When Liberal MP Adam Vaughan and Liberal MPP Han Dong attended the 35th annual Take Back the Night march late last month in Toronto, I found it odd that either would attend without speaking or taking questions. The event, a joint venture between the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, Multicultural Women Against Rape and the Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition, began as a community meeting and live performances in the city’s core before moving into a mass protest march that snaked its way down Spadina Avenue and across the posh King West nightclub district.
In June, the federal Liberal party brought former Toronto Police chief Bill Blair into its ranks—the same Bill Blair who refused to budge on the matter of carding—and the governing Ontario Liberal party has yet to draft any policy addressing carding or street checks. This, despite decades of outcry across the province and data showing that people from racialized communities are targeted for police questioning at rates far exceeding white Ontarians. This was the very reason Black Lives Matter was formed, and why its members organized the night’s protest. As far as black protest action in Toronto, the event was unprecedented in its organization and social media reach. At one point, protesters shut down the Queen St. and Spadina intersection for a dance performance.
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So when Vaughan and NDP candidate Jennifer Hollett tweeted photos from the event, and when Hollett spoke of her attendance during a University-Rosedale riding debate to chastise her competition, I didn’t find it odd. I found it outrageous. The endangerment of black lives, bodies and freedom at the hands of police didn’t move our political class to engage with us; it moved them to use us as a talking point.
This is nothing new for Ontario’s black communities; our needs have been all but shut out of political engagement and policy-making since the formation of the Dominion. But during the longest federal campaign period in living memory, to have our most essential issues addressed only in tweets and talking points is farcical.
When the Toronto Board of Trade holds a conference, its members not only command an agenda—many of its members have spent time consulting with the politicians standing at the podium. When the Ontario Public Service Employees Union holds a rally, union-aligned MPs and MPPs show up for more than solidarity’s sake; they speak forcefully in support of labour rights. Yet when the Black Business Professionals’ Association holds its prestigious Harry Jerome Awards, politicians from every level of government will flock to downtown Toronto, but only to have their pictures taken with presenters and award recipients. When Black History Month comes around, so do the photo ops and platitudes about “leadership” and “cooperation.” Anything involving an actual discussion draws no party interest, and the only time our community leaders are invited to consult, it’s to put out racialized fires. One example: Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi’s recent community consultations on carding, which didn’t exactly go as planned. Even in such cases, we are not guaranteed a respectful dialogue.
Last February, the Black Business Professionals’ Association hosted an event at their newly established office on Elm Street, a short walk from Toronto’s financial district, and an even shorter walk from Queen’s Park. The event, while purportedly a celebration of Black History Month hosted by former Ontario Liberal MPP Alvin Curling, felt less like a celebration than a stump speech months before the official federal campaign had even begun. Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau took the microphone to wax nostalgic about Canada’s strong history of black leadership, and of his father’s friendship with former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. At the end of his speech there was no discussion or time for questions, only photo opportunities. After the selfie quota was reached, he was whisked away to the next event.
Not long afterwards, the Jamaican Canadian Association held an event dedicated to political mobilization among black communities. There were roughly forty attendees present to hear from a panel consisting of Toronto Star columnist Royson James, Peel District School Board trustee Suzanne Nurse, and Toronto City Councillor Michael Thompson. The event, like so many before it, centered on the lack of political cohesiveness and electoral strength among black communities. What intrigued me about the event wasn’t the topic—it’s been talked to death—but the attending panel. Not one single politician from Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill showed up to discuss the needs of black communities throughout the province. The only councillor occupying a seat anywhere in the GTA who did show up, happened to be Toronto’s sole black city councillor, a position Michael Thompson has held since he was elected in 2003.
In almost any other context, this lack of engagement on the part of Canada’s political class would be flat-out embarrassing. And yet, every time election results are tallied, we’re forced to rehash the conversations about voter apathy and civic responsibility—despite the fact that after decades of conversations, consultations and protest action, we have not seen the needle move. Our communities suffer the burden of income inequality and child poverty. Our young men and women are suspended, expelled, stopped and searched more often, but far less likely to graduate from high school, or find gainful employment.
Perhaps it’s time we began having a different conversation. If nothing else, the Take Back the Night rally proves we are anything but apathetic. The real problem is that civic responsibility cuts both ways, and our political class is failing to hold up its end.
Andray Domise is a community activist, writer and co-host of the Canadian politics podcast Canadaland Commons.
Image credit: Jalani Morgan