‘We have to set the example’: How London is trying to tackle anti-Black racism

Roundtables. Liaison. Community consultations. The city is developing a strategy — but activists say they’re not seeing quick and decisive action
By Mary Baxter - Published on Jul 03, 2020
Demonstrators protest in London against anti-Black racism on June 6 (Mary Baxter)

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LONDON — During a London Police Services board meeting in June, nearly two weeks after 10,000 people marched in a Black Lives Matter protest in London, Javeed Sukhera, the board’s chair, presented a letter to his colleagues and to the police-services administration. “We are witnessing a historic moment,” he wrote in the June 18 communication. “We can, and should, take decisive action on the issues of anti-Black racism and the culture of policing.”

Ever since Black Lives Matter protests against systemic anti-Black racism and police brutality began around the world, sparked by death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 at the hands of local police, Ontario municipalities and their police boards have been discussing how to address systemic racism. In such places as Ajax, Barrie, and Waterloo, these exchanges have resulted in proposals for consultation and anti-racism task forces.

In London, local activists question why action is not being taken more quickly. “I feel like there’s no sense of urgency across the board,” says Alex Kane, a spokesperson for Black Lives Matter London. “People are dying today, so what are we going to do? Let's do something today.’”

There are some promising developments, she says, pointing to the Thames Valley District School Board’s recent proposal to introduce an anti-racism strategy and adjust curricula and teaching. Overall, though, it’s wait and see — for the school board to do community consultations before deciding whether to remove police officers from schools (activists want the officers removed because they say the police presence makes racialized students feel unsafe) and for city staff to report back to council on a proposal to introduce a Black liaison officer, update councillors about a recently created Indigenous-liaison position, and propose methods to promote and measure diversity and inclusion, including in hiring.

Kane says that Sukhera’s letter, in particular, was “incredibly disappointing.” Its proposals — to consult with the community, gather data, and strike a roundtable to look at anti-racism and mental-health-crisis response — met few of her group’s demands, which include disclosing expenditures and activities concerning the monitoring of Black and other racialized communities.

Sukhera, a psychiatrist and a professor at Western University who has studied racial bias in health care, defends the slow and steady approach. The roundtable will address how police and the community need to respond to people who are racialized and dealing with mental-health issues — something, he says, that has never been examined locally before.

Lorne Foster, a professor in public policy and human rights at York University, says that calls for drastic change, such as defunding police, might create more opposition than support. “To have substantive change, you can make incremental measures; oftentimes, that’s the only way you can change things,” he says. “Because history really shows that basically what's happened with a lot of social movements ­— think of the civil-rights movement, even the human-rights movement in Canada. First of all, there's resentment, and then there's revisionism, and then there's revanchement.”

Data collection is also an important part of effecting change, adds Foster, who helped develop provincial legislation, passed in 2017 that, among other things, created standards for government bodies to collect race-based disaggregated data in order to identify trends in inequal treatment and racism within government institutions and to establish benchmarks for change. “You really don’t even know where the gaps are until you understand the demographics of institutions,” he says.

Speaking about the city’s proposal to add Black and Indigenous liaison officers, he notes that Windsor Police’s adoption of a liaison officer four years ago “actually did result in some kind of social change, in some kind of connection between community and police" and helped facilitate communication. He adds, though, that leadership must commit to grant such liaisons actual authority.

Ed Holder, London’s mayor, says that, while the Black-liaison position has not yet been established, he anticipates that the liaison would have a direct line to the city manager.

Holder says that local governance and authorities are moving quickly to tackle racism within their ranks. “In just two weeks, we've seen not only action from city council, but the Middlesex-London Health Unit declared racism a public-health crisis,” he says. He points to the Thames Valley District School Board’s proposal and notes that the police board recently recommended to city council that hires slated for this year be deferred to 2021 and that $516,000 saved to provide housing allowances be redeployed to help homeless people secure housing. (City council agreed to the recommendation on June 23.)

The city has already addressed some of Black Lives Matter’s demands, Holder adds: in its most recent budget, it committed $63 million over four years to affordable housing and protecting the city’s most vulnerable. “It’s the largest investment of any London city council in recent memory,” he says.

Mo Salih, the London city councillor who proposed the municipal reforms during council’s meeting on June 9, says he would welcome swifter action. “Realistically, we know what needs to be done,” he says, “because so many people have been yelling at the top of their lungs and saying, ‘This is what you need to do. And I think it's incumbent on us to get to work.”

Arielle Kayabaga, another city councillor, says that London’s longstanding reputation for racism makes it particularly important for the city to get it right: “We have to set the example.”

Kane, meanwhile, says it’s going to take significant effort from all local governance systems to earn the trust of the Black community. “There is a deep, deep lack of trust from the Black community with regard to those systems,” she says, adding, “Anybody who is in charge of a group of people, like our politicians, our police officers, we need to know that you aren’t racist. If you're going to go up and speak on behalf of me, a Black woman — I need to know that you're not racist.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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