Tough lessons learned as early as in elementary school has put Toronto Police Service (TPS) Chief Mark Saunders in an enviable position to see the city through a lens much different than any of his predecessors.
Last April, he was appointed the city’s first Black top cop.
At a community reception last week at the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) centre to celebrate his historic promotion, Saunders said he never expected the importance of resilience he learned in Grades Three and Five would serve him well later on in life.
As the only Black student in his Grade Three class in Milton, Saunders recalled having to sit through sessions while the teacher read from the book, The Story of Little Black Sambo, which was withdrawn from Toronto schools in February 1956.
Written in 1899 in India by an Englishwoman to amuse her children on a train journey, it told the story of Little Black Sambo and his heroic and successful attempts to outwit three tigers, for which he received a large plate of pancakes. The book was published the next year and although the intent was probably harmless enough when and where it was written, it was reproduced in the United States in 1923 and later introduced into Canadian schools.
There was ample proof that it led to schoolyard fights over name calling and was deeply hurtful to Black children.
“As my teacher read the story, I had to decide whether to crawl under the table, jump out the window or just stare right at the teacher,” said Saunders who joined the TPS in 1982 after initially applying to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “I chose the third option.”
In Grade Five, he was subjected to classroom readings from Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which has divided readers over the years because of its racial stereotyping.
“It was tough,” said Saunders. “When people are laughing and heckling at you because of something you have done, there is a possibility you can understand. But when people laugh and heckle at you because of who you are, then that is much deeper and you really have to have a strong constitution.
“I was fortunate to have parents who taught me that and it’s part and parcel of who I am as a human being. So, when I am criticized by the media and people who don’t know me that think I have taken a journey that was easily paved and that I don’t understand the complexities or any of that, I don’t take offence. That’s not my role. My role as Chief is to make sure that anyone that visits, lives or work in Toronto is safe.”
Saunders made the leap to chief from deputy where, among other things, he was the Pan Am/Parapan Games executive sponsor and head of specialized operations. Prior to that, he was acting superintendent and unit commander at 12 Division, where he combined a powerful uniformed enforcement presence with a strong investigative component and a clear emphasis on community investment and customer service.
The veteran officer was the first visible minority to head the Homicide Unit, where he instituted major structural changes in the two years he was there that resulted in improvements to the “solve rates” in death investigations.
As incident commander, he successfully spearheaded police responses during several large scale operations, including the 2009 Tamil and this year’s May Day Occupy Toronto protests that involved methodically balancing community safety concerns with the right to peaceful protest.
Saunders also was responsible for restructuring how the Service gathers, processes and distributes street gang intelligence in his role as section head of the Intelligence Operations urban gang unit and he co-chaired the Black Community Consultative Committee.
The JCA, the Black Business & Professional Association, the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) and A-Supreme Foundation organized the community reception.
“As we celebrate this historic appointment, barriers still exist and I am pleading with our Chief to work with our community to build strong bridges,” said JCA president, Barry Coke.
BBPA president, Pauline Christian, said Saunders’ appointment is “a symbol of inspiration for young people, particularly Blacks”, while A-Supreme Foundation president and Black Community Police Consultative Committee member, Yvette Blackburn, told Saunders the community will hold his feet to the fire if he slips.
“We know that you bear a heavy load,” she said. “We know you have taken some hits already, but we know your shoulders are broad. We will hold you accountable. Every criticism and critique will make you stronger and better. We are here for you and we want you to work with us. As a Black male, we represent you and you represent us and we will put you on our shoulders to make sure you are held high.”
OBHS president, Rosemary Sadlier; Member of Parliament, Judy Sgro; TPS acting deputy chief, Jim Ramer and Jamaica’s consul general, Lloyd Wilks, also spoke at the reception.
Wilks told Saunders that failure is not an option.
“You come from serious stock that’s so finely blended that it took three nations to produce you,” said Jamaica’s top diplomat in Toronto. “Out of many come one people and out of many, we have you. You are ours and you will absolutely succeed.”
Saunders was born in England to Jamaican immigrants who relocated to Canada in 1968.
His wife, Stacy and their son, Graham, accompanied him to the celebratory event.