Politicians need to open their ears and do some thinking about Black youth in Toronto rather than reacting to a year of intense gun violence with racist notions about crime, say leaders in Toronto’s Black community.

In late January, a panel discussion called Racialization of Crime: Anti-racist Responses to the Guns and “Gangs” Debate, was held at the Toronto Reference Library surprising organizers with a huge turnout.

Speaking to the overcrowded audience, M. Nourbese Philip, Rinaldo Walcott, Dalton Higgins and Kike Roach, a civil rights lawyer, weighed in on Canada’s response to the much-publicized gun violence in Toronto.

Their message was clear: stop criminalizing Black youth and start treating them like Canadian citizens, with rights to social programs and good education.

“The way that gun violence is responded to in Toronto is very similar to the Bush approach to fighting terrorism,” Kike Roach told the crowd.

“We declare the problem to be one that is foreign, one that’s about immigrants, one that’s about that nasty hip-hop music…We argue that we need to reinforce the troops with more police officers on the streets. We then call for expanding our detention centres and harsher punishments…And we start to discuss curtailing our civil liberties, like imposing curfews on young people,” she says.

And like post 9/11 America, the panelists feel that major politicians and media sources all repeat the same message: this is a Black problem, and the best way to deal with it is with a strict justice system.

One panelist, Rinaldo Walcott, a Canadian Research Chair at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says that an ingrained anti-Black racism plays a large role in the poor response from all levels of Canadian government.

He thinks that anxieties about a steadily growing population of Black peoples in Toronto has left a largely white government scrambling to control their actions, while ignoring their needs.

“Anti-Black racism…has a very, very long history of continually positioning Black people as almost not being a part of this nation. We’re always never quite citizens,” he says.

When high-profile crimes are committed by Black people, the government’s first response is trying to remove Black people as if they don’t belong in Canada, rather than help them as citizens, say the panelists.

M. Nourbese Philip, a lawyer, author and poet, spoke to the audience about the history of the Black movement in Toronto.

She recalled a Black studies curriculum that was developed for Ontario but was never implemented; the Stephen Lewis Report on Racism in Ontario that was never heeded; and the Safe Schools Act that works to eliminate troubled students from the school system.

Philip says that the Black male youth who are involved in violent crimes and gang activities are those who were left behind by the provincial government, especially in the education system.

“Let’s remember that these young men who have been the gang members, in another time and place, these would have been our warriors,” she says.

“I maintain these are (former Conservative Ontario premier Mike) Harris’s chickens coming home to roost.”

According to the panel, all levels of government are responsible, but especially the municipal government, led by Mayor David Miller.

After the Boxing Day shooting that killed Jane Creba, a 15-year-old white woman, Walcott says all politicians started advocating harsh penalties for youth with guns — even traditionally left-wing figures like David Miller and federal NDP leader Jack Layton.

“All three levels of government came out with law-and-order responses in the aftermath of Jane Creba’s death. Our premier, Dalton McGuinty, found $50 million plus to invest in the justice system,” says Walcott.

“Our mayor, who is normally leaning left, took a right approach and started talking law-and-order too. And he’s the one in the city of Toronto that we have to make accountable.

“(Miller) can’t cave at this moment because a young white woman was murdered,” he says.

The panel agreed that though the gun violence in Toronto is inexcusable, it won’t stop without real planning and engagement between policy-makers and the Black community.

Dalton Higgins, a panelist and journalist, suggested that a gang summit might be useful in Toronto, citing successes in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Inviting ex-criminals and prominent Black figures to the summit might allow for gang members to come together and sort out issues without violence.

He also mocked absentee politicians, educators and historians who speak on Black issues by inviting them to “come out to the Black community…not just during election time.”

Solving the “guns and gangs” issue is something the panel thinks can only be done by progressive, grassroots organizing.

The African-Canadian Coalition is one example of what can be done politically, though panelists were quick to point out that not many people know about what the Coalition does or even how to contact them.

“We have, on the left, been dismal in terms of responding to issues,” says Roach.

“We have let the right get away with maintaining and monopolizing the discussion, discourse and solutions on what we need to do to fight crimes.”

Holding the Mayor accountable to the wider Toronto community for now and making City Hall more representative in the future is one way, according to Walcott.

Strengthening the progressive community and becoming more proactive on race issues is another.

The panel discussion was organized by Jody Warner and Regent Park Focus.

Jenn Watt

Jenn Watt

Jenn was editor of the annual Best of rabble.ca books and is currently an Ontario-based journalist.