Former Nova Scotia lieutenant-governor Mayann Francis says the arrest of a black woman in a Walmart last week in Halifax has left her shaken and even fearful of police for the first time.
Last week, officers arrested Santina Rao while she was shopping with her baby and toddler. She suffered a broken wrist and numerous bruises and is now facing charges of causing a disturbance, assaulting a peace officer and resisting arrest.
“I just went into this deep sense of ‘Oh my heavens, we are gone back 100 years,” Francis told CBC Nova Scotia’s Information Morning.
Francis served as lieutenant-governor from 2006 to 2012 — the only black Nova Scotian to hold the position — and has spoken out before about racial profiling she said she faces in retail stores in the province.
She said a video clip showing police on top of Rao “scared” her and brought to mind Viola Desmond, the black woman who was dragged from a New Glasgow, N.S., movie theatre in 1946 for sitting in the whites-only section.
Rao has said she paid for electronics in one section of the store and stopped in a toy aisle on her way to ring in some produce that couldn’t be weighed at the checkout where she made her first purchase.
She said police believed she was concealing items and that when she became upset they cuffed her without explaining why she was being arrested. She was not charged with theft.
Chief Dan Kinsella on Monday called the situation “disappointing” and said he has referred the case to Nova Scotia’s police watchdog, although it’s not yet clear if they will investigate.
The Halifax Examiner has posted a video of part of the arrest.
The incident has left Francis thinking about what would have happened if she had been accused of shoplifting.
“What if they called and the police came and surrounded me. Would my fear cause me to do something that I would not normally do? Would I show ID if they asked me to? I don’t know,” she said.
She questions why police didn’t examine surveillance video before approaching Rao and why they didn’t try to de-escalate the situation.
Francis said the incident’s timing is particularly bad because it makes people question Halifax Regional Police’s recent apology for street checks, a now outlawed practice that disproportionately targeted black men.
“The question that has to be asked is what was communicated to the staff once the apology was made,” she said. “Are there policies being put in place? And are people aware of this or did it go in one ear and out the other and they don’t care?”
Precautions while shopping
Being followed through stores is something with which Francis said she’s all too familiar. As a black woman, she said she doesn’t have the option of putting things in reusable bags because she has no doubt a staff member would pull her aside.
She employs her own strategy of keeping her hands out of her pockets and avoiding opening her bags.
“I just do all of that so that I don’t add to the suspicion of being a black woman, which is very stressful,” she said. “I’m treated like ‘Why are you in this store? You’re not welcome.'”
Recently, Francis said she couldn’t avoid taking something out of her bag but she did so reluctantly.
“I just said a little quick prayer and I pulled the backpack off,” she said. “So this is what I go through because I don’t want to go through what happened at Walmart.
“Look at our own backyard. Canada, Nova Scotia. Racism is alive and well.”
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