Not even 30 minutes into the first Anti-Racism Directorate meeting in Toronto, you could tell that nobody had time for excuses.
"There are people who would like to see this meeting dissolve into anger and incivility...and I hope that doesn't happen," premier Kathleen Wynne said in her opening remarks. A woman yelled out from the crowd. "I don't want to be civil, I want to be uncivil. There's nothing wrong with that."
Wynne tried to empathize. "I understand," she said. "Because anger is a part of this. Of course you're angry-"
"I'm not angry, I'm disappointed," the woman yelled back. "Do your job."
The crowd erupts into applause, and with good reason. Beginning a meeting about anti-black racism and assuming that a black woman is angry is probably not the best way to start. Perhaps differentiating anger from the pain, frustration and suffering of the people of colour who've waited for this long-overdue discussion would have been wiser.
Last night, Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park hosted the first of nine public meetings across Ontario to engage with the public and organizations on how the province can address issues of systemic racism for Indigenous, black and other racialized communities. Over 300 people chanted, applauded (and booed) the organizers, activists, artists, social workers and community members who came to school Michael Coteau, the minister responsible for anti-racism, Toronto Mayor John Tory and Premier Wynne. Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister David Zimmer, Education Minister Mitzie Hunter and trustees from the Toronto District School Board were also there.
The meeting focused predominantly on anti-black racism, addressing the legacy of Black Lives Matter, the systemic and institutional racism against black and Indigenous people (a residential school survivor reminded Tory that this land doesn't belong to white people), the funding of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival (with people chanting that Black Money Matters), and Islamophobia (Fatima Sajan from the National Council of Canadian Muslims spoke about needing a charter for inclusive communities).
Akua Benjamin, a professor of the school of social work at Ryerson University, was first to speak, defending the controversial Black Lives Matter sit-in at Pride this year. "The first thing this group did...is they recognized the Aboriginal people of this land," she said to a cheering crowd. "The second thing they did was to call attention to the shootings that happened in Orlando. They are for peace. They are for unity."
People from other communities also stood with Black Lives Matter as well. Carolyn Egan from The Steelworkers' Toronto Area Council and Jenny Ahn from Unifor expressed support. Betty Woo, president of the Chinese Canadian Nurses Association said she would do her part to end anti-black racism in the Chinese community.
It would be an understatement to say that this meeting was seething, with lines for the mics so long that the event ran an extra 90 minutes long. Wynne, Tory and Coteau were called out for not promoting the event yesterday on social media and for ignoring emails and phone calls from black community organizers and excluding BLM from discussions. One speaker said, "We have a police chief who is only black in colour," addressing Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders' stance on carding. Another community member said, "I hear our government leaders say racism is real. I want to hear them say racism is a priority." Not to mention, a high school girl shut it down real quick: "I'm 17 years old, and I'm fed up of this bullshit."
But it was Tory, Toronto's blue blood mayor, who got roasted. His expressions ranged from discomfort, disinterest, and at times, irritation. One woman accused Tory of "piggybacking" on Wynne's event, before calling him "a coward," for refusing to meet with BLM in April. With his best deflection, he took the mic and said he was invited by Wynne and the provincial government. She also reminded him, to everyone's satisfaction, that he once said that white privilege doesn't exist. Near the end of the night, writer Desmond Cole questioned Tory's whereabouts when Black Lives Matter sat in front of police headquarters for two weeks in the cold. It was one of the only moments of the night that Tory got up and admitted fault.
"I should have been there," he said.
The most frustration happened when Coteau was forced to reveal that the budget for the directorate was only $5 million dollars. Considering the amount of money spent on keeping inmates in jail (where black and Indigenous populations are overrepresented) and the $44 million that the province spent on a Correctional Services strike that never happened, $5 million dollars is a joke. (An audience member said it best by yelling, "I can't even buy a house for that amount.")
We tend to dismiss anger and white people love to tone police black people when they're upset, so I'm not sure if Wynne and Tory could identify that this meeting was filled with hurt people—not angry ones. While I commend them from sitting through over three hours of bashing, they needed to face the consequences of hiding and delaying action on ending the racism we've been experiencing. And since they were elected to serve us all, they should do their job. But there's still eight public meetings to go, and anything can happen. Let's hope that Tory brings his fire suit.
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