This story is over 5 years old.


A Pride protest thrusts Black Lives Matter into the spotlight in Canada

Black Lives Matter Toronto has been drawing attention to racial profiling and pushing for transparency in police shooting investigations since 2014. This week it's been calling out anti-black racism inside the LGBT community.
Michael Hudson/CP

Days after Toronto's Black Lives Matter chapter pulled out their megaphones and occupied a space in the middle of the city's Pride parade, bringing it to a temporary halt, the activist group called a press conference to address the fallout. Every media outlet in Canada's largest city was present.

It was an unprecedented degree of attention for the fledgling chapter in Canada, which grew out of anger over police shootings in the United States, but is now very much in the spotlight north of the border, too.


As racial tensions in the United States reached a new apex this week, with the shooting death of two black men — Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — and the attack on police officers at a peaceful protest in Dallas against those killings, which left five officers dead and seven others injured, Black Lives Matter in Toronto has been calling out anti-black racism of a different kind, inside the LGBT community.

Among their demands: increasing funding and logistical support for Blockorama, a party for black and African diaspora LGBT community members at Toronto's Pride festival, and the organization behind it, Blackness Yes; increased representation on the Pride Toronto staff, with a focus on black queer people and trans women, Indigenous peoples, and others from vulnerable communities; and most controversial of all, banning police floats from the parade.

Since its inception in 2014, BLMTO has made a name for itself for its activism on issues like racial profiling by police in Canada, and its loud calls for transparency in police shooting investigations. It led a protest onto a Toronto highway last summer in response to the shooting death of a mentally ill man wielding a hammer, and in the winter set up tents outside of police headquarters for about two weeks.

The focus in Canada this week has largely been on the way BLMTO sought to get its message across, rather than the message itself. But coverage of the Pride protest on Sunday put their name and mission into the mainstream discourse like never before.


"Black Lives Matter put into the public vernacular this conversation about racism not only in Canada, but in the LGBT community," Omisooree Dryden, a women's, gender and sexuality studies professor, who co-hosted Blockorama at Toronto's Pride festival, which is the largest in North America.

"It's not that other people weren't having this conversation, but now it's on the 6 o'clock news, there are think pieces… these are really important interventions."

Rodney Diverlus of BLMTO used the press conference on Thursday to once again bring their goals to light, chastising the media for missing the point.

"It's been three days of non-stop answering questions, having conversations with you all," said Diverlus. "No one's asking questions about the black lives that are lost."

.— VICE Canada (@vicecanada)July 8, 2016

While tallies compiled by media organizations and activist groups in the US suggest anywhere from 500 to 600 people have been killed there by police this year, Canada doesn't have concrete numbers available. Most departments publish limited data and others don't disclose the information at all. Data provided to VICE News by the RCMP, which handles local policing in rural parts of the country, shows that 28 people died after being shot by the federal police force between 2010 and 2014, with dozens more suffering injuries. Over the same four-year period, a civilian watchdog group in Ontario reviewed a total of 84 cases of police shootings, compiled from all police forces in the province. In 39 of those cases, the individual died.


"We are under attack," BLMTO co-founder Alexandria Williams shouted into a megaphone on Sunday after they, named an honored group, brought the Pride parade to a standstill.

"Pride Toronto, we are calling you out! For your anti-blackness, your anti-indigeneity," she yelled.

BLMTO's sit-in only ended after Pride Toronto representatives signed a document, agreeing to meet their demands, but executive director Mathieu Chantelois later said he did so in order to keep the float moving.

BLMTO at Toronto's Pride parade on Sunday July 3, 2016. (Photo by Mark Blinch/CP)

Chantelois did not respond to repeated requests for comment and made no public statement responding to the criticisms levied by BLMTO at its Thursday press conference.

In an interview with CP24 earlier this week, Chantelois said, "Most of the requests were really reasonable, frankly they could've sent me an email and I would agree to all these things," aside from the police float demand, which he said required larger consultation.

The organization has clarified repeatedly that it would welcome LGBT officers in plain clothes, but that police floats are symbolic of oppression and incite fear in marginalized communities, and therefore, shouldn't be permitted.

Since the protest, BLMTO says it's been flooded with hate mail, much of it racist and some of it from members of the LGBT community

The mayor of Toronto has weighed in, offering his support for police participation in the parade, while Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack criticized Pride organizers for throwing "the police under the bus" and demanded an apology.


"We should be having discussion about inclusion, not exclusion," he said in an interview with CP24.

Major newspapers have also been critical of of BLMTO in their opinion pages. "Black Lives Matter should think twice about making outsiders of allies," read the headline of an editorial in the Toronto Star, while one Globe and Mail column called the group "bullies."

Canada's most prominent gay-rights lawyer despises Black Lives Matter: — Jonathan Goldsbie (@goldsbie)July 6, 2016

"People were inconvenienced," said Naila Keleta-Mae, a professor at the University of Waterloo. "The mainstream or status quo notion of how something was going to unfold was disrupted, and that's why their action has had such deep reverberations."

Tensions between Pride Toronto and members of the black LGBT community in Toronto date back to at least the late 2000s when organizers of Blockorama grew frustrated with the lack of a permanent home for the event, which was moved repeatedly at Pride's discretion.

In 2010, a sweeping report by Pride Toronto's Community Advisory Panel's recommended, among other things, that Blackness Yes and queer and trans people of color in the Pride organization be "properly funded, and that has not happened," said Dryden.

"It's important for us to get this history out because it's important for us to remember where Black Lives Matter's work comes from," she said. "First, BLM's sit-in was a 25-minute sit-in, and people are now calling BLM thugs and terrorists… This language is very racially coded, and the fact that largely white queer people are using this against black queer Canadians is troubling."


Keleta-Mae said the last few days have shown that "private conversations" can only go so far.

"It is only in the face of the action taken by Black Lives Matter Toronto at the parade that these concerns [about black queer spaces] have been brought to light, beyond that kind of quiet conversation."

BLMTO members Rodney Diverlus and Alexandria Williams at a press conference in Toronto on Thursday. (Photo by Christopher Katsarov/CP)

The criticisms have helped Black Lives Matter determine who their real allies are, co-founder Janaya Khan told VICE News, adding that the backlash has essentially proved their point and reaffirmed for them that they're doing the right work.

For example, a Pride staff member resigned after Pride backed away from its promises to BLMTO.

"We're not concerned about who is no longer our ally, in fact, I think we've gained many more than we've lost," Khan said. "If your commitment to black liberation can be so flighty that in a disagreement with a particular action, one that you don't fully understand, clearly, that you would separate yourselves from the work that is black liberation and from our movement, I think it suggests that you were never an ally at all."

And while it's unclear how Pride will respond, BLMTO considers the "cultural shift" — bringing the issues of the most marginalized members of the LGBT community into the public consciousness — a victory.

"The people who are now talking about and who now know about Black Lives Matter and are connecting their work to larger issues — that has expanded exponentially," said Keleta-Mae. "They brought into a public space a conversation that hasn't taken up much public room."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk