Civil liberties Governance Justice Race and ethnicity Transparency

The sorry state of Canadian civil liberties: Fat, white, middle-aged male crackhead? No problem.

Kudos to the Washington Post for pointing out the obvious comparison, albeit pulling its punch a bit. In its time the Marion Barry crack story was also international news and a black eye for Washington, D.C., much as the Rob Ford story is to Toronto today.

What WaPo doesn’t touch on – though it could be excused for not doing so since Barry’s arrest was a well-publicised local story – is how then-mayor Barry was treated relative to how mayor Ford is now being treated by police.

For Canadians unfamiliar with the story, in 1990 Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry – who happens to be black – was arrested as part of an FBI entrapment scheme. An ex-girlfriend was hired to lure him to a hotel and offer him drugs supplied by the bureau. Barry took two puffs off a pipe offered by his ex before getting up to leave when

FBI agents stormed the room, grabbing Barry, placing him up against a wall with his arms outstretched and reading him his rights before leading him away in handcuffs.

Contrast that with the reaction of Toronto police chief Bill Blair – who happens to share the same physical description as Rob Ford, though presumably not a crackhead. On viewing a tape showing the mayor smoking crack, obviously high, standing in front of a crack house no less – which the mayor readily admitted to  (“Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine.”)

“I’m disappointed,” Blair said at a news conference. “I think as a citizen of Toronto, I’m disappointed. I know this is a traumatic issue for the citizens of this city and for the reputation of this city and that concerns me.”

 It’s not that Canadian law is kinder and gentler than US law when it comes to narcotics. Each year thousands of Ontarians are charged and convicted for drug possession under the Criminal Code, Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) and Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), many of them incarcerated. Under the CDSA, even a first offence possession of a Schedule I controlled substance (which includes crack cocaine) is punishable by a thousand dollar fine and six months in jail.

It’s unlikely many of those incarcerated for narcotics offences are fat, white, middle-aged male crackheads, however. Unfortunately, we can’t tell exactly how few they are. While the official stats give detailed breakdowns by type of offence, sentence, age and gender, race is remarkably absent from the data. Because Canada is apparently a post-racial, egalitarian utopia or something. As the Ford crack story demonstrates, it’s definitely ‘or something’.

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