N.S. ruling sets pattern across Canada for considering systemic racism when sentencing Black offenders

·3 min read
Lawyer Brandon Rolle argued the Rakeem Rayshon Anderson appeal case on behalf of intervenor African Nova Scotia Decade for People of African Descent Coalition. (Nova Scotia Legal Aid - image credit)
Lawyer Brandon Rolle argued the Rakeem Rayshon Anderson appeal case on behalf of intervenor African Nova Scotia Decade for People of African Descent Coalition. (Nova Scotia Legal Aid - image credit)

A decision by Nova Scotia's highest court on the sentencing of a Black man convicted of weapons offences is being heralded as "historic," and a "landmark" that will set the pattern for sentences going forward in the province, and possibly the rest of the country.

Rakeem Rayshon Anderson was convicted after police found a loaded .22-calibre handgun in his car during a routine traffic stop. The judge sentenced Anderson to house arrest and probation, basing her decision, in part, on an Impact of Race and Culture Assessment (IRCA), a tool developed in Nova Scotia to help judges arrive at an appropriate sentence for Black people convicted of crimes.

Justice Anne Derrick, on behalf of a rare five-justice Court of Appeal panel, said inquiring about the systemic issues facing African Nova Scotians could help reduce the levels of incarceration in that community.

The authors of the IRCA spoke of how people like Anderson, coming from what they described as "trauma and marginalized communities" have a heightened sense of self security, which explains why Anderson had a loaded handgun. They said he struggled in the provincial education system, in part because there were few, if any, Black role models for him to follow.

The Crown had initially asked for a prison sentence of two to three years and appealed Anderson's sentence as too lenient.

But as the appeal process unfolded, the Crown modified its position; it no longer opposed Anderson's sentence and instead, asked the Court of Appeal for guidance in such cases going forward.

Ruling provides direction for judges, lawyer says

Halifax legal aid lawyer Brandon Rolle argued the case on behalf of an intervenor, African Nova Scotia Decade for People of African Descent Coalition (ANSDPADC).

"It's rare to be able to stand up at the Court of Appeal and talk about things like slavery, colonialism and the lived experiences of African Nova Scotians in the justice system," Rolle said at a news conference Tuesday, called by ANSDPADC to celebrate the decision.

"And that's what we had the opportunity to do in this case. When you think about the context: we had five sitting justices, which we don't often see at the Court of Appeal, so we knew from the outset that we had the court's full attention."

Rolle said the ruling isn't just about when it's appropriate to impose a conditional sentence — it's a direction to judges that evidence of race and culture is a lens through which to apply all sentencing principles.

Nova Scotia courts have been using IRCAs since 2014. That's when sociologist Robert Wright wrote what's considered the first such assessment. He also co-authored the IRCA in the Anderson case that recommended the conditional sentence.

Dave Laughlin/CBC
Dave Laughlin/CBC

"This is a move towards justice, not a move to some kind of preferential treatment of individuals," Wright said Tuesday.

"In order to understand that, we need to understand that our system up until this moment, the standard has been injustice for people of African descent."

Federal funding for IRCA training

Wright and his co-workers have been given $1 million by the federal government to train people in other parts of Canada to prepare IRCAs. Another group will train judges and lawyers in their use.

Wright says additional money has been earmarked to cover the cost of preparing IRCAs in other jurisdictions.

He said while the cost is covered by the courts in Nova Scotia, defence lawyers in other parts of the country who have tried to get such assessments done for their clients have had to find the money to pay for them.

The funding for providing the IRCA training is to be spread over three years. Wright said total funding provided by Ottawa to expand the IRCA program is just over $6.6 million.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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CBC
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