Steeped Tea—An update on the Federation of Black Canadians

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Three weeks ago, dozens of Black folks visited Parliament Hill in Ottawa for “Voices on the Hill”, an event hosted by the Federation of Black Canadians (FBC) and the Michaëlle Jean Foundation (MJF). After a well-publicized incident in which security at Parliament Hill made racist comments about the Black visitors, FBC and MJF moved quickly to mobilize a national response. According to members of a delegation from Halifax, Nova Scotia, FBC founder and steering committee member Justice Donald McLeod, a sitting Ontario judge, told them not to speak out about their experiences of racism at Parliament Hill.

This revelation comes one year after I published “Black Tea—the truth about the Federation of Black Canadians”, in which I outlined several ethical concerns about FBC’s leadership and activities. Three individuals from Halifax, including two who were on the call with McLeod, reached out to me through 902 Man Up, a local organization that supported youth who attended Voices on the Hill as part of the 2019 National Black Summit in Ottawa.

These individuals were concerned that a sitting judge had unexpectedly called them and, in their view, attempted to silence them regarding the discrimination they faced. I am sharing the experiences of these three Halifax residents with their blessing; the following also includes a broader update on the troubling issues that have long been brewing at FBC.

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On February 4 2019, on the final day of the 2019 National Black Canadian Summit in Ottawa, FBC and MJF lead a delegation of about 150 people to Parliament Hill. The summit program described the event as a chance to “ignite much needed conversation between community and political leaders.” During the gathering, parliamentary staff took photos of a group of Black visitors gathered in a fourth floor cafeteria. According to security on-site, staff sent those photos to security officials and complained that the Black visitors were being too loud.

According to several witnesses, a security guard approached some Black visitors and declared that, while he did not want to appear racist, he was receiving complaints about the “dark-skinned” people in the cafeteria, and was requesting that they leave the area. Shortly after the incident, Trayvone Clayton and Kate Macdonald, two youth attendees from Halifax, conducted an interview with the national political affairs network CPAC, and spoke about the racist treatment they’d just experienced.

FBC and MJF reached out to attendees who were present during the incident and began to organize a response. On February 5, Peter Flegel, director of programming and development at MJF, started a Facebook group of selected attendees, including Macdonald and Clayton, as well as Marcus James, the father of Clayton. MJF and FBC began to plan a press release and a series of national press conferences in response to the racist incident.

FBC staffer and steering committee member Dahabo Ahmed Omer facilitated a national call to discuss the group’s media strategy on the late evening of February 6. Flegel was present on the call, as were members of the Facebook group he had created. During the call Omer excused herself briefly, then returned to inform the group that she had just been contacted by an official at the Prime Minister’s Office. Omer claimed the official had informed her that the PMO had received a “leaked” copy of the group’s press release.

According to Macdonald, many participants on the national call were shocked, confused, and upset by Omer’s news. When James asked Omer how such a leak could have occurred, she reportedly replied that the group shouldn’t “waste time” looking into it. Another individual from western Canada who was also on the call verified Omer’s comments to me during a phone interview. The call ended after 10 p.m. in Ottawa, or 11 p.m. in Halifax.

Following the national call, Omer sent a Facebook message visible to the entire group to request that Macdonald and Clayton speak with her privately (a screenshot of that message appears below). Macdonald and Clayton appear to have telephoned Omer between 11 p.m. and midnight, and when they engaged in the call, they say another person whose presence Omer had not mentioned was on the line: Justice Donald McLeod.

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Clayton and Macdonald say McLeod told them that, in his opinion as a judge and as a lawyer, they should not be sharing their experiences of racial profiling at Parliament Hill. When the youth informed McLeod that they had already been doing so, through interviews with CPAC and other local media, they say McLeod reminded them that parliament was still investigating the incident, and that if the youth “misspoke”, that they too might be investigated by parliament.

Geoff Regan, the Speaker of the House of Commons, did receive a formal complaint and a request to investigate the racist incident on February 6. However, Macdonald, Clayton, and James all say security officials from the Parliamentary Protective Service never contacted them regarding the internal investigation.

Clayton and Macdonald say that McLeod counselled them not to speak at the upcoming press conference scheduled in Halifax on February 8, and suggested that they should seek someone “as charming and charismatic” as themselves in replacement. Clayton suggested to McLeod that his father James might be willing to speak on their behalf. McLeod also reportedly told the youth that the present moment was an “important moment for race relations” in Canada, and that they could jeopardize progress for the Black community by speaking out.

The Halifax attendees say McLeod also referenced a legal battle involving the late Rocky Jones, a prominent African Nova Scotian activist. McLeod reportedly said Jones had gotten sued by the police for misspeaking about racism, and that the judge didn’t want the youth to meet a similar fate. After the call, Clayton shared the contents of the call with his father, who contacted me the following evening on February 7 to express his concerns.

“At first we believed McLeod had called to share his expertise to help us,” Macdonald told me. “But as the call went on, we felt he was trying to silence us.” James shared similar sentiments, and all three Halifax residents told me they were particularly insulted by the invocation of Jones’ activism to justify what they perceived as an attempt to silence them. “We all understand that the judge’s phone call wasn’t appropriate,” said James.

On February 8, James led a press conference featuring his son and Macdonald,with the  support of several local community members, at George Dixon Community Centre in Uniacke Square, Halifax. Omer forwarded the Halifax contingent a copy of prepared statements for James and all other national  press conference participants to read. James and the Halifax speakers declined to read the prepared statement. Instead, James stated that he was simply there to support the youth. “They wanna tell their story, their way,” said James. “It needs to be heard from them.”

Macdonald began her remarks by saying, “I was on Parliament Hill so I’m gonna be real right now and go out on a limb here: we were told, or advised, what to say. I can’t do that. I don’t wanna do that. I wanna say the things that I actually feel, and I wanna speak for generations to come.”

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The latest disclosures about the activities of McLeod and FBC raise larger questions about why the Ontario judge continues to serve on the steering committee of an organization that seemingly continues to lobby the federal government. McLeod, who founded the group that would eventually become FBC in the summer of 2016, confirmed his resignation as chair of the group’s steering committee in June of 2018. McLeod’s resignation was in response to a request to from the Ontario Judicial Council, an entity whose mandate is to “investigate complaints made by the members of the public about conduct of provincially-appointed judges.”

It was the judicial council’s understanding at that time that McLeod had not only resigned, but had also “disengaged from any activities on behalf of the FBC.” It is unclear if the Council is aware that McLeod has resumed his role as a member of the steering committee, as indicated on the group’s website as of  February 2019.

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A complaint regarding McLeod’s conduct was filed on February 23, 2018 by Faith Finnestad, an Associate Chief Justice of the Ontario Court. Beginning in September of 2017—more than two months before FBC announced its existence to the public—Finnestad repeatedly told McLeod in person and in writing that she feared his role with FBC was incompatible with his position as a judge. On December 21, two weeks after FBC made its public debut, Finnestad sent an e-mail to McLeod that included the following remarks:

“You’ve indicated that you feel that somewhere down the road as the federation develops, your role with it may become inconsistent with the judicial role and you have cautioned people that at that point you will give up those responsibilities. I am cautioning you as I did a few months ago, that I believe you are already at that point and that you should leave this Influential [sic] position…”

At a judicial hearing in December The Council scrutinized McLeod for private meetings he held with several powerful government officials in the summer of 2017, including meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his former chief of staff Gerald Butts, former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and several federal Liberal government ministers and cabinet members.

The Council ultimately found in its December 2018 decision that “The activities of Justice McLeod and the FBC thus amount to lobbying.” However, the Council dismissed the complaint under the rationale that McLeod’s lobbying “was not so seriously contrary to the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judiciary that it rose to the level of undermining the public’s confidence in his ability to perform the duties of office or the public’s confidence in the judiciary generally.”

In its decision, the Council repeatedly cited McLeod’s good intentions in fighting for the Black community, but also warned that its decision was not an invitation for judges to engage in lobbying. “We emphasize that it does not follow from our decision that judges who engage in lobbying will not be guilty of misconduct merely because of their good intentions,” the decision states. “In the future, if a judge crosses the line that we have delineated, a Hearing Panel may indeed find that public confidence has been undermined and that the judge has engaged in judicial misconduct.”

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Voices on the Hill appears to be a continuation of an event the FBC has previously referred to as “Lobby Day.” The program note from the 2019 Black Summit described the event, “in its third edition,” as a “unique opportunity for federal lawmakers to meet with African Canadian community leaders representing a variety of key sectors.” McLeod was present at Parliament Hill during the 2019 event. In preparation for meetings with various government ministers, including cabinet ministers, Omer provided event participants with a series of documents entitled “Black Voices on the Hill – Issues and Asks.” These documents appears to outline FBC requests for government funding and programming.

The documents line up with specific federal government portfolios, including Justice; Canadian Heritage; Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees; and Social Services. Similar FBC requests for funding and government action during government meetings in 2017 led the Judicial Council to conclude that McLeod and FBC were indeed engaged in lobbying. As noted in a February 3 news story for the Ottawa Citizen, Omer instructed summit attendees who were planning to meet with federal politicians, “Don’t walk out of those meetings without making your ‘ask.’”

Despite the warnings about lobbying by the Ontario Judicial Council, McLeod is once again a member of FBC’s steering committee. FBC continues to organize and coordinate government meetings that include “asks” circulated to participants in advance; such meetings could be interpreted as ongoing lobbying by FBC. Of greater concern, McLeod’s late-night call to young people who experienced racism demonstrates how his role at FBC may again conflict with his position as a sitting judge.

McLeod has previously involved himself in matters that may not be appropriate for someone in his position. Last year McLeod engaged in private conversations and a private meeting regarding Abdoul Abdi, a refugee from Somalia who was facing deportation in the weeks after FBC made its public debut.

I have obtained e-mails that appear to document McLeod’s efforts to coordinate a meeting with Ahmed Hussen, the minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Refugees, to discuss Abdoul Abdi’s case. Below are screenshots of messages McLeod sent to coordinate the Hussen meeting. McLeod sent these communications from the government of ontario e-mail address he has been assigned as a judge:

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On January 13 McLeod met with Hussen, two of his staffers, and the community member at Hussen’s constituency office on Ingram Drive in Toronto.

On the afternoon of February 19 2018, McLeod contacted a member of the community coalition supporting Abdoul Abdi. I have obtained and reviewed a recording of McLeod’s phone call to the coalition member. During the call McLeod indicated that he had reached out to this particular coalition member “because you and my sister are friends.”

Minutes into the call, McLeod told the coalition member, “I wanted to talk to you because, um, so the person with the Abdoul case, so, I think speaking to his lawyers wouldn’t help because what’s been happening since January is I’ve been trying to set a meeting with the, um, with Ahmed Hussen.” McLeod had already met with Hussen on January 13 when he made this comment to the coalition member.

These interactions seem to directly contradict statements McLeod and his lawyer Mark Sandler made regarding the Abdi case at his hearing. McLeod and Sandler both stated that the judge had no personal involvement with the Abdi case. I cite below a relevant portion of McLeod’s exchange with Sandler from the hearing:

 

Sandler: Did you have any involvement at all in any representations that were made by the FBC about that specific case?

McLeod: No.

Sandler: And why not?

McLeod: I felt that because it was a matter that was still before the courts—even if it’s a court that’s not my court—I shouldn’t be commenting on it.

 

Mcleod ultimately saw his complaint dismissed, and the public reimbursed him for $81,265.96 in legal fees.

 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that Omer called Macdonald and Clayton. It appears Macdonald and Clayton called Omer.

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Police brutality at Union Station bus terminal

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Police brutality at Union Station bus terminal

On Sunday March 11 2018, two patrons at the Union Station GO bus terminal witnessed transit constables and Toronto police assaulting a man they identified as having mental health issues.

In a video filmed by one witness, transit constables suggest the man, whom they call “Chris,” has mental health issues, and tell him an ambulance is coming for him. But the constables then suggest the man is lying to them about his identity, and arrest him for obstruction of justice.

Constables and Toronto Police violently restrain the man for over 30 minutes—two different officers use their knees to pin the man’s head and neck to the ground. The second officer uses this dangerous technique for over eight minutes. At one point police suggest an officer with a taser is about to arrive. Police and transit constables repeatedly ask the witnesses filming them for identification, and threaten to confiscate their cell phones.

An ambulance arrives on scene after about 25 minutes—police instruct the paramedic who approaches them not to treat the man, saying he has been acting violently, and she complies. The paramedic does not even attempt to engage the man.

Police ultimately remove the man from the station in handcuffs and leg restraints. The video below has been edited for length, and to protect the man’s identity.

According to Statistics Canada, people living with mental health issues or cognitive disabilities are four times more likely to experience violence than their peers.

Frequently Unanswered Questions about the Federation of Black Canadians

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Federation of Black Canadians chairperson Justice Donald McLeod (right) poses with former governor general Michaëlle Jean in December 2017

The Federation of Black Canadians seems to be sensitive to criticism. Myself and many others have been asking questions about the group’s ethics, membership, and potential conflicts of interest. On Sunday February 25, steering committee member Ebyan Farah, who is the spouse of federal Liberal cabinet minister Ahmed Hussen, abruptly left her position. FBC has also halted most of its social media activity, and repeatedly removed all the content from its website.

On Monday February 26, FBC published a new “frequently asked questions” page on its website. Within a couple of hours the page was gone and, as of the publication of this piece, it has not been replaced. I anticipated this possibility and took screenshots of the entire page before FBC removed it. Although the “frequently asked questions” section doesn’t actually answer many of its own questions, it reveals an organization willing to do the absolute minimum to address real concerns about its operations.

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The above explanation for Ebyan Farah’s quick departure is very confusing. It does not explain who asked Farah to join the group, or why she was able to do so given her relationship with Hussen, the federal minister of citizenship, immigration and refugees. The claim that Farah received clearance from the Liberal Party ethics commission is truly bizarre: it’s not up to the federal Liberals to decide who is ethically fit to lobby their own members, who form the government of Canada.

FBC says Farah’s “term of service on the steering committee ended on February 25, 2018.” This convenient timing does not explain why the other steering committee members’ terms are still ongoing, and suggests they all have different terms of service.

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As you can see above, FBC does not answer its own question, ” do you work with LGBT organizations?” The group says it has “no problem” doing so, but puts the onus on those groups to reach out. FBC then immediately pivots to mention renowned University of Toronto professor and writer Rinaldo Walcott, who identifies as queer.

This awkward reference to Walcott seems to be FBC’s version of “we have a gay friend,” and has nothing to do with FBC’s seemingly non-existent work with organizations that represent LGBT people. Walcott confirmed with me this morning that FBC did not contact him before using his name in this way.

FBC seems particularly shook by the criticism that it is not partnering with groups that represent the LGBT communities. The now-removed FAQ included a separate section entitled “lgbt” which simply repeated the identical information contained in the “do you work with LGBT organizations?” section

FBC references Black Lives Matter Toronto, but fails to clarify that it does not work with the group, or with any BLM chapter in Canada. Again, FBC puts the onus on these groups to include themselves in its work. The Federation mentions a “Trailblazer Award” given to BLMTO, but fails to clarify that Michaëlle Jean Foundation, not FBC, gave out that award. As I have previously documented, this is not the first time in FBC’s young history that it has attempted to take credit for another organization’s actions.

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The above “communications” section makes it clear that FBC populated its e-mail list from the National Black Canadians Summit, which was organized by Michaëlle Jean Foundation. It seems MJF simply transferred its contacts to FBC without seeking the permission of summit guests.

The Federation also says here that its website was taken down once for “regular maintenance.” This does not explain the numerous other times the site has appeared without any content. Also, it doesn’t explain why the “frequently asked questions” page featuring this content is no longer available.

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Under “ethics,” the Federation says its chairperson Justice Donald McLeod, has “received the appropriate clearances” from the independent ethics committee of the Ontario Court of Justice to participate with the group. While it would be great to see evidence of these clearances, I doubt the ethics committee gave McLeod the right to act as a lobbyist. As you will see below, FBC acknowledges that it is actively lobbying the federal government. Social media posts from Liberal MPs show that McLeod is aggressively leading the lobbying efforts.

In a CBC news story published this morning, McLeod says his meetings with several prominent Liberal party members in 2017 “had nothing to do with lobbying.” He added,  “We’re telling [them] things that they didn’t know.” We are meant to believe that McLeod, an Ontario judge who chairs a national organization, has simply been meeting with high-level politicians to educate them, that he wants nothing in return, not even policy change on this issues he brings up. What, then, is the point of FBC and why is it asking Black people for our money and support?

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FBC defends McLeod’s activism by saying that other judges have engaged in “non-traditional community leadership.” Note that none of the examples given above have anything to do with lobbying. If the FBC cannot acknowledge that the complaint about McLeod is his position in lobbying the federal government while being a judge, it cannot address the apparent conflict.

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The finances section says a lot about the National Black Canadian Summit, and the Michaëlle Jean Foundation—it contains absolutely no information about the finances of FBC. However, it is important to note how often FBC masks itself under the operations of MJF in order to claim credit for things it has not done, or to avoid responsibility for its actual operations.

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In my last post about FBC, I noted that it has no formal governance structure, bylaws or memberships, and that none of the personnel currently leading the group have been elected. FBC confirms as much in the above sections. It’s really interesting and sad that FBC feels comfortable accepting donations and lobbying the government before any of these structures are in place.

Also, it is very important to note that FBC says it “currently” receives no government funding. I believe that will change in the future thanks to McLeod’s lobbying efforts, and his apparent conflict of interest relates directly to the prospect of FBC receiving government funding in the future.

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Under “government relations,” FBC curiously claims it has two agendas. The first agenda comes from a “national working paper” written in 2016. FBC references this document often but has never shared it. The second agenda is a “national platform being developed via consultations with regional coalitions and interested stakeholders.” FBC doesn’t tell us how it prioritizes its two agendas or what happens if they conflict. The lack of clarity is baffling.

FBC also acknowledges in this section that it is indeed engaged in lobbying, including a “Lobby Day” organized on February 12. This is clear evidence of FBC’s relationship with government and it raises further concerns about the roles of Justice McLeod and Ebyan Farah.

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In an attempt to claim it is a non-partisan group, FBC lists members of different political parties that attended the Summit in December. This is another example of the Federation’s bait-and-switch tactics —Michaëlle Jean Federation organized the summit and sent out invitations, not FBC.

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Many observers have criticized FBC for its public silence on the plight of Black people in peril from police, the criminal justice system, and the immigration system. For example, the Federation has never publicly mentioned Abdoul Abdi, a young man facing deportation to Somalia after his legal guardian, the government of Nova Scotia, failed to apply for his citizenship. Nor has the federation made any public statement about Dafonte Miller, a black youth who was attacked by two brothers, one of whom is a Toronto police officer—Miller lost his left eye as a result of the beating.

The official-sounding talk above about “criteria” does not explain the group’s silence about youths like Miller and Abdi. However, if we consider that FBC is led by a sitting Ontario judge and has been directed in part by the spouse of the immigration minister, it is easier to understand the silence. Legitimate fears by McLeod and Farah of conflict of interest undoubtedly affect the group’s advocacy.

 

The “frequently asked questions” section was supposed to answer many legitimate criticisms within Black communities about FBC. The document does reveal some important details about FBC, which raises the most obvious question: why did the group take the time to create and post this info, only to remove the same day? It is yet another unanswered question for a group struggling to justify its existence and its questionable behaviour.

Black Tea—the truth about the Federation of Black Canadians

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From the Federation of Black Canadians Facebook page, where Trudeau selfies are endlessly novel

Earlier this week I offered some criticisms of the newly formed Federation of Black Canadians, a national advocacy group. on my Newstalk 1010 radio program (you can listen here). My two major beefs: the Federation seems to be a thinly-veiled front for partisan Liberals, and it is currently led by Justice Donald McLeod, whose position as an active Ontario Court judge raises serious questions about ethics and conflict of interest.

So far no FBC leaders have responded publicly to my criticisms, but I know I’m getting dragged in the private group chats (I feel that shit in my bones like a weather change). Of those who do publicly object, almost all are Liberal party loyalists. One federal Liberal staffer engaged my critiques on Twitter and, after doing some superficial Googling of his own asked, “what am I missing? Where is the tea?” For his benefit, and for the benefit of all Black people interested in the origins and activities of this shady organization, it’s tea time.

Conflicts of interest

When the FBC officially introduced itself in December 2017, it seemed to already have a formal structure, including a board of directors, a steering committee, and several subcommittees. The presence of one steering committee member really sticks out, as long as you recognize her.

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This screenshot from the FBC’s website indicates that Ebyan Farah is the organization’s steering committee “Stakeholder Relations” representative. She is also the spouse of Ahmed Hussen, the federal government’s minister of citizenship, refugees and immigration. Lawyer James C. Morton documented the couple’s 2008 wedding on his blog:

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It is, well, pretty interesting that the spouse of Canada’s only Black cabinet minister is the “Stakeholder Relations” rep for a registered non-profit group that lobbies the federal government on behalf of Black people. Farah’s position raises obvious questions of conflict of interest.

In its two months of public existence, the FBC has repeatedly gone out of its way to feature and praise Hussen. During the first two days of a summit co-hosted by the FBC in December, the minister gave two major speeches. As far as I know, he never mentioned that his wife was on the steering committee, and neither did the FBC.

A February 12 FBC e-mail describing a recent lobby day on Parliament Hill in Ottawa thanks Hussen, along with MP Greg Fergus, for their “leadership in helping to make the Day possible.” Again, given that Hussen (who was present at the lobby day) is married to Farah, an FBC steering committee member, their respective roles in these lobbying scenarios raise serious questions about conflict of interest.

To be fair, the FBC lists Farah as its stakeholder relations member on its website—at least it did until yesterday morning, when the entire website simply disappeared from the internet. I anticipated this would happen, and the above solo image of Farah is from a screenshot I took on February 18. Hours after I tweeted about the disappeared data, it reappeared, seemingly unchanged. A strange coincidence, perhaps, but I’m keeping my screenshots in case it happens again.

The most troubling questions regarding the FBC and conflict of interest involve the board’s chairperson and most prominent public spokesperson, Ontario Supreme Court Justice Donald McLeod. That’s right—a sitting provincial judge is also the official leader of a federally-registered Black advocacy group. What a time to be alive and Black.

The “principles of judicial office” for Ontario judges clearly state that “Judges should not be influenced by partisan interests, public pressure or fear of criticism. Judges should maintain their objectivity and shall not, by words or conduct, manifest favour, bias or prejudice towards any party or interest.”

As for the role of judges in the community, the principles clearly say that “Judges must avoid any conflict of interest, or the appearance of any conflict of interest, in the performance of their judicial duties (emphasis added).” Given the group’s objective to “advocate on [Black Canadians’] behalf with governments, parliaments, international organizations, businesses, and faith-driven organizations,” McLeod’s respective roles seem extremely likely to raise potential conflicts of interest.

Additionally, the provincial principles warn that “Judges should not lend the prestige of their office to fund-raising activities.” I honestly don’t know how the province enforces this rule, but McLeod is unquestionably the FBC’s greatest fundraising asset, and he has personally been encouraging Black Canadians to donate money to the Federation.

“We will actually put our money where our mouth is,” McLeod said in a January 30 CBC television interview. “Private enterprise, businesspersons, people who are going into their homes, moms, dads, you name it, children— all of that money, all of that philanthropy, all of our dedication, to toonies and loonies and fives and tens, will all go into this federation.”

I’m not sure if Black people are going to donate to the FBC—given what I know today I would strongly advise against it—but depending on how Ontario interprets McLeod’s ethical responsibilities, those loonies and toonies could spell mo’ money, mo’ problems for an active provincial judge.

Lack of transparency

McLeod says FBC came together after he “called friends of mine in various provinces” to begin planning better advocacy for Black people. He now finds himself serving as the Federation’s chairperson. Due to an absence of public documentation regarding FBC’s full membership, and the seemingly exclusive presence of McLeod as the group’s spokesperson, one could be forgiven for assuming he simply appointed himself.

Remember, FBC is a federally-registered non-profit group: where are its bylaws? Does it have a formal membership? Has it held an annual general meeting?  Did it hold elections for any of the positions currently held by its leadership? If such information exists, FBC has not made it accessible.

Rather than holding its own events, the Federation seems to prefer piggybacking off the work of other established groups and individuals. For example, McLeod put his face and new FBC brand all over the inaugural National Black Summit at the Toronto Reference Library in December 2017. Yet the Michaëlle Jean Foundation actually did much of the organization background work and sent out the event invitations.

If the FBC didn’t really exist before that event, it’s understandable that it wouldn’t have a mailing list or even a membership to invite. I personally attended the summit (MJF invited me) and although I never signed up for the federation, I now receive its communications. Did FBC receive my info from MJF? If so, why didn’t I have an opportunity to approve the transfer of my personal info?

FBC promoted the aforementioned “Day on the Hill” lobbying effort as its own event, despite the fact that government relations consultant Tiffany Gooch organized it, and has organized a similar event in recent years. A misleading February 1 tweet from the FBC Twitter account said, “A national Lobby Day will occur on the Hill Feb 12,” without noting that FBC was actually not actually planning it.

This lack of transparency is important when we consider that FBC did not publicly say how the event had been organized, or why, or what it hoped to address with government officials, or how it had made priorities on issues. We don’t really know who the FBC is—we also don’t know what it believes and what it is advocating with politicians in the private, invite-only meetings it has participated in thus far.

Liberal partisanship

While the Federation claims to be non-partisan, the existing public documentation of its founding reveals deep connections to the federal Liberals, as well as the Ontario Liberal Party, while contact with other political parties is either non-existent or unmentioned.

In fact, freelance writer Ron Fanfair wrote in December that during mid-2017 alone,  McLeod and the leaders of the nascent federation met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his chief political staffer Gerald Butts, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, and Liberal Members of Parliament Marco Mendicino, Adam Vaughan and Ahmed Hussen (who was not yet a cabinet minister).

Tiffany Gooch told me during a phone interview yesterday that she facilitated some of these meetings, including the Wynne encounter in July 2017. “I don’t really consider myself a part of the organization,” said Gooch, but she acknowledged that “I am a Liberal” and has her deepest political ties within Liberal circles.

Cabinet minister Hussen’s marriage with FBC steering committee member Farah is, sadly, symbolic of  the closeness between the FBC and partisan Liberals. These relationships matter when we consider, from Fanfair’s reporting, that after the Trudeau meeting, McLeod and FBC “received a call from Ottawa indicating they would prefer the initiative to be national.”

Who made that call from Ottawa to the FBC? Why would government express its preference for FBC’s structure? What was the nature of the conversations between McLeod, his private circle which would evolve into the Federation, and many of the most powerful Liberals in the country? What incentives or tacit agreements might have been at play during these totally private conversations?

The apparent direction from government about the FBC’s future highlights how a heavily partisan organization, with virtually no public input and an extremely cavalier chairperson, has gone from zero to 100 in mere months. The particularly close relationship with Ottawa also explains why Liberal cabinet ministers and MPs seem to be everywhere the Federation is.

Meanwhile, the federation’s public outreach, like the town hall it hosted this week in—you guessed it—Ottawa, is only occurring now that the group is established and rolling. We know governments love to consult after they’ve already made up their minds. It’s equally shameful conduct for an organization that claims to represent Canada’s diverse black population.

There’s much more to critique about this young federation. For example, the total lack of representation from Canada’s Black Lives Matter chapters, who are doing some of the most important and celebrated advocacy in the country, seems too much of an oversight to be an accident. In fact, FBC boasts zero representation from radical Black activists across Canada, so many of whom identify as trans, as queer, as disabled, as women.

Respectability has a way of backfiring on the Black people who are most eager to practice it. When we behave unethically in civil society, we’re far less likely than anyone else to get a pass, to enjoy the ongoing support of the white people this country is designed to privilege and protect. For now, I hope the FBC leaders are enjoying all those Liberal photo-ops.

 

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CORRECTION: the original version of this post incorrectly said that Tiffany Gooch helped organize a meeting between Donald Mcleod, future FBC members and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when in fact Gooch organized a meeting with McLeod, future FBC members and premier Kathleen Wynne. I’m sorry for that mistake.

“I need my son back”: a refugee family’s fight to stop a senseless deportation

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***I recorded the following interview on Sunday January 7, 2018 for Newstalk 1010 AM radio, a division of the BellMedia network. English is not the first language of my guest, Asha, Ali, so I have very gently edited some of her remarks for clarity. These edits appear within square brackets […] throughout the text. The audio is here.

 

DESMOND COLE: For the next half hour we’re going to talk about one of the most important ongoing stories in this country right now. This is the story of a 23 year old young man named Abdoul Abdi—you heard us speaking about him late in 2017 on this program. Abdoul was scheduled to come out of prison and be with his family here in Toronto late last week, but he never made it. After finishing a prison sentence in the east coast, he was apprehended by the Canadian Border Services Agency and not allowed to come home.

The Border Services wants to deport Abdoul Abdi—he does not have full citizenship in this country. The reason he does not have full citizenship in Canada is because Abdoul Abdi was taken from his family at a very young age as a refugee to Canada. He was put in the child welfare system, and the Department of Community Services in Nova Scotia never applied for his citizenship.

That is the only reason he is inadmissible at the time, it is the only reason he was not returned to his family and is now, as we know, in a jail cell near Edmonston in New Brunswick awaiting potential deportation.

I am very fortunate to have with me in the studio this afternoon Abdoul’s aunt—her name is Asha, and I’m going to be referring to her as “Habo” Asha in the custom traditional Somali custom. Habo, welcome to this program, thank you for being here.

ASHA ALI: Thank you so much, I’m glad you invite me here. My name is Asha Ali—I’m Abdoul’s aunt but consider myself his mom. I’ve been taken away my son, along with his sister, December 2001. I arrived here year before that year, August 2000 and it’s a long story but make sure—

DESMOND: Yes, I want to make sure we get through—this is a very long and complex story. First I want to start with what’s happening right now though—

ASHA: Okay.

DESMOND: —with the fact that you expected Abdoul to come home at the end of this week. He finished a prison sentence. When were you contacted by parole officials saying his sentence is coming to an end and he’ll be home soon.

ASHA: It was November, October, around that area last year. They said he finished his time, he’s gonna be home, some halfway house to finish the sentence, but he’s gonna reside with you soon. And that’s what happened, I was expecting yesterday to him with me in Toronto. All I hear was he’s been taken away by CBSA [Canada Border Services Agency] and goes another detention centre, which is immigration, which I’m shocked right now for that. Because after he’s finished he’s supposed to be with me, his family, loved ones, instead of having this.

DESMOND: so “CBSA” for everyone out there is the Canadian Border Services Agency. It was their arbitrary choice to apprehend Abdi. There was nothing about his sentence, nothing about his situation that required him to be apprehended. He was on his way home. When was the last time you spoke with Abdoul and how was he doing?

ASHA: Last night and night before, he called me on collect call—they gave him one minute, and one minute wasn’t enough to talk to me. He said “I’m so frustrated, I’m supposed to be with you, and here I am again, not knowing where I am and why this again is happening me.”

DESMOND: Now, we wanna go back, because we know that the only reason it is possible to deport Abdoul right now is cause he does not have full citizenship in Canada. And the reason he does not have full citizenship was, as I mentioned, the child welfare system in Nova Scotia took him away from you so many years ago, and they never applied for his citizenship. So now let’s go back to 1997. You were in Djibouti with a young Abdoul and his sister, and you made contact with Canadian immigration officials.

ASHA: Yes.

DESMOND: So you applied to come to Canada as a refugee in 1997?

ASHA: Correct

DESMOND: And when you applied, how long did it take from 1997?

ASHA: 1997 to our arrival, 2000, it was three years process, long process, to be a landed immigrant here.

DESMOND: And Abdoul’s mother…you said at the top that you consider yourself to be his mom,  but his birth mom also applied during that time to come.

ASHA: Yes.

DESMOND: She was not able to make that trip—can you tell us what happened?

ASHA: She did not make it cause she was sick and had epileptic, and she passed away while we’re waiting on the process to come here.

DESMOND: So, you became the mother of these two children—

ASHA: —of Abdoul and his sister, to raise them and look after them. Although I was very young, with my sister who’s right there [gestures in studio] to raise and look after them, cause that’s the cultural custom we grew up, you know, it’s an African background.

DESMOND: And so you came to Canada caring for these two children—your sister’s children—did you tell Canadian immigration officials that these are not your children, that these are—

ASHA: —they knew from the beginning because we were under United Nations registry protection of women and children. as my country was [in] civil war (unintelligible). So they knew cause, had my sister [been] alive, she would be here with us. She would be here with us right now but unfortunately she passed away, while we waiting the process to come here.

So they knew in the process our family as a family moved to come here to land here, the mother passed away and we are aunts. But I was considered mother, take care of them and looking after them cause that’s how I [was] raised myself. My sister, the mother of the kids was [like] my mother to me, like little mother. She was second child to my mom, she looked after each of us, or my family members. She raised me as I’m speaking right now, and I’m taking care of her kids cause of that. Because that’s our cultural tradition of African families, you know, back home.

DESMOND: I understand Habo. So you came to Canada, you’re caring for these young people. You’re in Halifax, Nova Scotia now. You’ve become accepted as refugees into Canada. But at some point, the Department of Community Services in Nova Scotia, the child welfare services, came and said that they were going to take these young children away from you. What reason did they give you all those years back when you were taking care of these young kids in Nova Scotia, to say they were coming to take them away? Why? Did they give that explanation?

ASHA: They did not explain to me anything because, a) I was newcomer who doesn’t know English language, along with with my sister’s two little kids; and b) they did not give me, provide me the tools, the translation, to understand what was going on. Except all I know, the kids, after we registered [for] school, something happened. And we went to immigration to report that because we were newcomer, and immigration looking after my family as a landed immigrant.

And at that time, under the immigration support we settled there [in Halifax]. So until now, the question that I ask myself: why should I lose my kids when I’m not abusive, when I’m not neglect. Because, as I’m learning 18 years later, learning English and learning the system, I find out, in my belief I shouldn’t lose [the kids] to begin with cause I’m a good mother. I’m a loving mother.

The reason I’m today in your show and your radio, is cause had I don’t love my son, I wouldn’t be here today.

DESMOND: So these children were not separated from you, Abdoul and his sister also. We have read many reports that he was placed in up to 20 different  foster care placements during this time, and that Abdoul says some of these places were very abusive. Is that your understanding too?

ASHA: Yes, I do. He go through at lot of foster homes while I was in the court trying to gain the custody. He been through—not only him but his sister—they’ve been over 30 group homes, besides the foster homes, and they separate each other—

DESMOND: They were separated? Abdoul and his sister were separated from one another.

ASHA: They grow different places. Every single time as I’m going to family court to get them back, what I hear was he moves from one place to another, one county to another country. I t was frustrating all these years for me, and I tried so hard to get them back but it wasn’t easy for me.

I’m a good mother, I never neglect, I love more than anything, they are my world. They mean to me so much and I shouldn’t [have] lost them if they asked me, but—

DESMOND: —I’m going to just ask you to pause for just a moment cause we’re going to take a little bit of a break here.

ASHA: Okay.

DESMOND: I’m speaking with Asha, she is the aunt of Abdoul Abdi. Abdoul was supposed to be here with his family in Toronto after serving a jail sentence, but the Canada Border Services Agency didn’t allow him to leave prison after he served his time. Instead, they said ‘you are not a citizen of Canada, and now we’re gonna move to deport you,’ potentially to Somalia or Saudi Arabia. Abdi has never lived in either of these countries. Abdi does not speak the language in either of these countries. He does not know the customs. But he is at risk at this moment as we speak, and we’re here with his family.

——————COMMERCIAL BREAK——————

DESMOND: I’m back, and my very special guest this afternoon is named Asha. She is the aunt of Abdoul Abdi, who’s been the subject of so much conversation recently because instead of being able to come home after serving a jail sentence on the east coast, he has been apprehended by the border service, and now is facing deportation.

The interesting thing about Abdoul’s situation, of course, is that he was in the care of the Nova Scotia government for many years, and they were the only group that could apply for his citizenship—they never did so. And the only reason he’s facing deportation now is the neglect of the Nova Scotia government.

I’m here with his aunt Asha. Habo, thank you so much once again for joining us.

ASHA: Thank you so much.

DESMOND:I wanna talk about the issue of citizenship and the fact that DCS in Nova Scotia did not apply for Abdoul’s citizenship. You yourself are a Canadian citizen, are you not?

ASHA: Yes I am.

DESMOND: And you wanted to apply for citizenship for Abdoul and for his sister, but you lost the ability to do that when the government took him and his sister away. Can you tell us about the paperwork they made you sign at that time?

ASHA: They tried to sign me a form that’s saying, since they have physical custody away from my children, I cannot be their parent or legal guardian, or do anything on behalf of them, or give up their seeking of custody to gain back the kids, as you’re living on your own.

DESMOND: So as a result, you were not allowed to apply for citizenship for these children?

ASHA: I tried! I insist more than three times in a row, but unfortunately I couldn’t succeed because the Department of Community Services, along with Children’s Aid, blocked my way. and take me to court and said, “legal guardian of these kids permanently is us, and that’s our job. Asha should not apply [for] their citizenship.” Therefore I couldn’t get their citizenship although I’m a Canadian citizen, hardworking, pay the tax, taxpayer. But what happened [to] my kids is not their fault or mine.

DESMOND: And now Habo, I want to to talk about a very important part of the story which you told me when we first spoke, which is that you have met the minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Ahmed Hussen, and you have actually told him directly about your challenge with Abdoul and your fight to get him free.What happened when you met the minister—first of all, when did you meet him?

ASHA: I met him around 2004, before my son ever even get a [jail] sentence, though my community. I told [him] the case. At that time he was trying to get elected as an MP. I was dealing [with] another MP in my area, his name is Michael Sullivan. I put the case in front of Michael Sullivan, but then Michael Sullivan confirmed [to] me, ‘there’s an upcoming election and, if we pass that election and I’m re-elected, I will look at the case.’

But instead Ahmed, when I met him, I told him the case. He said, “I will help you if I become member of parliament in your area, (unintelligible). If you become my constituent I will look at it and see the case.”

DESMOND: So you are one of Ahmed Hussen’s constituents in York South-Weston?

ASHA: Yes I am.

DESMOND: And what has he done in recent times on this issue for you?

ASHA: Nothing. I tried since the last year going back and forth his office. His secretary and his assistants asked me [for] all the documents in this case. I put them up, I gave them. and then they asked me, “come back.” Tomorrow, next day, he’s not here, he’s in Ottawa. He’s gonna meet you next week. Week after week. And then next thing I know they said, “Ahmed Hussen’s not able to help you for this case—we’re closing the file.”

DESMOND: Well we know that minister Hussen does have influence on this file. We also know that the minister of public safety Ralph Goodale has influence on this file and can deal with the fact that Abdoul is now facing deportation. They do have the authority to stop them [CBSA]. And I daresay that they might be listening to this program, and that other members of parliament may be listening to this program right now. Habo, what would you like to say to all of them.

ASHA: I would like to say: my son, after all these years I lost; it’s been 17 years since we separated. We were newcomers, we were come to here to have a chance and a better life. My son doesn’t deserve—after he grew up [in] the system, all these years, and in care of the Community Services in Nova Scotia—he doesn’t deserve whatever he go through all these years.

He doesn’t deserve being deported and put where he doesn’t have no survivor, no family member, have no culture anymore, have no connection anymore. So I wanna tell all our Canadian society, along with minister Ralph Goodale of Public Safety, and Ahmed Hussen, I want my son [to] be with me, wth his family, and he deserves to be there. Please, I need my son back. I lost him since he was sever years old. and I’m not willing, not able to lost again.

I’m a Canadian citizen. He’s supposed to be a Canadian citizen. Had he had a chance to grow [in] my care, he would be Canadian citizen right now.

DESMOND: Habo, I want to thank you so very much for your time, and for sharing this story with the Canadian public. Thank you.

ASHA: Thank you so much.

 

NO vacancy

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According to Mayor John Tory and his spokespeople, Toronto’s shelters may be crowded but they are not at capacity. Yet in recent evenings, during one of the coldest weather periods in recent local memory, city staff have told several people calling the shelter intake system that no beds were available.

There is ample proof, and has been for years, that Toronto’s shelters are indeed full, and that the city’s definition of shelter availability has little connection to the practical ability to access a bed. Through a calculated blend of wordplay, distraction, and a failure to provide meaningful data, Tory is misleading the public about the desperate state of emergency shelters.

Real capacity vs. stated capacity

Shelter availability impacts people on an individual and family basis. If a person or family needing a shelter calls 311 or central intake to ask for a bed, and is told a bed is not available, the system has failed to shelter that individual or family. The city’s claim that beds are available makes no practical difference to someone who calls and is denied.

In recent days, frontline workers Zoë Dodd and Gillian Kolla of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Site (Toronto OPS) have told reporters they called the city for beds and were told none were available. Kolla said she independently called staff at the city’s recenty-opened respite centre at the Better Living Centre, and was also told that no beds were available.

Veteran street outreach worker Doug Johnson has gone a step further and recorded conversations with central intake staff who denied his request for a bed. Reporter Mick Sweetman has also documented statements directly from city staff who said the system is at capacity. City officials have not denied any of these reports.

Instead, the city has repeated that the shelter system in recent days has been operating at 95% capacity, which suggests that 5% of the beds are empty. But an empty bed is only useful if the city offers it.

Our shelter system allocates beds based on age, gender, and family status—it does not, for example, offer single individuals a bed in family shelters, or send people who identify as women to sleep in men’s facilities. If there are no beds for single women on a given night, and a single woman inquires about a bed and is denied, the availability of beds in other categories is irrelevant to her situation.

Similarly, if a person in Scarborough calls central intake for a bed, but the only beds available are at a shelter in Etobicoke, the city’s claim of availability is dubious. People who rely on the the emergency shelter system rarely have the means to move easily around the city, and their path is steeper given the bitterness of winter weather we are currently experiencing.

The city also counts extra mats and cots that can be laid out on the floors of existing shelters as part of its capacity. Once the regular system is full, the city can call shelters and ask them to use the mats and cots. Since these beds are only offered during emergencies such as the city’s ongoing Extreme Cold Weather Alert, they are only provided after most people seeking a bed have already inquired. This desperate tactic is the basis for Tory’s claim of extra shelter bed capacity.

On December 28, Johnson shared audio of a call he made to central intake, during which he was told the city had no family beds available. The intake worker advised Johnson, who was calling at almost 11 p.m., that there is often no availability of beds at night. “You should call us earlier in the day cause that’s when the shelters get filled,” the worker told him, “by night-time everything’s filled.”

Johnson has continued documenting refusals from central intake in recent days. He has also published a direct acknowledgement from Steve Meaghar, the shelter manager at the Christie Refugee Welcome Centre, that the family motel system, the last resort for families when shelters are full, is also at capacity.

“[G]iven that there’s no available shelter, it’s very confusing that only 89% occupancy is being reported in motel programs,” Meaghar told Johnson in a piece published on December 31. “Either there is space and families are being denied access to it, or there’s actually no space and the numbers are misleading. Either way, it’s problematic.”

In recent days since evidence of the ongoing shelter crisis has been in the news, the city has simply stopped updating its online daily census of shelter capacity. On December 28 2017, the last day the city published its numbers, 100% of family shelter beds were full, youth bed capacity was at 99%, and beds for single women were also at 99% capacity. While city officials blame “miscommunication” for their inability to provide beds, their own willful misrepresentation of Toronto’s shelter capacity is the problem.

Beyond the city’s failure to provide some people with shelter beds, we must also remember that the overburdened system is itself unacceptable. It is worth considering what a crowded shelter looks, feels, and smells like during a Canadian winter. The safety, comfort, and health of shelter users is directly related to capacity and overcrowding.

Shelter beds vs. warming/respite centres

Another city tactic to misrepresent shelter capacity is to talk about “space” rather than beds. Most city-operated shelters are only open in the evenings and overnight—they operate on the assumption that a providing safe place to sleep is a primary goal of the system. Given the declaration of successive Extreme Cold Weather Alerts, the city has also opened several 24 hour respite centres, and has allowed people to stay at its shelter referral centre on Peter Street.

While such facilities do provide space and some relief, they do not guarantee beds as the regular system does. The very need for such facilities is the clearest sign of overcapacity. The city has promoted respite facilities in its public communications to suggest that extra space is available. But the goal of the shelter system is to provide beds, and we must again reflect on the total inadequacy of people sleeping on the floors of city-run respite centres.

On February 15 2016, 28 year old Pierre Gregoire died of a suspected fentanyl overdose after leaving a city warming centre. Hours earlier Gregoire, a member of the Innu Nation in Labrador, had been eating at St. Felix drop-in centre. According to media reports, Gregoire left St. Felix after asking to sleep on the floor and being told there wasn’t enough space to do so. CityNews reported that St. Felix was already 10 people over its capacity when Gregoire arrived.

It is not a coincidence that overdose prevention workers in Moss Park, who have used their trailer as a makeshift warming facility in recent nights, are among the loudest voices condeming the lack of shelter access. Such workers are being forced to provide inadequate alternatives to shelter in light of the city’s failures. Toronto’s well-publicized opioid crisis is directly related to the city’s overwhelmed shelter system.

Shelter at the Better Living Centre (BLC) at Exhibition Place

After nearly two weeks of consecutive nights with temperatures below the freezing mark, the city announced on December 21 that it would convert part of the Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place into a 24-hour shelter and respite facility. The city promised 20 beds immediately, with a plan to increase capacity to 100 beds in mid-January. Only six days later on December 27, BLC worker Kelly Foss told CBC that the new shelter would soon reach its capacity due to increased demand from the cold weather.

Foss also said the BLC had increased its capacity to accommodate 50 people with beds the previous evening. After more complaints on December 28 about lack of access, City councillor Joe Mihevc said that BLC now accommodated 100 beds, and that only 50 had been used that previous evening.

On December 30, Toronto OPS staffer Gillian Kolla told media she called shelter intake to request for beds for several clients, and that staff told her none were available. Kolla said she also called BLC directly and was told the facility was full. According to Kolla, city staff on the phone did not refer her to BLC.

Given that Kolla’s request for beds happened at night during freezing temperatures, it is extremely likely that the city had already added all extra mats and cots into the system. Any beds added after Kolla’s call were irrelevant to the clients she was serving—the failure to offer beds to people at Toronto OPS when they inquired is the issue, not the final bed count. Circumstances like these highlight the emptiness of the city’s claims of excess shelter capacity.

In a climate where shelter demand can absorb 100 extra spaces so quickly, the city’s failure to immediately add more capacity is devastating. In previous years Toronto has made use of military armouries at Moss Park and Fort York to shelter a combined 300 people. Mayor Tory has repeatedly rejected the use of the armouries for the current winter season.

The politics of increasing shelter space

In 2013, then-mayor Rob Ford was indignant about public demands to increase shelter capacity. Ford was blunt about his refusal to open more spaces—he considered it wasteful spending. At a press conference during a cold spell that March, Ford proclaimed that “we don’t need more spaces, we have over 100 empty beds a night. We have to be efficient. You wanna open up 500 empty beds? That’s just a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

In this latest phase of the same shelter crisis, Tory is also reluctant to do more and, although he doesn’t cite money as his major obstacle, the current mayor is employing the same tactics Ford did to distract the public. Just as Ford attempted to discredit the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty for its shelter advocacy, Tory has also named OCAP and singled out lifelong advocates like Cathy Crowe in his refusals to open the armouries.

“I just wonder why it is that the view of OCAP and Cathy Crowe and some of these people are to be taken somehow as gospel,” Tory told CBC’s Matt Galloway on the Metro Morning radio program in December.

In early December, Tory and 24 councillors voted against and defeated a plan to open the armouries, choosing instead the respite centres and the Better Living Centre, which have quickly proven to be insufficient. Tory’s biggest concerns with using the armouries include the need to coordinate with military officials onsite, as well as what he calls “security arrangements” between military personnel and the homeless.

As for the money, Tory said in the Metro Morning interview that “it’s not the major consideration but there’s a cost consideration.” The last time the federal Department of National Defence allowed the city to use the armouries, it charged $4,200 a day.

Toronto’s Extreme Cold Weather Alert continues—last night’s low temperature was -16°C. Tonight’s expected low is -18°C. If Toronto does not have the money, staffing, or coordinating capacity to increase shelter access, now is the time to say so and to ask for help. Mayor Tory’s current stance is not only endangering the lives of those who can’t access shelter, it is endangering and diminishing the lives of those forced to stay in the dangerously overcrowded system.

I choose activism for Black liberation

This week I met with Andrew Philips, the Toronto Star’s editorial page editor, who has essentially served as my boss at the newspaper. Phillips called me in regarding my political disruption of the April 20 meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board. Phillips said this action had violated the Star’s rules on journalism and activism. He didn’t discipline me or cite any consequence for my actions—Phillips said he just wanted me to know what the Star’s rules are.

I have no formal employment with the Star. I’ve never signed any contract or agreement, and no one ever directed me to any of the policies Phillips cited. However, I knew my police protest was activism, and I could have guessed the Star wouldn’t appreciate it.

At no time during this week’s meeting did Phillips try to tell me how I must conduct myself in the future. He did say he hopes I will continue my bi-monthly column. I appreciate the offer but I’m not going to accept it. If I must choose between a newspaper column and the actions I must take to liberate myself and my community, I choose activism in the service of Black liberation.

There’s so much I feel and could say about this decision, but for now I will limit my commentary to my experience as a freelancer with the Star. For the last year I have been contributing to the Star once every two weeks. I started as a weekly columnist in September of 2015 but my space was cut in half after eight months with almost no explanation (at the time Phillips cited budget struggles and told me “times are tough”).

I doubt any freelance columnist in the recent (or even not so recent) history of the Star has consistently generated more interest and readership, and consequently more revenue, than I have. Few of the Star’s full time columnists cannot claim the following I have built as a freelancer and, with the very notable exception of Washington correspondent Daniel Dale, no regular Star columnist or reporter can match my success in aggressively marketing my work on social media.

My contributions to the Star are in sharp contrast with the lack of tenure, exposure, support, and compensation I have received in return. I believe I have been good for business during a time when our industry is desperate for new voices and new readers. Although I was recently warned about my actions, the Star’s leadership has previously warned me about its limited appetite for my very political and unapologetically Black voice.

In April of 2016, John Honderich, the chair of Torstar Corp., who was also serving as the Star’s acting publisher at that time, asked to meet with me. Honderich suggested I was writing about race too often, and advised me to diversify my topics. The next day I published a piece in support of Yusra Khogali, a Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder who was the subject of a racist, Islamophobic campaign to distract from her activism. It was the most popular piece I wrote all year—my editor contacted me to congratulate me on its reach.

The Star invests heavily in reporters whose excellent work inspires much of my commentary on anti-Black racism and white supremacy in Canada. Yet it seems the Star is reluctant to invest in columnists who relentlessly name these racial power imbalances, who call out the political and institutional forces responsible for white supremacy and Black suffering.

This is bad news for emerging local Black journalists and journalism students, most of whom are Black women and many of whom tell me they are also being shunned, not for their actions but for their radical and emancipatory content. My profile will allow me to find other work, but what about all the brilliant Black people who share my conviction and sense of urgency? Will they ever find steady work in Canadian media?

The struggle continues. I hope my candour here, and my growing reputation as an unapologetic Black activist, is compatible with a continued relationship with the Star. I wish my colleagues there—especially Nicholas Keung, Wendy Gillis, Evelyn Kwong, Jim Rankin, Patty Winsa, San Grewal, Azeezah Kanji, Jennifer Pagliaro, Jayme Poisson, Betsy Powell, Jacques Gallant, Sara Mojtehedzadeh, Morgan Campbell, Ed Keenan, and Daniel Dale—continued success in their respective works, all of which have shaped my writing. 

See y’all in the streets, on Newstalk 1010 radio (every Sunday at 4 p.m.) and, hopefully sometime early next year, in the pages of my first book with Doubleday Canada.

In love, rage, and Black power

~Desmond Cole