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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  1. Dianne says

    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.

    So then he might actually be responsive to constructive criticism about how he could improve the way the Toronto police conduct business even more?

  2. khms says

    Reach-out is important. People over here still remember the campaign slogan from 1926 (before the Nazis, that is), “Die Polizei, Dein Freund und Helfer” (the police, your friend and helper) – including using “Freund und Helfer” as a somewhat sarcastic euphemism for police.

    At the moment, they’re trying to interest more immigrants in police careers – the idea is that they’ll be better at interacting with other immigrants. It probably helps to speak, say, Turkish, look like a Turk, and maybe even agree about Mohammed. (Turks are the largest current immigrant minority in Germany.) Makes you look less like “the man”.

    Also, getting the percentage of immigrants in the police more like that in the general population makes the police as a whole look more representative and less oppressive.

    Looking at immigrants from earlier waves, such as the Polish immigrants in the Ruhr area (who pretty much nobody thinks of as anything but Germans, so that TV police detective Schimanski was extremely popular), that sure looks like the right direction to me.

    Reaching out and including people is important, if you want good outcomes. Excluding them creates permanent problems.

  3. Dianne says

    People over here still remember the campaign slogan from 1926 (before the Nazis, that is), “Die Polizei, Dein Freund und Helfer” (the police, your friend and helper) – including using “Freund und Helfer” as a somewhat sarcastic euphemism for police.

    Well, yes, I understand why this is used sarcastically, but in principle, shouldn’t the police be Freunde und Helfer to the populace? What do we have police for if not to help people in need? And a good police force should be involved in their district, getting to know people and being helpful. Inevitably, there will be conflicts because the most law abiding person will occasionally break a rule (traffic violations come to mind), but shouldn’t there be good will in general between the police and the people they serve?

    If the phrase is used sarcastically, that suggests that the police aren’t doing their job as well as they could. (Not that that’s necessarily the police force’s fault. They might be given impossible laws to enforce or be instructed to stop all young men or all minority men or otherwise be set up to fail by the government. There are lots of levels on which the relationship can go bad.

  4. Richard Simons says

    My son (adopted, Cree/Ojibway) has said that the attitude of police in Winnipeg was far worse than that of police in Calgary, which is not what you might expect from the reputation of Alberta. The current police chief in W’peg (in the process of resigning) seems to have taken steps to improve the situation. Along those lines, many years ago I read about a British city (Nottingham?) in which new, White recruits to the police force were required to live with a Non-white family for a few months. The police chief said something like ‘Nothing changes your attitudes as fast as a brick coming in through the window’.

  5. ender says

    “What do we have police for if not to help people in need? ”

    I think you fundamentally misunderstand what a police force is. They are there to enforce the status quo, whatever that is. If your society contains any trace of injustice, the police are there to make sure it stays that way, and to act against whoever challenges it. The clearest examples of this are in labor struggles, at least in the U.S. I’ll leave you to guess which side the police (and occasionally the Army) usually fall on…

    Police are basically a necessary evil. They are the street gang that governments hire so no one takes over their turf. When you think about it this way, police brutality, the “us vs. them” mentality with respect to high-crime neighborhoods, and the enforcement of social racial privilege make a lot more sense.

  6. says

    I have to admit that my first reaction to that title was “there’s a right way to do racism in toronto?” :-p

    anyway, good post; also, I’m glad to hear that my favorite Canadian city (Vancouver) is just that bit less racist

  7. Freddy J says

    Just a full line load of bullshit.Directed @Toronto Police and
    the racist black community toward’s whites.
    Growing up in Toronto;educated;raised family;community involved.
    Black’s in general are a pull down to our very fabric of soceity.

    Who’s at the very majority of social welfare system(stealing benifits)won’t work.
    Who’s filling our jail’s for crimes(Pimp’s,Drugs,Break-ins,guns
    theft’s,fraud.) won’t work.
    WITH CHILDREN PRESENT. FUCK THEM>>AS LONG AS THEIR KILLING EACH OTHER!!!!!And just stay away from us;we don’t want you here
    or need your kind here..But don’t know how to get rid of you’s
    like cockroaches/bedbugs..

  8. says

    Growing up in Toronto;educated

    Somewhere, a whole bunch of TDSB teachers are quietly hoping that everyone will forget you ever passed through their classrooms. You might have gone to school in Toronto, but nobody would confuse that with you being educated there.

  9. says

    i am so sorry these type of things are going on in Canada me and my wife are afro American and were thinking about moving but we didn’t know that same bull shit is in Canada is racism bad in the whole country and do they allow this

  10. Jayobball says

    LMFAO @ Freddy J!!!! Educated???? Really????

    “Even at outside party’s” (educated people would say parties)
    “As long as their killing each other” (educated people would say they’re)
    “Jail’s”, “black’s”, “toward’s” (Jesus buddy, do you know what a contraction is and when to use one? Lol)
    “Soceity” (spelled wrong)

    How embarrassing! Just because you are white and didn’t grow up under rough socioeconomic times DOES NOT mean you are educated. The blogger is far more educated than you are, yet you compare him to a roach. I feel bad for simple minded people such as yourself.


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