Saturday, 5 November 2011

Occupy Movement: By the People, For the People, With the People

By Sheldon Taylor

This revolution of values must go beyond traditional capitalism and Communism. We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give
luxuries to the few, and has encouraged smallhearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 186

Some in the media have pointed to the lack of diversity among the protesters and marchers dubbed the 99 percenters who are representative of the Occupy Movement in North America. Many of these dedicated men and women, ones who regularly brave the police teargas canisters, sleep away from home in damp and cold tents, eat donated food that is often cold, suffer cat calls from alienated passersby and march in the pouring rain fall in the under thirty age group category. Committed to social justice and equality, they are swelling the ranks of what is a growing 21st-century response to shrinking opportunities and corporate greed. Furthermore, to the benefit of the rest of us this army of people protesting against excessive behavior and don’t give a damn politics of the 1 percenters, the Robber Barons and puppet politicians, mirror the efforts of the earlier Civil Rights Movement.

That at present Blacks and other minority groups appear less visible on the ground in the Occupy Movement matters little in the age of social media fueled by cell phones, laptops, iPads and other mobile devices. The idea of how people assemble and show solidarity has changed more recently. One gets a sense from Twitter and Facebook that not only is the whole world watching this new phenomenon develop its competencies, but that people across the racial, economic, class and social divide are tuned in to these 21st-century beginnings of a popular revolution. It is one energized by technological advancements and outrage many young people in concert with other Americans and Canadians convey. At the same time a larger multiethnic presence wouldn’t hurt.

The talk before of the under thirty-something’s blissful existence, their selfishness and divorce from the realities of everyday living formed the basis of much discussion until now. Suddenly, the tide has shifted and in looking for something else to scrutinize, the commentary is about the Occupy Movement’s lack of a spectrum of human colours linking hands, singing we shall overcome, and having a good old Pot Party. Attempting to create dissension some on the Right have gone even further in making scurrilous remarks about the possibility of Anti-Semitism within the Occupy Movement’s ranks. Occupy Movement detractors complain the protesters are part of the great unwashed; hippies and loafers. Where have we heard such claims before?

Well-known civil rights actions, activities and events of the 1960s were part of a Movement for social justice that began even before African American Rosa Parks’ selfless act on December 01, 1955 of refusing to sit at the back of the bus the way black people were supposed to in Montgomery, Alabama,. By that date the Movement was already changing gears. Even in the 1930s and continuing during the Second World War years some African Americans were testing the patience of the sentinels of the American apartheid system by standing up to old Jim Crow’s belief they were not fit to vote and die for their country. Into the 1950s it was mainly black people who suffered the police barrages, the calls by politicians that in searching for their dignity, African Americans were communist-influenced and didn’t know what was best for them. Nothing was further from the truth and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. even spoke of the limitations of communism. Some whites in the 1950s were positioned on the front lines, but like before white financial and other means of support took place mainly behind doors. 

The Birmingham Bus Boycott under Martin Luther King’s leadership brought matters to a head and summoned the attention of North Americans and the rest of the world. Television as a new medium showcased on news programs how black people were terrorized. They were attacked, brutalized, jailed and some lost their lives for the cause of freedom in an era when the former Soviet Union was labeled, “a threat to world peace, and the enemy of democracy.” Amidst the corporate rhetoric of what’s good for America is good for the world, forward-thinking Americans started realizing the historic costs African Americans paid for their “land of liberty.”

Many white Americans were still caught up in the blissful consciousness brought on by consumerism and their country’s position as the world’s economic superpower. Conformity encouraged by the McCarthy Hearings likened to the Salem Witch Trials created an environment that was not best suited to fight for just causes. But, the-in- support of African Americans, Brown v. the Board of Education 1954 Supreme Court decision put enough wind in the sails of people with intrepid spirits who wished to repair the damage the earlier Separate but Equal 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision had done to US Blacks.

The issues in Canada, on the surface at least, were less egregious and dramatic. But like other former British Crown Jewels, New Zealand, South African and Australia, Canada had a racial problem. Even with the passage of fairer enactments to stem the tide of excluding black people from public places, employment and immigration, the country was still Lilly White; in mind and deed. Acceptance even for most Jews, given the existence of restricted covenants and religious intolerance was nothing more than an abstract concept. Institutional changes and an altering of how Canadians behaved toward minorities were still years away. As for French Canadians, their quiet revolution would not yield equalities on par with the majority Anglo-Saxon powerbase for some time to come.

The push for black equality drew national and international attention, especially after the election of John F. Kennedy as president of the United States in 1960 and the sometimes supportive responses of his brother, Robert Kennedy as US Attorney General. The small “l”: liberalizing of North America created a thaw and brought about a unique moment that is linked to the 1930s when disaffected and disappointed people searched for a fairer and just society. Once again in the 1960s intellectuals, Jews, women, labour unions and other classes of whites protesting the Vietnam War, along with Blacks, fearful of the effects of shrinking opportunities, or in search of meaningful financial and participatory integration took the streets.

Such efforts combined with African Americans’ desire to ensure Jim Crow became no more than a mat made dirtier with millions of feet stepping on it brought on a people’s revolution. The efforts embodied in white support for the Movement cannot be minimized, since any successful struggle for justice must eventually become greater than the sum of its parts.

Now in its earlier stages of development the Occupy Movement has not as yet reached that point of achieving its predecessor’s success. This is a good thing because it means there is still time for the Movement’s leaders to learn more about the 1960s Civil Rights Movement’s successes and failures. But as the Occupy Movement grows focusing on economic inequality and corporate greed gives it the potential of becoming as large as or even more impactful than its predecessor. All things considered, if the countervailing forces already at work are unable to sustain a chokehold on the Movement it will possibly change North America for the better.

As the 99 percenters remind everyone, the issues of concern affect a majority of Americans and Canadians. No one needs be reminded here of the often quoted statistics painting a sullen picture of how bad the economy is. Many North Americans could not have imagined that in their lifetime dire circumstances would manifest and compete with events that unfolded during the Great Depression.

Since 2008 opportunities didn’t just shrink, in many instances they disappeared without a trace. Who in their right mind would not worry; panic a little, after witnessing economic disruption, or seeing family members, friends and neighbours downsize, reinvent themselves, do all they could to save house and lifestyle, only to end up on the side of the road after the sheriff padlocks the once familiar home.

The issue now isn’t the numbers of people making up a spectrum of colours in New York’s Zucotti Park, or which groups of men and women Occupy Toronto in tents in St. James Park. The primary concern is the 1 percent of the population who shamelessness brought their nations, Canada and the US, to a point where hardworking people are hurting. Worse than the current pain is fear of a future with no apparent relief in sight. A lack of solutions abound as the gap between rich and poor widens. Many more people believe they face the possibility of going from rags to destitution and that their anguish brought on by trepidation will turn to deep agony. Matters are not helped when with an economic tsunami steering politicians in the face, all they do is put their energy into shining the shoes of wealthy benefactors.

Who leads efforts bent on getting the ball rolling to fight against inhumanity, economic and social exclusion, and corporate greed is not the issue. Occupy Movement members should cautiously screen individuals taking on leadership positions to prevent the types of infiltrations and treachery that occurred in the earlier Civil Rights Movement. That it is now growing numbers of mainly white men and women standing on the frontlines makes the fight worthwhile. This trend belies the claim that only African Americans suffer at the hands of the overly greedy, and the agents of power who seek to corrupt absolutely. Class as a variable is talked about more now in the US than before the fall of the Soviet Union. Fact is however, while as scholars such as Cornel West report, race matters; so too do class-based issues.

We are witnessing a collective response to what Martin Luther King referred to at a time when the bigoted Theophilus “Bull” Connor had fire hoses and ferocious dogs in Birmingham, Alabama turned against unarmed and peaceful demonstrators: Injustice anywhere discredits the justice we may find in certain nooks and crannies of the societies we live in. The fight for social and economic justice should be understood beyond the existing differences of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, age, language, socioeconomic status, region, and abilities and disabilities.

Recently in Jamaica a small number of people created their own Occupy Movement by protesting in Half-Way Tree against, “skyrocketing food and electricity prices, a shrinking job market, poverty, corruption and intolerable income gaps.” At the moment economic hardship cannot be differentiated along lines of colour, language group, class or ethnicity; nor for that matter nationality and geographic region.

Jamaica has a majority black population and is politically administered by an overwhelming number of black people in government. Of course many Jamaicans knowing the significance of their country’s dependence on export-led growth would claim that their economic shortcomings are made all the more possible by the international dictates of money lenders: the International Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

But both the Jamaican and North American examples illustrate how people in the developing and developed world are responding to a common set of exploitation tools. They are ones used by the purveyors of greed and corruption in concert with politicians who happily side with influential people whose only concern is about the corrupting Midas touch.

Writing in The New York Times Oct 27, 2011, Richard Thompson Ford says: “Today’s most pressing injustices require comprehensive changes in the practices of the police, schools and employers — not simply responses to individual injuries.” It is within this train of thought that consideration must allow for the forging of a collective response to the apparent social and economic justices. These are wrongs bordering at times on tyrannies that until now are best understood in black communities on both sides of the 49th-parallel. But as more white children feel the pinch with so many of their teachers being laid off; as their parents see even more of their jobs heading overseas; as nearing retirement persons watch helplessly and in horror while pensions depreciate, and with the Occupy Movement facing the lash of The Police who are themselves members of the 99 percent, racial, class, and economic schism will lessen even more.

It is long over due for the concerns identified by Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Toronto and Occupy Movements elsewhere to be seriously addressed. No one expects immediate solutions. It is generally accepted that the ills plaguing North Americans, 99 percent of who are affected by the economic downswing, fallout from corporate greed, a shrinking asset base and uncertainty brought on by living from pay cheque to pay cheque will require patience and sacrifice.

Instead, a majority of Americans and Canadians in making the sacrifice suffer while the top 1 percent of the population becomes greedily richer, more opulent and less caring about the workforce whose labour has helped to make them Kings and Queens with the Midas Touch. Public disappointment and despair were fueled by inaction and indecision in Washington and state capitals around the US. People can only be distracted for so long by the shenanigans of celebrities, themselves 1 percenters, or with questionable sightings of spacecrafts from other planets.

Canada is less affected by the global economic downswing. Yet many people are already feeling the strains of an economy that is cooling down. Postsecondary students shoulder unprecedented debt in a period when employment prospects are gloomy. Elected representatives have become more fascinated with the hole in the doughnut than with the widening breach in Canadians’ pocketbooks. Drivers dodge deepening potholes on once pristine highways and municipalities coldly eye already strapped taxpayers to assume greater tax burdens.

As the electorate shifts farther right once left-of-centre or centrists politicians play the game of follow the leader. Canada’s safety net hallmarked by its healthcare programs are failing stress tests precipitated by an aging Boomer and generally better informed population. Without the sound of fury coming from politicians’ mouths Canadians are left to wonder who is really on their side. How will they cope at a time when corporate power and wealth are more concentrated and they are being told to “inherit the wind?” Their knee jerk embracing of conservative politics is less a reflection of support for do-nothing politics and more so an attempt to preserve what is left of the Canada they wish to hold on to.

Left on their own and with the Occupy Movement saying and doing what many people are either afraid of saying and doing, a majority of North Americans are not yet ready to Occupy the Streets. But as pollsters report they are tacitly supporting the efforts of the Movement. The way forward requires actions and support by Chinese and other Oriental peoples, and brown, First Nations, black and white people. There should be no misjudging of how low the 1 percenters will stoop to stop the Occupy Movement. Unresolved issues like the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy remind people in their fifties and older of how hopes and dreams were dashed in the past. Calling for change now in North America where most of the wealth and power are controlled by a few people runs the risk of being singled out and persecuted. The police attacks against Occupy Oakland and Occupy Denver are likely to be tame compared to responses yet to come if the Movement gains not just traction, but tangible victories.

As was the case with the earlier Civil Rights Movement the Occupy Movement will be further attacked. Its leadership will be spied on, jailed and blacklisted thereby making it harder in the foreseeable future for its members to support themselves, let alone families. But this is the risk and sacrifice protesters and activists must make in order for real change to occur.

By the 1970s, many of those who had not been killed or jailed, had suffered untold horrors, and decidedly threw in the towel. They were tormented by the deaths of so many and remembered lessons others wanted them to transport into the future. Like the lynchings in Mississippi of the two white men, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and their black colleague James E. Chaney. These Freedom and Civil Rights fighters like ones among the ranks of the Occupy Movement faced injustices that are pockmarks on the societies so many people are struggling in.

It wasn’t only on the American side of the border that the struggle for civil rights unfolded. Here in Canada a few bold leaders like the almost forgotten Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, himself quite a status quo politician, raised a flag of hope with the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights. His government responded positively to societal pressures to begin the process of creating a just society that Pierre Elliott Trudeau adopted later on as Prime Minister. The current holder of that office Stephen Harper has stepped away from such an exemplar legacy. In its place are crime enactments that will supposedly deter criminals; hopefully, ones too, who were allegedly in his own government. Provincial initiatives do more to remind Canadians that politicians are struggling to understand the problems they should eagerly address; or that these politicians are hamstringed by the 1 percenters who bankroll their quests for office.

The Canadian Civil Rights Movement was not as large or as efficacious as ones elsewhere. Yet to the credit of countless men and women who marched in the streets from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, many Canadians stood shoulder to shoulder with people who suffered most and some minimal changes took effect. In a period when so many Americans in dodging their country’s draft to escape military service in Viet Nam ventured to Canada there was a thaw occurring which attuned many Canadians to principles of equality. But just as in the American example, and even before the courts south of the border attacked affirmative action embodied in the Bakke Case (1978), in Canada, some of those white people who marched and cried out the loudest about the need for social justice retreated and left the north of the border Civil Rights Movement in shambles.

Later on when provincial governments in Ontario appeased women for example with an Ontario Women’s Directorate, it would be white women who benefited the most. When the Ontario Human Rights Commission expanded its workforce, it was white people who got the work. When universities’ faculties expanded their curricula it would be in disciplines that hardly recognized continental and Diaspora African Studies. Needless to say Aboriginals and First Nations’ People governed in Canada by an instrument called the Indian Act suffered untold indignities. By the early 1980s, one would hardly notice, even with greater human diversity in Canada, that from the 1950s until the start of the 1970s Canadians were a part of an international movement for positive social change. This legacy of abandonment lay at the heart of the trepidation some people now feel as they dither on the sidelines.

Canadians now live amidst an environment filled with derision: east and west cleavages; immigrant versus Canadian-born; black versus white; the poor being exploited by the rich; students’ mountainous debt; seniors without the means to maintain decent standards of living and politicians who thumb their noses at the law. Harper acting in the name of his Bay Street cronies has helped fuel an atmosphere in which insensitivity reigns supreme. With so many dashed hopes, fallen dreams and betrayal on both sides of the border, people are crying out for justice. It is for reasons like this one that the pull to become engaged will overcome the fear of again being betrayed.

Thompson is also correct in reminding us: “If civil rights’ ideals are to be as relevant in the 21st-century as they were in the 20th, we must adapt the tactics of the past to the complexities of the present.” Members of the Occupy Movement must continue to ensure that everyone understands they are welcome. That means eliminating the rifts others have fashioned to undermine with and rule by.

The Occupy Movement is responding on behalf of the rest of the 99 percenters to brashness and corpulent greed as the scions of enterprise remind governments of being “too big to fail.” J. David Hulchanski points out in a recent Toronto Star article: “the belief is “…the economy is rigged in favour of the very few, and … politicians act on behalf of those few.” But if Billionaire Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet understands he should be paying more taxes, why is it so many among the 1 percenters think it is their duty to plunder as much treasure as possible, engage in tax evasion and tax avoidance while Americans and Canadians pay with their blood, sweat and tears?

This discussion began with media claims of a lack of diversity in the Occupy Movement. There is some legitimacy in asking for example why aren’t there more people of African origin visibly swelling the ranks of this new protest movement? Why is it to this point they seem to be not well represented among the rank and file? But too, why does it appear they may not have secured important leadership roles in efforts intended to benefit North American society?

Why it is with the growing ranks of black unemployed, significant numbers of black school dropouts and incarcerated black youth and young adults, and severe decline in income and asset accumulation seemingly black people may be hesitating to become part of the Occupy efforts? Is it due to what supposedly occurred just after the end of the earlier US and Canadian Civil Rights Movement when many Whites walked away before the agenda was fully realized? Is it an issue of region, how Movement networks are built or are there other issues like age and alienation to be considered?

It is true that some Whites opted to become part of the very system they vowed to vehemently challenge and are now members of the 1 percenters. So too did some black brothers and sisters. Other Whites cut their hair, picked up briefcases and donning business attire took their place in line leading on a journey to Mahogany Row. Is there some sense of remembering the betrayal provoking younger generations of African Americans and African Canadians to fear again being left in the lurch? Or is it about uncertainty that the Movement is not only anti-1 percenters, but has within its ranks, anti Barack Obama supporters as well? These are all legitimate questions that should be posed and addressed.

But they won’t be if other people are allowed to set the terms and conditions of the dialogue. Just as in earlier times coming together to discuss issues of concern; ones that remain bothersome should be encouraged by the parties who’ve always found ways to unite in the fight against social and economic injustice. After all, to fully Occupy requires occupying one’s mind as well.
© Sheldon Taylor November 05, 2011

Monday, 31 October 2011

Maple Leaf from Below: Black People versus the Canadian State

By Sheldon Taylor

In his seminal study, Needs of Rural Black Communities of South Western Ontario (1976) completed for the National Black Coalition of Canada NBCC), sponsored by the Department of Manpower and Immigration (Ontario), the late Kenyan-born and North American-trained demographer, Augustine K, Ingutia, wrote:

A.        Often the white bureaucrats in the service of the white establishment will immediately point out a few famous Blacks who have made it in the Academics, business, politics, or religion, and [state] that this is evidence Blacks in Canada are making it just like any other ethnic or racial group. This could never be further from the truth!

B.        In the first place these few Blacks who have become famous have done so exclusively on their own merit. [Lincoln] Alexander[1] or [Leonard] Braithwaite[2] would certainly have been elected even if their colours would have been green rather than [b]lack. Most important however is the fact that these Blacks who have succeeded on any significant basis have had to cut their roots in the [b]lack community and have found it necessary to state publicly that they were not elected to represent [b]lack interests – unlike their fellow white representatives who do not have to disclaim who they are representing. (p.26)                                 

There in lies the problem for people of African descent in Canada. Since their earliest time of arrival dating to at least the opening decade of the 17thth-century their presence has been determined less so on the basis of self-contained communities, more so as entities: superficial living spaces, in which they huddle in response to the welcome and treatment they experience from the rest of the population.

So it is no wonder that now in the 21st-century in which Canada continues its posturing and pretensions of being a major player in a globalizing world African Canadians are having difficulty in defining their identities. They struggle continuously to maintain their superficial communities, and, are having to respond to the harsh realities of disrespect, domestic underdevelopment, and political neglect in Canada; home of: “The True North Strong and Free.”

A statement by activist and author Jane Jacobs who predicted dark days ahead for humankind is worth repeating here, for it sums up what is tragically wrong with the black psyche in Canada. “Some men tend to cling to old intellectual excitements, just as some belles, when they are old ladies, still cling to the fashions and coiffures of their exciting youth”( It would be wrongheaded at this point to attribute such behaviour to all of more-recently arrived groups of people of African descent. Many of these immigrants arriving in significant numbers after 1980 and originating mainly from the African continent, and elsewhere in the Americas, seem to be charting for the time being a different course than the older black communities; certainly the ones with roots mainly in the Caribbean.

The nostalgia of the kind mentioned above is evident in parts of black Canada; very much so in black Toronto, where as its vanguard dies out some people sit on their laurels earned in the good old days. Paraphrasing author Austin Clarke it was: a time “when we were free and young and used to wear silks.” Unfortunately, some of these people have not always made the successful transition from activists of the 1960s, seventies and eighties to that of becoming definitive settlers, actors, and doers with the vision to imagine the Canadian landscape as theirs too, to shape and mould, by using their own black agenda as hammer and chisel. Without an imaginative blueprint and even though desiring to follow in the footsteps of earlier black leaders their footprints are less likely to become indelible in a land in which the black legacy should not easily be ignored.

It is true as the African-Canadian Legal Clinic pointed to in its account of Anti-Black Racism in Canada, that feelings and actions against black people “are deeply entrenched in Canadian institutions, politics and practices. But such actions are rendered invisible to the larger society. And these racist behaviours are characterized by particularly virulent and pervasive racial stereotypes.”

However, as the society in which almost one million people of African descent mainly struggle to survive builds a firewall to protect itself from “The Blacks.” And as the economic and political elites in Canada by throwing crumbs to members of other ethnic groups feel some comfort that African-Canadian claims of racism and inequality can then be nullified, many black people are doing little to respond appropriately. Instead, as they are further targeted by the police, suffer increasing unemployment rates and see their children grow ever more frustrated in school, they hide behind dreams of eternal life, and a greater possibility of milk and honey in the hereafter.

This does not mean people of African descent of the sort being referred here have not done well for themselves. As individuals, Blacks have established radio stations, nursing homes, and transport companies. They have earned degrees and are competitive in the sciences and the arts for example. They have gone down into the mines, climbed mountains and read the news on the Canadian Broadcasting Network (CBC). It is no longer possible to speak of world-class Canadian literature without noting the 1997 Governor General Award winner for poetry, Dionne Brand’s accomplishments; or, Austin Clarke, the 2002 Giller Prize winner for literature. If time and space permitted many more examples could be mentioned.

However what has not occurred is most of the individual success stories have not transitioned into the kinds of community action that by now should have been converted into a Canadian black agenda. Nor have any such victories made the journey forward easier for especially the under thirty-somethings and for many other people of African descent. In other words, these types of successes have not as yet served as positive community building instruments with which to carve an African-Canadian pathway in Canada’s bitter snow. Of course this also has a lot to do with the absence of real physical spaces that can correctly be called black communities.

The soul, vision and mission of a city are embodied in commerce, learning institutions, cultural translations and a multitude of other human interactions. That is what the city, the polis is all about. If one’s cultural identity, presence and legacy are not recognizable in the city’s tapestry, then his/her past, presence and future contributions will only vaguely exist, if they exist at all. This is the dilemma for black people in the City of Toronto, Hamilton, and Montreal for example where a well defined and representative characterization of blackness and Africanness is absent. As such, most emblems of black involvements and images in Canadian city life have been lost in translation.

This is certainly true in the Province of Ontario where even the historic and once bustling Windsor black community is mostly a shell of its former existence. In the early 1970s after making a trip there as the editor of Spear, Canada’s then existing Truth and Soul magazine, J. Ashton Braithwaite[3] wrote an article, “From Windsor with Unhappiness.” He went there with anticipation, only to find what Ingutia also found elsewhere in Southwestern Ontario: a shrinking black presence, and many claims of, “used to be owned by my family;” reference to land and buildings that changed hands (one way or the other) and was making someone else wealthy and happy.

Black people’s invisibility in Windsor is apparent with an exploration of the Windsor Star. Doing a search using the word “Black” in that newspaper reveals there is more of a chance of results referring to the “All Blacks New Zealand Rugby Team” than any information describing black people in that part of the province with a legacy dating to even before the start of the Underground Rail Road.

Where does a visitor to Toronto really go to see Blacks operating in their own right? It is a question many African Americans when they visit Canada’s largest city with the nation’s sixth largest economy often ask. “My brother,” the call is heard as another black person appears in sight, “tell me where I can get some good soul food and listen to some black-Canadian music” the sister asked. Put another way: Where is Toronto’s black community, and how do I get there to spend some of my money? The respondent stutters unsurely, and with some embarrassment, then tries to satisfy the hungering eyes with a half-assed empty response.

Being without a structured community means there is no magnet that leads to the generating of money that can be reinvested. The lack of a community space makes it harder for politicians to get their photo-op and so the black people in the picture taken with other ethnics in other peoples’ communities are soon forgotten. The divisions and dissuasion of building real black communities beyond short stretches of the imagination on Eglinton Avenue, west of the Allen Road reflect the cleavages that Ingutia referred to.

Poor black people in Toronto can hardly support their historic religious institutions much more expansive places that would better define and crystallize their identities. Richer Blacks, the individual success stories are less likely to be in those joints working-class Blacks patronize. Their uppity brothers and sisters opt instead for the linen cloth as opposed to the checkered table cloth that remind them of countries and mindsets they wish to remember only on exotic trips back home.

Ingutia’s points are prescient and form part of the story that is repeated from generation to generation. For many Blacks in Canada the flaw is that far too much emphasis has been placed on the bone fide building of community. Sociologists and urban planners agree that a community is more than an abstract collectivity of aspirations. It has to grow to become a concrete blue print, a physical reality that allows for hubs of activities: construction, reconstruction and transition.

It must be a physical space or spaces that expand, shrinks, or maybe even relocates elsewhere; but it cannot be imagined forever and ever only in the mind, or else it becomes like El Dorado: always being talked about, but never found and mapped; so it cannot be coveted or protected since there is no value to be assessed. Unfortunately, most of the building funds being nursed by island and indigenous black organizations have amounted to little since disunity and insular identities ensure there is no pooling of these monies for a multidimensional space and buildings around which a community collective could grow and prosper.

The presence of the outer shell of black community found on Eglinton Avenue West has existed for several generations. But even this example speaks to the stymied existence many Blacks in Toronto are subjected to or box themselves in. In this city area one finds barbershops, hairdressing salons, an historic church, supermarkets and the smatterings of other small-based commercial activities expanding westward from the location city planners hoped sometime ago would be an expressway. That location is often described as ‘The Caribbean community” that extends past Dufferin Street, but then comes to an end before reaching Keele Street.

Stuck in the vortex of yesterday neighbourhood business people in this city area have worked long and hard to be like entrepreneurs elsewhere. In fact, their operations have rendered them more so wage labourers than entrepreneurs. However, this corridor of activity filled with houses, small businesses and apartment buildings is hard pressed to attract any major enterprise or big box stores that would increase pedestrian and consumer traffic and stimulate an uptake in the cash receipts of local black enterprise.

History has dogged black people in Canada. Firstly, the nation’s recollections have mainly omitted their presence, contributions and even their failings are not acknowledged. This means the alpha, their origins, beginning point of their efforts is harder to pinpoint and has served to remove them from the story as a people who at least arrived with explorer, Samuel de Champlain. It is not by accident that with each fresh arrival of immigrants they look to black people as having gotten of the boat with the annoying question: “Where are you from, Jamaica?”

But the way they are defined is an indication of how black people have been juxtaposed, positioned, sidelined, in a country that until recently only First Nations’ Peoples could honestly call home. The where you’re from question, can, and should be answered not by words, but in the fight back; the struggle to belong and the tenacity to do the documentation and the storytelling if others grudgingly prefer not to include African-Canadian history into the Canadian narrative. But to do so mean choosing the facts carefully and recording what is meaningful and impactful.

William Peyton Hubbard (1842-1935) was born in Toronto and is lauded in the city, especially among old line black families and Anglo Saxons whose lineage dates back many generations. Hubbard is still remembered as a visionary and civic leader whose abilities endeared him during his lifetime to white people and Blacks alike. His former home on Broadview Avenue is a testament to the individual pursuits and successes of a black man with a legacy that straddles the 19th- and 20th-centuries. Legend has it he may have even saved one of the fathers of Canadian Confederation, George Brown’s life.

Brown was the founder of the newspaper the Globe that later merged and became part of the Globe and Mail. He was an important player in moving Canada from British colony to that of a nascent nation. He was known within his circle to favour a glass or two, maybe three, of strong drink. On one occasion while travelling along a pathway near the Don River, his horse-drawn carriage hit an embankment and Brown supposedly fell into the river, only to be saved by Hubbard. What is verifiable is that Brown and Hubbard were friends. Hubbard also served as a Toronto civic politician after being elected in 1894, and from 1904-07, he was City Comptroller.

The position of City Comptroller made him a mover and shaker in civic politics since that role gave him influence over municipal expenditures and revenues. So influential was Hubbard that even after retiring and during the dark days of the Depression period the media sought out his opinions on Toronto’s financial progress. However, when he is mentioned in the city’s black community, it is for being mayor during the elected mayor’s absence for one day.

The point is being made to illustrate the extent to which emphasis is placed on the superficial as opposed to the substantive. In other words, it is like ignoring Austin Clarke’s over four decades of contributions to Canada’s literary landscape and emphasizing instead, his limited appointment to Canada’s Refugee Board. Hubbard’s significance as a civic leader and comptroller of the city’s purse strings is subordinated by his superficial role as a honourary fill-in for a day. Some Blacks in telling this part of his story and by overemphasize it as an important black historical moment trivialize the impact of an important civic leader of African –Canadian descent. One seldom hears the average working black speak of Hubbard to begin with. The status fetish falls within the group Ingutia calls the “black establishment.”

The above example has to do with the need for Blacks to find acceptance and validation from those in control and authority as opposed to making their own decisions to validate their contributions to Canada’s history. In the end it means success becomes generationally terminal and has less meaning across longer moments. Hence there is always the temptation to speak of uniqueness, individualism, and not of how well Blacks in the collective have done to affect the course of human events in Canada.

So it as Ingutia points out there exists a gulf between the achievements of those who make it and became part of the black establishment and the ones who number among the black masses with alienated feelings and disassociation from the accomplishments of their more fortunate brothers and sisters. If this is true, discussion about classism and other economic factors that fall outside of the scope of discussion here are worth studying.

Who are the ones with the capability of seizing the compass and moving in a direction that will encourage the creation of a black agenda? Without appearing provocative, is it legitimate to inquire if there is indeed any black Canadian agenda, or if instead, there are various sub-agendae reflecting the diverse solitudes of blackness or Africannes in Canada? That seems to be what Ingutia means when he refers to the disconnection between black people.

Social Scientists like Daniel Hill previously defined black communities in Toronto according to their members’ time of arrival, places of origin and history. All of which are variables that stagger cohesion by creating quasi communities that progress at different rates. Members experience differing degrees of acculturation and observable solitudes are created based on class, and socio-economic factors. Stephen Speisman highlighted a similar set of sociological developments for earlier Jewish immigrants to Toronto.

The establishment of the National Black Coalition of Canada (NBCC) was meant to address such issues and encourage greater cohesion and fellow feeling. Its demise in the 1970s made clear such a goal was not realized and after the NBCC disappeared it was replaced by national black associations with membership criteria based on countries of origin or local entities defined on the basis of geography and parochial needs and issues.

There are those people, especially ones in the broader as well as in the academic community who are all too anxious to remind people of African descent of their dissonant voices. In other words: unity as a goal cannot be achieved based on determinants of skin colour. Being desirous of harmony or cohesions amounts to a reaction to the manner in which people with black skin are treated in Canada. Sociological factors associated with race, the lack of empowerment and classism have sometimes motivated Blacks to search for common ground using color as a cohesive agent from which to improve their circumstances, right wrongs: racialized immigration, improve education quality for black students, fairer public accommodation practices, etc.

Blacks in Canada, either ones born here or those who arrived as immigrants were plagued by social distance: the relationship between themselves and white people. Now it is not just a matter of the tragic currents defining black-white relationships, but also the complexities brought about by the dynamics precipitated by a more diverse society that Canada is. Whatever the case, the resulting interpretation of racial existence is compounded by how the majority powerbase, Whites, respond and treat Blacks. Other ethnic groups following the conformist model tend to translate their way of seeing the racial Canadian paradigm through white lenses. Black people facing this complexity in human relations continue to find themselves in greater numbers at the bottom of as John Porter called it in his 1965 study, “the Vertical Mosaic.”

This compelling problem calls for a common response. Complicating the issue however is how black people in cities like Toronto are embracing diversity within their ranks. Now they are establishing rather complex connections with the broader society. Black people are no longer affected only by the modality of race. A cosmopolitan existence encourage their participation in a wider framework of survival outcomes based on multidimensional factors: indigenous or foreign born status; the polarities associated with biculturalism, sexual orientation, local geography, time of arrival in Canada, language, life experiences, socio-economic status, and even political party affiliation.

Multiethnic and multiple involvements summon them to seek shelter under a broader umbrella where they attempt to address ills associated with social and economic inequalities. Living in Canada means being subjected to the dimensional pull of race, but too, all of the ideological paradigms manifest in the varying solitudes other Canadians struggle with.  It is ironic that increasing numbers of blacks in Canada are having more successes in addressing broader social issues. So it becomes easier for black parents to join forces with other parents in deciding on the merits of uniforms for school children. And it is more difficult for both groups of parents acting as citizens in the community to validate antiracist education as part of school curriculum.

The goal for some is to forge a common black or African-Canadian agenda of convenience. Nothing is wrong with embracing such an option, especially in a globalizing world where social media provides linkages and inter and intra connectivity with like minded partners and colleagues sharing the same visions, missions and objectives. If this methodology is to be embraced the traditional sense of community which really doesn’t exist could be replaced with one in which shared goals and common ideas in forming critical mass for Blacks act to energize a movement of activities and foster desired outcomes.

Such a way forward should not be one based on romantic notions of what blackness and Canadianness is all about. As has already been indicated, agendae linked to blackness or black identity, African-Canadian identity in a pretentious multicultural society is not easily determined. But what is necessary is to try and find a way forward that allows for the creation of solidarity as was done in the past based on issues like South African apartheid, immigration, antiracist education, etc. This would mean that Blacks would not necessarily seek to link arms on every issue, but on issues that are important to them. In fact, this was done before in Canada where at times certain groups took the lead, and other ones provided support. After achieving desired outcomes, coalitions either morphed into other activist models or dissolved.

Even within formal institutional frameworks, census data collecting for example, there is not as yet an approach to blackness and Africannes. The confusion doesn’t stop there. Already getting the courts to make the link with identity, racial origin and inequality in Canada has been problematic. And with the country’s formative and vague part of the Canadian constitution referring to “rights and freedoms” it seems unlikely people of African descent can count on the justice system for comprehensive interpretative guidelines or redress.

Canadian courts at the provincial and federal levels have appalling historical records in matters of human and civil rights and only more recently have they given any serious consideration to gender inequalities. Interpretations such as with Edwards v. AG Canada in which a fundamental guideline was needed as to whether or not the word “persons” in the British North America Act (1867) included both genders required Privy Council action, if women, ironically deemed to be a minority, were eligible to be members of the Canadian Senate. Just imagine how matters involving gender and race could be further complicated. Blacks did not often find the scales of justice to be on their side federally and/or provincially until, and only sometimes, after the enactment of the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960.

Arguments for example before the courts claiming the exclusion of Black people from taverns and restaurants was a contravention of practices in the best interest of the “public good went no where. Courts including the Supreme Court of Canada decided not with the victim but as in the case Rogers v. Clarence Hotel (1940) with the status quo. Tragically enough people of African descent could shed their blood for Canada during World War Two, and then were refused accommodation in some cheesy Canadian restaurant. Consequently, the general impression among Blacks was the courts were less concerned with protecting and more concerned with prosecuting them. Having to exist in such an environment requires as the need to change Canada’s immigration Act illustrated, innovation and the joining in of forces that share common interest.

Rights and freedoms are construed by the courts less so as ones posited for example along lines of the American constitution, and in particular, the US Bill of Rights with its amendments and decisions based on what the framers intended. As opposed to in Canada where an overwhelmingly conservative judiciary did not and may not be willing to favourably interpret what judges perceive as ahistorical issues of racial oppression. Such attitudes make it almost impossible for Blacks in Canada to be seen as a community of, meaning a collective of people seeking redress.

In any case it is known that attempts to seek redress using “injured parties” or “common cause” status is almost nonexistent at the federal judiciary level. This may not be as difficult a set of circumstances for a group of nondescript Canadian consumers suing a supermarket chain for price fixing. But a group of black people wanting to take similar action may have a harder time.  

The Canadian establishment is less sympathetic to any kind of activism from senior law benches which mean a Brown versus Board of Education, Topeka Kansas court battle would have taken a further 100 years before becoming an upper level Canadian legal issue, let alone making it to the Supreme Court of Canada to be decided upon. Thus the possibility of the 1954 ruling that resulted in a favourable US Supreme Court decision would have been less likely in Canada. Without confidence in the law; with a rather detractive and usually unfriendly police forces in cities like Toronto and knowing that commercial elites have enough influence to turn back the hands of time many African Canadians still believe their issues will not be given the full weight of due process and result in fairly decided upon outcomes.

For them justice as a goal is much the same as achieving racial harmony in their lifetime; nothing more than pie in the sky After all this is still a nation in which a senior whose health circumstance requires electricity in the home, but who finds his or her financial situation wanting could very easily feel the impact when the local utility takes the option of cutting off the power without fear of either public outcry or political intervention. For if it isn’t about hockey, keep your socks on, stay as warm as you can, and, as the oft repeated phrase reminds the injured party: “If you don’t like it here; leave!”

Law enforcement and the courts are not the only vehicles of injustice in Canada. Reference has been made by to a University of British Columbia study published in Social Science & Medicine journal detailing “the health impact of colourism, discrimination targeted more strongly at darker-skinned than lighter-skinned people of colour.” Darker skinned black Canadians were found to have “a 4.8 times likelihood of poorer health.”

What then are the options for Blacks in cities like Toronto as elsewhere in Canada? How should they counter racist behaviours directed at them? Whether they are part of inclusive and viable communities is no longer the only issue. As before, solidarity remains important and minimizing the stress and health issues associated with sufferings caused by racist behaviors must be minimized. Peaceful responses in the face of the growing menace linked to racism and abuse are the best options. However, be they black ones or part of other small potential powerbases everyone has interests too, and moving forward should learn to protect their rights.

Earlier on divergent attitudes between classes of black people in Canada were referred to. This disconnection and alienation has supported perceptions in the broader society where some people construe, “those blacks will never get together. As such, there is no need to take them seriously.” The status quo’s intentional sidelining and willingness to work only with a small group of hand-picked people of African descent has led to name calling, suspicion and condescension in certain sections of Toronto’s black community where the belief reigns: if a black person is favoured with a white person’s hand on his or her shoulder, trust in that individual is unlikely.

Thus as Ingutia pointed out disconnection is manifest when, the making-it Blacks, move away from the rest of the crowd. Without the workings of a middleclass, the origins of ideas and analysis from the intellectual class and the support of the small black working class elite, black progress is also unlikely. People of African descent in Canada must find the means to more ably work together despite the sustained efforts of the white establishment to keep them in their place. Fearing a backlash some black people have avoided offending whites with power and influence which in Canada could provoke a rather vicious response. But black inaction to inequality and unfairness has to change. There really isn’t at present any unique way of tackling the problems other than getting started, and getting the job done.

The case of Iceland responding to the rest of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) comes to mind. As a consequence of the worldwide economic downswing Iceland is in a great deal of financial difficulty. Its banks now nationalized owe more than $100 Billion. With a population not much larger than 300,000 people paying this foreign debt back would add untold burdens to Icelanders. It is not that they don’t want to honour their obligations. What they refuse to allow is to be unfairly dictated to, abused and exploited by their much larger European cousins and the IMF bent on placing citizens of the tiny nation in servitude until they could barely be recognized from the dearly departed.

So Icelanders imposed their rights as a sovereign country, reworked their constitution, and negotiated with their betters on terms advantageous to their future mental health and well being. While the country’s actions may be a work in progress, having the vigilance and the guts to stand up to more powerful forces empowered the Icelandic people and restored a measure of Icelandic dignity. Similarly, working within the law, African Canadians have rights and freedoms that to date have been inadequately tested within the legal jurisdictions. Partly this is because of a mistrust of the court system and also because of financial burdens associated with mounting legal human and civil rights challenges. However, this is why organizations such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association exist.

Many Blacks in Canada who quietly feel their patience have been severely tested and their dignity intentionally attacked should respond by invoking their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For example, should groups of blacks from certain nations in the continent of African be forced to provide DNA tests when wishing to immigrate to Canada? Human rights commissions provincially and federally for example should also be pressured to defend Blacks more seriously, and without any fear of political interference against racism and employer abuses. African Canadians should also join forces with those members in the broader society who are experiencing attacks against their communities. The questions that follow are ones Blacks should answer:

Is it not the case some/many black people in Canada are subjected to the constant threat of police harassment?
Is it not the case many black elementary and high school students in Canada are miseducated?
Is it not true that justice for black people in Canada’s court system is harder to find than a butterfly on a Toronto’s winter day?
Is it not the case that many Blacks are willfully ignored by the political powers and policymakers at all levels of Canada’s political systems?
Is it not the case Blacks in Canada are subjected to having to pay taxes without effective political representation?
Is it not the case that in many instances through no fault of their own Blacks are overrepresented in public housing, and that cities like Toronto are among the largest slum landlords in the country?
Is it not the case Blacks are maligned as welfare cheats?
Is it not the case that while laws in Canada claim everyone should be treated equally in consideration for hiring in the workplace for example, that this does not hold true for many people of African descent?
Is it not the case that there is overrepresentation of Blacks in Canada’s prison populations?
Is it not the case there is underrepresentation of black students in Canada’s college and university systems?
Is it not the case that at present Canada’s Immigration Act is discriminates against potential black-skinned immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean for example?

Nothing that’s beneficial to black people in Canada has come easy: the abolition of slavery; fairer immigration policy; fairer accommodation and employment laws; desegregating education; being able to live in neighbourhoods of choice; fairer credit; more equitable insurance rates; competitive pricing on larger consumer items, e.g. automobiles; getting into and graduating from college or university; running for public office. All of these examples of advancements, rights; not privileges are now under threat. To be affected by the aforementioned and then stare helplessly in disbelief makes us all as guilty as the people perpetrating the further underdevelopment of African Canadians.

In the preamble to The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the following appears:

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law….

African Canadians have always been peaceful and patriotic. Nothing to date suggests any change in these attitudes. However, they in mirroring the postwar push by earlier black leaders need not allow their citizenship and rights as Canadians to be further eroded. No politician, federal, provincial or municipal will come to the aid of Blacks in Canada. It is too great a risk for even the few who would wish to be on the right side of justice. African Canadians are reminded by their history that: “It's the heart, afraid of breaking/ That never learns to dance/ It's the dream, afraid of waking/ That never takes the chance/ It's the one who won't be taken/ Who cannot seem to give/ And the soul, afraid of dying/ That never learns to live.”[4]

©Sheldon Taylor October 31, 2011

[1] Alexander, a lawyer by training served as the first member of African descent in Canada’s Parliament (1968-1980). Another first for him was being appointed Lieutenant Governor, Province of Ontario, 1985-1991
[2] Braithwaite served as the first person of African descent to be elected as a member of the province of Ontario’s Provincial Parliament (1963-1975). He is a lawyer; pioneering scholar of African descent who attended Harvard where he earned an MBA. His actions as a politician led to the eradication of legislation that remained on Ontario’s legislative record that legalized segregated schools for students of African descent.
[3] He now goes by the name Odimumba Kwamdela
[4] Exerted from the song, The Rose. Lyrics and music by Amanda McBroom; recorded by Bette Midler, 1979

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Learning by Example: Small-boy Days in St. Kitts, West Indies

By Sheldon Taylor
In early 2010, my Kenyan-born wife, Pam, our daughter Malaika, son Bakari, and I vacationed in St.Kitts where images of growing up there crowded my memory. During a visit to the Rotary Club’s Thursday luncheon meeting at the Ocean Terrace Inn (OTI), our host, Alphonso (Al) Pierpont Barker was gracious. His fellow Rotarians, men and women, displayed a generosity of spirit that reminded me of the old days.

We sat in proximity to the then recently knighted, Sir Edmund Lawrence. Proper in both mannerisms and dress, he greeted us warmly and spent time with our children. Just like other Rotarians he gave us a St. Kitts welcome that left me feeling it was good to be “home.”

I have always had a special place in my heart for Sir Edmund. I spent a portion of my nurturing years in his home on the hill just across from what we called, “The Old Grammar School.” This was the 1950s, when as just a boy in short pants, along with Yvette and Teddy, the grandchildren of Mr. Clarke of Basseterre Post Office reputation, we romped through Sir Edmund’s mother’s home. It is there his mother, Miss May taught us about family, respectability, responsibility, raising chickens, going shopping, and had us help the old Drake to understand his job was to make sure she had an abundant supply of eggs and ducklings.

Circa 1960 Sir Edmund left for England. Other people had done so before; many more planned to follow. In braving unknown shores while adding to the richness of the Motherland their absence created a void in the hearts of left-behind family members and friends. In an era of challenges to British colonialism St. Kitts was coming of age. The recent back and forth about the successes and shortcomings of the West Indies Federation, the rising costs of rice and flour and the need to find a way around the forever flooding College Street Gut were part of this unfolding narrative.

Of course as children such discussions were foreign to us. For if the rising tide of water from Monkey Hill flooded the gut as the water moved southward to the Caribbean Sea that was all the better for us. Since Keith Morton, Stafford Allen, Russell Blake and I could out do each other by trying to jump the widening trench as the water rushed by. We just wanted to play, be friends, go to school and depending on the season score a soccer goal or mimicking our local cricketers, bowl like Gilbert and like Harris, see if we too could bat, not out, whilst playing in our backyards or on some side street.

Before he went away I admired Sir Edmund’s resoluteness and listened to his stern command of the English language. I appreciated how he respectfully paid attention to Miss May. She commanded esteem in the home shared too, with her other three children: Delores, Harwood and Sylvia Brooks. My mother, Annie Taylor and Sylvia were best friends underscored with me calling her “Goddie.” Yvette and Teddy also had a great deal of respect for Sir Edmund and we couldn’t imagine him walking all the way from St. Johnston Village, as he did, to his job at the Factory.

When sugar production dictated all other events in St.Kitts, he worked, we thought, near the chimneystack from which gushed dark smoke and a horn signaled the Factory’s labour force to and from work.

Goddie was one of the best dressmakers in St. Kitts. Her talents were sought out year round; during the various festive occasions, Easter included, dances at Factory Social Centre, the MIS and elsewhere. Then in the period leading up to Christmas after studying the latest fashions portrayed in anxiously received foreign catalogues or by using styles seen in the latest movies shown at the Apollo Theatre, she fitted her customers in the finest garbs.

Her high season started in October simultaneously with the practicing of the fifes and drums when the masqueraders’ chants could be heard in the distance at Dorset, Monkey Hill, on a quiet night from where I lived on Lozack Road. Goddie made her mark by preparing costumes for some of the women wanting to make good on the challenge: “Match Me!” by entering Miss St. Kitts. Sir Edmund’s and Goddie’s home became even busier than ever.

Friends dropped by to have a chat, satisfy curiosities and assist with stitching long into the night. My mother who was a hairdresser while helping out suggested which hairstyle would suit Miss So and So’s dress. “Got to get shoes to match!” someone would be heard to say. Stanley Sebastian, brother to the now His Excellency Sir Cuthbert Sebastian, MD was there too. Stanley was a civil engineer and amidst our innocence my friend Delano Bart told me that Stanley made water flow uphill. Goddie was happy to have him around because while skylarking, he could bend the wire with precision needed for the skimpy carnival outfits.

The best time for me to be at Miss May’s home was on Saturday. She always had one more job for Yvette, Teddy and me to do. Sometimes she had us venture to the market where we learned to shop for provisions. At other times it was just a matter of going down the road to Doris Thomas mother’s shop for bread rolls we quickly rushed back with, so they could be filled with jam, and butter, then washed down with freshly made lemonade; maybe a Fanta sweet drink.

I liked to hear Miss May call out to me. “Shelley!” which was a signal she was sending me off to Mr. Mack’s store via the laneway bordering her home. She always gave me more than enough money because her purpose was to have me reckon; make sure I was getting back the right change and learn to properly count. She taught me to be careful and stressed the importance of surety. As I spirited myself away, Miss May call out: “Don’t trouble anybody; count the change before you come back, Shelley!”

Some of the items I bought were Growena for the chickens she kept in the fowl coop in the backyard; butter and cheese, or maybe luncheon meat so she could prepare her version of Mr. Mack’s popular sandwich, a two-four. Whatever it was, I liked to roam the nearby allies and laneways. Sometimes I would run back; out-of-breath, and tell her, “Mr. Mack didn’t have the cheese;” only hoping to hear her say: “Go by Mr. Carter and check if he has any Shelley.” But she knew I just wanted to roam, to move about the friendly village that helped raise me in a period when St. Kitts was a place rich with exemplar human beings for us children to grow up and become like.

There was a richness that emboldened us in St. Kitts in the 1950s and early 1960s. Of course as people continued to leave, Sir Edmund too ventured forth. But I wasn’t surprised to hear he returned and helped establish exemplar banking and insurance systems. After all, with a mother like Miss May who fussed over the right change and being careful, he couldn’t help but be inculcated with similar values.

It was joyful to see Sir Edmund Lawrence and people like my good friend, more so a brother, Al Barker. In that OTI room we were in the company of people with family ties running deep: Hobson, Archibald, Warner, Cramer and so many others. On returning to Canada I listened to our daughter Malaika brag about the Kittian blood running in her veins. This pride I am sure came about because of our trip to the land in which long ago, I listened to Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw in Warner Park lull me to sleep with his rendition of the old song: Abide with me; fast falls the eventide/The darkness deepens/ Lord with me abide/When other helpers fail and comforts flee/Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

St. Kitts will always abide in me.
© Sheldon Taylor October 27, 2011

Friday, 14 October 2011

Toronto’s Shameful Moment: 2010 G20 and the Bloody Legacy it left in our City

By Sheldon Taylor
There are two sides to every story, sometimes there are even more ways of looking at a problem or incident. But a careful review of what took place in the City of Toronto, Canada’s largest jurisdiction at the end of June 2010, and during the G20 Summit, suggests our nation’s reputation was stained. For all that we hold dear as peace loving Canadians: rule of law; protection of rights and freedoms; holding our politicians accountable; and the paramountcy of civilian authority over the police were seriously undermined. Furthermore, the actions of a minority of police officers who must have been either taking orders from above, or misconstruing what they were supposed to do have cast a pall on Toronto’s identity.

During the G20, by way of television and in the written media, I learned of the rioting that took place with the smashing of downtown storefronts and the defacing of property by what appeared to be a small group of out-of-control protesters. As a Torontonian I didn’t like seeing, reading or hearing about it. After all, we pride ourselves in this city as peaceful and law abiding people; most of us anyway.

After G20 was over, like other city dwellers I too was happy to get on with life and did all I could to forget the unprecedented mayhem that had occurred in our usually quiet and clean metropolis. But so many stories were still surfacing about police brutality and gross violations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that like other Canadians I wondered how could such events have taken place? How could so many of our politicians stand idly by and allow people to be brutalized? Anticipating this possible outcome, and the G20 having a history as a magnet for trouble elsewhere in the world, how could they not have ensured proper safeguards were in place? Knowing that whatever was in place did not work, once accusations surfaced, why were there not proper transparent investigations and appropriate responses to what seemed to be out-of-control and authoritarian behaviour?

Being nothing more than a face in the crowd, and knowing fully well that in Canada when you speak out, especially against the police, like the nail that refuses to be hammered down, the Canadian public quickly cuts your head off I thought it best to mind my own business. It calls to mind that famous quotation credited to Martin Niemoller, (1892-1984):

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

More recently I stumbled on a live stream thread for the Occupy Toronto event set to begin on October 15, 2011. Included in the unfolding of program events was a documentary detailing confrontations between protesters and the police during the June 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto. The recounting was no doubt meant to remind us of the experiences that hopefully will not again be repeated as protesters march in the pristine streets of Toronto in the heart of one of the more important business districts in the world.

Before continuing I should say here that after viewing events relating to what appeared in those instances detailed in the documentary that show overstepping and abuse by some police officers whose concerted efforts suggest they must have been following orders from higher ups, I thought it best to perform a Google search: G20, Toronto Police Service, Ontario Human Rights Commission; G20, Toronto Police, Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Why did I feel compelled to conduct the two searches? Well, the City of Toronto is a part of the Province of Ontario. And since even before viewing the documentary there were denunciations of the police for what a few people and many of the G20 protesters deemed to be violations of civil and human rights, I thought the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) would have made some kind of summary statement acknowledging the concerns being expressed by ordinary people.

Keeping in mind that the OHRC is a body to which some of the injured parties could turn to, I did not expect it to make any prejudicial statements that would seem to have it taking sides one way or the other. However, the only thing of note that I found was a short video featuring Chief Commissioner, Barbara Hall, hallmarking a partnership with the Toronto Police Service, the Toronto Police Service Board and the OHRC. As for the Canadian Human Rights Commission, (CHRC) the same expectation applied. Its mandate falls within federal jurisdiction, and the G20 Summit was funded by Canadian taxpayers and federal employees and bureaucrats, along with politicians were involved at all levels of the planning and delivery stages. Therefore, I thought that supposedly impartial body would have been inclined to make some type of noncommittal, but acknowledging statement; couldn’t find any.

There have been all sorts of statements by status quo politicians who spoke in terms of the police actions as isolated incidents, and moreso, of the protesters’ vandalism and anarchy that could not be tolerated. None of this should come as news to anyone reading this blog. By way of disclosure, it is to be noted that I do know and respect some individual police officers, have worked with others, have in the past worked with the Toronto police, and over the years have taken a keen interest in police-black community relations. All of this has been publicly reported in for example: my appearance along with the late Albert Mercury before the Clare Lewis led initiative, The Task Force on Race Relations and Policing, 1989.

Viewing the events portrayed on does provoke  sympathy for many of those protesters who appeared to be peacefully demonstrating against G20 policies. Their views are not the issue here. Instead, the outcome and reactions that could even be characterized as orchestrated anarchy and bad behaviour by some of those belonging to the taxpayer funded body many city residents call “Toronto’s finest” are what is called into question.

Whether living in Toronto or not, as protesters they were exercising their rights as citizens, landed immigrants or visitors to the country enshrined in longstanding guarantees to peaceful assembly and free speech. Even if one feels some degree of prejudice toward them, and wishes to support the Toronto Police Service’s actions during the 2010 Toronto G20 Summit, he or she should be compelled to at least side with constitutional guarantees to due process and have some concern that if legal principles are not followed, especially by those called on to serve and protect us in our democracy, might will eventually over take right.

Most of the complaints about police brutality against the Toronto police are usually lodged by the downtrodden, the powerless, the poor and members of some minority groups. There is less of a tendency for many working and middle class white Canadians and even members of certain ethic groups to openly claim police brutality. But there was this Chinese man who works for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) describing what happened to him on his way to work on that fateful weekend in June 2010. In his uniform that is distinctive, in fact police officers would readily recognize the outfit, and often are called on to assist TTC personnel, yet this man makes the claim he was knocked to the ground and handcuffed. With his transfer punch seized he was spirited off to a detention centre where he is said to have received nothing to eat and was given just four (4) cups of water in 36 hours.

Another story detailed a gay couple who was taken to the detention centre. One of the partners was asked to confirm sexual status, then told, people there wouldn’t take too well to his kind, so while detained: “act straight.” Many protesters in being spirited away to cramped cages in these detention centres were denied their basic human and civil rights. Some of them passed out. Incarcerated women were made to use toilets without doors, and still handcuffed to other women had to rely on others to wipe their private parts after relieving themselves in unsanitary facilities.

The Toronto Star, November 28, 2010 reported in the aftermath of the Summit, even after the Province of Ontario’s Special Investigations United determined there were some cases of abuse by police against G20 protesters that the government mandated body ran into the blue wall of silence with police officers refusing to identify colleagues who may have numbered among the perpetrators of rogue and bad police behaviour.

How does anyone take these accounts from believable individuals, reputable media and government appointed officials with a grain of salt? Claims of abuse and ill-treatment by some of the G20 protesters have been corroborated by strangers they don’t know who suffered similar attacks. This pattern of police brutality is yet to be properly addressed and responded to by Ontario and City of Toronto politicians.

How is it that as Canadians we send our young men and women to places like Afghanistan to fight for democracy, while at home Prime Minister Steven Harper, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and both the past mayor of Toronto, David Miller and the current one, Rob Ford have not moved vigilantly to ensure that Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an important part of our constitution, remains the valiant safeguard for all of us?

How is it that as Torontonians far too many of us have allowed this behaviour and by being so closed mouth about it appear to have sanctioned or are afraid to respond appropriately to such police tactics, and political negligence? Can we honestly and in good conscience criticize Bashar Assad, Syria’s notorious president for his barbaric acts against his people while we have unresolved issues of brutality haunting our sensibilities in Canada ?

Or are we so callous that not withstanding a few jackasses who should be dealt with in a court of law, we truly believe, the majority of demonstrators, peaceful ones, deserved what was doled out to them on the streets of Toronto during the G20 Summit. Is it fair that a senior federal politician could oversee so many millions of taxpayer funds marked for the G20, and do so supposedly without proper oversight, and allegedly is getting away without being held accountable; suffers no sanctions, but peaceful and unarmed protesters have felt the boot of inhuman attention? If there was anarchy in city streets in 2010 why was so many of the charges brought against innocent people dropped?

Why is it that during the G20 Summit many more of us did not find the kettling of hundreds of mainly innocent people amidst the pouring rain to be wrong? In that regard, even the Chief of Police, Bill Blair has acknowledged that this unspeakable police tactic will not again be used in Toronto. However, many of us in seeing on television people who were not anarchists or rowdy protesters nor had any interest in the unfolding drama but just had to pass by Queen and Spadina to get to and from their daily routines: work, shopping, taking their dog out so that Fido could relieve himself, didn’t stand up to defend their right to be where they were and their right to lawful movement in Canada?

Why is it as Canadians, Ontarians, and Torontonians we often defer without question to the police? That weekend in June much more than the constitution was violated. A woman who is a lawyer, her father used to be a police officer spoke of her abhorrence when in being called to the scene and trying to help some of the detainees she too was detained for nothing more than attempting to ensure due process was not trampled on by state authorities.

Another woman spoke of an officer with a badge number she identifies as sitting on her, thumbing her, punching her, treating her as she said “like an inanimate object.” She was, as she reports, verbally abused. So violent was the behaviour by the police towards her, she urinated on herself in the van she was being held in. And as this was done she claimed sexually charged language was directed at her. Is this our country; our province; our city that are being talked about? For if it is so, I don’t recognize this Canada, and I am shocked that people with the means, the decency and the power to say: “Not in our front or backyards” have looked the other way.

Many people have often taken the easy way out. When some poor and unprotected minority claims police brutality, we look the other way. Community leaders who stand up to the police, despite behind the scenes help and support from a few brave officers and some politicians are maligned, and, are made to understand that one pays a severe price for such action. There was in the documentary portraying dreadful events stemming from that fateful weekend in June 2010 not a group of Blacks who Canadians would quickly denounce and condemn when an allegation of police brutality is passionately claimed. But ordinary white men and women; professionals: lawyers, teachers, friends of people in high places, who were all hung out to dry in the name of authority and order.

As was seen on the television, people were thrown to the ground, hard concrete, then cuffed and dragged away. Unmarked vans and police in civilian clothing would pull up and drag people quickly behind sliding doors. Young women sat on the side of the road sobbing. Popping sounds, then metal scraping the ground could be heard as police in riot gear unloaded tear gas canisters in the direction of unarmed protesters. Meanwhile, other protesters are heard to be singing: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” Is this what we’ve become? Are we heading in the direction of being a borderline police state, only steps away from that of taking on the appearance of a Gulag?

With the brutal behaviour by a minority of police officers who acted in the name of the more than 6,000 of their colleagues; the repeated violations of the Canadian constitution; the gross indecency of politicians who refused to or are fearful of asserting their civilian authority; living in a country in which as Prime Minister, Stephen Harper after sanctioning the spending of hundreds, maybe billions of taxpayer dollars on the G20 Summit closed his ears to the violent abuse of Canadians, young and old alike, by walking away, as if he is an absolute monarch, who is able to invoke the divine rights of kings; are we ready to say: “never again!”

There are many unanswered questions in what was one of Canada’s darkest moments. It was a time when the clouds that formed overhead in downtown Toronto brought a reeking and raucous rain that as citizens we must live forever with.

The question now is: Will the authorities, politicians and police alike with the G20 wind at their backs and by not being held accountable in June 2010, learn from their mistakes? Will we as Canadians ensure the rights of the Occupy Toronto and Occupy Bay Street protesters who are now gathering in Toronto to respond to shrinking economic opportunities while less than one percent of the population plunder the land that First Nations’ peoples as its stewards now collectively share with us? Are we responsible enough to be mindful that the exploitation and wanton disregard for our constitution is a slippery slide into the abyss? Do we  understand that when well polished boots of authority smash against the head of any person who is innocent or guilty, without due process and regard for law, we all feel the pain?

Or will we, if need be, submit to terror from within, in the hope that the threatening shadows overhead that keep out the sunlight will not forever stay our commitment to fairer opportunities for all. And are we so misguided as to think the vulnerabilities G20 placed before us could be ignored and Canada without the hard work and good will of its people will still remain a country committed to peace, order and good government?
©Sheldon Taylor October 14, 2011
updated October 15, 2011