Author Archives: Desmond Cole

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.

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“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

New Police Carding Regulations Fall Short of Ending the Practice

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DATE:    Monday, December 7, 2015

PLACE:  Toronto City Hall, 2nd floor, ‘A’ Street Entrance

TIME: 11:00 a.m.

Legal groups, community advocates, academics and the Ontario Human Rights Commission call for tougher regulation on ”carding”

A broad network of community advocates, human rights and legal experts, academics and concerned and affected individuals is calling on the Province to ensure that its Draft Regulation on police street checks – or “carding” – achieves the Minister’s stated objective of ending arbitrary and discriminatory police street checks. They point to concerns with the Regulation’s limited application and scope.

Members of the network (see attached list) met with Yasir Naqvi, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services on Monday November 30, 2015. They presented a Joint Statement to address the changes they say are needed if the Minister is to meet his goal to “standardize police street checks across the province, and establish rules to ensure that these encounters are without bias, consistent, and carried out in a manner that promotes public confidence.”

The group said it welcomed and endorsed the objectives laid out by Minister Naqvi, as well as the objectives reflected in a Motion passed unanimously in the Legislative Assembly on October 22, 2015. However, the Draft Regulation falls short of these important objectives.

A major concern is the Draft Regulation’s limited application. All of its prohibitions, protections and accountability mechanisms do not apply when police are investigating a specific offence. So much of racial profiling in street checks occurs when police are investigating a reported crime and inappropriately and disproportionately scrutinize African Canadians.

If a suspect is identified as “young and Black” the Draft Regulation will do nothing to stop police from questioning any young Black man they meet, and then putting the young person’s personal information into a database. As well, the Regulation lacks privacy protections, allowing for the continued collection and holding, for an indefinite period, of the information of people who have not committed a crime.

The group says public confidence in the police is vital and encourages the Minister to take this opportunity to rebuild trust that has been lost.

The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) says the Draft Regulation poses “significant challenges for police leaders and our officers in their efforts to prevent crime and maintain public safety”. The network agrees that police have to be allowed to do their jobs. But they point to the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Human Rights Code, including the right to free from arbitrary detention and racial profiling and call on the government to create a framework to ensure police conduct is always consistent with the law.

Read the Joint Statement on the website of the Department of Criminology on the Ryerson University website.

Speakers include:

Desmond Cole, Chair of press conference

Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC)

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, Director, Equality Program, Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Howard Morton, Law Union of Ontario (LUO)

Knia Singh, President, Osgoode Society Against Institutional Injustice (OSAII)

Gordon Cressy, Concerned Citizens Against Carding, (CCAC)

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For more information:

Howard F. Morton, Law Union of Ontario (LUO), 416-418-6502, hfmlaw@yahoo.ca;

Knia Singh, President, Osgoode Society Against Institutional Injustice, 647-237-4267,

Reality Check: Toronto Police Association President on Anti-Black Racism

Demonstrators at a May 2015 Black Lives Matter rally in Toronto. Photo by Elizabeth Littlejohn.

Demonstrators at a May 2015 Black Lives Matter rally in Toronto. Photo by Elizabeth Littlejohn.

I wrote a piece for the Toronto Star last week saying our police force needs to acknowledge systemic anti-black racism, within its own ranks and in society at large. Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack has published an apparent rebuttal, in which he names me and twists my words. I can’t let that stand.

You can read McCormack’s full piece here. Excepts appear below in bold italicsmy own commentary is in regular text.

Over the past few years, the Toronto Police Service has been the subject of accusations of racial profiling and biased policing. Most recently, on the anniversary of the Danzig shooting, an article on this page by journalist Desmond Cole stereotyped Toronto Police Service officers as anti-black racists.

I actually said Toronto police keep killing black people, particularly those who are in crisis or experiencing mental illness, and that at least half of all people killed by our police since 1988 have been black. These two facts are so solid that McCormack’s rebuttal doesn’t address or dispute them. Later in the piece, he does link disproportionate police encounters with black residents to “socio-economic factors such as poverty, unaffordable housing, lack of child-care, access to post-secondary education, unemployment and homelessness.”

Perhaps McCormack does not know that these social ills affect black people so unevenly because of systemic anti-black racism. It’s more likely, as I argued in my original piece, that he and many other police officials just don’t want to talk about it.

While I respect the right of any individual or group to express their opinions, the assumption that police-involved shootings are motivated by systemic racism, to the exclusion of any other possibility, is inaccurate and inflammatory.

Most powerful white people do not like it when black people talk about racism without blaming ourselves for it, or without insisting that “not all white people” are racist. If black people expose racism without qualification or apology, we are told we highlight race “to the exclusion of any other possibility.”

The truth is that white elites recoil at any mention of systemic racism, and refuse to take responsibility for racist outcomes in the societies they dominate. Instead they suggest, as McCormack does, that people like me use allegations of racism simply to garner sympathy and “stir public emotion.” When you are used to dominating people, you can even become jealous of their cries for justice.

I refuse to ignore the role of systemic racism, within policing and Canadian society. I refuse to allow police, who are in denial about their historical and modern propensity to kill innocent black people, to tell us when and how we should talk about racism in policing. McCormack is only comfortable using the term “systemic racism” to downplay or deny its existence in local policing. From that perspective, even one mention of systemic racism must feel like the whole, dreaded conversation.

Some have misrepresented police data to support their irresponsible accusations of racial discrimination. The use of census-based data to identify biased-policing, in the absence of other variables, is outright wrong. Their findings are not proof of a culture of biased policing. Assessing for bias is complicated. While the data may show some disparity, it is not sufficient to substantiate these allegations. This position is supported by the opinions of respected academics.

This is the main thrust of McCormack’s defence of police carding, the practice of stopping and documenting people who are not suspected of any crime. The Toronto Police Service has never voluntarily published data on carding or the impacts of racial profiling, and has refused repeated demands to do so. Police have not offered any data to explain why innocent black people have been so disproportionately carded. McCormack does not cite a single academic whom he claims shares his analysis. We’re still waiting.

These unsubstantiated allegations of racial discrimination are an attempt to stir public emotion and to justify knee-jerk policy changes to police practices.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms says our police cannot detain us arbitrarily, as they have been doing through carding. It’s not knee-jerk to demand that this right be upheld. It’s not radical to say police must tell us why they are stopping and documenting us. Nor is it revolutionary to expect that if police take our personal info, they should provide a receipt of the interaction, as they currently do for traffic tickets.

Despite declining overall crime rates, shooting incidents in Toronto have increased by 48 per cent compared to last year and the number of victims killed or injured is up by 66 per cent.

These stats are accurate, but they don’t explain why police killed Andrew Loku, who never shot anyone but rather got shot and killed by his own police. The numbers don’t tell us why black people who don’t shoot anyone are treated like they might shoot someone, or are about to, or must have info about someone who did. McCormack cites general trends in crime to justify the specific mistreatment of black individuals. This explanation is extremely popular (see systemic racism) but it is irrelevant.

While many American police services have had police reform imposed upon them, we have been ahead of the curve by addressing the issue of bias through mandatory and non-mandatory training standards, policies and procedures, diversity hiring and community-based policing initiatives that are the envy of police services worldwide.

In an attempt to stop the Toronto Star from accessing and reporting on carding data, our police fought the newspaper for seven years. The public didn’t even know the practice existed and when we found out, the police tried to dismiss it and move on. McCormack and former chief Bill Blair then tried to discredit a 2014 study in which community members described how carding has affected them.

The Black Action Defense Committee was formed in 1989 after police shot three black people in a 15 month span — two of them, Lester Donaldson and Wade Lawson, died from their injuries. Police still refuse to confirm the number and proportion of black people they have wounded and killed since 1988, even though that information is part of the public record.

Unfounded allegations of discrimination based on statistical disparities and the postulation that an entire police service is racist, however, are false, inflammatory and counterproductive to meaningful debate.

This type of irresponsible rhetoric simply undermines the good community relations our members have worked to establish and thus harms all Torontonians.

Canadian society exhibits and promotes anti-black racism. Our police and all other institutions keep producing outcomes that disproportionately hurt and disadvantage black people. This is what systemic racism means. If police say “we are not racist,” but they keep inflicting excessive damage to black people, their claims of intolerance to racism are meaningless.

During the G20 protests in 2010, Toronto police officers who themselves might never assault or arbitrarily arrest peaceful civilians watched as many of their colleagues did so. These bystander officers were partially responsible for the beatings and arrests because they saw abuse and remained silent. So it is with racism in policing. We don’t have to label all cops as racists to see that, as an institution, they justify systemic racism instead of looking in the mirror.

Toronto Residents Set Expectations for the Elimination of Police Carding

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TORONTO – In advance of tomorrow’s Toronto Police Services Board meeting, residents are hosting a press conference today to set expectations for the elimination of police carding. They will also ask why the issue of carding is nowhere to be found on tomorrow’s TPSB agenda.

“The absence of an agenda item on carding is mind-boggling,” says activist Desmond Cole, who will host today’s press conference. “Mayor John Tory said he would seek an end to carding at tomorrow’s meeting—where is his plan?” Residents will not tolerate more delays on this issue. The steps to eliminate carding are clear, and will be outlined at the gathering.

Date:               Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Time:               1:30 p.m. EST

Location:         Toronto City Hall, outside Committee Room #1

Participants include:

Desmond Cole, activist and freelance journalist; Akio Maroon, Occupational Health and Safety Worker; Knia Singh, founder of Osgoode Students Against Institutional Injustice; Howard Morton, Law Union of Ontario.

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For more information and to arrange interviews, contact:

Desmond Cole, 647-222-5289, heydesmondcole@gmail.com