Opinion

Ubiquitous security measures make us think of our communities as fractured

In practice, we might be simply managing how people move in and out of buildings. But the latent effect is to remind us to be skeptical of those around us. And those in marginalized communities are usually made to suffer because of that skepticism.

They remind us there are 'bad' people among us, even though we are generally safer than we were in the past

Security screenings do not deliver the same experiences for Canadians across the board. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

This Canada Day, the nation will welcome what has been announced as permanent increased security screening on Parliament Hill for July 1. Meaning that the days of plunking down on the grass to watch national day celebrations without first being machine-scanned are gone forever. Another advance by the securitized state.

We're seeing it everywhere: Toronto's Union Station was quickly fronted by hostile-vehicle mitigation measures — aka concrete barriers — after the deadly van attack on the city's Yonge Street back in April. Big trucks blocked off vehicle road-access to sports events at the downtown Air Canada Centre. Toronto city councillors are now contemplating introducing metal detectors and bag searches at City Hall, following the lead of cities such as Edmonton and Calgary, as well as provincial legislatures and courthouses.

Airport security creep is relentless. Bill C-23, recently given royal assent, will permit armed U.S. customs officers at Canada's international airports — those who do pre-clearance of passengers travelling to American destinations — to detain people on Canadian territory. There is future thought to stationing them at train, bus and ferry terminals with cross-border routes. Canadian border officers have been armed since July 2007.

Controlling access

Access to office buildings has long been controlled by electronic security access cards. Employers increasingly spy on their workplaces. CCTV surveillance cameras are ubiquitous. Large elements of the private security industry is forecast to grow by 20 per cent over the decade ending in 2020. 

Hardly anyone who studies these phenomena predicts the process will ever be reversed.

The argument goes that subjecting all of us to the same pats, scans, searches and camera snoops is like compelling all of us to wear automobile seat belts. It's a universal public health approach to safety that brings with it little stress to our sense of social cohesion, or erosion of our commitment to the common good — or so some say. 

Many perceive these measures as necessary in world they view as increasingly dangerous, and readily accept them because they appear to treat everyone the same.

In fact, the reality has never been that simple.

Risk experts generally agree that, statistically speaking, the world is a safer place today than it was a decade ago. Yet when EKOS surveys Canadians on the issue, only three per cent of respondents concur; the vast majority believe it is more dangerous.

Social research has found that this exaggerated perception of risk in both Canada and the U.S.in the aftermath of Sept. 11 has had a corrosive impact on the economy and on basic trust. It has been one of the drivers of the rise of a more ordered, authoritarian outlookthe rise, in a word, of populism.

University of Toronto geographer Emily Gilbert, who is writing a book on how crossing the Canada-U.S. border has changed since Sept. 11, suggests that while security and security technology often evoke universalism, in practice they are much more targeted or biased.

"Now we're in a situation that people have called 'forever war' or 'everywhere war,'" says Gilbert. But the idea that we once trusted each other much more, and now we don't, is not universal. "There have always been people who have been mistrusted within Canada. Indigenous peoples have always been suspect; people who are racialized, black Canadians, have always been suspect."

In practice, we might be simply managing how people move in and out of buildings, but the latent effect is to remind us to be skeptical of those around us. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

A lot of that has to do with the fact that security screenings do not deliver the same experiences for Canadians across the board. While it's true that metal detectors, for example, do not discriminate, those overseeing them and deciding who gets selected for random searches or pat-downs, or additional walk-throughs sometimes do.

The act of carding the stopping, questioning and documenting of individuals by police which is supposed to be equitable in theory, amounts to racial profiling in practice, as many judges, human rights commissions, civil liberty groups and legal associations have pointed out.

In sum, the presence of these security mechanisms can serve to remind us that there are "bad" people among us, even though we are actually safer, by and large, than we were in the past.

The ways we are implementing these increased security measures encourage us to think of ourselves as a fractured community. In practice, we might be simply managing how people move in and out of buildings, but the latent effect is to remind us to be skeptical of those around us. And those in marginalized communities are usually made to suffer because of that skepticism.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Frank Graves and Michael Valpy

Frank Graves is president of Ottawa-based EKOS Research Associates. Michael Valpy is a fellow of University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance.

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