How this probation officer is fighting anti-Black racism in the Canadian justice system

How this probation officer is fighting anti-Black racism in the Canadian justice system

Tawnie Grayer-Walker, a fifth generation Black Canadian from Harrow, Ont. said she's been dealing with anti-Black racism all her life, including in her workplace and is now using those experiences to help her advocate for some of society's most vulnerable people.

Having worked as a probation and parole officer for eight years, Grayer-Walker, who lives in Detroit, MI and commutes to Windsor, Ont. daily for work, said she's heartbroken at the discriminatory behaviour she has heard, seen and personally experienced.

It's prompted her to take matters into her own hands, establishing a local diversity committee and engaging in education initiatives to improve her workplace culture and the services it offers. That includes speaking up and holding other colleagues accountable and treating her clients with respect and compassion.

On the job, her experience of discrimination started early. Within the first few weeks at work, she was told she was a diversity hire.

"When I go to work at the jail, I've been asked to go through a metal detector. I'm a staff [member]. I'm an employee," she said. "I've had completely fabricated stories been made up and relayed back to my manager about conflict that I've had with people in the jail that have never happened."

Grayer-Walker also alleges she was physically assaulted by Windsor police back in 2000.

"My heart races even when I recount what happened," she said. "I was a victim of domestic violence from a former partner and I was experiencing stalking, threats to burn down my home."

She said she went to the Windsor police station to seek help and was determined to stay until she got that help, however she was told by a senior police officer that if she refused to leave, she would get arrested.

"Before I even knew what was happening, he came from around the desk. I had on a dress. He threw me on the ground, he put my arms behind my back and I remember hearing a loud crack in my shoulder," she said, adding that he cuffed her hands and ankles and was put in a cell.

Submitted by Tawnie Walker-Grayer

She said she was advised by a lawyer not to file a complaint as that would makes matters worse.

Windsor Police Service said they don't have any information to release on the matter, but say it "investigates all reports of criminal offences and lays appropriate charges when the grounds exist."

"Because I know how it feels to be treated without respect for your human dignity and worth, I endeavour to treat every client with love and kindness," Grayer-Walker said. "It is my firm belief that investing in relationship building and approaching all clients from a respectful and supportive angle is the best way to reduce recidivism in our community."

Working as a Black woman, she said she always felt that she had to work harder than her non-Black colleagues to prove her intellect, strength and efficiency.

"There's a saying in our community that we have to work twice as hard to have half as much," she said. "I always feel that I have to do more than I have to prove that I'm not what I've been told I am."

Growing up, Grayer-Walker said she experienced discrimination in the education system and said despite being a gifted student, she wasn't well supported by staff and teachers in school.

"I spent a lot of time in the principal's office throughout elementary in high school because I was constantly confronted with teachers who misunderstood and had a bias against my boredom at the slow pace of the classroom and my response to coming to a school where I was frequently insulted and excluded," she said.

"My teachers assumed I had a behavioural problem, so I spent a lot of time in the principal's office where that could have derailed me in life, right? We talked about a preschool to prison pipeline and that happens in Canada."

Grayer-Walker said she was advised by her high school guidance counselor, who was aware of her high IQ, that she should opt to pursue a career in the trades.

Instead, she said she went to university and graduated top of her class.

"Yet, I had a guidance counselor who tried to derail me again," she said.

Pushing for change in the justice system

These experiences have led Tawnie-Walker to push for change in the justice system, where she says she holds her employer accountable, speaking up and challenging inappropriate behaviour in her workplace and implementing an anti-oppressive practice where offenders don't feel discriminated against.

Looking back, Grayer-Walker said she's seen a "massive shift" in how her workplace operates now, but says things won't change overnight.

"We're doing the work at Windsor ... and I'm so proud of my colleagues because things are changing for the better. We are determined, even if it's only in Windsor-Essex," she said. 

"We can't change the whole government of Ontario. We can't change the government of Canada ... but I can tell you that the people working in probation and parole in Windsor-Essex are serious and passionate about making things better."

How can police stations and the justice system tackle anti-Black racism, according to Grayer-Walker?

Hiring and training.

She said she's been told by her Indigenous and racialized clients that they find comfort being supervised by her.

"[They] expressed relief at having a face that looks like theirs sitting across the desk from them," she said. "They find it easier to be transparent and have a sense of safety when they enter a space that is representative of their community."

'We have to pursue a more just society'

Grayer-Walker also thinks those working in the justice system need to prove their qualifications and demonstrate their dedication to justice, adding that training also needs to include a look into the history of Black people and people of colour.

"In Canada, we have to acknowledge that we have a history of enslavement of black people and even segregation of black people and it's led to generational oppression that we have to now address," she said.

"Not only the oppression of black people, but we have to pursue a more just society for all of our citizens who exist in the margins of our community: the poor, the disabled, the newcomers. Everybody needs to be included in this community because everybody has valuable resources to contribute."