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Documentary reveals racism in Canada

White Rock Social Justice film marks Black History Month
Desmond Cole (centre) in a scene from the documentary The Skin We’re In, White Rock Social Justice Film Society’s presentation for Black History Month (Feb. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Turnbull Gallery, South Surrey Recreation and Arts Centre. (Contributed photo)

Can Canada claim the high moral ground when it comes to anti-Black racism?

The traditional narrative is that Canada has provided a haven from the systemic injustices and disadvantages that exist for Black people in the U.S.

But the upcoming documentary film presented by the White Rock Social Justice Film Society on Friday (Feb. 23) at 6:30 p.m. at Semiahmoo Arts’ Turnbull Gallery (South Surrey Arts & Recreation Centre), tells a different story.

The society’s contribution to Black History Month, The Skin We’re In, has been described in promotional materials as “a wake-up call to complacent Canadians.”

Based on the writings of celebrated Black Canadian journalist and activist Desmond Cole, it makes his case that “anti-Black racism is so all-encompassing in Canada that Black people and their allies, far from congratulating themselves that they do not live in America, should be following the American example and dismantling the structures that continue to hold them back.”

The 2017 CBC film, helmed by acclaimed actor-director Charles Officer, was inspired by Cole’s 2015 earlier essay, The Skin I’m In, published in Toronto Life.

Top winner at the 2016 National Magazine Awards, the essay focused on Cole’s knowledge of ‘carding’, racial profiling and police surveillance of Black people in Toronto and across Ontario.

But it was evident to the writer that continuing institutionalized racism was, more than a provincial issue, a national problem.

And the film shows his journey from journalism to activism – in real time– as as he travels across Canada in search of stories, knowledge and examples of Black identities and experiences.

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A distinctly Canadian contribution to the “Black Lives Matter” movement which originated in the U.S., The Skin We’re In is also an insight into the awareness of “an emerging intellectual and firebrand.”

Starting with the National Magazine Awards, at which he won a slew of prizes for the Toronto Life cover story, The Skin We’re In travels from Cole’s neighbourhood barbershop in Toronto to such diverse locations as Halifax’s venerable Kwacha House, and Ferguson, Missouri (site of one of the continent’s most high-profile police shootings).

Returning to Canada, it follows Cole’s investigation into the police shooting of Andrew Loku, an African immigrant, and witnesses a powerful Black Lives Matter protest.

Cole also travels to Saskatoon to talk to Loku’s grieving sister, and finally arrives in Cole’s hometown, Red Deer, Alberta where he retraces his first experiences of being a Canadian, and also visits with a family of newly- arrived immigrants from Africa.

“There isn’t a lot of separation for me,” Cole said during a panel discussion at the time of the film’s first release.

“I guess in some ways that can be considered unhealthy sometimes. It can be considered even to be unprofessional by some people. But I can’t really put any distance between myself and the work that I’m doing.”

A CBC release summarizes The Skin We’re In as “a procedural documentary…an investigation…and a cry from the heart.”

“I feel that something that’s really important to understand about this struggle is that what’s constantly happening is we are being told as Black people that we’re the cause of the violence, that we’re the cause of the suffering, that we’re the cause of the fear,” Cole commented.

The South Surrey Recreation and Arts Centre is at 14601 20 Ave. Doors open at 6 p.m. and admission is by donation ($10 is suggested and appreciated).

About the Author: Alex Browne

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