Halifax Returned a Tank: How Canadian Cities Are Responding to 'Defund the Police'

Across Canada calls to defund police are getting louder. But the changes proposed so far may be a disappointment to many.
June 10, 2020, 3:55pm
Police, defunding
A Gurkha MPV, made by Canadian company Terradyne Armored Vehicles. Photo by Terradyne Armored Vehicles

At a Halifax Regional Municipality meeting Tuesday, councillors voted 16-1 to cancel their previously-approved purchase of an armoured vehicle, and redirect the money to community initiatives.

The decision comes after a widespread community response, and during a week of global protests and calls to defund and abolish police services. Halifax Councillor Shawn Cleary says it’s the right decision, adding that he was against the purchase when it was first presented last year.

“In the tender documents, they wanted a powered battering ram, they wanted three gun ports per side, one in the back and rotating one on top,” Cleary said.

Now, instead of spending money on what Cleary calls a “militarized vehicle,” $36,000 will go to the city’s public safety office, $53,000 to the office of diversity and inclusion, and $300,000 to fight anti-Black racism in the city.

In the wake of calls to completely restructure police services across North America, cancelling an order for an armoured vehicle barely scratches the surface of what many activists and abolitionists are asking for. “The problem of anti-Blackness in policing goes far deeper than simply buying a tank,” said Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto.

El Jones, a Halifax-based activist, poet, journalist, and professor puts it simply. “What we mean when we say ‘defunding’ is defund.”

While Halifax Regional Council may have taken a very small step, it is a step, something that some other Canadian cities are struggling to take so far.

In Toronto, City Councillor Josh Matlow is bringing forward a motion, with support from fellow Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, to reduce the police budget by 10 percent. At $1.2 billion, that would cut $122 million from cops, but Matlow says he’s not sure he’ll get the support needed.

“‘Why only 10 percent, why aren’t you asking for much more?’ And the reality of Toronto council in the past is that it hasn’t even supported a one percent cut,” Matlow said. “The political will hasn’t been there before. So in fact, every other area of the city budget this year has been asked to find efficiencies and cuts, and the police budget continues to balloon.”

Matlow is also asking for a change in the Police Services Act, which would allow the city council to approve or deny specific budget items, something they can’t do right now. Currently, if council was able to remove 10 percent from the police budget, at this point they would have no control over which parts of the budget it would come from.

In Edmonton, Councillor Aaron Paquette has said he will support any and all community actions with regard to anti-racism, and will ask the Edmonton police to make race-based data available to the public.

Another councillor, Scott McKeen, wasn’t sure of a specific motion to put before council, though he says he is supportive of efforts to redistribute funds away from police.

“I love the rabble rousing. I love the fact that we’re trying to shake this world awake, to what I think is injustice,” McKeen said. “A lot of our crime is about the criminalization of poverty, mental illness, and drug addiction. These are health care issues.”

In Vancouver, the police department budget is more than $340 million for 2020—a fifth of the city’s budget. When council asked the police board to take a cut of one percent to offset the costs of COVID-19, the police board rejected the motion, with the head of the police union telling CBC that police are still underfunded.

If the police board was unhappy with a proposed one percent cut, they likely won’t enjoy what constituents are asking for now. Councillor Pete Fry says his office has received thousands of messages and “the specific ask that we’re getting through the campaign is to halve the police budget in 2021.”

Fry and Councillor Christine Boyle say they are looking at changes ahead of the 2021 budget. “(There is) a lot of support for the idea that there are things currently being done by the police that should be done by other types of services, other service providers, and by communities themselves,” Boyle said.

“Long term, I think we need to make sure we’re focusing the resources in the right place. The right tool for the job,” Fry said.

It’s a common refrain across the country. Rather than a complete restructure of police, many politicians are talking about services that should be removed from police oversight. Putting wellness checks in the hands of social workers and mental health care professionals, or having addictions services in place for people who use drugs or alcohol.

But none of the officials could, at this point, envision their city without police entirely. Instead, they have talked about amendments.

“(Politicians) continue to reform an institution that has never worked, and those reforms usually take more money, like in the form of body cameras, or training. So they continue to essentially throw good money after bad,” Jones said.

Hudson says Canadian cities should look to the changes promised in Minneapolis as a blueprint for what’s possible here. “There are examples all over the world of different kinds of models of defunding or partial defunding that can be copied. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

But even if politicians get on board with the idea of a system overhaul, most noted how long that process might take.

“Over the next year, two years, three years, ten years, it’s probably be a decade long, how do we transform the protective services that the municipalities offer into something that builds up community instead of divides community?” asked Cleary.

Jones notes that calls to defund police aren’t new.

“It’s true you can’t just dismantle social institutions overnight,” Jones said. “So the excuse of ‘well, it’s going to take years.’ Too bad you didn’t start ten years ago, right? I guess next time you should listen early.”

However, Jones notes that politicians can move quickly when it’s needed. In a matter of weeks, Nova Scotia released 50 percent of people in the province's jails, once COVID-19 hit. “Suddenly people were out, because when it was a public health pandemic, and people recognized that the health of the whole community was threatened by the jails. We stopped,” she said.

And with COVID-19 changing the amount and type of policing required in many cities, Hudson says now might be the perfect time to enact sweeping changes. If the social order is shifting, why not go all the way? “It only makes sense for the safety and security of our community, and also the Black and Indigenous people in our community, to investigate something better.”

Like Halifax, many councillors say they will be bringing up motions and discussion points at meetings this month. Matlow will put forward his call for a reduction to the Toronto police budget at the June 29th meeting. He says the best way to get support is for people to email their councillors en masse.

“Even if you don’t think 10 percent is a good enough number, I get that. Fair enough. But if they don’t do 10 percent, they’re not going to do more, so let's get the door open.”

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