Publications, opinions, and speeches

Series: Advancing justice

Understanding the impact of racism, colonialism, and poverty on Canada’s criminal justice system

Published on 21/07/2021

This interview with Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is part of our series, “Advancing justice,” which explores the relationship between human rights, poverty, racism, and the criminal justice system.

Listen to the full interview as a podcast:

Elizabeth McIsaac, President of Maytree: To begin our series on human rights, poverty, racism, and the criminal justice system in Canada, I’m pleased to welcome Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah. Akwasi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto and a Senior Fellow at Massey College. He holds Affiliate Scientist status at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and serves as Director of Research for the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty. Akwasi’s work examines the intersections of race, crime, and criminal justice with a particular focus on the area of policing.

In our conversation today, Akwasi will explore the historical roots of racism in the criminal justice system. In particular, we want him to talk about how racism and colonialism have contributed to the social and economic inequalities and discrimination experienced by Indigenous, Black, and racialized communities in Canada, and in turn shaped their interactions with the criminal justice system.

Please note that in the following conversation, Akwasi uses the term “our” when referring to Indigenous and Black communities. This use is not intended to indicate possession. Rather, the term should be understood within the context of community membership.

Akwasi, thank you so much for joining us today and being part of this series.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: Elizabeth, absolutely my pleasure. Thank you.

1. Setting the context

Elizabeth McIsaac: In your research, you make reference to the North Star myth. What is this myth? And why is it so important for us to understand and disassemble this myth at this time?

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: I and others write about the North Star myth largely in the context of historicizing the Black experience in this country. The North Star of course provided a guiding beacon for people who had escaped slavery in the United States as they made their way on the underground railroad to Canada. We can think of the North Star as being the guide to freedom, in a sense.

In Canada, we’ve liked to think of ourselves in large part as the terminus, or the end point, of the underground railroad. And our relationship to slavery and to Black history in this country is often thought about in the context of freedom, negating the fact, for example, that slavery existed in Canada for 200 years, that six of the first 16 legislators of Upper Canada held slaves.

Instead of considering, and this is something we’ve done for a long time, our own relationship to slavery and other systems, other racial caste systems, we’ve liked to think of ourselves in opposition to the United States. We have this collective amnesia with respect to the horrible treatment of Black people in this country.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Connected to this myth, to the North Star myth, is the fact that Canada was actually built on the colonial conquest of Indigenous Peoples. But colonialism is not just a thing of the past. It has been argued that post-colonial countries such as Canada now practice something called internal colonialism. What is internal colonialism? And what does it mean in the Canadian context?

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: When we talk about internal and perhaps settler colonialism, what we’re doing is describing the ways in which colonialism and colonization are still very much with us.

In a traditional colonial example, you’d have a state or a country who sends people to another country to basically dominate both the peoples and extract resources and goods, riches, whatever that might be, from the colonized region or geography, or the benefits of colonization are sent back to, the home country. In a settler colonial experience, roots are laid down, governments are established, and the colonizing power largely takes root.

We can think about that in the context of Canada, of course. The British and the French, both not only engaged in a colonial project here, but that colonial project has stayed with us.

In the context of discussions around internal colonialism, it really describes the ways in which those colonial structures are maintained in the lives of the subjugated population. In Canada, we can think about Indigenous populations, but also other groups who were brought over as part of the colonial project.

The foundation and the roots of our country and of our system are based on the colonial period in large part. But that colonial period is still with us. Those roots still inform the ways in which our Indigenous populations, our Black populations, and other racialized populations are treated, and how they’re able to navigate and exist within our societies.

Elizabeth McIsaac: The colonial relationship hasn’t gone away; the expression of it has evolved and changed. And so it’s identifying how we understand it in today’s context. In Canada in particular, our experience of slavery and colonialism has continued to result in racial disparities, in social and economic outcomes for Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities. This is all steeped in history. What does it mean for the results and the outcomes of different systems in our society today?

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: It might be wise to take a step back and think about the ways in which colonialism, the subjugation of Indigenous populations, the experience of slavery and subsequently segregation informed the historical and now contemporary experiences of those populations.

I’ve said in a cursory manner that colonialism and slavery informed social, economic, and political relations. But it’s important to interrogate how those took place. Socially, colonialism and slavery are predicated on the idea that certain groups are inferior to others or that certain groups are superior to others. Colonialism was based on the system of white supremacy, and entrenched the system of white supremacy. Our Indigenous populations were seen as inferior and therefore could be dominated by the white population.

The same was the case with slavery. African populations were quite literally dehumanized in order for them to be enslaved. In Canada, we had the establishment of a social system in which white people were at the top of the social hierarchy, Black and Indigenous people at the bottom. We haven’t had a clean breaking point from that social reality. The ideas of inferiority persist today.

Now, if you think about what those systems did as well. In a political sense, certain people could hold office, others couldn’t. So we saw, especially, of course, in the early days of Canadian history, but even up to today, that there’s an overrepresentation of white people in positions of political power in this country that have outsized political influence and then, importantly, economically as well.

If we think about the example of slavery in particular, you’ve got one group of people, Europeans, who are benefiting economically from the labour of the Black population. So one group is being enriched, while the other is literally being impoverished and not benefitting from their own work. And this is why laying this foundation is important – because when we think about our distance from these systems, they’re not as great as we might think.

I often talk about segregation. The law that allowed for segregation remained on the books in Ontario until the 1960s, and the last segregated school closed in Nova Scotia in the 1980s. This is another system which is designed to separate Black from white people and serve to further privilege white people in those social, political, and economic terms.

That’s within our lifetimes. That is not that far ago.

Segregation was being practiced in Canada until the 1980s. And, of course, the last residential schools in Canada didn’t close till the 1990s, again, just bringing that past so much closer to our present than many people like to appreciate.

Elizabeth McIsaac: You touched on the segregation of schools and the differential treatment of children being socialized and brought into the community, which is what schools do. If we look at the outcomes of the educational system, what does that tell us about the legacy of colonialism and the ongoing experience of it?

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: I’ll start with child welfare. When we look across the country, and Toronto for example, Black youth are grossly overrepresented in young people who are in care, young people who’ve been removed from their parents. The same goes for Indigenous people across the country – greatly overrepresented.

We talk about the Sixties Scoop. But we now have a situation where Indigenous children are so vastly overrepresented in the foster care system that it looks like the Sixties Scoop all over again.

There are a couple of reasons for this overrepresentation. One has to do with relationships with poverty. So there’s a genuine concern on the part of the state that certain families are unable to care for their children in an economic sense. But part of it as well has to do with ideas about what families are supposed to look like, who are supposed to take care of children.

There are certainly perceptions of pathology within both Black and Indigenous families.

My father is from Ghana, where I’m from, where we call our aunties or uncles, our moms and our dads. The old adage, that it takes a village to raise a child, is really practiced.

So cousins play with one another as if they’re siblings. The family unit really takes care of children and that conflicts with Western notions of the nuclear family. We can see situations in which child welfare are alerted to older siblings, cousins, and more distant family relations, taking care of children, and that not being seen as so acceptable, again, based on this ideal or norm of the nuclear family. This increases the representation of Black and Indigenous people in the child welfare system.

When we get to education, as I touched upon a little bit when I was referring to the underlying reasons for both slavery and the conquest of Indigenous lands, is this idea that Black and Indigenous people were intellectually inferior, less developed. These views persist.

When we look at the education system, Black children, for example, are disproportionately likely to be streamed into non-academic track programs, based in part on a belief that they don’t have the same intellectual capacities.

This happened to me in secondary school. My English teacher in Grade 11 told me that I should drop to the general level because there was no way I could succeed at the advanced level of study. Now, only one of us has a PhD today, and it’s not him. Thankfully, I had my parents to advocate for me, but those stories are just way too common.

When we think about graduation rates, Black youth are much less likely to graduate for a number of reasons. One, because the curriculum doesn’t appeal to Black children in the way that it does to white children, because they don’t see themselves reflected in that curriculum.

Then of course, there’s school discipline. So with Black children, and this was especially true under the Safe Schools Act, but still persist to this day, the playful or boisterous behaviour of Black children is seen as problematic, again, based on ideas related to Black criminality.

When Black children act out, it’s seen as a marker or a sign of a future potential dangerous behaviour, and they’re treated much more harshly than our white children who engage in similar behaviour.

We see much lower levels of academic success amongst Black and Indigenous children in this country, based part on beliefs about intellectual inferiority, based part on beliefs about how children are supposed to behave, and based part on what’s actually contained in our school curriculum.

Elizabeth McIsaac: This is what we’re talking about when we talk about systemic racism in the school system, it’s the set of beliefs and behaviours and perceptions that shape a child’s experience from as early as kindergarten.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: We’ve had young people in the GTA, children in the GTA as young as six years old being handcuffed by the police. Because they were misbehaving and the police thought that they had no other way to deal with them. Now, I can say, categorically, there is no way that a six-year-old white child in the GTA would have been handcuffed by the police in a school because the police didn’t think that they could deal with that child.

Elizabeth McIsaac: I think that’s clear.

We go through the education system. We also know that Black students leave the school system before graduation at a higher rate than any other group, sometimes called “dropout.” I did work for many years looking at it as being “pushed out” because of these experiences of systemic racism in the system. After the formal education opportunity that socializes and prepares our young people for the world of work, what happens when we get to employment? What are the employment outcomes that reflect this beginning in a systemically racist system? What happens in the next chapter of their life?

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: It’s unfortunate, of course, poor academic outcomes would predict poor employment outcomes. We see that. If you’re less likely to graduate from secondary school, that diminishes your employment opportunities. We’re in a society in which post-secondary education is really what’s needed to be successful in many aspects of the workforce, whether that be a college, university, or some kind of trade or training.

So if Black youth are being pushed out of school, as you’ve very accurately described, their chances of securing employment are of course diminished.

That is compounded by the fact that we see systemic inequality in hiring practices as well. There have been a series of studies conducted around much of the Western world, including in Canada, for the last several decades that use similar résumés, with, for example, stereotypically Black and stereotypically white sounding names.

In the most recent example, there was a master student at the Center of Criminology at the University of Toronto, where I do some teaching, who created four fictional job applicants. These were women, two Black, two white. One of each racial group had a criminal record. A white woman without and a white woman with a criminal record, and a Black woman without and a Black woman with a criminal record.

These identical résumés, or almost identical résumés, were sent to retail jobs and, mirroring findings in the United States, when the results came back in, the white woman without the criminal record received the most callbacks followed by the white woman with a criminal record. The Black woman without a criminal record received fewer callbacks for an interview than the white woman who had a criminal record. And the Black woman with a criminal record received almost no callbacks for an interview.

Here we can see, of course, and we can talk about the stigma of criminalization. But the stigma associated with simply being Black was enough to diminish the employment prospects of those fictional applicants. We see systemic discrimination, of course, in hiring. And it goes beyond hiring, it also goes to promotion and to opportunities for training and other advancement opportunities within the workplace.

Those poor employment prospects result in higher and greater experiences with poverty. Again, we see this with both our Black and our Indigenous populations across the country, greater exposure to, and experiences with, poverty and with abject poverty, not only lower levels of income.

It’s not just living in poverty or having less money, but it’s also the environment, the conditions in which you’re more likely to live. These would be neighbourhoods and geographic regions where more people are experiencing poverty, where there are fewer accesses to much needed resources, whether those be good schools, libraries, community centres, adequate access to healthy foods; we talk about food deserts, of course. And this is where the opposite is concentrated: We have higher concentrations of problematic behaviours.

2. The criminal justice system

Elizabeth McIsaac: You’ve set a tremendous context of what the lived experience of being racialized, of being Black, of being Indigenous in our cities, in our communities, looks like, feels like, and what the results are, that you move into an experience of poverty, and all that goes with that. The geography of that is also really so important. How does this now begin to connect into the criminal justice system? How do we then see all of these conditions, these experiences, connect up to the criminal justice system, whether it’s policing in the community and policing of certain communities, arrests, pre-trial, detention, convictions, and so forth? First of all, connect it up to the criminal justice system, where does that start?

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: One of the important things to point out as we go into the criminal justice system is that, when I talk about the experiences of marginalization and poverty, it’s important to recognize that our Black populations, our Indigenous populations, our other racialized populations are hugely heterogeneous.

I don’t want to leave any viewers or readers thinking that every Indigenous, every racialized, every Black person exists in poverty and is marginalized, that’s not the case. But there’s certainly an overrepresentation.

The same goes, importantly, with respect to the relationships with both crime and criminal justice.

Now just connecting back to the point I raised about being more likely to live in impoverished neighbourhoods; they’re also more likely to live in impoverished neighbourhoods that are afflicted by the types of crime and disorder that are more likely to come to the attention of the police.

They’re not living in neighbourhoods where a large number of people are engaged, for example, in sophisticated fraud or financial crimes that should come to the attention of the police because they cause a lot of devastation and damage to our society and our economic systems. But they live with the types of street-based crime, street-based prostitution, drug dealing, certain types of violence that the police pay a lot of attention to.

We know and we’ve seen across this country where the data has come out, that Black people, Indigenous people, to an extent South Asian people are overrepresented in police stop and search practices. So they are more likely to be stopped, more likely to be searched, more likely to be questioned and carded.

This is true, not only for a small segment of the population who has engaged in a criminal or delinquent behaviour but for huge portions of those populations who are not engaged in those activities and who just happened to simply look a certain way or live in certain areas or neighbourhoods. Or not live in certain areas or neighbourhoods – actually, we see the greatest overrepresentation in police stop and search practices for Black people in Toronto, for example, in affluent, predominantly white, neighbourhoods where they’re seen as out of place.

We have the experience of disproportionate police stop and search. My own research has demonstrated that when you control for important factors, taking into account for example self-reported criminal behaviour, the racial disparities and stop and search do not go away. So we can see various forms of biases driving those.

What are some of those forms of bias? We talked a little bit earlier about the views of Black and the views of Indigenous people as of being inferior. Part of the racialization, the process of defining Black people as Black, and Indigenous people as Indigenous, has been an association of those populations with crime, with violence, with dangerousness. This goes right back to the process of colonization and the way in which these groups were seen as savages. That was a term that was often used, posing a danger to white people, especially to white women.

Some of those views persist, both consciously and unconsciously, in the minds of police officers, justice officials, and members of the general public.

These views justify not only racially disproportionate rates of stop and search, but also treatment during stop and search. Black people are more likely to say that they were treated poorly during their interactions by the police, less likely to be told the reason for the stop, less likely to be treated with respect, more likely to feel that the officer was rude, and more likely to feel upset by their encounter, for example. The nature of their treatment is different.

When we look for an example, what I always like to use, in the context of stop and search and getting into arrest, is cannabis.

We know that cannabis is a substance that’s used relatively similarly across different racial groups in the Canadian and North American context. With a few exceptions, for example, for mixed race youth, Black, white, Asian, South Asian people use, at least Black and white people use, cannabis at relatively similar rates. But when we look at the differences in rates for arrests for those crimes, we see a very different picture.

I like to talk about cannabis as a gateway drug; not as a gateway to harder drug use, as it’s often thought of, but as a gateway into the criminal justice system for our marginalized populations. We see stop and search practices, arrest for things like cannabis possession, increasing the criminalization of Black people.

A recent report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission demonstrated that not only were Black people in Toronto more likely to be arrested by the police, but the quality of the arrests laid against Black people by the police were lower than for white people. We saw that because the charges for white people were much more likely to be dropped or withdrawn by the police or by the crown. There was less of a valid reason for those arrests to be made in the first place, but increased rates of surveillance and disproportionate arrest practices bring Black people into the criminal justice system.

We see them overrepresented in pretrial detention, which is important. These are individuals who have not been released while they are awaiting their trial. They haven’t been given bail.

People who are held in detention before their trial face a number of obstacles. They can’t demonstrate to the court that they’re doing things to mend their ways and to repent through community service. They can’t go into anger management or substance abuse treatment while they’re on the outside to demonstrate to a judge that they’re trying to amend their ways. They’re less able to secure evidence of witnesses that might be beneficial to their trial.

Simply being held before trial is likely to increase the chances that you’ll plead guilty to simply get out of this pretrial situation. Because if you’re going to serve a little bit of time and you’ve already done some, you could end up just walking out the door by pleading guilty to a lesser charge, again increasing the likelihood of criminalization.

Being held in pre-trial detention potentially increases the likelihood that one would be found guilty. Because if you’re seemingly bad enough to be held before your trial, well, surely, you’ve done something wrong.

Then with respect to the courts, unfortunately, we have relatively little information on race and sentencing in the Canadian context. But given what we know about other aspects of Canadian society and the Canadian criminal justice system, I have no reason to believe that some of the patterns of racial disparities in sentencing that we see in the United States, especially around things like drugs, wouldn’t be present here in Canada as well.

We see that when we look at our correctional systems. Black and Indigenous people are greatly overrepresented in both our federal as well as our provincial correctional systems in this country.

Not only are they more likely to be overrepresented in those systems, but they also experience various forms of discrimination behind bars: less access to programming, less access to jobs, more verbal and physical abuse at the hands of guards.

There’s one part that I haven’t said, something that’s important to note. While I’ve talked a lot about bias and discrimination, I should also say, in order to be fully balanced, that some of the conditions in which Black and Indigenous people live are conducive to crime as well. There are certain types of crime that Black and Indigenous people may be more likely to participate in as a result of their political, their social, and their economic marginalization. When we look, for example, at gun homicides in the city of Toronto, we see that young Black men are greatly overrepresented in those homicides.

The vast majority of Black men in the city are not engaged in any types of violence. But when we look at that specific crime (for example, gun violence), we see an overrepresentation. We need to ask ourselves, why that is? I would argue that there’s that great exclusion from society, the feeling that one does not have a stake in society, almost that society is out to get you. This in a way increases the likelihood that you’ll engage in quite reckless behaviours, and diminish the value of your life as well as the life of others.

There’s also evidence to demonstrate, for example, that various forms of discrimination in society, and especially in the justice system, increase the likelihood of engaging in crime. We see that for young people who have contact with the police early in their life are more likely, all other factors being equal, to actually engage in crime and delinquency than those that don’t.

It’s important as well to note, when we talk about overrepresentation in the justice system, there’s long been this polarized debate, is it bias on the part of the justice system? Or is it elevated rates of offending?

I think a sensible answer is that it’s both, that the political, the social, the economic marginalization, and the society that is structurally and systemically racist in many ways, creates conditions that are conducive to certain types of criminal activity, for certain subpopulations, increasing, of course, their chances of coming into contact with the police. But so, too, do those discriminatory police stop and search practices, arrest practices, and other decision-making points in the justice system increase that representation.

Elizabeth McIsaac: You’ve described very well that the systemic challenges within the police system, the fact of carding, the fact of who’s being charged and what the overrepresentation looks like in the system. And this actually isn’t new or news. We have been hearing about this for years. We have had strong, loud, advocates calling attention to the issue. And yet we don’t see change happening. What are your thoughts on the challenge of moving forward in dealing with this from within the system?

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: I think, first and foremost, we need to look outside the system to prompt change. We really need to look to our elected and our appointed officials, who are responsible for keeping our justice system, our police, our courts, and our correctional systems accountable to the public.

I really look to leaders, from the prime minister down to even our city councillors who have a voice and can help us keep our police, for example, accountable.

Within the system, we need a number of different things. I often advocate for the collection of race-based data. And we need that within the criminal justice system – not to tell us that disparities and discrimination exists, but to help us better understand the nature of those disparities and to identify where discrimination does exist.

But also we need that information to be linked to other sectors and other components of our society. Again, we get a better understanding of how those experiences, as we’ve talked about with child welfare, with education and employment, relate to the justice system, too.

We need to advance the understanding of these issues amongst justice officials, both from the highest levels of the administration down to the frontline workers and staff.

We need a more fulsome understanding, and I’m seeing that begin to be developed in some areas of the justice system. There are some police agencies that I have contact with that seem to be beginning to grapple with this in a meaningful way. I would say something similar is happening in the courts and also in corrections.

But, importantly, there needs to be accountability as well. When we look at the police laying poor quality charges against Black people, they should be held accountable for that. When the police plant evidence, when they lie on the stand, or they mislead the courts, they should be held accountable for that. When our correctional officers mistreat people, they should be held accountable for that. The people who develop policies and practices as well, that end up having discriminatory outcomes. Carding was used as a performance measure in policing. The fact that it was used as a performance measurement, it ended up being used in a quite discriminatory manner. The developers of those policies should also be held accountable for the outcomes that they have.

3. Relationship between poverty, racism, and the criminal justice system

Elizabeth McIsaac: Let’s connect this back into poverty. This is what we’re trying to explore, the intersections of human rights as it relates to social and economic rights and poverty, and how that connects up to the criminal justice system and racism and colonialism. How do you see the overrepresentation of people from Indigenous, Black, and racialized communities and their experience in the criminal justice system impacting families and communities and creating and recreating poverty and inequity within communities, and then across generations?

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: This is a very good question. I teach courses on inequality in criminal justice to both undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Toronto. One of the things that I began those classes with is really trying to drive home the point that not only does our criminal justice system respond to various forms of inequality, but it also plays a key role in reproducing those forms of inequality.

The place that we’ll actually start here is that, when we think about, we hear about the defunding the police movement. I prefer the term de-tasking the police, because I want the police to do less and I want the funds that they get to mirror that. We can think about the huge amounts of money that are being spent on our criminal justice system, which really is the last line in the series of social institutions.

The money that we spend on the criminal justice system would be much better spent in child welfare, in education, and employment and training than it is on the backend of the system. One of the easiest answers is simply to think about where we’re spending our money.

But when we think about the huge amount of stigma that’s attached to having a criminal record and to being criminalized, we can then start to understand about how individuals, families, and whole communities, life chances, are affected. There’s a huge body of research to show that an individual who has a criminal record, for example, and especially a person who has spent time behind bars, has a much harder time gaining meaningful employment. They’re much more likely to be dependent on the state for social assistance. If you as an individual have a criminal record and you have a hard time getting a job, well then, of course, your likelihood of experiencing poverty is greater.

Now we think about that in the context of a family. Men are overrepresented amongst people who have criminal records, for example, who were incarcerated, and they are still more likely to be the breadwinner for a family, especially, if it’s a young family with children. By taking that individual, who is one of the key earners, out of the household then that family is more likely to exist in poverty. We see patterns of criminalization and incarceration in Canada that again mirror those in the United States where we have postal codes that are highly criminalized and where incarceration is almost normal for members of those communities.

In those situations, where we have large portions of working-age people who are saddled with a criminal record, rendering them less employable, who are incarcerated, rendering them even less employable, then the informal networks that help people get jobs are broken down. The ability of people to spend money at local businesses is diminished.

Children who have an incarcerated parent are much more likely to have behavioural problems themselves and are much less likely to succeed in school. The negative impact of criminalization and the negative impact of incarceration on individuals spreads not only from that individual to the family unit, but also to the community units. Again, the social networks have broken down. The economic resources within those communities are broken down.

When crime and criminalization become normal and the bonds that tie communities together and support for social activities are broken down as well, we create these cycles of crime and criminalization. At the end of the day, someone who is criminalized is much less likely to be able to find meaningful employment, and that affects their families, that affects their communities. Ultimately, they become increasingly dependent on the state. Again, if they’re more likely to be criminalized, that’s money that’s being spent on the criminal justice system, instead of other areas that would have, what we would call, upstream benefits.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Are there any obvious or not obvious ways of interrupting that cycle?

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: For me, the more we can remove the police and other elements of the justice system from the lives of people, the better. The less we have the police intruding into the lives of people where they’re not needed, the less likely we’ll have to have these feelings of hostility and disdain towards the police that can fuel lawbreaking behaviour. The less likely people are to be unnecessarily criminalized.

Elizabeth McIsaac: So that goes back to your framing of de-tasking, finding other ways of intervening and providing support as opposed to making it a criminal justice matter.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: Exactly. For so long in the west, it was politically dangerous to be what was seen as soft on crime. People had to be tough on crime. We responded to a host of social ills with the criminal justice system, as opposed to what would have been more sensible responses in healthcare and mental healthcare and with the provision of other social services. We need to have a very serious rethink about how we frame the provision of social services and the provision of services generally in our society and move away from a criminal justice response.

For myself, one of the key ways to interrupt this is through the provision of opportunities for individuals. Especially given the situation that I’ve just talked about with respect to breaking down informal professional networks and other networks within communities.

I really think that the provision of opportunities and also awareness about different lines of employment, the different types of jobs, the different skills one needs for different types of jobs, is extremely important to me.

There are literally thousands of organizations across this country who are doing the very things that I’ve just proposed, providing job skills and training opportunities to young people and young marginalized people. One of the saddest things for me is that these organizations are beholden to grant funding too often, grant funding that operates on a one, or three, or five-year cycle. So they’re always struggling, always fighting to secure that next grant, which takes a lot of attention away actually from program delivery.

But if knowing funding is sustained and the evaluation can be done to improve program development and delivery, well, then, again, the provision of services is likely to benefit.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Are there any last thoughts that you want to share with us, or you feel we need to close on as a final note?

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: The most important thing for me – and having these conversations and especially in interrupting cycles of poverty and the context of conversations around the criminal justice system – is the ultimate payoff down the road. We hear different figures anywhere from three to one, from seven to one, every dollar spent up front saves three, saves five, saves seven dollars down the road. But it also saves lives, saves families, and saves communities.

Many people are hesitant to provide funding for a variety of services, thinking that people should be responsible for their own wellbeing. Well at the end of the day, if we let people fall through the cracks, if we let social, political, and economic marginalization continue to play out in the way that it does, we end up paying more money to criminalize people than we would simply to help, whether it be for prenatal services through early childhood care and education through the educational systems into employment.

Elizabeth McIsaac: The failure of the state to deliver on social and economic rights is what paves the path for all of this to happen. If that were in order, I think we would see different results and we would have a different context to work in.

Thank you so much Akwasi, this has been absolutely fascinating, enlightening and I think sets a terrific foundation for the conversations that we’re going to have to come. Thank you.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah: Thank you, Elizabeth.


Criminal justice system, Human rights, Poverty


This interview explores the historical roots of racism in the criminal justice system, in particular how racism and colonialism have contributed to the social and economic inequalities and discrimination experienced by Indigenous, Black, and racialized communities in Canada, and in turn shaped their interactions with the criminal justice system.