How a 1992 report on racism in Ontario highlights current problems

By Chantal Braganza - Published on September 1, 2016
a man lining up to speak at an anti-racism meeting in Toronto, with a large crowd in the background
Nigel Barriffe, president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, throws up a salute to the chant "Black Lives Matter" at the Ontario Anti-Racism Directorate's first public meeting. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

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In July 2016, more than 300 people packed a community hub in downtown Toronto’s Regent Park. In 1992, people met in Hamilton, London, Windsor, Ottawa. Both times, in all places across Ontario, the subject was the same: the failure to address institutional racism.

This year’s public meeting that kicked off yet another effort to put an end to racism, this time called the Anti-Racism Directorate, lasted more than three hours.

The first of a near three-hour lineup of citizens there to give a deputation took to the microphone:

“When [Black Lives Matter] calls for anti-racism it isn’t about multiculturalism,” she said. It isn’t about equity, or diversity. It isn’t about inclusion. It is not simply about anti-racism, ministers. They’re saying that … fundamental and at root is anti-black racism.”

Twenty-five years before Ryerson University social work professor Akua Benjamin said those words, the government published a report on race relations in Ontario — the product of a series of consultations with communities and non-profit organizations engaged in anti-racism advocacy across the province. Within the first eight paragraphs, the author Stephen Lewis wrote: “First, what we are dealing with, at root, and fundamentally, is anti-black racism … just as the soothing balm of ‘multiculturalism’ cannot mask racism, so racism cannot mask its primary target.”

These two sentiments might sound like they come from the same era. Announced in February, the directorate’s stated purpose is to “prevent systemic racism in government policy, legislation, programs and services,”  Benjamin and Lewis used similar language to address what they both pointed to as a fundamental priority in any government initiative to address systemic racism — that anti-black racism is distinct from racism writ large and must be looked at as such. And yet, to hear individuals involved in the production of Stephen Lewis’ report or engaged in anti-racism work at the time and still active today, little has been accomplished in terms of lasting change to address the policies and institutional biases that affect visible minorities, and black and aboriginal communities in particular.

If Ontario’s Anti-Racism Directorate is to realize its goals, these advocates say, it needs to act quickly, advocate for adequate funding and heed the advice of community organizations and government reports that have been repeated for decades. As one staffer who worked on the Stephen Lewis report puts it: “It’s a Christopher Columbus approach. You’re discovering things that are already there.”

In the spring of 1992, the jury acquittal of four Los Angeles Police Department officers caught on tape beating Rodney King with nightsticks sparked riots across south central Los Angeles and demonstrations elsewhere, including Toronto. Two days before a planned protest by Canada’s Black Action Defence Committee outside the city’s United States consulate, Toronto police shot and killed Raymond Lawrence, a black 22-year-old man they said was selling drugs and brandished a knife when chased. It was the fourth killing of a black person by police in the area in as many years, and became the focus of what initially began as a peaceful march. Over the course of that early May afternoon, the crowd of demonstrators quickly swelled to more than 1,000 people as vandals and looters joined, breaking windows and turning over hotdog carts. The event came to be called the Yonge Street Riots.

In response, Bob Rae, premier at the time, appointed former politician Stephen Lewis as the province’s special advisor on race relations. Ray tasked Lewis and a small team with reporting on the state of systemic racism in Ontario. The reporting was a 40-day endeavour that Pamela Grant, community relations advisor to the provincial government at the time, described as a “three-month process crunched into one.”

“We went to Hamilton, London, Windsor, Ottawa. There was a provincial element to it, even though [the report] uses the term Metro Toronto.” On evenings, weekends and even Mother’s Day, the report team’s staff met with cabinet ministers, chiefs of police, student bodies at secondary and post-secondary institutions, executive teams from organizations such as The Urban Alliance on Race Relations, the Black Action Defence Committee and the Chinese Canadian National Council. The document, published just six weeks after the May 1992 events on Yonge Street, offers recommendations on systemic racism in the criminal justice, law enforcement, employment and education systems.

“We tried to ascertain by speaking to representatives of all the cultural communities, especially the black community, what was happening and what their grievances and anxieties were,” says Lewis.

Some recommendations did see political movement within 12 months of publication. By that fall, the province started a three-year inquiry into Ontario’s criminal justice system. By 1993, the province enacted employment equity legislation, a long fought-for act that covered provincially regulated private- and public-sector workplaces. In that same year, oversight of the Special Investigations Unit was switched from the Solicitor General (now the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services) to the province’s Attorney General, which was then seen as a more police-independent department to handle the arm’s length organization. 

By 1995, however, some of these mechanisms for change were brought to a halt. Notably, the newly-elected Mike Harris government repealed the 1993 Employment Equity Act in less than a year.

“[The Employment Act] had taken a long time in terms of consultations, and then when it got legislated, it was too late to create some real impact,” says Winnie Ng, who’d served as a senior policy advisor to the minister of citizenship for the NDP government before running for office in 1993. “There was a lot of misunderstanding. Mike Harris was able to ride on the sentiment of quotas.”

The Anti-Racism Secretariat, an earlier incarnation of today’s Anti-Racism Directorate, was shut down. Ontario Welcome House, a network of orientation settlement centres for newcomers to the province, had funding cut and was shuttered.

“It effectively pushed everything back,” says Ng, who eventually left politics to pursue an academic career in labour rights activism and now teaches at Ryerson University

Close to a quarter century later, benchmarks suggest little has changed when it comes to systemic racism in a number of provincial systems, from law enforcement to education to child services. In 2013, black and aboriginal minors were overrepresented in Ontario youth jails. A Toronto Star investigation into carding practices on that same year by the Toronto Police Service found that though overall carding instances dropped by nearly 75 per cent, the carding of black and brown individuals increased. In 2015, the Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators noted that the employment of visible minority elementary and secondary teachers across the province fell 50 per cent short of the province’s demographic makeup as of the last national census. In 2016, a University of Toronto study found that aboriginal children in Ontario are 168 per cent more likely to be taken into custody and state care than white children; for black children, that number is 18 per cent.

It’s against this background that the newer Anti-Racism Directorate staged its first public consultation July 14, which news reports described as vocal, frustrated and extremely packed. More than 300 people showed up to give personal deputations in a process that Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, described as less than successful. 

“People hear something is going on, and they want an opportunity to be a part of it and vent, but you need to have a more strategic and focused process. If you’re serious about this happening and making change, this is not the way to do it,” she says.

“Stephen Lewis’s is one of a slew of reports. Pull those reports together — every one since 1971, from the first one that was done. Group them, and let’s have a discussion with people who have doing work in the area of anti-racism and let’s talk about it.”

Representatives from the Anti-Racism Directorate say that while the office won’t have a strategic direction in place until it receives a mandate letter from the premier, which has yet to happen, its staff have been working on applying “an anti-racism lens to a number of key government initiatives.” This includes the currently developing Strategy for A Safer Ontario, which will include an update to the Police Service Act, and province’s official response to the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report.

“In any field, there are best practices and lessons to be learned from the past. [Anti-Racism Directorate] staff have reviewed the Stephen Lewis Report on Race Relations in the Province of Ontario, the Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat and the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Justice System,” press secretary Alicia Ali wrote in an email. “These reports will guide the directorate’s mandate and activities to ensure a distinct evidence-based approach.”

Another concern voiced by Parsons and a large number of people present at that first meeting is the amount of funding afforded the new directorate, at $5 million for a year of operations and 32 staff.

Timing, too, is an issue going into an election year, says Ng. “Premier Wynne and the Ontario government has a limited window of opportunity here; about a year before they get back into election mode. The sense is: do we need another series of consultations across the province?” The next two public consultations scheduled in a series of nine are set for Scarborough, and Mississauga, though dates have yet to be confirmed.

In the meantime, a number of anti-racism advocates and policy experts have some ideas on where the new directorate can and should start — ideally in a parallel with the rest of the public consultations planned. The night of the directorate’s first meeting Avvy Go, director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, spoke briefly about the need for standardized collection of race-based data from every public body the province, regardless of its function.

“When we push for more funding at the clinic, I have to say the population is this, and the low-income population is this among Chinese-Canadians. I have the census to tell me that — but the same thing needs to be said about many other areas,” she said in a separate interview.

For his part, Lewis sees both the legacy of his report and the current operations of the Ontario Anti-Racism Directorate as part of long process that is not only far from over, but requires sustained political will if it’s ever going to succeed. “This is ongoing. While I feel that the report way back when was a useful document, I don’t think very much has come of it,” he says.

“We’re seeing the same issues. We’re still seeing the police shooting of black men, of people with mental health issues,” says Go. “I think there is space and willingness among some politicians within a segment of our society willing to start to talk about this, but I’m not sure if we’re completely open to talking about racism in Canada … mainstream Canada is still not completely open to accept the idea or the fact that there is racism here.” 

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