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Racism in Toronto: doing it wrong

While I live in Vancouver now, I am actually a relatively recent arrival. My family moved away from Vancouver when I was about three years old, and I spent the years from age 10 – 20 in the suburbs of Toronto. Despite not living in Toronto proper, I did spend a lot of time there on weekends, and have visited numerous times since moving away for university. While I can’t claim to be from Toronto, I certainly have a ‘feel’ for the city – a familiarity with a few of the cultural hotspots, the ‘vibe’ from some of the people there, the somewhat-intangible character of the city itself. Despite it being fashionable to insult Toronto here in Vancouver, I remain a stalwart defender of a place with which I ultimately feel a great deal of kinship.

Having moved to my new home, I find many similarities. Obviously, we are still talking about major Canadian cities that are fairly politically liberal and share a certain ethos. It’s pretty easy, however, to spot the major differences. The landscape and, resultantly, cityscape in Vancouver are dramatically different from Toronto. The demographics of the city are obviously different, and above and beyond the cliches about Vancouver being more “laid back”, the layout of the city and surrounding area lend themselves to a very different profile of interests and activities for Vancouverites compared to Torontonians.

Once you get past the big differences though, one begins to gain an appreciation for the more subtle differences. The way bus passengers say ‘thank you’, the drier air in the summer, the way people buy heavy-duty rain gear so they can bike year-round… little things. For me, one of the most remarkable is the way cops don’t look at me when they pass in their cars. It still blows my mind – unlike here, getting eye-fucked by cops was par for the course in Toronto. It doesn’t seem that much has changed:

Staranalysis of Toronto police stop data from 2008 to mid-2011 shows that the number of young black and brown males aged 15 to 24 documented in each of the city’s 72 patrol zones is greater than the actual number of young men of colour living in those areas. Young white males and those designated as “other” do attract police attention, but nothing as pronounced as black and brown youth.

Toronto police Chief Bill Blair dismisses the possibility that his officers, who are encouraged to stop, question and document citizens in all areas of the city as part of regular and targeted police work, may have documented all young black and brown men in certain areas.

Now I don’t want to paint Bill Blair as an out-of-touch racist – he’s responsible for a major (and, in my opinion, positive) shift in the way the Toronto police conduct business. I strongly urge you to read the entire linked article, because it provides a level of depth and background that I cannot provide in 1000 words. Suffice it to say that I think that this program of identifying and cataloguing potentially suspicious persons in Toronto neighbourhoods began as a well-intentioned attempt by police to get to know who lives in the various neighbourhoods. There is apparently some evidence to suggest that the approach is reducing crime (although crime is down all across the country, so take that claim with a grain of salt).

However, one of the problems inherent in any racial profiling scheme (which this undoubtedly is) reaches beyond the simple crime statistics:

Youth interviewed by the Star for past stories and for this series speak of encounters with police that begin badly, such as being interrupted during a basketball game on an outdoor court and asked to produce identification. Many feel “criminalized” by the experience and that they have no choice but to answer police questions, even if they are not required to do so. To go silent or, worse yet, walk or run away, invites more trouble.

These kinds of programs are not a substitute for actually getting to know the people in the communities, which is admittedly a much larger and more expensive task that falls well outside the model for modern policing. However, when the only encounter people have with police in their communities are negative ones, it is unsurprising that they begin to see the police as adversaries rather than allies, which leads to stuff like this:

Police have arrested two men in connection with the shooting death of a Toronto rapper and linked the case to a series of drive-by shootings in Scarborough.


Police expressed frustration at the difficulty in convincing witnesses to speak with them. “This is a vicious cycle,” Supt. Martin said. “We have witnesses that don’t come forward, and ultimately those that are responsible for the gun violence on our streets are left on our streets to further victimize the public.”

I’ve sung this song before - there is no tool more useful to police than the co-operation and trust of the public they are sworn to serve. Racial profiling and other activities that alienate the very people whose aid is needed most become a self-imposed handicap, trading short-term gains in crime statistics for long-term problems of community outreach. And when the effects of those programs fall along racial lines, you do the further self-inflicted damage of losing public confidence even outside the directly-affected groups you’re profiling.

Of course, chief Blair knows all this, and it seems as though serious people are discussing serious steps to remedy the situation. We know from last month’s exploration of the statistics that racial issues in Toronto are quite unlike anywhere else in the country, and it will continue to be difficult to strike the right balance. As I opined yesterday, this suggests to me a need for increased and ongoing discussion in the public square about the nature and effects of race and racism. Until we understand what we are up against, we will keep finding ourselves making mistakes like this.

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