4. Race and Crime

Dr. Michael Ma, Kwantlen Polytechnic University 

Positionality Statement

When I immigrated to Canada, I became a hyphenated Chinese-Canadian. As a young child, I had little agency or control over how I came to be an immigrant-settler subject living on treaty land in Quebec. Since I was born in Hong Kong, I just swapped one post-colonial identity for another. As someone growing up in Quebec, I was an immigrant Chinese-Canadian Muslim anglophone living in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood in a francophone province. That experience gave me some unique insights. As an adult, I am trying to make sense of and reconcile my presence on the unceded territories of British Columbia. This chapter is written—in part—as a reflection on the way I have experienced and thought about race, racism, and racialisation in Canada.


Dr. Shereen Hassan’s Vignette:

It was May 1997. I had just finished the Spring semester of my second year at Simon Fraser University. I was 19 years old and planning my first trip out of the country without family. My parents, both immigrants from Egypt, were hesitant to allow their daughter to travel without them, as this sort of independence was not typical of young women “back home.”

Upon arriving in Toronto to catch a connecting flight, my two White friends passed through customs without issue. However, when I walked up to have my passport scanned, the U.S. customs official stopped, looked at me, swiped my passport again, and then asked me to come into their customs office area. At first, I thought it was a simple error and that I would be on my way shortly. I had no idea that this would be a life-changing moment.

Two hours had passed, and my flight had already left. My friends were on the plane, and I was stuck in what I now know was an interrogation room. It had a one-way mirror in it; people were able to see me, but I couldn’t see who was watching me. I had a few different customs officials come in and question me over the course of four hours, asking where I was from, what the purpose of my trip was, and who I was traveling with. They asked about my family, which mosque they were members of, where they were born and what they did for a living. At first, it was interesting; I was, after all, an undergraduate in Criminology and had an interest in justice. In fact, when they asked what I was studying at SFU, I told them, and their reaction was priceless: “Ironic.” It most certainly was.

After some time, one of the customs officials began to empathise with me. I had become quite emotional when the departure time had passed and my friends were no longer in the waiting area. I was now all alone and sensed that this was no longer a “random” search, as was initially suggested. He told me what was in fact going on: They believed that I looked like or was related to someone who was a wanted terrorist. You can imagine my horror. The name Hassan in the Arab world is really as common as Smith. Almost everyone I knew had Hassan as a first, middle, or last name! Naturally, I rejected the notion that I was in any way connected to a terrorist organisation, and I cooperated with the ongoing questions and subsequent fingerprints and photographs. 

Eventually, I was released from the interrogation room and allowed to board the next flight to New York City. There was no explanation, no apology. At this point, I thought it was all a terrible mistake and my name had been cleared. I wrote to the Department of Homeland Security, seeking some sort of explanation. Within weeks, I received a response stating that this was merely a random search, justified under the guise of national security.

This was just the beginning. Each time I tried to cross the border for a day trip, I was interrogated; for each flight I took, I was held and interrogated, each time with the same result after hours of questions, fingerprints, and photographs. 

Two years later, at the age of 21, I went to Cairo, Egypt, where my mother’s family still live, to visit family I hadn’t seen in over 15 years. This is where I learned my experience was not unique to U.S. travel. This time, I was being interrogated in Arabic, in a room that looked like it was part of the set of the show Homeland. There were guards in the hallways armed with rifles, the cement walls were significantly damaged, and the interrogator was smoking a cigar and speaking exclusively in Arabic. Thankfully, my mother was with me and is fluent, whereas I hadn’t spoken Arabic fluently since I was a young child.

When she began crying, I knew that this was not a “random” stop. Suddenly, without warning, the interrogator turned to me and began speaking in English. I was shocked—if he was bilingual, why had he not been speaking to me in English the entire time? Again, I was asked about my family connections, where I work, what I study, the mosque where my parents prayed. I was photographed and fingerprinted. It was an entirely different experience from when I was held in U.S. Customs. Here, the language was different, the laws were different, and the overall tone of the customs officials was different. I was terrified. I spent the next 21 days on edge, sleepless and eager to be back on Canadian soil. I have not been back since.

At the age of 25, I got married. For our honeymoon, I booked a Mexican vacation and made sure we had a direct flight to avoid any stops or transfers in the U.S. I quickly learned that would not suffice; simply flying over the United States was cause for concern, and I was held and interrogated yet again, this time with my husband. He was photographed, fingerprinted, and interrogated. We missed our flight and a day of our honeymoon.

Shortly upon our return, it was suggested to me that I change my legal name to my husband’s name on my passport as perhaps that would solve the problem. I thought it was worth a try, and shockingly it worked. My husband is of Dutch descent. It turns out a Dutch, White last name did not raise the red flags that my maiden name did. For the next five years, I travelled to and from the United States without issue. 

It was then suggested to me that I apply for NEXUS. My husband began traveling to the U.S. for work, and he was granted a NEXUS so it would just make things much easier if I too had one. As I waited for this process to commence, I continued to cross the border for shopping trips, without issue, until October of 2013. I was traveling with a childhood friend and her newborn son. We were both interrogated, fingerprinted, and photographed. We were there for seven very long hours. This was much different than previous “random” stops. They were concerned that I, Shereen Hassan, had been traveling for years without issue under my married name. In their eyes, as I was told, I had tried to “cheat” the system. At the end of the seven hours, I was denied access, and I was given paperwork indicating that I was deemed permanently inadmissible. It hit me—I couldn’t take my young children to Disneyland, I couldn’t travel for conferences, and I worried my children would later be denied access as well and that this would impact them in their future educational and career goals. All this, and I had been a law-abiding citizen and faculty member for 13 years with no criminal record. It was time to hire a lawyer.

Many steps were taken to try to get to the bottom of what in fact was the cause of these “random” stops and the eventual denied access. Through a freedom of information request, I received a 45-page document, all of which was redacted, but the following words in the cover letter confirmed my lawyer’s suspicions: “We have reason to believe that Shereen Hassan has or will become involved in terrorist activity.” I was left without words.

After my claim that this was a case of mistaken identity, my request was still denied. My last resort was to apply for a U.S. travel visa. This application would be sent to various other U.S. government agencies. This was sent in April of 2014, 18 months after being deemed permanently inadmissible to the United States. All I could do now was sit and wait.

Finally, in June of 2016, I received a package in the mail indicating that my travel visa was ready for pick up. I was elated. I was granted a 10-year travel visa. The nightmare was over. I could now plan a trip to Disneyland and travel to watch my husband in his competitions in the United States.

Then, Trump was elected that same year in November. Muslim bans were imposed, and it was abundantly clear that racial profiling was alive and well. On my next trip, my travel visa was cancelled and my husband’s NEXUS was revoked, all again without explanation or apology. And so the saga continues.

I am hopeful now that Biden has been elected that things will change. My lawyer plans to initiate an inquiry into my case. At the time of writing, Biden has been in office for just over a month, and things are changing quickly. One can only hope that by the time my now 10-year-old children graduate from high school, they will be able to apply to U.S. universities and I will be able to move them into their dorms. One can only hope.


This chapter explains how race and racialisation are socially integrated and naturalised in existing Canadian systems of criminal justice and law. We explore how social-legal and historical structures, in combination with institutions such as policing, correctional facilities, and border control, act in unequal and discriminatory ways toward Indigenous, Black and people of colour as compared to people who are White, of a certain class, and able-bodied. We explore a framework of the colonial process through which race and racism were historically produced. We examine how racism is an act that is produced in a systemic manner and manifests itself socially, culturally, and politically in the unequal treatment of people. Finally, we analyse race and its operation by breaking it down into the categories of overt, institutional, and systemic racism.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Shereen Hassan and Dan Lett, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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