The Canadian Association of Muslim Women in Law (CAMWL) condemns the July 25, 2016 police killing of Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old Black Muslim man who was living with mental health issues. Reports indicate that Ottawa police officers fatally beat Abdirahman after handcuffing him. We offer our condolences, our outrage, and our solidarity to his family and the Somali community.
Horrifically, Abdirahman’s killing by police is not unique in Canada. He is the second Somali man to have been killed by Canadian police recently: Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan was killed on June 11, 2015 in Canadian Border Services Agency custody, after languishing for three years in immigration detention. Earlier this month, Ontario’s civilian police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), cleared all officers involved in Abdurahman’s death of any wrongdoing.
These killings, and the impunity of officers that follows, are part of a pattern of police brutality against Black people in Canada. In the past six years alone, high profile deaths have included the killings of Andrew Loku, Alex Wettlaufer, Eric Osawe, Frank Anthony Berry, Ian Pryce, Junior Alexander Manon, Kwasi Skene-Peters, Michael Eligon, and Reyal Jardine-Douglas by Toronto police; Mark Ekamba by Peel police; Jermaine Carby by Brampton police; and Jean-Pierre Bony by Montreal police, among many others. Despite creating vast databases of civilian information through such practices as carding, local police forces do not publicize data on the race of those killed by police. Nor do the SIU, Statistics Canada, or the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD). This selective collection of data (where racialized communities are over-surveilled and over-policed, but the racial dynamics of police killings are left muddied) is troubling, and only deepens the mistrust felt by communities and families grieving for their loved ones.
Police brutality poses a heightened danger to people living with mental illness. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has had to remind police officers of their specific obligations to people with mental health issues, and has called on police services in Ontario to develop procedures and policies to ensure that stereotypes do not impact officers’ use of force. Not only do one in five interactions with police involve someone with a mental illness, Black Canadians are over-represented in police use of force against people with mental illness.
Racism and ableism overlap, as does Islamophobia, with often dire results. Abdirahman’s death lies at the trifecta of these vulnerabilities, which is too often glossed over by both broader Muslim communities and mainstream society. We must address these issues within our communities every day, and not only when someone is killed.
The killing of Abdirahman, who came to Canada to find refuge from state violence, reminds us that Canada has never been a sanctuary from police brutality or anti-Blackness. This bloodied moment is part of a long history of state brutality against Indigenous and racialized communities. Accordingly, as measures to help end the structural racism and ableism that claim so many lives, CAMWL demands:
- That the SIU’s investigation into Abdirahman’s killing be fully transparent and accountable;
- That all levels of government allocate increased funding to social services, and less to militarized police forces;
- That emergency first responder teams prioritize medical and social support workers who are duly trained in anti-racism and mental health, rather than police officers;
- That paramedics, firefighters, social workers, and all other front line workers are trained to provide services with minimal, if any, police interaction;
- That police are mandated to de-escalate rather than militarize encounters with civilians; and
- That the SIU, the OIPRD, Ontario’s Anti-Racism Directorate, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, and Statistics Canada collect and publicly report race-based data on police encounters with civilians, including but not limited to police use of force.