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Toronto’s Many Solitudes

December 6, 2014

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There is a uniquely Canadian analogy that describes people who are divided by their very different experiences – the idea of two solitudes was coined by Hugh MacLennan, back in 1945 to describe Francophones and Anglophones living side by side in Quebec, but were almost unknown to each other. Anglophones were the privileged establishment, where business and government worked in their favour, while Francophones were disenfranchised in school and work, second-class citizens in the land that they founded. It was the quiet revolution of the 1960’s that changed the legal, education and government systems to empower Francophones and stir a sense of pride and drive for self-determination.

There are experiential divides like this Anglo/Francophone one here in Toronto today.

Men/Women: In the face of high profile sexual harassment and gender-based violence faced by women and girls, and the landslide of media response (#raped, never reported; #everyday sexism), what has become clear is that sexual assault and harassment is an ongoing safety issue for most women, who know that there are no effective systems in place to mitigate the risk or address the damage.

Why? It’s a fair guess that decision-makers and those who develop criminal and justice systems were not tuned into the lived experience of women in this regard – low reporting rates on sexual assault show that the system does not meet their needs. In a strange form of denial or downplaying of misogyny, our Federal Minister of Justice openly pondered on the underlying reason the Montreal Massacre happened 25 years ago, glossing over the killer’s stated reason for this mass killing of women, his hatred of feminists.

This fundamental lack of understanding of the experience of women facing violence has a chilling effect, especially among women who have the temerity to live their lives as they want to, to speak their minds, to dress the way they wish to, to ask for equal pay or equal opportunity, to defend others against abuse, to leave their husband or boyfriend, or to ask for a better legal system to address sexual assault.

Believing the experiences of women and girls is a tipping point for change to bridge the two solitudes of men and women in our society.

But until white ribbons on December 6th become as commonplace as poppies worn on Remembrance Day, I will not be convinced that the solitudes of women’s and men’s experiences of gender-based violence are being bridged.

Racialized/White Solitudes:
Current events in Ferguson, Missouri brings to the surface those experience of anti-black racism by police and in the wider community. Ferguson has sparked a discussion on race that many people find uncomfortable to have. But have it, we must; even in Toronto.

We saw in the last municipal election, many examples of racism: racial slurs scrawled on campaign placards, racist and xenophobic remarks made at debates, homophobic and threatening letters sent to candidates. Rob Ford declared himself a ‘racist’ and Doug Ford told us that racism can be any kind of slur – anyone can be racist against anything, even “little red apples”. John Tory, who has a firmer grip on reality, disappointed many of us when he denied the existence of white privilege. Now that the election is over, and our new mayor has said all the right things to re-smooth the surface of civility at City Hall, we should all forgive and forget and get back to normal.

But I can’t forget. And I fear that Toronto’s normal is not something we should be comfortable with.

I don’t want Toronto to go down the path of Ferguson. That’s not as extreme as it may sound. There are some common problems with regard to policing: racial profiling and increasing militarization.

Remember the G20 riots in 2010? We know now that the security was a fiasco, where protesters were kettled and detained by riot police, and there were blanket violations of Constitutional rights and freedoms. Maybe you were not there, or you’ve never been involved in a protest – even if that is so, it’s disquieting to think that a militarized police can so effectively strip away foundational rights as Canadians, even for a short time.

Consider Toronto’s ‘carding’ problem, the police practice that has been found to discriminate against black and brown youth. There were so many receipts (cards) issued, that racialized youth were being stopped often multiple times, for just being on the street. This practice has been scaled back since the Toronto Star Investigation, “Known to Police”. It’s been discredited but not taken off the books, the carding has been replaced with a new “community contact policy” that still looks very much like carding.

If you are white, or have white children who spend time in public spaces between school and home, then you are privileged to escape the effect that carding has on the individual, on their families and the larger community. You don’t have the first-hand experience of being perceived as dangerous when you are not, for being suspected of crime for no good reason, and have personal information gathered about you, and kept by police, in a way that you have no control. In other words, the racial discrimination clearly disadvantages black and brown youth and advantages white youth.

It is crucial for white people to listen to the stories of black youth feeling diminished and targeted by police, and their parents, who worry about the safety of their children. Black youth are under police scrutiny, just for walking, gathering together, using the streets and parks, just for being black and brown. It is no wonder that community dissatisfaction with the police is widespread.

Concerned people of every colour should clearly call for better community policing that protects all people equally – equal treatment under the law, elimination of racial profiling, accountability for discriminatory practices and better social outcomes (not criminalizing people with mental health issues, working on underlying issues of poverty and inequality). Just as in Ferguson, racialized people in Toronto face unequal treatment in schools, in workplaces and boardrooms.

White and black residents have fundamentally different experiences in their everyday lives; we need to get behind campaigns like Stop Police Carding and Colour of Poverty to ensure that this black/white solitudes change for the better.

There are other solitudes: Persons with Disability/Able-bodied experiences; Poor/Wealthy; geographic divides – one Toronto is possible, but it requires using our human capacity for empathy and asserting our rights to bridge these divides. Quebec had their revolution; oppressed groups can do the same to address the solitudes that divide us.

Margaret Hageman, UARR Board member

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