By Neil Armstrong
PRIDE Contributing Writer
TORONTO, Ontario December 21, 2016 — The Toronto and York Region Labour Council thinks there is much that the 10-month old Anti-Racism Directorate can learn from the history of previous provincial entities established to challenge racism.
In its six-page submission to the hearings held by the directorate, recently, it alludes to the Anti-Racism Directorate formed in the 1980s, the Anti-Racism Secretariat formed during the NDP government in the 1990s, as well as the short-lived laws on employment equity.
“In order for the work of the Directorate to endure beyond a season, it must be able to withstand changes in government. Without this ability, both the office and the work of the Directorate would continue to reset to zero each time there is a change in government,” it notes.
John Cartwright, President of the labour body which represents over 200, 000 workers, says what that speaks to is “the consultation needs to be so broad and such a strong consensus being created, not just with the closest colleagues of the current government, but also with business, with the academic community, with different communities of colour, in particular, with labour and civil society organizations.
This means that “if another government comes in two years from now and looks at what they want to change, which will be many things I’m sure, that they look at the issue of an Anti-Racism Directorate and they kind of say, this has way too much broad public support for us to mess with it.”
He is hopeful that the consultation process that has been undertaken and the rolling out of the work of the directorate will attract many supporters from many walks of life.
Michael Coteau, Minister Responsible for the Anti-Racism Directorate (ARD) which was set up in February, says he had the opportunity to listen to three to four thousand people, directly, face-to-face, across the province.
He attended the 10 public community meetings and smaller meetings with different groups – something he will continue to do in 2017 – and he plans to continue to talk about race throughout the year.
“There are lots of people out there, regardless of what colour they are or religion or where they live, but they want to figure out how they can work towards equity in the province. There’s a whole army of people out there who want to fight racism,” he reveals.
Coteau says there was no one person, who came to the meetings, who stood up and spoke that was critical of what the Ontario government is trying to do.
“That was one of the first kind of learning points. The second thing was that people are enthusiastic to help, but people are uncomfortable talking about race in general,” he adds.
He said of the 10 cities the ARD went to, there were only a couple of the mayors, chiefs of police, and politicians, outside of the provincial government, who showed up.
“To me, it even said to me that politicians, elected officials, (and) people in power are uncomfortable talking about these types of issues.”
He says it’s an uncomfortable conversation, but there is no question in his mind that now, more than ever, these types of conversations, and ongoing conversations, are important.
“I feel as though what we’re seeing happening across the province and the country, what we’re seeing happening across the States, there’s a shift that’s taking place, and I think Ontario needs to really position itself as a place that doesn’t tolerate any form of discrimination or racism,” he states.
He says Ontario is seen as a province that is constantly looking for ways to knock down those barriers that exist, that hold people back, based on their race or culture.
In its submission, the labour council focused on what it describes as “priority issues that need to be confronted in order to realize a meaningful change in attitudes, realities and values.”
These include criminal justice and mass incarceration, the education system, the economy, public services, and the intersections.
Cartwright says when the council puts together a policy paper as important as this one, it draws on the body of work that goes back many decades with its affiliated unions that operate in different sectors of the economy, but also its own activists “and the lived experience of them and their families and their communities.”
The Council’s equity committee has nine leaders from a wide variety of unions, different ethno-racial backgrounds and from the different sectors that they work in.
“So when we recognized that the reason the directorate was created was because of the incredible work of the Black Lives Matter movement and that they were pointing to the death of Andrew Loku as the flashpoint for this most recent round of tough conversations, and so we wanted to start with recognizing that,” says Cartwright.
He and other trade unionists marched back in the 1980s when people were demanding justice because of the police killing of Albert Johnson.
Cartwright notes that the creation of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations (UARR) as a result of racist violence in the streets, was part of a labour council initiative in those days.
“Fast forward up to today and a next generation of activists, youngsters from the Black Lives Matter, who are really calling the question again of the system. So we wanted to start with that.”
He says the council has a number of its own activists from the Somali community, and the highest rate of incarceration today in the GTA of young men is actually from the Somali community.
That’s a surprise to some people, he says, but it’s the reality and it’s the result of a variety of circumstances that have come together.
He noted that there wasn’t a single Somali Canadian police officer until 18 months ago.
He said this came about because of the organizing done by Faduma Mohamed, who heads the council’s labour community services and creation of a group called Positive Change in the Somali community, after the death of her nephew as a result of gun violence.
There were over 100 young men killed and only three crimes solved because there was no trust between the community and the police services, he said.
“And all they saw was blatant discrimination, was aggression, was drive-by policing, a refusal to acknowledge that they were not only black but also Muslim, that they came from a civil war and that the young men are playing out that trauma,” said Cartwright, noting also that the school system was also pushing young kids out for quite a period of time.
He said regarding the issue of criminal justice and mass incarceration, it was those kinds of experiences that informed the substance of its submission.
The labour council recommended that the directorate review the document, “Saving Lives: Alternatives to the Use of Lethal Force by Police,” published by the Urban Alliance on Race Relations in 2000.
Cartwright said, ironically, that document was completely embraced by those in power at the time but it “got lost in the translation.”
The equity committee had sent communications to the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Yasir Naqvi, Toronto Police Services Board, and Peel Region around the issue of carding.
The council is also calling on the Ontario government to complete the implementation of the recommendations of the Roots of Youth Violence report, and invest in strategies to reduce levels of recidivism among young offenders, with a focus on those previously connected with gang culture.
Cartwright said after the Danzig shooting, the council convened with the UARR, a major group of about 40 organizations, to try and map out what should be the response.
“We didn’t want the kind of knee-jerk law and order, string them up, throw away the key attitude to become the dominant narrative. We wanted to actually talk about what [Roy] McMurtry and [Alvin] Curling had unpacked in that report of theirs.”
They took elements of the report and laid out recommendations for actions by the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government, the school boards, the charitable sector, not-for-profits, private corporations and even the trade union movement.
Cartwright has a “guarded optimism” regarding the directorate, citing the importance that the Liberal government has put on it with the Premier and four Cabinet ministers attending the first community meeting in Regent Park.
“They made it clear that at the political level this is an important subject for them to try and get right,” Cartwright said.
He noted that the question is, will there be the money to make this a robust undertaking and how deep will the directorate be able to go in interacting with other ministries.
Regarding the education system, Cartwright said in 2006 the Labour Council’s Task Force on Equity in Education provided a report to the Toronto District School Board that outlined a number of measures needed to address the inequality experienced by students of colour in Toronto’s schools.
“Obviously, if you’re going to address issues of race and racism, you got to start with people as they’re young growing up and what attitudes are shaped there,” he said.
The labour council president said what’s not mentioned here, is the importance of the struggle many years ago for heritage language programs, with Black and African Heritage programs, at the Toronto school board.
“That was a difficult fight. It was led by parents from different communities. And the first one was around heritage language programs to be done during the day, not on Saturdays. And then the African Heritage program was fought for and won.”
On the matter of the economy, the council recently celebrated, with Premier Kathleen Wynne and four ministers of her Cabinet, the setting of a goal for equity hiring at the Eglinton Crosstown.
“That’s the first time we’ve actually had employment equity program with targets since Mike Harris abolished employment equity in ’95. There’ll be hundreds of people going to work in the skilled trades. All the different union trade centres are opening up to make sure that they’re doing the recruiting and engaging and training and supporting of folks in different communities into the trades.”
For the first time in North America, they included white-collar jobs because, according to Cartwright “in trades no matter how hard we try with our women sisters in the trades and other support for women we’ve never really gone above three or four percent.”
“But we don’t want the benefit of this $5Billion of infrastructure investment just be for guys. We want to make sure that women have the chance, not just people who choose to work with their hands… but also people who are either internationally trained professionals or who are new graduates,” he said.
The labour council president said this is an example where they have used their bargaining power with the government, Metrolinx and consortium to actually ensure that there will be economic opportunities for people of colour in this huge public investment.
“And now that will be leveraged in Bill 6 [Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act] on every Infrastructure Ontario major project there’s going to be a community benefits component that will be continuing to build on that model.”
With regard to public services, Andrea Babbington, vice-president of the labour council and executive liaison with the equity committee, says there is a need to make sure that services are accessible and affordable for the Black community.
“I know that from experience where, when we look at where they’re saying if the kids are hanging out in the mall or they’re all over the street, a lot of it is not accessing these kinds of services because they can’t afford them,” she stated.
She said childcare is also a huge issue and remained so for many years when she was a mother with her first child.
Babbington said it is also important to have services that community members can turn to when they have problems.
“A lot of anger builds up within the black kids, whether it’s the parents that have to go from more than one jobs and no services out there where we could put them to learn or build on their own skill.”
Babbington said finding job opportunities is a challenge for young black youth, and she has watched many rely on agencies where one day they may work and another day there is nothing else.
“And all they’re doing is just sitting idly waiting for anything that comes along or anyone that comes along to offer anything to make money. They’re desperately looking for good jobs out there, not just to be exploited by an agency that knows that they’re already desperate.”
On the matter of intersections, the labour council says: “All equity work points to the need to understand intersectionality of oppression. Nobody exists with just one identity – we are defined by many factors including race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, immigration status, language… we are complex human beings.”
Babbington says one size does not fit all and there is a need to understand the different groups, “who we are and put the right people in place that can address some of the issues that are happening within the Black community.”
She said having attended the Anti-Racism Directorate community meeting in Scarborough, she was happy seeing the different ethnic communities, like the Chinese, stepping forward “to say this is not a black problem, this is all of us problem.”
The Toronto & York Region Labour Council, founded in 1871, has been struggling for justice for working people and, over its 145-year history, issues of racism and discrimination have been a constant reality.
With Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation happening in 2017, Cartwright said there are lots to be said about “the great things that we’ve achieved together and there’s lots of things to point to in our history that people have to reflect on.
These include things in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Chinese Head Tax, Viola Desmond and the kind of work that “our Toronto Joint Labour Committee on Human Rights had to do back in the 40s to challenge the systemic racism that was absolutely everything, absolutely in front of people, day and day out.”
He said the other side of the coin is that Torontonians come from over 180 countries and speak 100 languages and there’s a degree of harmony here that’s not found in major cities in the rest of the world.
“And that’s because of the hard work of people who came before and were dedicated to build a society that was based on some degree of social justice and inclusion.”