For the first time ever, Statistics Canada has released race-based homicide data that reveals a stark representation of Black Canadians among homicide victims in 2019, prompting calls for targeted mental health programming for members of the Black community.
StatCan’s 2019 homicide data, released on Oct. 29, shows one-third of homicide victims were visible minorities — 44 per cent of whom were identified as Black, yet Black people account for only 3.4 per cent of the Canadian population.
In Toronto, the numbers are more stark: 51 per cent of the city’s population identify as visible minorities, yet visible minorities made up 75 per cent of homicide victims.
The numbers come amid a year marked by more than 425 shootings to-date in Toronto that led to 201 deaths or injuries, many of which occurred in Black Creek and York University Heights, where a large population of African, Caribbean and Black Canadians call home — and where a shooting on Saturday claimed the life of a 12-year-old boy, who succumbed to his injuries Wednesday.
StatCan’s data are the first federal numbers released on the race of homicide victims in Canada specific to Black Canadians — information that has long been readily-available in the United States.
But it affirms what many have known all along, researchers say: there is disproportionate and widespread grief among African, Caribbean and Black communities in Canada that must be addressed.
“This is a pattern of inequity that has created a pandemic of grief, and we have a responsibility to address those structures that are contributing to this,” said Dr. Tanya Sharpe, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and the Factor-Inwentash Chair in Social Work in the Global Community.
Sharpe said the stark homicide rates have had a “devastating impact” on the mental, physical and spiritual well-being of communities of colour who are disproportionately forced to cope with the murder of their loved ones. She estimates that, on average, each homicide leaves behind seven to 10 friends and family members struggling with grief.
“It often presents itself in the form of complicated, elongated grief of emotional numbing, lack of motivation and traumatic stress reactions, depression, hypervigilance, anxiety and insomnia,” Sharpe said.
Research Sharpe has done on African-American communities in the United States found the homicide of a loved one leads to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It also ignites feelings of shame and guilt, both for the inability to protect the victim and due to stigma and racism Black communities face as a whole.
Sharpe, who is from Baltimore, has dedicated the last two years to researching and studying the impact of homicide on Toronto’s Black population. She said initially, the lack of race-based data collection in Canada astonished her.
“That blew me away,” Sharpe said. “In the U.S., we can only just open our Bureau of Census Statistics and find all kinds of data relevant to homicide victims, where they are and who they are, so we can easily paint a picture and have it inform our research, policy and practise.”
In Canada, she said, the lack of race-based data equals erasure of the experiences of Black Canadians who are disproportionately impacted by homicide. “Race-based collection of data matters,” Sharpe said. “If you’re not counting it, then people feel as if they don’t count.”
For this reason, Sharpe founded The Centre for Research and Innovation for Black Survivors of Homicide Victims, or the CRIB — the first centre of its kind in Canada dedicated to projects researching the traumatic impact of murder on surviving family members and their communities, and how best to address it.
Through a study done by the CRIB alongside the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Sharpe found there is a lack of understanding by mental health professionals to address the issue of trauma in communities of colour, and that 65 per cent of Ontario service providers, from probation officers to psychologists, don’t feel they have the culturally responsive skills to best serve Black and Indigenous populations.
Informing better policy is one of the reasons Statistics Canada announced its intent to publish homicide data on ethnocultural groups in July, but it also aligned with broader calls for racial equality from the public.
Warren Silver, the national training officer of the Policing Services Program at StatCan, said the federal agency had collected data specific to Indigenous people since 2014 because of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls movement.
While StatCan was already working on providing homicide data on other ethnicities, Silver said calls for racial equity in 2020, specifically for Black communities following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police, have “definitely pushed” the needle forward.
Sharpe said the release of the data is a “step in the right direction.” What’s still missing from the numbers, however, is the context behind how African, Caribbean and Black Canadians are impacted by it.
Sharpe said the CRIB hopes to unearth some of that by launching Canada’s first study focusing on the experiences of African, Caribbean and Black Canadians after the homicide of a loved one, called the Invisible Wounds Project. The research project will begin in April 2021.
The data collected, with the help of the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and CMHA, Sharpe said, will inform the development of policy and intervention that can help support organizations meet the needs of those families.
The presence of official data from Statistics Canada marks a beginning, Sharpe said.
“But we have got to contextualize the experience of homicide for Black communities to better be able to respond.”
Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_
Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star