The Need for Real Change

Dear Neighbours,

Too often, discussions about prejudice and social injustice stay largely within the circles of those experiencing the sting of discriminatory treatment. But this week, who among us hasn’t been forced to examine our own actions – or collective inaction – on issues of race and inequality?

My office has received an unprecedented number of emails – 3,400 at last count – from Torontonians responding to the horrific “I Can’t Breathe” murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, captured on video and replayed over and over again.

This incident, following a string of others like it, has provoked anger, frustration, sadness, grief, and a determination to finally tackle racism, both overt and systemic. It’s easy to say that a tragedy like this is less likely to happen here. Whether or not that is true, it’s small comfort to those who have experienced a lifetime of prejudice, always needing to worry that the next incident could turn into something very ugly or dangerous.

Yesterday, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders had this to say about anti-black racism: “It’s not words: it’s a reality.” Today both Chief Saunders and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a knee, in solidarity with peaceful protesters.

In Willowdale, we also have incidents of racism directed at members of our community. Yesterday, I was contacted by a young man extremely upset about what he described as an anti-Asian comment directed at him from workmen hired by the city. I’m glad he felt comfortable contacting me, risking the added hurt that his complaint would be ignored. We are investigating the incident.

In response to the emails I have received, I strongly support the following: a thorough and transparent investigation into circumstances surrounding the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a young Black and Indigenous woman; I strongly support a speedy rolling out of body cameras for police officers, to ensure the record is clear; I am disappointed that many police operations reforms proposed in the 2017 Modernization Report have not been implemented. Finally, since my time as a very active member of the Toronto Police Services Board 15 years ago, I continue to believe we need stronger independent police oversight, with greater transparency and the ability to get rid of officers who get involved in any kind of misconduct.

Our police officers are recruited from the society in which we live. I believe they are neither more prone to, nor are they immune from, the conscious and systemic racism present in our wider society. And so, to tackle meaningful police reform, we must also look at ourselves individually and collectively, and then act.

Does this sound too much like what’s been said before, that hasn’t led to the necessary change? In some way, yes, it does. I’m hoping that the events of the past week have shocked us into a time of real transformation.

Not nearly enough has changed in the 50 years since Marvin Gaye wrote this song. To listen, click here. And for something more current, Michael Kiwanuka’s “Black Man in a White World.” Click here to listen.

— John