TORONTO/MONTREAL – A six-year prison sentence for a policeman in the shooting death of a teenager three years ago was a rare conviction in Canada, where activists say officers too often get off easy in brutality cases.
The case, along with the weekend death of a black man who witnesses say was beaten by police officers, has also brought race relations in Canada to the forefront.
The 2013 shooting, which occurred after an altercation on a streetcar with the teen, who was brandishing a knife, was caught on video and led to widespread protests in Toronto.
James Forcillo was found guilty of attempted murder in January for firing additional shots at Sammy Yatim, 18, whom he had already shot three times. He was acquitted of second-degree murder on a determination that the initial shots he fired were justified, but the second volley was not.
Forcillo’s sentencing on Thursday came days after a mentally ill black man died following his arrest by police in Ottawa. A protest march is planned in Montreal on Thursday over the death of Abdirahman Abdi. The aftermath of that incident was also caught on camera.
The deaths echo similar events in the United States, where allegations of police brutality and racial bias have sparked protests. Some confrontations in the United States were also caught on video.
Julian Falconer, a lawyer for Yatim’s mother, said police needed more training to deal with mentally ill people as well as lapel cameras to ensure accountability.
“You have people that are not well and they are shot like dogs in the street,” he told reporters.
Last year, a Toronto police officer shot and killed Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old Sudanese immigrant with a history of mental illness. No charges were filed.
Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, the only official Canadian chapter of the movement, said police shootings are underreported by media in Canada because surveillance footage is not as accessible and data are not always compiled by race north of the border.
“The reason for our existence is to dispel the myth that it is somehow safer in Canada, that it doesn’t happen in Canada,” she said.
The group strategizes with Black Lives Matter’s national chapter in Los Angeles, which has provided organizational support for larger protests, she added.
Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), an arms-length agency that investigates cases of death, serious injury or sexual assault involving police, launched 266 cases in the 2014-15 fiscal year, including six shooting deaths, 12 deaths in custody and 41 sexual assault allegations.
Of the 253 cases it closed that year, the SIU laid charges in 5.1 percent of them. There were no charges laid in the shooting deaths.
When it does not lay charges, the agency does not make public the evidence behind its decision and its unredacted investigation reports are not released under freedom of information laws, drawing criticism that the SIU is too quick to clear police.
The deaths have shone an unflattering light on race relations in Canada, which prides itself on its multiculturalism and tolerance, especially in contrast to the United States.
“There’s a reluctance on the part of a lot of Canadians to deal frankly with the history of racism in Canada,” said Barrington Walker, an associate professor of African-Canadian history at Queen’s University in Kingston.
“The myths are still powerful and people have a lot invested in the myths, but you can see a counter argument emerging that is getting harder and harder to ignore.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.