Remembering the May 4 Yonge St. demonstrations

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday April 15 2015 in Opinion
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May 4th should be a very important date on the calendar of people of African descent in Ontario, if not Canada. On that date in 1992, events that happened during a Yonge Street demonstration in Toronto, responding to and showing solidarity with Black people of Los Angeles, led to some hope for Black people here at home. They were massively upset that Los Angeles police officers involved in the savage beating of an African-American man were acquitted, notwithstanding videotaped evidence of that act.


The frustration and rage that Black people in Toronto felt as a result of what happened in Los Angeles was not unlike what they were feeling towards the police here at home. That frustration and rage erupted. And that eruption spurred the governments of the day, all four levels at the time, to act.


To be fair, some of the actions had already begun by the provincial government before that May 4th day. Premier Bob Rae then asked former UN ambassador, Stephen Lewis, to do a quick review of the state of affairs of Blacks, particularly in Toronto, but in Ontario, and to make recommendations on improvements. The results of that Lewis inquiry sped up some of those changes, including the Employment Equity Act and the upgrading of the Race Relations Directorate to the Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat (OARS). (Lewis in fact called for a re-design of OARS to be a free-standing Directorate, reporting directly to the Minister of Citizenship). Another significant recommendation resulted in the Royal Commission of Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System.


Recently, the provincial New Democratic Party member for London-Fanshawe, Teresa Armstrong, asked Premier Kathleen Wynne about a Liberal promise to re-establish the anti-racism secretariat. The question was raised in the shadow of the marking of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. While I do not want to take anything away from Armstrong’s initiative, I have wondered why it was not the leader of the third party that asked the question. Is that a demonstration of the importance that anti-racism has in the New Democratic Party?


Premier Wynne did respond, to her credit, not handing the response off to her minister who would be responsible for that portfolio. But, the response left much to be desired.


Armstrong: “Will the Premier commit today to strike a task force that will examine issues of systemic racism in the province and create a new anti-racism secretariat?”


Premier Wynne: “This is something that I have given a fair bit of thought to, because it is an issue that is very, very important to me…What I know is that as public policy evolves, there are different ways of dealing with issues. I believe today what’s important is that we deal with these issues across government; in every single ministry, in every single policy, we make sure that we put that lens on that ensures equity…”


Really? To me it’s like saying that we give massive tax breaks to corporations so they can create more jobs when in fact that break goes towards executive rewards – the “trickle down” theory.


That answer doesn’t work for me. The concept of systemic racism exists because the people who create policy, for example, do not realize or recognize the barriers that are in-bred in those policies. In my mind, one of the duties of the Secretariat would be to establish a consistent anti-racism lens through which policies would be screened – how would this policy affect racialized persons/families?


So, quite simply, what I take from the Premier’s response is: An anti-racism secretariat is not needed. We already have methods in place to deal with issues of equity. The Premier may well have said that we are in a post-racial society (whatever that means); the kind of response that circulated so massively in the United States with the election of Barack Obama as president.


Time again, reports – some of which were commissioned by the provincial government – state without equivocation that anti-Black racism is a significant problem in Canada, and in Ontario. There is an Ontario Women’s Directorate, with a minister responsible for Women’s Issues. There is a Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, elevated, I might add, from an office to a ministry. Frankly, I think that the special nature of the challenges faced by people of African descent deserves, at the very least, a dedicated office, but preferably a ministry of African Ontarian Affairs.


Finally, re-reading the Lewis report does impart a sense of deep frustration, 23 years later. As I noted above, many of the recommendations were undertaken or in-play. What is frustrating is seeing the reversal of much of what was gained through this report – many of which we in the African Canadian community are still trying to achieve. For example, although Lewis didn’t deal with this specifically, only this week a group called People for Education issued a report calling for the end of “streaming”, a matter that Black parents fought for back then.


I would suggest to Premier Wynne that she obtain a copy of Lewis’ report and read it, word for word. It is still enlightening and valid in many ways, even after all these years.


Email: / Twitter: @pghntr

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