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Can any body be Canadian?

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Can any body be Canadian? At least in terms of nationwide policing practices, the answer to this question depends on whether the Canadian Police Information Centre hears one particular member of their advisory board at the group’s January meeting in Ottawa.

That this is even an issue comes as a result of the persistence of Sarah Rana.

A Waterloo native, Rana received a traffic ticket last year for running a red light. Only after deciding to contest the ticket did Rana discover that the ticketing officer racially constructed her as "non-white" in the records of the Waterloo Regional Police Service.

Apparently, policing practices in at least some Canadian jurisdictions provide for the use of only two racial descriptors: "white" or "non-white." Rana is not just unhappy about the fact that race was made to figure at all in a routine traffic infraction, but also that she was not constructed as South Asian.

To Rana, a law student, this "creates a standard. You’re white or you’re not." Rana’s words as reported in the media suggest that policing practices regulate bodies in Canada, and, ultimately, Canadianess in a country where race along with language are such central historical themes. To Rana, such practices render some Canadians as "non-Canadian" and "substandard."

This way of deciphering race — "white" or "non-white" — is not unique. For example, the apartheid state deployed "white" and "non-white." The markers became a way to determine who was racially who in South Africa, to divide the population accordingly, and to unequally distribute wealth. This helped to create a nation that, even twenty years after apartheid’s formal end, is the most unequal in terms of wealth accumulation.

Those who devised and implemented aparthei" — apartheid means apartness in Afrikaans — intended to establish a racial norm akin to the "standard" Rana referenced. "White" as "standard" became not just "normal" and "civilized" but also the basis of a South African constitutional system authorizing the white supremacy that apartheid was designed to perpetuate. By contrast, "non-white" existed as "substandard," according to the state’s calculus, as "abnormal," even "savage," and inferior to "white" and whiteness in every way. This social and political framework drove Nelson Mandela, an attorney by profession, into politics. When the apartheid state reserved the best land in South Africa for the white minority, Mandela questioned the racial assumptions underlying the "white" and "non-white" binary and the material inequalities that ensued. When the apartheid state limited the vote to the white minority because it understood "white" to be superior and "non-white" as less than, Mandela demanded that the binary basis upon which material inequalities became everyday be dismantled.

Sarah Rana also complained by sending letters to the mayor of Waterloo, the Ontario ombudsman, and the Waterloo Regional Police Service. I am not at all insisting that Rana is Canada’s Mandela, or that Canada is an apartheid state. That said, however, I wonder why, in 2014, a multicultural and forward looking democracy like Canada still has police jurisdictions using the racial vocabulary utilized by one of the twentieth century’s most despised regimes.

To his credit, Stephen Beckett, Deputy Chief of the Waterloo Regional Police Service, quickly responded to Rana’s written objection. He made sure that Waterloo police now use many descriptors, beyond "white" or "non-white."

Beckett traced the use of the "white" and "non-white" markers to the organisation and terminology of the Canadian Police Information Centre that collects data from and disseminates data to policing agencies nationwide. He promised to bring this issue to the attention of the Centre later this month in his formal capacity as a member of the Centre’s advisory board.

It is now largely up to the centre and policing agencies across the country to see Sara Rana. How will the police work effectively without seeing Rana? And, without seeing Rana, how else will police services collect and interpret data making sure that some bodies are not treated in one way while "other" bodies in a manner that is unequal whether it be in the handling of routine traffic stops or regulating more serious offences?

With the latter question, this whole matter becomes about upholding and applying Canadian values in a diverse Canada. It also means realizing that Canada is a global society in motion where today’s race will not be tomorrow’s.

Patrick Lynn Rivers is visiting scholar in the department of political science at Laurentian University. He writes about racial politics, including race and policing.

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