Any discussion of anti-black racism in Toronto, much to the frustration of many black Canadians, commonly elicits one response — that it's not as bad as it is in the United States.
Patrisse Cullors, LA-based activist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM), said she didn't even know Canada had issues until she met her husband Janaya Khan, a co-founder of the Toronto chapter of the growing, international movement. It's the only active branch outside of the United States.
"Most black Americans think Canada is a haven," said Cullors in a phone interview from California.
In recent weeks, however, anger simmering around the Toronto police's treatment of black people has come to the fore, thanks to BLM Toronto's most visible form of action to date: a 15-day occupation of the steps of a downtown police headquarters that drew attention to police accountability.
The group came with a list of demands that centered around the death Andrew Loku, a black man with a history of mental illness who was killed by a police officer last summer after he allegedly approached him holding a hammer. The decision not to lay charges in the Loku case — a government watchdog group deemed that the officer had used "justifiable force" — has brought about what Khan called Canada's "Mike Brown moment" — a reference to the outrage that followed a grand jury decision not to indict the police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
It was Brown's death that spurred the Toronto chapter into action in 2014, as they organized solidarity events that picked up on longstanding grievances around racial profiling by police — a practice the Toronto force says it does not tolerate, but that the stats suggest persists.
These last two weeks, protesters stayed day and night outside of police headquarters, creating a village of sorts, complete with a medical team, a police liaison, people responsible for preparing meals, transport coordinators, and scheduled programming. On the final day of the sit-in, they marched to Ontario's provincial parliament building and secured a public meeting with Premier Kathleen Wynne, who made the unexpected move of coming out and addressing them directly.
Canada's form of racism is harder to identify, according to Toronto chapter co-founder Rodney Diverlus, "because it's done with a smile on your face."
"It's under the surface and so covert that often, we brush it off as reality, but really it ends up taking the form of micro-aggressions and more subtle forms of oppression," said Diverlus, who emigrated from Haiti to the US, and eventually settled with his family in Canada.
At her face-to-face with protesters this week, the premier acknowledged that "we still have systemic racism in our society" — and in the process angered Mike McCormack, head of the Toronto police union.
"It's not true and it's not acceptable to suggest it," McCormack told the Toronto Sun, adding that officers are "getting tired" of being called racist as they respond to violence on the street.
"But what I want to ask the premier is for her to show us the data that she is referring to when she says we still have systemic racism in our society," he said. "If she has the data … then the question I have is what is she doing about it?"
He also called a push by a Toronto city councillor seeking a review of how the Special Investigations Unit, which monitors the police, does its job "political masturbation."
But while the number of police shootings pales in comparison to the US, BLM Toronto has been "unearthing all the other the ways in which anti-black racism shows up," argued Cullors. "We have to talk about Canada because it's the creation of this haven that allows for the deadening and the silencing of black people."
Having observed the chapter's growth, Cullors said BLM Toronto has been instrumental in showing American activists how to see anti-black racism through a global lens and just how much the experience of black Canadians has been shaped by immigration. Delegates from the US flew down to the encampment to stand in solidarity.
"It's important for them to see what it looks like to organize outside of the US context," said Cullors. "How do we have a deeper conversation about civil wars in other countries, and what pushes people out of other countries to end up in the west?"
Unlike its counterparts in the United States, BLM Toronto's focus isn't on black nationalism, members said.
"The black American identity has been shaped for over 300 years," said Diverlus. "It really is an identity that's rooted in nationalism, in being black American."
"We don't have a narrative that's encapsulated in 'African American,'" Khan agreed. "People don't identify as African-Canadian or black Canadian here. We're very deeply connected to our diasporic and African roots even if we're five generations [removed.]"
So when you ask a black person in Toronto where they're from, Khan said, they will tell you they're from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Trinidad, Nigeria, Haiti, Jamaica, and the list goes on.
"I don't see that in the States, and that creates a necessity for a pan-African narrative [in BLM Toronto's work]," said Khan. "That's the real difference."
You can't organize in Toronto around black liberation, for example, if you don't understand the way Islamophobia impacts black Muslims, and more specifically, black Somali people with an immigrant experience, Khan continued.
"Because the black identity is more nuanced, it allows us to have conversations that are much more richer than the 'we deserve a piece of the American pie' discourse that happens down south," said Diverlus.
The ethnic diversity of the black population in Toronto is reflected in BLM TO's leadership, whose backgrounds range from Sudanese to Haitian, and in the events they hold. But achieving that diversity — not just in terms of ethnicity, but also gender identity and sexuality — has been a slow, deliberate process, requiring organizers to build trust with community leaders across the city, said Khan.
The faces at the camp outside Toronto police headquarters for the last two weeks included those of immigrants and native Torontonians, people from the Caribbean islands and from various parts of Africa, people of mixed race, and hundreds of non-black allies.
The sounds reflected that same rich mix of people. The music, crucial to keeping spirits up in subzero temperatures and a prolonged lack of acknowledgment from public officials, ranged from gospel-style singing of pop hits to rap to reggae to soca to African drums.
For their march to the Ontario legislative building, organizers tried to enlist jazz musicians to evoke the feeling of a New Orleans funeral procession, mourning the loss of black lives at the hands of police.
"That to me, is what so much of Toronto is like," said Khan. "We had racialized communities come together and rally together.
Cullors also points to the focus on black and Indigenous solidarity as a key theme in BLM Toronto's work — a practice that's lacking in the US, she said.
Indigenous people were a highly visible presence at the camp and helped lead the march to Queen's Park, where leaders also addressed demonstrators.
"We're deeply invested in dismantling the stolen land versus stolen labor narrative and recognizing that both of those things sort of happened simultaneously," said Khan. "Mass incarceration is impacting our populations with the same sort of speed and is dangerous in the same way.
'There's not going to be a massive [mobilization] of black communities across Canada. We don't have the numbers to support that.'
"[Indigenous allies] held it down in the space and what came out of it, and what will continue to come out of BLM Toronto is 'black lives matter onI ndigenous land.'"
But one feature that has made it particularly difficult to organize, Khan continued, is isolation — not just from other chapters in the US, who frequently collaborate with each other because they're a short flight or a bus ride away, but from black people across the country, of whom there aren't many to begin with.
Khan points out that while Canada's land mass is slightly bigger than the US, the entire population of the country is smaller than that of California. By the same token, black people make up less than 3 percent of Canada's population.
"What we know is there's not going to be a massive [mobilization] of black communities across Canada," Khan said. "We don't have the numbers to support that."
And thus Black Lives Matter Toronto must be a movement with non-black allies, Khan said — "one where we recognize black liberation as an integral pillar to liberation as a whole."
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk