even the most enlightened, anti-colonial supporters among us find it difficult to escape the language of oppression. Thus,

We develop notions of “conceptual whiteness” and “conceptual blackness” that both do and do not map neatly onto bio-genetic or cultural allegiances. Conceptual categories like “school achievement,’” “middle classness,”  “maleness,” “beauty,” “intelligence,” and “science” become normative categories of whiteness, while categories like “gangs” “welfare recipients,” “basketball players,” and “the underclass” become the marginalized and de-legitimated categories of blackness (Ladson-Billings, 1998, p. 9).

The objective of my MRP is to enlighten readers (specifically the non-Black or those who hold strongly to Canada’s supposed egalitarianism) to the harsh realities of many Black-Canadians. It would be impossible for me to conceptualize Blackness as it pertains to all Black people in Canada because Blackness is not a homogenous identity. Any attempt at such categorization would inevitably result in a fictitious catalogue (Walcott, 2003, p. 15). As such, in this section of my research paper I highlight strategies of erasure used by the settler-colonial Nation State of Canada (both historically and contemporarily) to silence the Black voice while perpetuating instances of AB-R. The calculated erasure of Black people from Canada’s history has worked to delegitimize Blackness and any claim we have to this country. Blackness in Canada is viewed as a threat to its image as a pure, peacekeeping, equal-rights-loving nation, therefore justifying the removal of Black-Canadians through the stereotype of criminality and foreignness.

            For me to truly understand Blackness, and how its devalued social position impacts the lives of Black people generally, I must first understand how it has impacted me specifically. As a cis-gendered heterosexual Black woman, the way that I have come to know who I am within Canadian society has not always been an easy or safe journey. I grew up hating the darkness of my skin and the texture of my hair primarily because the world around me celebrated an image of beauty and social acceptability that was the opposite to what I saw when I looked in the mirror. Although my parents reinforced the significance of my ancestral Blackness, I never saw any real-life representation of what I was taught at home. I do not have a single memory of ever having a Black teacher throughout elementary and/or high school or learning about the history and contributions of Black-Canadians.

            My life story is critical to my research on the high levels of Black men in Canadian prisons because the hyper-visibility of my skin makes me susceptible to unique experiences that may cause (at any time) my imprisonment. According to Corradi (1991), “life stories ascribe cognitive values to human experience” (p. 106), which moves our understanding of social phenomena beyond in-depth literature reviews. As a Black-Canadian academic, my experiences of marginalization can be used as a “second-sight,” which W.E.B. Du Bois conceptualizes as the unique opportunity of racialized researchers to “identify patterns, conceptual ideas, and mechanisms of domination that may have otherwise gone undetected” (p. 3) in Hordge-Freeman (2018). My emotional connection to Blackness and its impact on the function of Canadian institutions enhances my perspective around racialized social phenomena including imprisonment.

It could be argued that “second-sight” produces a biased understanding of such phenomena, however when it comes to AB-R within Canadian society and abroad, there is a diasporic connection that validates every experience. The racism experienced by other visible minorities “pales in comparison to the wide-ranging exploitation and dehumanization suffered by Blacks throughout the history of Canada” (Mensah, 2010, p. 3). Black people are the target of every social institution in this country, from employment and housing, to education, the justice system, and even the media. The structure of society has created a veil which “prevents the full recognition of the humanity of racialized groups”, thus contributing to a “double-consciousness” for Black people in which they are “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (Itzigsohn & Brown, 2015, p. 237). This structural “veil” acts as an invisible cloak obscuring many whites and non-Black minorities from the subtle and overt instances of racism experienced by Black-Canadians every day. For no matter how articulately Black people describe their experiences, the white world “either does not hear, or completely misrecognizes what the people within the veil try to convey” (Itzigsohn & Brown, 2015, p. 237).

Unfortunately, AB-R has existed in Canada for centuries. The enslavement of Black people in this country is often over-shadowed by the practice of slavery and Jim Crow segregation in the United States:

One of our most enduring Canadian national myths is that there is less racism here than in the United States, however, historical records and contemporary comparative studies suggest that, when it comes to the treatment of racial minorities, Canada has a disreputable past and present (Mensah, 2010, p. 2).

 In Canada, slavery is presented as a minor historical event that has had little to no significance in the lives of Black peoples past and present. Non-Black Canadians often downplay the severity of the practice of slavery in this country by focusing on the unsuitability of Canadian climate for “large-scale plantation agriculture” (Amadahy & Lawrence, 2009, p. 114). However, the cold climate did not prevent white-Europeans from actively seeking to purchase Black people as domestic slaves. In “The Negro in Canada” (1930) Ida Greaves refers to a letter from 1763 written by General Murray, the first Governor of Quebec, who wrote to New York requesting slaves. In the letter he writes, “Without servants…nothing can be done, and Canadians will work for nobody but themselves. Black slaves are certainly the only people to be depended upon” (Greaves, 1930, p. 11).  General Murray’s request suggests that slavery was a central component of white settlement in Canada and demonstrates just how intertwined the settler colonial project was with slavery. Therefore, to acknowledge colonialism but deny the existence of slavery is illogical.

The fact that Black people were depended on as domestic slaves maintains the “ideas of the value of Black lives and the role of Black persons in a white settler society” (Maynard, 2017, p. 27). In Canada, domestic slavery became a practice of the wealthy which worked to establish a socio-economic hierarchy that has had significant consequences for Black people and communities to this very day. According to Joseph Mensah (2010) “because of their high visibility and the legacy of slavery, Blacks are stigmatized and discriminated against in a fashion that drastically undermines their social and economic status in Canada” (Mensah, 2010, p. 3). Given their small numbers in comparison to the larger Canadian population, it is disheartening to see the way social institutions directly target Black people individually and collectively.  

As Canadians, we routinely compare ourselves to our neighbours to the south, often negating racial inequalities with a colour-blind attitude. However, instances of discrimination based on race hold severe social, political, and economic consequences for Black-Canadian men and women. Throughout the history of Canada there have been overt and subtle (yet significant) instances of state violence against Black people that continues to have dire consequence. Tough-on-crime policing initiatives which target predominantly Black communities, along with AB-R in schools, workplaces, housing markets, and in the media, have contributed to the substandard social position of Black people in Canada (Zinger, 2016; James, 2012; Turner, 2015; Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2008; Crichlow, 2014).

Although there are commonalities in the everyday experiences of Black-Canadians, “Blackness” differs “across history, gender, sex, class, sense of belonging, desire and ambition” (Walcott, 2003, p. 149), and space. Blackness in Canada is a beautifully painful existence in which Black existence is openly questioned and contested, while simultaneously hyper-visible and unseen. Blackness is always moving and expanding to create new realities, and these realities aim to counteract dominant colonial representations of Blackness that only reinforce white supremacy.

No matter how problematic it may be for whites or other visible minorities in Canada to accept or admit, the overrepresentation of Black men in our prisons is the consequence of AB-R in this country. Black-Canadian scholars like Rinaldo Walcott and Joseph Mensah (among many others) have acknowledged the existence of AB-R throughout the history of this country, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged it most recently (Morgan, 2018). Anti-Black racism is detrimental because of its existence amidst supposedly egalitarian policies which boast the support and encouragement of a multicultural society. Anti-racism scholars argue that “racism is remarkably resilient because it is both systemic and shaped by individual agency (Gillborn, 2018, p. 67). The attitude that all citizens are treated equally and have equal access to opportunities works to maintain a racialized social order by silencing and negating the Black experience of racism in this country.

As difficult as it may be at times to be a Black-Canadian, I take extreme pride in the resiliency of Black people. Over oceans and across many lands, Black people have continued to survive and strive amidst blatantly racist and oppressive social structures. Blackness is important because it represents a culture that emancipated Africans in the America’s and the Caribbean were able to cultivate out of heinous circumstances. Every aspect of Black culture from music, to dance, hair styles, food, clothing, and even natural hair and skin treatments, has been usurped and commodified by whites and non-Blacks worldwide. The very things that Africans were once ridiculed for and forced to abandon, are now appropriated by the descendants of their oppressors. If only societies loved Black people as much as they love Black culture.

It has taken decades to develop the mélange that is “Blackness” or Black culture in the Americas.  Many Black people have died and been imprisoned in the struggle to rebrand their identity into something they could be proud of. However, no single individual or social movement has been able to rid society of the deep-rooted negative perception of Black people in Canada, the United States, or elsewhere for that matter. And the discriminatory practices in many spheres of Canadian life, including education, housing, law enforcement, and employment (Mensah, 2010, p. 3), have all contributed to particular outcomes for Black people and their communities. In the following sections of this paper, I will use studies conducted in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to demonstrate how anti-Black racism works to interconnect discrimination through processes of macro-streaming experienced in the labour and housing markets, and the education and criminal justice systems, contributing to the high level of Black men in prison today.  

The Path to Poverty: Anti-Blackness in the Canadian Labour Market

Although I knew that I was qualified for the job, I was slightly uncomfortable being the only Black person in the waiting room. About 20 minutes after my arrival a friendly-looking white man walked out of the office with a clipboard in his hand. “Melissa McLetchie” he called out. I arose from my seat and walked toward him. The expression on his face shifted to one of confusion as he looked me up-and-down, then back to the paper in front of him. “Melissa McLetchie?” he said again, this time more as an inquiry. I reached my hand out to shake his. “Yes”, I said with a smile. As I sat across from his desk, I mentally prepared myself to answer questions about my qualifications. The interviewer looked up at me and said “McLetchie… you don’t look like a McLetchie. Where did you get that name from?”

 I didn’t get the job.

Millions of Black people have emigrated to Canada from various parts of the world in the hope of a better future for themselves and their children. They leave their home countries often because of limited “economic, social, and educational opportunities” (James, 2009, p. 92), expecting to experience the tolerance and inclusivity Canada is reputably known for.  According to a recent Statistics Canada report on “Ethnocultural Diversity and Inclusion” (2019), “net international migration is the main driver of population growth in Ontario” (Arora, 2019, p. 9).  In 2016, 29.1% (3,852) of the population in Ontario were immigrants, the majority of whom reside in Toronto (46.1%) (Arora, 2019, pp. 10–11). Individuals from the Caribbean and Africa have represented one of the smallest populations of recent[4] immigrants to Ontario since 1971, compared to individuals from Asia (including Middle East) (Arora, 2019, p. 12).

The low migration rates from Caribbean and African countries is reflective of Canada’s history of openly discriminatory immigration policies. Prior to 1962, these policies “restrict[ed] entry for immigrants from developing countries, with a view on ensuring that no alteration was made to the character of the population through migration” (Branker, 2017, p. 204). In 1967, the Canadian government abolished discriminatory immigration policies which opened the door to minority populations, however “discrimination still exists in many forms and negatively affects labour market outcomes for racialized immigrants” (Branker, 2017, p. 204). Employment is a key factor in the economic, political, and social mobility of Black people. However, securing a job as an African/Caribbean immigrant or first- and second- generation Canadian is often easier said than done. According to Carl James (2009):

Caribbean immigrants are not experiencing the same kind of integration into the Canadian society as the European immigrants before them, and relatedly do not experience the kind of economic success, and by extension upward social mobility, that is commensurate with their qualifications in relation to their education, profession, and skills” (p. 92).

The discourse and practice of anti-Blackness adds an additional barrier to an already competitive labour market. While the unemployment rate is higher for male and female immigrants than for the Canadian-born, “these rates narrow when isolating the influence of key social and ethnocultural characteristics” (Arora, 2019, p. 26) such as visible minority status. Both immigrant and Canadian-born Blacks were the highest percentage of working poor in 2016 (Hulchanski, 2019, p. 14), as well as being the ethno-racial group with the second-highest unemployment rate (12.2%) in Toronto CMA (Hulchanski, 2019, p. 16).

Black Women in the Labour Market

Canada’s history of Black domestic servitude is deeply rooted and “many African-Caribbean Canadian women continue to work as caregivers and unskilled employees (many in the service industry) despite their level of education” (James, 2009, p. 96). These positions are often under-paid and over-worked, making it difficult for Black women – especially those who are sole-support parents, or the only working adults in the home – to provide for their families (McBride, 1999, p. 18). Black immigrant women find themselves at the intersection of discrimination, and a double disadvantage in the labour market caused by the negative cumulative effect of gender and race-based discrimination, or they are considered ‘triply disadvantaged’ where the negative effects are also associated with being foreign-born” (Branker, 2017, p. 206).

 In 2016,  8.1% of immigrant women were unemployed compared to 5.1% of non-immigrant women (Arora, 2019, p. 27).  Although Canadian-born women show a higher rate of employment than immigrant women, the stereotype of Black-Canadians as foreigners regardless of their Canadian birth could be a mitigating factor. Second-generation Black-Canadians are often presumed to be immigrants even though they were born in this country, whereas white residents are typically perceived as local, as bodies that belong, unless specific markers (like accents) suggest otherwise (Creese, 2019, p. 4).

Black Men in the Labour Market

Black-Canadian men are also negatively impacted by AB-R in the labour-market. While being male may help to exempt them from instances of gender-based discrimination they still encounter obstacles fueled by other stereotypes. Branker (2016) in his study on “the lived experiences of immigrants in Toronto from Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago” (p. 203) argues that “many of Canada’s Black immigrants believed that their failure to obtain employment opportunities is linked to race-based stereotyping and that they had to work harder than other employees to retain their job (p. 211). The stereotype of Black inferiority, laziness, and criminality reduces the employment opportunities for immigrant and Canadian-born Black men and male youth. Black youth are being streamed into low-skilled jobs, where the potential for upward mobility and economic security are beyond scarce.

            Immigrant men with university degrees from outside Canada or the US are over represented in positions that require a high school diploma or less (Arora, 2019, p. 31). Some employers harbor the assumption that immigrants are incapable of doing high-skilled work, and immigrants of colour encounter added discrimination based on their race.  Below, a male Guyanese participant from Branker’s (2016) study narrates his experience during an interview with a potential employer:

When I first applied for a job here, the man who interviewed me said to me that this job requires intelligence, skills and knowledge, he went through a whole litany of things; and then he said to me ‘I do not think that you possess any of these qualities.’ And this position was one of the lower level positions in the organization. I think that that decision he made was based on my race (p. 211).

Creese and Wiebe (2009) attribute the overrepresentation of immigrants in low-skilled jobs to their willingness to accept “survival jobs” which are needed primarily to “ensure basic economic survival” (p. 61). These jobs were described by participants in their study[5] as “low skilled, low-wage, insecure, contingent forms of employment; work that usually did not provide an adequate minimal standard of living” (Creese & Wiebe, 2012, p. 62). In the Canadian labour market Blackness holds little social capital and employers either openly exploit people of colour or refuse to hire them altogether.


Racial biases have extreme consequences for Black people and their communities.  Concentrated racialization “makes it socially meaningful to regard people on racial grounds, and attributes social value to people according to racial origin (Li, 2008, p. 22). As a result, Black immigrants and those Canadian-born are either macro-streamed into unskilled and precarious employment positions or denied employment altogether. The higher rate of under/unemployment in Black communities “is likely to be reflected in their incomes and economic status” (James, 2009, p. 99). Given their level of income, many more African and Afro-Caribbean Canadians in general were classified as living below the poverty line than other Canadians (James, 2009, p. 100). The labour-market discrimination experienced by African and Caribbean immigrants negatively impacts the life outcomes of their second-generation Canadian-born children. In the following section, I will explore how anti-Black racism in the housing market works to relegate Black people into poorer neighborhoods, thus continuing the macro-streaming process of Black-Canadians.

“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”: Anti-Blackness in Housing

“Ghetto”, “At-risk”, “Priority”, and “The Projects”, are all terms used (both officially and unofficially) to refer to community spaces where racialized people reside.  Black-Canadian communities continue to be spaces of higher under/unemployment, poverty, and crime. These communities “have been subjected to discriminatory employment and labour practices while receiving little state support…which has cemented their economic subjugation” (Maynard, 2017, p. 72).  Neighbourhood spaces become racialized when higher concentrations of a particular race reside there, and as a result they experience increased levels of surveillance and stigmatization.

A study, by University of Toronto professor J. David Hulchanski (2010), “focus[ed] on who lives where, based on the socio-economic status of the residents in each neighbourhood, and how the average status of the residents in each neighbourhood has changed over a 35-year period” (Hulchanski, University of Toronto, & Cities Centre, 2011, p. 3). Hulchanski’s study found drastic changes to the neighborhood composition of the Central Metropolitan Area of Toronto (CMAT). Between 1970 and 2005, the CMAT has been divided into three distinct sub-cities (City #1-high income, City #2- middle income, and City #3-low income), each with a distinct socio-economic and racial composition, along with its own unique infrastructure.

            The segregated composition of the CMAT further compounds the experiences and outcomes of Black-Canadians. Anti-Black racism experienced in the labour-market inevitably impacts the types of housing Black-Canadians (both immigrant and first/second generation) can afford. According to Hulchanski (2010), Middle income neighborhoods (City #2) have been replaced by lower income neighborhoods (City #3), by an overall increase of 20% (p.11). Additionally, City #3 (the lower income parts of the city) also have a higher immigrant population, an increase “from 31% of the population in 1970 to 61% in 2006” (p. 11). Almost half of the residents in City #3 (47% ) are visible minorities (Black, Chinese, or South Asian), compared to only 11% in City #1 (high income neighbourhood) (Hulchanski et al., 2011, p. 11). In a more recent report, “How Segregated is Toronto? Inequality, Polarization, and Segregation Trends and Processes” Hulchanski (2019) shows that in 2016, the Black population in City #3 was 13% although Blacks were only 7.5% of the Central Metropolitan Area (CMA) (pp. 23, 24).

Neighbourhood polarization based on income has since worsened to include very high earners and those living in extreme poverty. Ironically, Toronto’s poorest and most vulnerable residents live in communities that make it more difficult to find a job. Hulchanski (2011) found that in the neighbourhoods with the lowest average income, residents have to travel farther to find employment, yet they have the poorest access to the Toronto Transit Commission’s subway stations (p. 11). By limiting economic resources and employment opportunities it becomes almost impossible for the conditions in Black communities to improve.

The immobility of poor people of colour contributes to the way their environments are discussed and engaged with. When Toronto Mayor John Tory and MPP Michael Tibollo went on a tour through the Jane and Finch (a predominantly Black community) wearing bullet-proof vests (Hayes, 2018), they reinforced the racial ideology that communities of colour are unsafe, and their residents are criminals. The fact that the director of a government initiative that seeks “to build a more inclusive society, and works to identify, address and prevent systemic racism in government policy, legislation, and programs and services” (“Anti-Racism Directorate,” 2018) would contribute to the stigmatization of an already racialized community, gives little hope for the end of institutional and structural violence against Black peoples. The demonization of Black communities “has been largely accomplished by age-old associations between Blackness and criminality” (Maynard, 2017, p. 84).


Other than Indigenous people, no other racialized group in the GTA encounters more barriers to upward mobility than Black people. Among non-immigrants, being Black has an aggravating effect on poverty, whereas for all other immigrants, belonging to any of the four categories of visible minority [Black, South Asian, Chinese, and others] has no such impact. (Kazemipur & Halli, 2008, p. 234). The fact that Black people and their communities have not been completely eradicated says a lot about their strength and resiliency. The States attempt to balance the scales of opportunity in racialized neighbourhoods by increasing their surveillance under the label of “at risk” or “priority” only works to further stigmatize already pressed communities.

“At risk” communities are inhabited by “at risk” individuals whose children end up attending “at risks schools.” Being under/unemployed and forced to live in poverty segregated communities pushes Black children and youth into schools that are not equipped to deal with the magnitude of their oppression, resulting in disproportionate dropout rates (Dei, 2008, p. 351). Black students become disengaged from a curriculum that isn’t reflective of their everyday realities, Additionally, they become frustrated when they find themselves encountering similar levels of surveillance in school as they do in their communities. AB-R continues the macro-streaming process into the Canadian public education system. Unequal labour market opportunities potentially leads to disproportionate educational outcomes for Black children and youth, due to the types of neighbourhoods their parents can afford to live in.

(Mis)Education and (Mis)Representation: Anti-Blackness in Ontario Public Schools

It is one thing to position a subject or set of peoples as the Other of a dominant discourse. It is quite another thing to subject them to that “knowledge.”

Stuart Hall, in “black looks: race and representation”, bell hooks (2015)

My family immigrated to Toronto, Canada from the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago in 1987. I was four years old. In grade one, my teacher pulled me to the side one day and said, “You need to start speaking proper English now that you’re in Canada.” As a six-year-old I was confused by her statement because “English” was the only language I spoke. This memory is my earliest experience of AB-R in the Canadian education system. As a new immigrant, I was constantly ridiculed by my elementary school teachers for “not speaking properly”, because my accent caused my “three” to come out as “tree”, among other differences. My father (a retired high school teacher) always reinforced the idea to my siblings and I that school was important, and we were expected to do well. When my grade two teacher called him into discuss my homework style, it was met with much resistance. I can remember being physically upset because I was torn between obeying my father’s Caribbean style of “showing my work” in mathematical questions, versus my teachers’ Western style.

 My experience of being “Othered” by the Canadian education system because I was a new immigrant is echoed by Schroeter and James (2015) in their study on the schooling experiences of French-speaking Black African-Born refugee students in Canada. Their study focuses on:

African-born students with refugee experiences in a separate programme noting how their identities as migrant, racialized, and ethnic Others operated to inform teachers’ perceptions and reactions to them, the students’ perceptions of, and interactions with their teachers and peers, their participation in school, and their educational outcomes (Schroeter & James, 2015, p. 21).

Although these refugee youth spoke one of Canada’s official languages, they were

segregated from the general student population, an administrative decision that worked to distinguish them as inferior “outsiders”, who are not a part of mainstream “Canadian” culture. Similarly, I can recall my Caribbean comrades throughout elementary, middle, and high school being singled out for English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. I vividly remember newly immigrated Jamaican children and youth being removed from our class and sent to the ESL room for “special lessons.” When I asked a classmate of mine, what they did in the other class, he responded, “baby work.”

One could argue that the Canadian public education system has become more tolerant and inclusive since then, and they would be right in some respects. While Blacks are a smaller portion of the population in the GTA, Black students accounted for 12% of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) high school population in the 2006–2011 cohort (James & Turner, 2017, p. 27). Increased immigration has diversified the population of learners in the GTA, however “changes in schools have not kept pace with changes in demographics” (Dei, 2008, p. 347). The colonial belief linking Blackness to inferiority and lacking of intelligence has contributed to the disproportionate streaming of Black youth into lower education tracks (Maynard, 2017, p. 214),  and increased surveillance measures in school have worked to increase the stereotype of criminality (James, 2012, p. 482). The Eurocentric structure of the Canadian public school curriculum highlights the insignificance of African and Indigenous history within Canada’s national story.

Racialized students experience invisibility within the curriculum, and the predominantly White-European composition of school educators and administrators, continues to negatively affect them (Maynard, 2017, p. 216) .  The lack of ethno-racial diversity among teachers and school administrators is not reflective of Canada’s multicultural mythology, thus schools are reinforcing social norms that dictate who is legitimate, not only within the learning environment, but also within macro social spaces. Lack of teacher diversity, the un-inclusionary curriculum, the practice of streaming, and “zero tolerance” policies all contribute to the alarmingly different educational experiences of Black students in Ontario.

Teacher Diversity

            A 2015 study on teacher diversity and experiences of Black educators in the Ontario public school system found that a “large demographic divide [existed] between teachers and students of colour in the province” (Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators, 2015, p. 12). In Ontario, the province with the largest racialized population in Canada, only 25% of all public school teachers in 2011 were racialized individuals. Of this 25% there is no data to indicate what proportions are Black-Canadians as the information is not disaggregated by race.

            A number of trends emerged during the interviews with Black educators in the study including discrimination in the hiring and promotion processes (favouritism and nepotism specifically), negative stereotypes of Blacks projected toward Black educators (aggressive, threatening, intimidating), and micro-aggressions (racist “jokes”, use of the “N” word, marginalization, and isolation). More than half of the educators who participated in the study agreed that racism affects advancement opportunities given to Black teachers (60%), that racism and racial discrimination affects the ability of Black teachers to find employment within their school board (51%), and that racism and racial discrimination affect the ability of Black teachers to find employment in Ontario (66%) (Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators, 2015, p. 38).

            The Ontario public school system is failing Black students when it denies them the opportunity to learn from and engage with Black teachers. Black educators aren’t the cure to the disproportionate outcomes for Black students in Ontario, however, they are significant to their educational experiences. As one study participant put it:

Black educators bring an experience that no other group can bring to the classroom. Here are a few of those experience: 1) The black parents and students see the black educator as a role model; 2) This presence encourages the black student to aspire to achieve (Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators, 2015, p. 45).

            Ontario public schools need to have faculty members that are reflective of the diversity of their student population. Black educators are a key component of any faculty not solely based on their ability to connect with the Black student population, but the additional perspectives and experiences they bring to the teaching/learning process.

The Exclusionary Curriculum

What children and youth learn in school is directly related to the dominant culture around them. In our society, racial hierarchies significantly influence what youth are taught, and who is doing the teaching. The school curriculum acts as the manuscript to maintaining white supremacy by uplifting and celebrating the achievements of the colonizer, while diminishing and ignoring the existence of the colonized. As a youth, the Canadian public school curriculum had me believing that my heritage began with slavery, and completely disregarded the ancestral legacies of my African ancestors. The knowledge Canadian children and youth acquire about Black people in North American is derived primarily from the American Civil Rights Movement, with little to no mention of the contributions Black-Canadians. This “master-scripting” of the Canadian public school curriculum:

Silences multiple voices and perspectives, primarily legitimizing dominant, white, upper-class, male voicings as the “standard’’ knowledge students need to know. All other accounts and perspectives are omitted from the master script unless they can be disempowered through misrepresentation (Ladson-Billings, 1998, p. 18).

 By the time Black children have reached high school, they are sick and tired of the regurgitated “Black history” they have been spoon-fed their entire lives; Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Rosa Parks. While the contributions of these three historical figures are immeasurable, it still begs the questions: Is there nothing else to learn? Is this all that we are? Who were we, and what were we doing prior to our enslavement?  The erasure of Black people from the Canadian public school curriculum is a well-crafted plan to maintain the subordination of Black students through misinformation and misrepresentation.


Programs of Study: Unbalanced Streams

               In Ontario high schools, there are three levels of academic study available to students: Academic, Applied, and Locally Developed/Essentials. Students are “classified into [a] program of study according to the majority of courses taken (James & Turner, 2017, p. 29). The types of courses that a student takes (and the stream they are consequentially classified into) has significant implications on their future outcomes. Academic courses “are the most academically challenging and are required for University Preparedness courses taken in Grades 11 and 12. This program of study is required if the student intends to apply to university” (James & Turner, 2017, p. 29). Applied courses “prepare students for College Preparedness courses in Grades 11 and 12 and to enter college after high school” (James & Turner, 2017, p. 29), and the Locally Developed/Essentials program of study “provide students with flexibility and support in meeting compulsory credit requirements. It helps students meet their educational needs if they are not working at grade level” (James & Turner, 2017, p. 29), these students are unable to attend college or university directly after high school.

            In their study “Towards Race and Equity in Education: The Schooling of Black Students in the Greater Toronto Area”, James and Turner found that Black students in the 2006-2011 cohort were the lowest proportion of the “Academic” stream (53%), and the highest proportion of both the “Applied” (39%) and “Essentials” (95%) streams (p. 29). The report also showed that less Black students graduate (69%) and more drop-out (20%), compared to other-racialized and white students (James & Turner, 2017, p. 31). These rates are reflective of an education system that is not meeting the needs of Black students and is instead setting them up for future hardships.  

Black male students from a Peel District School Board report, “Perspectives of Black Male Students in Secondary School: Understanding the Successes and Challenges” (2016), shared instances of racial discrimination from teachers or other students. One theme that emerged from the participants perceptions and experiences was that:

Teachers and students hold low academic expectations for Black students. Some non-Black students and teachers show surprise or disbelief when Black students do well or receive a good grade, while others suspect that Black students cheat if they perform well on an assignment or test. Students make offensive remarks when Black students succeed in school (e.g., “you talk white,” “you’re a smart Black guy”) (p. 5).

The stereotype that Black people are unintelligent contributes to Black students not being encouraged and supported to pursue academically challenging courses. The streaming of Black youth into lower education tracks acts as a form of “second generation segregation” (Maynard, 2017, p. 216) perpetuating inequality by limiting future employment opportunities for one group over another. Thus, contributing to and reinforcing the macro-streaming process.

“Zero Tolerance” For Who?

The Ontario Safe Schools Act was enacted in 2000:

(1)To ensure that all members of the school community, especially people in positions of authority, are treated with respect and dignity; (2) To promote responsible citizenship by encouraging appropriate participation in the civic life of the school community; (3) To maintain an environment where conflict and difference can be addressed in a manner characterized by respect and civility; (4) To encourage the use of non-violent means to resolve conflict; (5) To promote the safety of people in the schools; [and] (6) To discourage the use of alcohol and illegal drugs (Safe Schools Act, 2000, sec. 301 (1)).

The Act brought with it a number of changes to the way discipline was enforced under the Education Act, specifically those related to suspensions and expulsions. In Section 23 of the Education Act the “authority to suspend a student was limited to principals and the authority to expel was limited to school boards. In both cases, the exercise of that authority was discretionary” (Bhattacharjee, 2003, p. i). However, the new regime which “is more complex and, reflecting the zero tolerance philosophy of its proponents, takes a more hardline approach in dealing with behaviour, discipline and safety problems. The authority to suspend a student is provided to both principals and [emphasis added] teachers” (Bhattacharjee, 2003, p. ii). Given the sometimes problematic relationship between Black students and their teachers, one would expect that the power allotted to those in authority would have significant consequence.

            According to a report released by the TDBS in 2017, “there were 307 expulsions issued to Toronto District School Board (TDSB) students” (Zheng & De Jesus, 2017, p. 3) in the five years from 2011-2012 to 2015-2016. What’s interesting is that although Black students represent a considerably small portion of the total TDSB student population, they accounted for almost half (48%) of the 213 Ethno-racial secondary school expulsions issued by the board from 2011-2012 to 2015-2016. In addition, the vast majority of [these] expulsions were issued to male students (Zheng & De Jesus, 2017, p. 3). If schools are supposed to be  spaces where “all members of the school-community feel safe, comfortable, and accepted” (Ontario Schools: Kindergarten to Grade 12, 2016, p. 10), how are parents, community workers, and researchers to understand the alarmingly different outcomes for Black students?

One explanation offered by James (2012) points to the way the particular neighborhood in which students reside also contributes to the profile of Black youth as problem students (p. 480). Black youth from racialized communities in the GTA are profiled by discourses of risk and prioritization. Since education is a highly encouraged strategy in the reduction of poverty, governments tend to support programs that encourage young people to complete high school. While the label “at-risk” benefits schools and policy makers by identifying students that may require additional support, it also brings negative connotations and treatment.

“At risk schools” are increasingly becoming carceral spaces where Black and other minority students are being targeted. In TDSB schools, mandated police presence has made Black and other racialized youth increasingly vulnerable to criminalization (Maynard, 2017, p. 22). Police are called to these school more frequently, and safety devices and procedures including cameras, lockdown policies, hall monitors, and School Resource Officers or SRO’s (uniformed police officers) (Maynard, 2017, p. 220), extend the surveillance Black youth experience in their communities further into their school environments.

In a study conducted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), “The Ontario Safe Schools Act: School Discipline and Discrimination” researchers found that:

In the GTA and other parts of Ontario there is a strong perception, which is supported by some independent evidence, that the Safe Schools Act and school board policies are having a disproportionate impact on racial minority students, particularly Black students (Bhattacharjee, 2003, p. 3).

The combination of increased surveillance due to “at risk” designations and “zero tolerance” policies in Ontario schools has resulted in school environments where the following can occur:

  • Two Black female students were suspended for possessing weapons after they brought nail files to school (Bhattacharjee, 2003, p. 3).
  • A Black male student who was accused of stealing money was handcuffed by the police and led out of the school in front of other students, even though the alleged offence (theft) was non-violent (Bhattacharjee, 2003, p. 3)
  • A 14-year-old Black student with an intellectual disability was suspended after a teacher was hit by an object in a darkened classroom during the showing of a film. He was questioned by the vice-principal for one and a half hours without his parents being present. The police were called, but he was not charged because of a lack of evidence. He took a lie detector test and passed it. Nevertheless, the school expelled him for almost three months (Bhattacharjee, 2003, p. 3)

Recently, a six-year-old Black student was handcuffed at her school by Peel Regional Police who “weren’t able to calm down the child” (Cheung & Sienkiewicz, 2017). Both the school board and the police denied that race was a factor in handcuffing of the child, however Black male students in Peel District schools have also expressed receiving differential treatment from teachers and school administrators. In addition to experiences of differential discipline, Black students in the region shared “feelings of isolation and marginalization in the public education system” ((Facilitating Access, Change and Equity in Systems, 2015, p. v) due to a number of factors such as:

(1)Teacher’s low expectations of Black students (compared to their expectation of Asian and White students); (2) The relative absence of Blacks and Black culture in the curriculum in a positive manner; (3) Relatively few Black teachers in schools; (4) More encouragement of Black students in sports than in academic studies (but not in some sports such as hockey and tennis) (5) Streaming of Black students away from math, science and the academic track to university studies; (6) Differential discipline of students based on race, with Black students being disciplined more harshly than non-Black students; (7) the presence of Police in schools (often strikes fear and mistrust in Black students) (p. v).

            Considering the design of the Canadian public school curriculum and the atmosphere in schools, it isn’t surprising that some Black youth become disengaged and resist school norms. Unfortunately, the hyper-visibility of Black youth in a discriminatory system that anticipates their criminality, causes them to be reprimanded and ostracized more often than any other ethno-racial group in the GTA. The “presence of Black children and youth remains unwelcome and undesirable in many public schools, and their movements are closely monitored and subjected to correction” (Maynard, 2017, p. 217).


School curricula, teacher bias, and disciplinary policies are pushing Black-Canadian students out of school and into a society that already holds a negative perception of them. Many of these youth live in communities where the rates of poverty and under/unemployment are higher than in all other parts of the GTA, and employment opportunities are limited and dismal, especially for someone without a high school diploma. The realities of having no money and limited education, are further complicated by law enforcement officials that survey predominantly Black communities, making it difficult to exist in public space (Maynard, 2017, p. 83).

In a report conducted by the OHRC (Under Suspicion: Research and Consultation Report on Racial Profiling in Ontario), it was found that:

Racial profiling in schools can have serious long-term negative effects on students. School discipline policies that have a disproportionate impact on racialized students have been linked to poor academic performance, school disengagement and students’ eventual involvement in the criminal justice system. This is called the “school-to-prison pipeline” and has been observed in the U.S. (Under Suspicion, 2017a, p. 62).

            Black youth who end up being suspended and expelled from school have an extremely difficult time finding employment in an already discriminatory labour market. Stereotyped as “lazy, criminal, uncivil, dangerous, hoodlums, gangsters, black youths face relentless micro-aggressions that are too often internalized and undermines their self-esteem and hope from within” (Briggs, 2019, p. 2). Faced with limited occupational opportunities and already living in poverty, Black male youth are pushed toward criminal behaviour that guarantees financial return. Through the macro-streaming process we see how the socio-economic subordination of Black Canadians, the school-to-prison pipeline, and racialized surveillance “correlates quite directly with their likelihood to end up behind bars” (Maynard, 2017, p. 221). In the following section, this research paper will explore anti-Black racism in the criminal justice system as the final stage in the macro-streaming process.

The Criminalization of Poverty:

Anti-Blackness in the Criminal “Justice” System

Because the Black community is subject to much greater police surveillance, they are also much more likely to be caught when they break the law than White people who engage in the same forms of criminal activity. For example, 65% of the Black drug dealers… report that they have been arrested at some time in their lives, compared to only 35% of the White drug dealers.

-Wortley and Tanner, 2004, p. 197

Law Enforcement

White settler fear continues to subject Black-Canadians to discriminatory police practices through deep-rooted colonial ideologies that propagate Black criminality. The lived experiences of Black people are overwhelmingly racialized, and their greatest source of inequality comes via law enforcement. The stereotype that Blacks are more inclined to criminality encourages highly-racialized police practices, and poorer communities become the target of increased police surveillance. Neo-liberal polices of population management are credited for “exacerbating the conditions that foster violence within Black communities, thus influencing the way young Black men in Toronto are policed” (Owusu-Bempah, 2014, p. 5).

The Canadian “War on Drugs” which was introduced by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the late 1980’s and is arguably the point in history where law enforcement became a tool used in the hyper-incarceration in Black communities. Following in the footsteps of President Ronald Reagan in the United States, Mulroney enacted “National Drug Strategy” legislation which directly targeted Black communities (Maynard, 2017, p. 93). Although both white and Black people were selling drugs, Blackness became synonymous with drug crime (due to biased media reports) and was used as a justification for the placement of more police officers into already disenfranchised Black communities. Officers were trained to recognize a drug trafficker according to “racial and ethnic characteristics such as dreadlocks” (Maynard, 2017, p. 95) (a common hairstyle in Africa and the Caribbean), which birthed the official practice of racial profiling by Canadian law enforcement. As a result of this “conservative push toward crime prevention” (Maynard, 2017, pp. 94; 95) and moral repair, the incarceration of Blacks during this period rose by 200 percent, compared to just over 20 percent for whites (Maynard, 2017, p. 96). The initial “War on Drugs” cemented Blackness with criminality and set the tone for the trends we see today.

In 2005, the infamous “Year of the Gun”, there were 52 gun related homicides in the city of Toronto. The most publicized of which was the boxing day murder of fifteen-year-old Jane Creba, a young white girl who was killed while “shopping with family on Toronto’s busy Yonge Street when she was caught in the crossfire of a shootout between rival gangs” (“Man Convicted in Boxing Day Shooting of Jane Creba Denied Escorted Temporary Prison Absences,” 2016). Her murder propelled a new police agenda which focused $51 million in government funding toward fighting guns and gangs. In 2006, following the election of another Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the City of Toronto saw:

The addition of 31 gun and gang prosecutors, bringing the number of Crowns on the Guns and Gangs Task Force to 64, the establishment of major crime courtrooms, and $26 million to create a new, state-of-the-art Operations Centre for the Guns and Gangs Task Force. This initiative also included $7 million for Toronto police to establish the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) as the Guns and Gangs Task Force’s ‘on-the-ground’ presence in high-priority neighbourhoods (“A History of Coordinated Effort To Stop Guns and Gangs,” 2011).

The Toronto Police Services (TPS) has denied racially profiling civilians, however, the fact that a task force was created and directed toward Black communities says something different. Stephen Harper’s “Tough on Crime” initiatives were a direct attack on Black-Canadians. He argued that “sentences had become too lenient and that the rights of accused and convicted persons came at the expense of victims and law-abiding citizens” (Zinger, 2016, p. 610), and he aimed to rectify this by putting additional strain on marginalized communities. In the decade that the Conservative government was in power they “enacted legislation to make prison conditions more austere; imposed lengthier incarceration periods; significantly expanded the scope of mandatory minimum penalties; and reduced opportunities for conditional release, parole, and alternatives to incarceration  (Zinger, 2016, p. 610).

Although it could be argued that Harper’s “Tough on Crime” legislation contributed to a reduction in crime,[6] his policies also changed the prison composition significantly, increasing the amount of Black people who were arrested and convicted. During Harper’s reign (2006-2015), “the Black prison population increased by almost 70 percent” (Maynard, 2017, p. 97). Decades of complaints about racial profiling from Black communities against the TPS has finally led to a public inquiry by the Ontario Human Right Commission (OHRC). In 2017, they launched an inquiry into racial profiling by Toronto police in an attempt to “ shift the long-standing problem of racial profiling from anecdotal evidence- individual stories too easily explained away as cases of ‘a few bad apples’- to quantitative data that will pinpoint where racial disparities exist” (Gillis, 2017). To date, the commission has “examined SIU investigations into deaths, serious injuries or allegations of sexual assault involving Toronto police officers” (Gillis, 2018), and have found that “Black people are grossly overrepresented in cases of police use of force” (Gillis, 2018).

 This MRP does not intend in any way to justify criminal activity, however, in a system where opportunities are so unequally accessible, is it truly surprising some Black people would willingly participate in illegitimate employment activities? As both immigrants and Canadian-born, Black people encounter discrimination in the labour market, making it difficult for them to provide for their families. However, Black-Canadians who aspire to enjoy better life outcomes are limited in the ways they can legally attain them. Black youth who are pushed out of school due to a disengaging curriculum, streaming into lower academic tracks, and discriminatory disciplinary policies find acceptance and the promise of economic stability in the street. Increased police presence and surveillance in the communities in which individuals in these types of circumstances reside does nothing to challenge or fix the inequalities that force them to do what they do, and live where they live. All it does is continue the cycle of macro-streaming, by adding additional barriers that these individuals must then overcome upon their release from prison.

The Courts

            When it comes to the existence of AB-R in the Canadian judicial system, most of the evidence comes via the experiences of those who have been in contact with the courts. Stats on race, ethnicity or visible minority status of accused persons are not currently collected by any Center for Justice Stats Survey (CCJS) (Beattie, Boudreau, & Raguparan, n.d., p. 10). However, independent studies have argued that “the treatment of racial minorities by judges is perhaps the most important and symbolic of all actors in the criminal justice system, with judges often being viewed as [emphasis added] the criminal justice system” (Reasons et al., 2016, p. 82). Thankfully, the OHRC has conducted reports on racial profiling in the judicial system. Respondents from their study “raised concerns about racial profiling that they believe exists in the criminal court system, noting that people of certain races, faiths or ethnicities are assumed to be criminals and are more often found guilty and sentenced to longer sentences” (Under Suspicion, 2017b, p. 46).

Race has also been found to play a part in the pre-trial detention of Black accused. In their study of Canadian bail hearings, Kellough and Wortley (2002) found that “accused persons who receive a negative personality assessment by the police are much more likely to be detained than those to receive neutral assessments” (p. 186). Racial biases held by police officers during the arresting process continue to negatively impact the accused, causing them to be remanded to pre-trial incarceration. Accused persons on “remand” are “individuals who are being held in custody while awaiting a further court appearance. Some may be awaiting a decision with respect to bail, others have been denied bail and, unless released through judicial review, will remain in custody until their trial” (Remand in Ontario: A Backgrounder, 2005, p. 1).

Remand is significant to the high levels of Black men in Canadian prisons because many of the accused lack the financial means to afford bail or retain legal counsel. For this reason, Black accused are found to be “more likely to be denied bail and more likely to be held in pre-trial custody than White accused” (Reasons et al., 2016, p. 83). Canadian law clearly states that “the curtailment of freedom prior to trial will be sufficient only to alleviate the risk that an accused person will either fail to appear for subsequent court appearances, or will further endanger the public before guilt can be established and sentencing carried out” (Kellough, 2002, p. 186), however in Canada, poverty is being used to detain Black-Canadian’s and violate their human rights which stipulate that accused persons are to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, there is seldom any justice for the poor.

Black accused in Ontario are also detained more frequently that white accused on the same charges. The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System found that “for drug charges before Toronto courts, Black adult males were three times more likely than White adult males to be refused bail and detained before trial” (Under Suspicion, 2017a, p. 46). In addition, a report from the Canadian Department of Justice shows that “in 2015/16, adults in remand accounted for 59% of the custodial population in provincial and territorial facilities, up from 26% in 1990/91 [and] remand admissions have consistently surpassed sentenced admissions over the last ten years” (Department of Justice Canada, 2017, p. 3). Unfortunately, this data is not disaggregated by race.

Criminal court isn’t the only place where AB-R is believed to be a contributor to disparity. Some of the most significant experiences in AB-R in the Canadian judicial system play out in family courtrooms across the country. The result of which is an overrepresentation of Black children and youth in protective care. In 2015, the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) of Toronto examined their service data going back seven years and shared it with Black African-Caribbean Canadian stakeholders in a series of Community Consultations across Toronto (Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, 2015, p. 6). Their data shows that in 2013 Black children and youth comprised 29% of the ongoing 2084 family cases, and 31% of the 1521 children and youth in care were Black (Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, 2015, p. 10). Black mothers are stereotyped as “angry Black women” who are unable to protect their children, and Black fathers are stereotyped as “dead-beat-dads” and “criminals” incapable of caring for their own children. Poverty and class are once again key risk factors in the referral of Black families to CAS, and in the displacement of Black children and youth from their homes. Class biases in CAS delivery “occurs at various levels of the child welfare decision-making process (e.g. reporting, screening, investigation, substantiations, disposition, placement, and re-unification), which makes poor children and their families vulnerable to child welfare intervention” (Clarke, 2011, p. 276).


          Over the past few decades the prison population in Canada and changed substantially. In a recent address to The Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger made the following statement:

It is by no means a unique observation that some of Canada’s more vulnerable and disadvantaged groups are disproportionately represented in the correctional system. Reflecting on more than 25 years spent imprisoned for “crimes against the state”, Nelson Mandela once famously observed, and I quote:

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Visible minorities, Aboriginal people and women are entering federal penitentiaries in greater numbers than ever before. The incarcerated population is more culturally and ethnically diverse than ever before. Nine per cent of federal inmates are Black Canadians, close to three times their representation rate in general society (“The Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights: Evidence,” 2017).

“Tough on Crime” initiatives fueled by AB-R in Canadian society have contributed to the disproportionate levels of Black men in Canadian prisons. Although slavery and racial segregation are no longer legal, the policies that promoted Black criminality are so ingrained in our society that they continue to have a negative impact on Black lives. Some scholars would even argue that slavery and Jim Crow-type segregation were never completely abolished but simply reimagined.  In “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness” (2012), Michelle Alexander argues that “like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined by race” (p. 13). This “tightly networked system” (as Alexander puts it) is the foundation of the process of macro-streaming. It is an intentional and highly sophisticated system of racialization, oppression, and marginalization that targets visible minorities, particularly Blacks.

Black male youth who are pushed-out of school and into street-schools that coach them into thinking that gangster is cool (Crichlow, 2014, p. 118), will often find themselves confined to prison cells as young offenders. Black-Canadian boys 12-17 years old are overrepresented in youth facilities. Their proportion is “four times higher than their proportion in the general young male population” (Under Suspicion, 2017, p. 49), an over representation that does not exist for white boys, boys of other ethnicities, or girls from any other racial or ethnic group” (Under Suspicion, 2017, p. 49). Juvenile detention centers act as a gateway to adult prison for many Black male youths. They become accustomed to the conditions and routines of confinement which often resemble the community-housing neighbourhoods they grew up in. For Black men and youth, there really isn’t much difference between the two spaces; life in the “bin” (or jail) is quite often just like “road” (their neighbourhood/community). Both spaces are similar in their structure and functions. Both prisons and community-housing buildings have:

Units, floors, and apartments; limited space between neighbours/inmates; rooms for one person, yet families/inmates share small activity spaces; everyday traumas; absence of effective rehabilitation; ineffective care of physical disabilities; elements of gang subculture and violence; concrete playgrounds; and iron bars but no green space; limited access to services; limited access to fresh food and groceries; canteen junk food services; state social and structural violence as a daily occurrence; fragile relationships; state disinvestments for social services; limited access to political, legal and cultural redress; and personal safety issues- weapons, gang activity, rape, harassment, over policing, rampant racism, sexism and homophobia (Crichlow, 2014, p. 119)

Even within correctional facilities, Black inmates’ experiences of discrimination and stereotyping due to AB-R are similar (if not identical) to the experiences of Black people in “free society.” In their most recent investigation into “The Black Inmate Experience in Federal Penitentiaries” (2013), the Office of the Correctional Investigator identified Black inmates as one of the fastest growing sub-populations in federal corrections, highlighted the increasing overrepresentation of this group relative to their proportion within the Canadian population, and acknowledged that in the last 10 years, the number of federally incarcerated Black inmates has increased by 75% (767 Black inmates in 2002/03 to 1340 Black inmates in 2011/12) with most of this increase occurring between 2006/07 and 2011/12 (Canada & Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2014, p. 4). This data reveals the disastrous impact Stephen Harper’s “Tough on Crime” era had on Black people and Black communities in Canada, and demonstrates the interconnection between race, politics, the economy, and society.

Unfortunately, government agencies like Statistics Canada only collect data related to the racial composition of the Canadian inmate population in relation to Aboriginal inmates. However, the most recent independent study published by Correctional Services Canada on “Ethnocultural Minorities and the Canadian Correctional System” (2016), found that 60% of the Black federal inmates (9%) are incarcerated in the Ontario Region, and that Black inmates are overrepresented in categories of charges that may be considered discretionary and that require judgment on the part of correctional officers (p. 81). In addition, Black inmates are also “more likely to be incarcerated at maximum-security institutions and to be granted fewer escorted or unescorted temporary absences even though they exhibit lower rates of recidivism” (Douyon, 2016, p. 81). Canada’s colour-blind rhetoric and the denial of our history of slavery and segregation make it so that Black inmates’ complaints of discrimination are not taken seriously. Thus, “correctional programs are not adapted to Ethnocultural realities, as opposed to those for Indigenous [offenders], and persistent prejudice among staff results in offensive comments, stereotypes and favouritism” (Douyon, 2016, p. 44).

The plight of Black people in Canadian society is further compounded by a criminal record.  All recently released inmates face barriers to employment[7] and housing, however the situation is far worse for Black-Canadian ex-inmates due to deep rooted AB-R the labour and housing markets (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2008, p. 16). AB-R in the criminal justice system restarts the wheel of macro-streaming by subjecting the children of Black inmates to the same cycle of generational poverty their parents grew up in. If as a country we don’t genuinely commit to changing the entire system and eradicating AB-R altogether, it will be extremely difficult to improve the conditions in Black communities, and the overall life outcomes for Black-Canadians.

The Consequences of Macro-Streaming

All of the Black men in my life who have been in contact with the Canadian criminal justice system share similar journeys of racialization and marginalization. As Emerson Douyon (2016) wrote:

Whether born here or elsewhere, Canada’s Black citizens share a single destiny in the penal system. It is as though they were subject to more rigorous control mechanisms specifically designed for them, even though they live in different regions of the country (p. 75).

Removing large numbers of men from a community has dire consequence for all other members of that community, impacting the sustainability of the community itself. For in a society still structured on traditional gender roles, it is Black women who end up carrying the burden of supporting children and even additional family members in their spouse’s/partners absence. To my knowledge, no study has been conducted in Canada to measure the impact of incarceration on Black families.[8] Given my experience supporting an incarcerated Black man, this is an area for future research that I am passionate about.

Incarceration and Unemployment

            Having a criminal record makes it extremely difficult to secure legitimate employment. Impoverished communities are characterized by high levels of under/unemployment and individuals returning home from prison only contribute to these levels. Unemployment prior to incarceration and unemployment after incarceration are interrelated in that “75% of those admitted to federal institutions were assessed as having some or considerable difficulty in the area of employment” (Crime and Unemployment: What’s the Link?, 2009, p. 2). This difficultly is exacerbated by new charges on their criminal record. 

As discussed earlier in this report, Black-Canadians are the ethno-racial group with the second-highest unemployment rate (12.2%) in Toronto CMA (Hulchanski, 2019, p. 16). For a group that already experiences discrimination in the labour market, the social stigmatization that comes with a criminal record would be an additional barrier to employment. Decker et al. (2015) in their assessment of “the role of race/ethnicity and prior prison sentences on employment opportunities” for men in the US (p. 108), researchers found that “compared to white applicants, [B]lacks and Hispanics who applied for jobs in-person were significantly less likely to receive a request for a second interview or a job offer” (p. 115). 

As more Black men are incarcerated in Canadian prisons, the unemployment rate in Black communities is likely to increase. Employment is a key factor in the future success of individuals who have been incarcerated. It provides the opportunity for “people to connect or belong to their communities” (Crime and Unemployment: What’s the Link?, 2009, p. 1), and ex-inmates who develop a sense of connectedness with their community (meaning that they become invested in its social institutions such as family, school or work) are less likely to offend against it (Crime and Unemployment: What’s the Link?, 2009, p. 1).

When my partner was released from prison in July 2009, he found it difficult to find meaningful employment. After years of working unskilled jobs and struggling to “make ends meet,” he decided to follow the wave of opportunity to Edmonton, Alberta. With no money or job prospects, he left his family in the hope of a better future. In the trades industry, he found acceptance and less stigmatization due to his criminal past. Through his trade he gained valuable experience working as a scaffolder in Fort McMurry, Alberta. While his initiative turned out to be financially beneficial, his absence put additional strain on our family. Moving to another province for employment isn’t always a viable option for many ex-prisoners, especially those without a strong support system.

Incarceration, Unemployment, and Crime

            Studies have shown a direct correlation between unemployment and criminal behaviour, specifically in relation to property crimes (Duster, 1987; Janko and Popli, 2015). Black men with criminal records are released into impoverished communities where they have financial responsibilities, and no means to fulfill them. In Canada, we can already see that Black youth and men are overrepresented in both categories (unemployment and the criminal justice system). The addition of a criminal record and no employment prospects in sight, makes illegal activities seem most appealing.

            In the US, “despite the best hopes of the past fifty years, America continues to experience the problem of [B]lack urban pathologies. America’s inner cities remain concentrations of the uneducated, the unemployed, the underemployed, and the unemployable” (Solomon, 2012, p. 1). Similarly, anti-racism initiatives in Canada have done little to improve the conditions in racialized communities or shift public discourses around Black criminality and inferiority. The result of which are the high levels of Black men in prison today. These cycles of poverty and despair will continue to impact future generations of Black-Canadians. More government funding to support prisoner reentry programs are needed to reduce the pressure on ex-offenders and their families.

            In 2012, a good friend of mine was released from prison at the age of 24 after serving a seven year sentence. He was excited to be given a second chance at life and looked forward to getting a job and becoming a contributing member of society. He would often talk about all the things he hoped to do once he started “making some money.” My friend returned home to a female-led household in one of Toronto’s “priority” neighbourhoods, and quickly realized that his path to success would be an extremely difficult one. The world around him had changed dramatically in his absence and he lacked all the skills necessary for employment and survival. In an effort get himself “back-on-track”, he attended employment programs, but he was never able to secure a job due to his criminal record and non-existent employment history. After being “free” for a little over a year, my friend recidivated and is now serving a life sentence in a Canadian prison.

Incarceration, Unemployment, Crime, and Black Families

            The cycle of poverty and crime has disastrous socio-economic consequences for Black families. According to Solomon (2012), “when black males cannot find and sustain stable, legal employment, they lack funds to support themselves and their families” (p.1). Their consequential re/involvement in the criminal justice system increases “the prevalence of single-parent, female-headed households [and] reinforces the likelihood of another generation of black youth living in inner city poverty (Solomon, 2012, p. 1).

For a little over two decades in this country, “the Black single mother and the ‘absent’ Black father” (Lawson, 2012, p. 805) have been used as the reasoning behind the criminal behaviour of Black youth. These neoliberal discourses put the blame on individuals, marking them as defective parents, and completely ignores the systemic inequalities that contributed to their circumstances. By incarcerating large proportions of Black men, the Canadian criminal justice system is undermining the importance and significance of two-parent households to the success and sustainability of each member of that family. Many Black-Canadian families are already facing “racism, poverty, lack of opportunity, social isolation, violence in their neighbourhoods, family challenges and unemployment” (Rankin & Winsa, 2013). Incarcerating one member of an already fragile family unit can lead to irreversible consequences.

            In his study, “Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse”, Todd Clear (2007) points out that as more men are removed from a community, “the experience of prison becomes woven into the fabric of this communities” (p. 10), acting as an unfortunate rite of passage for Black youth. State crime prevention initiatives directed at racialized communities diminish the “fear” young people have of going to prison. They become accustomed to family members and friends going in and out of jail, and as a result, the “pro-social attitudes that usually insulate youths against breaking the law are less likely to develop” (Clear, 2007, p. 10). To put the blame for youth criminality solely on Black parents and not the entire system is both irresponsible and immoral. Discriminatory policies and practices have made it that “incarceration is an aspect of life passed on from generation to generation” (Clear, 2007, p. 4), a fate most beneficial to the system itself. For without prisoners, there will be no need for prisons.

             A number of Canadian studies have investigated the impact of incarceration on the partners and families of inmates (see Hannem, 2008; Brunyson, 2011, Chamberlain, 2015), however, none have looked specifically at Black-Canadian families. With their experiences of AB-R and the systemic inequalities that arise as a result, it would be interesting to explore whether the experiences of Black families with incarcerated partners/husbands/fathers etc. differ from other ethno-racial groups in Canada.


            Often heralded as a beacon of equality and human rights, Canada is also the home of deep-rooted discriminatory state policies and practices going back centuries. Settler-colonial ideologies that promoted white-supremacy along with anti-Black discourses have led to the macro-streaming of Black-Canadians into subordinate circumstances at disproportionate levels. In this research paper, macro-streaming has been defined as the process by which social institutions/structures through their discriminatory policies and practices, intentionally split individuals based on their ethno-racial differences into unequal trajectories that offer a more favourable life outcome to one group over another.

            Black-Canadians both immigrant and Canadian-born encounter race-based obstacles in the labour market that contribute to the highest rate of underemployment and the second highest rate of unemployment in the Central Metropolitan Area of Toronto. Their inability to secure employment pushes Black-Canadians into poverty-segregated communities were resources are limited, crime is more prevalent, and upward mobility is almost impossible. Black youth from these “at risk” neighbourhoods are subjected to discrimination in the public education system through an exclusionary curriculum, discourses of inferiority, streaming into lower academic tracks, and concentrated disciplinary measures. The teaching staff in Ontario public schools lack diversity and are not reflective of Canada’s self-professed multiculturalism.

            Our criminal justice system targets Black communities, and arrests and incarcerates Black-Canadian men at disproportionate levels. The myth that racism and segregation are social issues that plague the United States blinds many white-Canadians and non-Black visible minorities to the injustices happening right at home. As Canadians “our challenge is to recognize the power each of us has in our own spheres to push back against the harshness of mass incarceration” (Forman, 2017, p. 237) and anti-Black racism in all social structures.

As social scientists who explore the individual and social causes of incarceration, we must be diligent to critique and question the policies and practices of social institutions. A Canadian study that explores that impact of incarceration on families must be intersectional to include the experiences of Black-Canadian families.  We must go out of our way to make sure our study samples are diverse and include participants from communities whose voices are usually silenced. As this research paper demonstrates, Black-Canadians incarcerated in our jails and prisons have unique life experiences of racialization, marginalization, and discrimination that are not only beneficial, but imperative to our understanding of the Canadian criminal justice system.



A History of Coordinated Effort To Stop Guns and Gangs [Government]. (2011, July 12). Retrieved July 25, 2019, from Ontario website:

Ahmadi, R. (2018). The Invisible Burden: Police Records and the Barriers to Employment in Toronto (p. 52). Retrieved from John Howard Society of Ontario website:

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (Revised edition). New York: New Press.

Allen, M. (2015). Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, 2015. (85), 55.

Amadahy, Z., & Lawrence, B. (2009). Indigenous Peoples and Black People in Canada: Settlers or Allies? In A. Kempf (Ed.), Breaching the Colonial Contract (pp. 105–136).

Anti-Racism Directorate [Government]. (2018, September 27). Retrieved from Government of Ontario website:

Arora, A. (2019). A Data Story on Ethnocultural Diversity and Inclusion A discussion with Statistics Canada (Government No. 11-631–X; p. 40). Retrieved from Statistics Canada website:

Beattie, K., Boudreau, V., & Raguparan, M. (n.d.). Representation of Visible Minorities in the Canadian Criminal Justice System. 20.

Bhattacharjee, K. (2003). The Ontario Safe Schools Act: School discipline and discrimination (p. 63). Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Branker, R. R. (2017). Labour Market Discrimination: The Lived Experiences of English-Speaking Caribbean Immigrants in Toronto. Journal of International Migration and Integration, 18(1), 203–222.

Briggs, A. Q. (2019). “We had support from our brothers”: A critical race counter-narrative inquiry into second-generation Black Caribbean male youth responses to discriminatory work pathways. Journal of Education and Work, 1–16.

Canada, & Bureau de l’Enquêteur correctionnel. (2013). A case study of diversity in corrections: The black inmate experience in federal penitentiaries: final report. Retrieved from

Canada, & Office of the Correctional Investigator. (2014). A case study of diversity in corrections: The Black inmate experience in federal penitentiaries: final report. Retrieved from

Canadian Human Rights Act. , R.S.C., 1985, c. H-6 § (1985).

Canadian Multiculturalism Act. , R.S.C., 1985, c. 24 (4th Supp.) § c. 24 (1988).

Cheung, A., & Sienkiewicz, A. (2017, March 2). Mississauga mom launches complaint after police handcuff her 6-year-old daughter [News Media]. Retrieved from CBC News website:

Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. (2015). Addressing Disproportionality, Disparity and Discrimination in Child Welfare (p. 42) [Government]. Toronto, Ont.

Clarke, J. (2011). The challenges of child welfare involvement for Afro-Caribbean families in Toronto. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(2), 274–283.

Clear, T. R. (2007). Imprisoning communities: How mass incarceration makes disadvantaged neighborhoods worse. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Creese, G. (2019). “Where are you from?” Racialization, belonging and identity among second-generation African-Canadians. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 42(9), 1476–1494.

Creese, G., & Wiebe, B. (2012). ‘Survival Employment’: Gender and Deskilling among African Immigrants in Canada: Survival Employment. International Migration, 50(5), 56–76.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. 31.

Crichlow, W. (2014). Weaponization and Prisonization of Toronto’s Black Male Youth. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 3(3), 113–131.

Crime and Unemployment: What’s the Link? (2009). John Howard Society of Ontario.

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical race theory: An introduction (Third edition). New York: New York University Press.

Department of Justice Canada. (2017). Bail Violations, AOJOs and Remand (p. 4). Canada.

Douyon, E. (2016). Ethnocultural Minorities and the Canadian Correctional System. Retrieved from

(Facilitating Access, Change and Equity in Systems. (2015). Fighting an Uphill Battle: Report on the Consultations into the Well-Being of Black Youth in Peel Region (p. 73).

Forman, J. (2017). Locking up our own: Crime and punishment in black America (First edition). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gillborn, D. (2018). “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose”: Anti-Black Racism as Fluid, Relentless, Individual and Systemic. Peabody Journal of Education, 93(1), 66–77.

Gillis, W. (2017, November 30). Human Rights Commission launching inquiry into racial profiling by Toronto police. Retrieved July 25, 2019, from The Star website:

Gillis, W. (2018, December 10). Breaking Down the ‘Disturbing’ Data in Toronto Police Racial Profiling Report [News Media]. Retrieved July 25, 2019, from The Star website:

Greaves, I. C. (1930). The Negro in Canada. Orillia: Packet-Times Press for the Department of Economics and Political Science, McGill Universtiy, Montreal.

Hayes, M. (2018). Ontario minister faces criticism for wearing bulletproof vest to visit Toronto’s Jane-Finch neighbourhood [News Media]. Retrieved from The Globe and Mail website:

Hulchanski, J. D. (2019). How Segregated is Toronto? Inequality, Polarization, and Segregation Trends and Processes (p. 79). Toronto, Ont: Universtiy of Toronto.

Hulchanski, J. D., University of Toronto, & Cities Centre. (2011). The three cities within Toronto: Income polarization among Toronto’s neighbourhoods, 1970-2005. Retrieved from

Itzigsohn, J., & Brown, K. (2015). Sociology and the Theory of Double Consciousness: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Phenomenology of Racialized Subjectivity. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 12(2), 231–248.

James, C. (2009). African-Caribbean Canadians Working “Harder” to Attain Their Immigrant Dreams: Context, Strategies, and Consequences. Wadabagei: A Journal of the Caribbean & Its Diasporas, 12(1), 92–108.

James, C. E. (2012). Students “at Risk”: Stereotypes and the Schooling of Black Boys. Urban Education, 47(2), 464–494.

James, C. E., & Turner, T. (2017). Towards Race and Equity in Education: The Schooling of Black Students in the Greater Toronto Area (p. 84). Toronto, Ont.

Kazemipur, A., & Halli, S. S. (2008). The Changing Colour of Poverty in Canada*. Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue Canadienne de Sociologie, 38(2), 217–238.

Kellough, G. (2002). Remand for Plea. Bail Decisions and Plea Bargaining as Commensurate Decisions. British Journal of Criminology, 42(1), 186–210.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7–24.

Lawson, E. (2012). Single Mothers, Absentee Fathers, and Gun Violence in Toronto: A Contextual Interpretation. Women’s Studies, 41(7), 805–828.

Li, P. S. (2008). The Market Value and Social Value of Race. In Daily struggles: The deepening racialization and feminization of poverty in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Man Convicted in Boxing Day Shooting of Jane Creba Denied Escorted Temporary Prison Absences. (2016, June 5). Retrieved July 25, 2019, from CBC News website:

Maynard, R. (2017). Policing black lives: State violence in Canada from slavery to the present. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.

McBride, S. (1999). Towards Permanent Insecurity: The Social Impact of Unemployment. Journal of Canadian Studies, 34(2), 13–30.

Mensah, J. (2010). Black Canadians: History, experience, social conditions (2. ed). Halifax: Fernwood Pub.

Morgan, A. (2018, April 25). Canada is recognizing the International Decade for People of African Descent. It’s a key opportunity to address anti-Black racism in the justice system. Policy Options: The Public Forum for the Public Good. Retrieved from

Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators. (2015). Voices Of Ontario Black Educators: An Experiential Report (p. 72). Toronto, Ont.

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2008). Right at home: Report on the consultation on human rights and rental housing in Ontario. Retrieved from

Ontario Schools: Kindergarten to Grade 12. (2016). Ontario Ministry of Education.

Owusu-Bempah, A. (2014). Black Males’ Perceptions of and Experiences with the Police in Toronto (Universtiy of Toronto). Retrieved from

Rankin, J., & Winsa, P. (2013, March 1). Unequal justice: Aboriginal and black inmates disproportionately fill Ontario jails [News Media]. Retrieved July 31, 2019, from Toronto Star website:

Reasons, C., Hassan, S., Ma, M., Monchalin, L., Bige, M., Paras, C., & Arora, S. (2016). Race and Criminal Justice in Canada. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 11(2), 25.

Remand in Ontario: A Backgrounder. (2005, September). Retrieved from

Safe Schools Act. , Pub. L. No. 81, 12 12 (2000).

Schroeter, S., & James, C. E. (2015). “We’re here because we’re Black”: The schooling experiences of French-speaking African-Canadian students with refugee backgrounds. Race Ethnicity and Education, 18(1), 20–39.

Sefa Dei, G. J. (2008). Schooling as Community: Race, Schooling, and the Education of African Youth. Journal of Black Studies, 38(3), 346–366.

Solomon, L. D. (2012). Cycles of poverty and crime in America’s inner cities.

Statistics Canada. (2019). Diversity of the black population in Canada: An overview. Retrieved from

The Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights: Evidence [Government]. (2017, February 8). Retrieved July 29, 2019, from Senate of Canada website:

Under Suspicion: Research and Consultation Report On Racial Profiling in Ontario. (2017a). Retrieved from

Under Suspicion: Research and consultation report on racial profiling in Ontario. (2017b). Retrieved from

Walcott, R. (2003). Black like who? Writing Black Canada (2nd rev. ed). Toronto, Ont.: Insomniac Press.

Zheng, S., & De Jesus, S. (2017). Expulsion Decision-Making Process and Expelled Students’ Transition Experience in the Toronto District School Board’s Caring and Safe Schools Programs and Their Graduation Outcomes (No. 16/17-15). Toronto, Ont.: Toronto District School Board.

Zinger, I. (2016). Human Rights and Federal Corrections: A Commentary on a Decade of Tough on Crime Policies in Canada. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 58(4), 609–627.


[1] For the purposes of this paper, the term “Black” will be used to denote “people of African descents in Canada. This category is made up of three sub-groups: Canadian-born descendants of Blacks who came from Africa during the slave trade; the descendants of Black Loyalists, refugees, fugitives, and settlers who immigrated during the American Civil War; and those who immigrated mostly from the Caribbeans and Africa after the Second World War in search of a better socio-economic and political environment” (Mensah, 2010, p. 22).

[2] The Canadian Human Rights Act states “all individuals should have an opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have and to have their needs accommodated, consistent with their duties and obligations as members of society, without being hindered in or prevented from doing so by discriminatory practices based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered” (Canadian Human Rights Act, 1985).

[3] The Multiculturalism Policy of Canada, 3(1) states, “WHEREAS the Constitution of Canada provides that every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination and that everyone has the freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association and guarantees those rights.” (Canadian Multiculturalism Act, 1988).

[4] “Recent immigrants “ are immigrants who received landed immigrant status or permanent resident status in Canada for the first time in the five years preceding the Census year (Arora, 2019, p. 12).

[5] In their study titled “‘Survival Employment’: Gender and Deskilling among African Immigrants in Canada”, Creese and Wiebe (2009) drew on interviews with recent immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa to explore issues of economic integration of immigrants in the greater Vancouver area (p. 57).

[6] In 2015, the Crime Severity Index (CSI) saw a 31% decrease since 2005 (Allen, 2015, p. 4).

[7] The John Howard Society of Ontario (JHSO) conducted an in-depth survey and interviews with Toronto employers and a focus group with people with police records. Over 60% of the employers who participated in the study said that they require police records checks for all employees (Ahmadi, 2018, p. 5). 

[8] Livingstone and Weinfeld (2015) in their study on Black Families and Socio-economic Inequality in Canada, also acknowledged this gap in Canadian literature (see pg. 5)

Melissa P. McLetchie is a PhD student in the department of Sociology at York University in Canada. She is very passionate about social justice initiatives aimed specifically at breaking down barriers for Black-Canadians. In her paper titled, Unemployed, Under-Educated and Over-Incarcerated: The Macro-Streaming of Black-Canadians, Melissa explores the various ways anti-Black racism in Canadian social institutions works to stream large segments of the Black population in Toronto, Canada into subordinate circumstances. Guided by her own experiences of supporting her partner through a five and a half years prison sentence, this paper is an honest exploration of how anti-Black racism contributes to the high number of Black-Canadians in prison.

Unemployed, Under-Educated, and Over-Incarcerated: The Macro-Streaming of Black Canadians

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s