Two young American men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, dead in the space of two days. Both were people of colour and both were shot by police. Sterling it is alleged was involved in some petty crime, Castile by all accounts had no history of criminality and was shot following a police stop in which he properly informed the officer that he was legally carrying a pistol and asked to show the officer his carry permit.

Toronto is also no stranger to police shootings. Most recently, Andrew Loku (a person of colour) and Sammy Yatim (whose family had emigrated from Syria a few years back) were also victims.

On Friday, we heard the inevitable news that, following the latest police shootings in the U.S., five police officers were gunned down in Dallas, Texas during a “Black Lives Matter” demonstration protesting the recent deaths.

What’s happening here? There are no easy answers.

There can be no doubt that, given the numbers and the circumstances, Black youth are far more likely to be the target of police shootings than any other group in society; followed closely by the mentally disabled.

The recent spate of police shootings of young Black men in the U.S. helped to reignite a strong advocacy movement. “Black Lives Matter” have hurled themselves onto the consciousness of society and that is as it should be. It reminds us that while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. BLM is the canary in the mine, warning of trouble to come. Yes, their tactics can be abrasive and some might even say counter-productive –  but they have engaged us in a much needed dialogue.

I have worked closely with both the police and racialized communities. As a social worker in years past I have also come into contact with folks suffering from schizophrenia, paranoia and delusion. And while we are dealing with two different sub-sets of the community both are sadly the populations frequently confronted by police.

In dealing with those who have mental health issues it is clear that police require proper tools and training to effectively tone down the level of potential violence. This was sadly brought home to us in recent shootings that, had police officers been sufficiently trained to handle those who suffer from mental disturbances, the outcome might have been significantly different.

However, when it comes to the too many shootings of young Black men, especially so in the U.S., the cause and effect are clearly different. It would be improper to ascribe to the entire police culture the label of racism, but it would not be out of the range of possibility to understand that the colour of one’s skin plays a devastating role when it comes to police shootings. Logically there is little other explanation.

Yet, how do we reconcile this reality with the danger police officers face every day of their professional lives? It is said that, when deathly episodes occur, the only ones running TOWARDS the danger are police officers and first responders. We count on the courage and valour of our police to keep law and order, and it is police who put themselves in the line of fire between innocent civilians and the murderers. Nowhere was this more evident than during the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and frankly other similar attacks around the world. Police face death virtually every day, and this reality informs their responses to certain situations. However, it is clear that an honest conversation about the effects of this mindset on certain communities is needed.

We are all talking today, at least here in Canada. Perhaps shouting, and perhaps hurtful or misguided. But we can all agree that words are still better than bullets.


Bernie M. Farber is Executive Director of The Mosaic Institute. He is a native of Ottawa and a graduate of Carleton University. His long-spanning career in the not-for-profit sector includes the role of CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress (2005-2011) where he spearheaded multiple inter-faith initiatives and dialogues among diaspora groups in Canada including Rwandan genocide survivors and support for the Roma community. Most recently, Bernie has served as Senior Vice President of Gemini Power Corporation where he has been working in partnership with First Nations peoples towards economic development and community self-reliance in a way that respects both the environment and First Nations’ traditional values. Bernie is a recipient of the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal, the Zaionz Award for Jewish Communal Service, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the St John Provincial Commendation.

“Bernie’s View” is Bernie’s regular contribution to the Mosaic Institute blog. We hope you are stimulated and challenged; and we look forward to your comments in the Mosaic manner.