Decades after the civil rights movement fought for racial integration, a Toronto coalition of 22 black community groups disgusted by gun murders in the city wants a separate set of rules and institutions for blacks—from a government department to a diversion program for minor crimes.
The ambitious demands are, black leaders say, a turning point.
Fifteen years ago, you would not have seen so many in the black community “so frustrated that they are willing to consider this a positive—this formation of separateness,” said Zanana Akande, a former principal and an Ontario cabinet minister in Bob Rae’s New Democratic Party government.
“But blacks have now reached the point of such disgust, such frustration, such a feeling of rejection around these issues, that well-trained, well-qualified, capable people have given up and said, ‘You know what? Maybe we should have our own,’” said Akande, past-president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, which is not a member of the coalition.
“The more unhappy people are with the systems that are in place, the more acquiescent they are to some special services. And people shouldn’t feel good about that,” she said.
“We’re not calling it segregation,” said Sandra Carnegie-Douglas, president of the Jamaican Canadian Association and a coalition spokeswoman.
“We know what we need. We live it. We attend the funerals. We deal with the dropouts and the children expelled from school. As it stands now, our communities are, in many ways, being destroyed.”
Gun deaths have ravaged Toronto’s black community more than ever this summer. Out of more than 60 homicides this year, a record 41 have involved a firearm. Black community leaders say “90 per cent” have involved blacks.
The Coalition of African Canadian Organizations was spawned in August as a response to the bloodshed. It now represents a wide swath of the black community, which it believes is one of the most underserviced, underemployed, poverty-stricken and encumbered by racism.
Among the more far-reaching solutions proposed is a new provincial ministry office on African-Canadian affairs, created to help black Ontarians get access to services that alleviate poverty, help keep youth in school and allow them to thrive culturally.
The coalition is also calling for:
A court diversion program for blacks who commit minor offences.
An economic development agency for blacks.
A skills training and employment access program focused on blacks.
Police to keep race-based statistics.
Repeal of the zero-tolerance school discipline policy, which the Ontario Human Rights Commission is investigating for accusations that it deals more harshly with blacks.
A federal-provincial and cross-border task force to address trafficking in weapons and drugs.
An independent civilian review of police misconduct.
A halt to a large youth detention facility planned for Brampton, which it calls a “superjail.”
The coalition also supports calls for a black-focused school and envisions a vibrant African-Canadian cultural centre.
The focus of these proposals on a single group makes them highly controversial. Some of the ideas—such as a diversion program and a black-focused school—were broached more than a decade ago but vilified as segregationist.
Last month, Premier Dalton McGuinty said he was “not comfortable” with the concept of a black-focused school.
That rationale now infuriates these community leaders.
Society is already segregated for certain groups who have been granted their own schools and social services, such as aboriginals and francophones, they point out.
“For them, it’s all about creating a level playing field. But when it comes to blacks, it’s segregation,” said Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, a coalition partner.
“If this crisis cannot convince them, if these shootings cannot convince them, I don’t know what major catastrophe could.”
In the couple of months since its creation, the coalition has become a powerful voice.
It excoriated Prime Minister Paul Martin, McGuinty and Mayor David Miller in the media, questioning how much value they placed on black lives after none of the three responded initially to their calls for a summit meeting. Within days, McGuinty was meeting with them at Queen’s Park, and Miller plans to meet with them Tuesday.
“It’s a coming of age for the black community, because now you have an array of groups coming together that can wield some kind of influence,” said Sam Donkoh, a native of Ghana and community journalist for 35 years, who serves on the board of Tropicana Community Services.
Coalition members say it’s time the black community took ownership of the problem, framing the debate and devising plans to lead, organize and monitor the progress of changes.
“Our role will be to take on one of the defined solutions that need to be put to work and lead it. We all have to take a little chunk of it,” said George Fynn, an account executive and president of the African Canadian Social Development Council.
The coalition’s manifesto is an “action plan” it hopes will form the basis of a summit with government leaders.
Members want race-based statistics kept for policing, employment and education, so a clear picture of the state of the community might emerge. And they want funding restored that was cut from social service programs, especially for at-risk youth.
“It comes down to money,” Fynn said. “Government will have to find resources to put back into these agencies . . . You have worsening gun violence. How much of a priority is that?”
A black economic development agency, the group reasons, could increase a black entrepreneur’s chance of getting a loan. A black credit union—something that once existed in the city—is one possibility, said Hugh Graham, a senior banker and president of the Black Business and Professional Association.
The Rae government considered diverting blacks accused of minor crimes away from the courts. But that idea, too, melted away.
The idea of a government office to oversee African Canadian affairs is modelled after one formally established in Nova Scotia last year, after clear data showed the degree to which blacks were falling behind.
As to the charge that the proposals are segregationist, “I think that response comes from two types of people: an individual who doesn’t understand the challenges the community faces, which are much more significant than those faced by other communities; and the individual who would not wish to see the community uplifted,” Graham said.
Past resistance to adopting such proposals was based on fear, said Louis March, a Toronto office manager who helps the African Canadian Heritage Association, a Scarborough program that teaches students about African history and art.
“They don’t want to be seen as segregationists,” March said. “But they have to recognize the uniqueness of this problem.”
But the coalition has moved beyond those old debates.
“Some of these things we’ve been talking about for years, but have they been tried?” Graham challenged.
Parsons went further, saying Canada’s vaunted policy of multiculturalism has blinded authorities to systemic racism against blacks, even as they adopt policies of inclusion and integration. “It has done a disservice to us,” she said. “It doesn’t allow us to focus on communities that are in crisis and need a targeted approach. It does not address racism.”
Victims of recent shootings are waiting, desperate for changes.
“I hope it can work, because we need to get these kids involved in many things,” said Suzette Cadougan, whose 5-year-old son Shaquan was hit by four bullets in the abdomen and leg in the Jane-Finch corridor in August. He still suffers pain.
“We don’t need this to be happening to any community. Not white. Not black,” she said.
Not everyone in the coalition is entirely in agreement.
Fynn, for instance, would like to see more effort to repair fractured relations with the police. Donkoh feels a black-focused school might not prepare students to live in wider society.
Staff Sgt. Chris Bullen, head of the Association of Black Law Enforcers, a coalition member, said he’s not sure about a separate black-offender diversion program. He favours making the current one more equitable. “If you look at a person who is going to make decisions about whether you got to a diversion program or not, they have to look like you. It helps,” he said.
But they all agree on the need for swift action. As Louis March put it: “I don’t want to next year be talking about 100 shootings.”