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York Region's Black leaders, allies call for sweeping police reforms

'We are listening and we have heard that much more needs to be done and we are here to work with you, this is just the beginning,' police services board chairperson says
June 24, 2020
Kim Champion

York Region’s Black community leaders are calling for sweeping reforms to local policing, after the May 25 death of African-American man George Floyd while in police custody that has pushed anti-Black racism and systemic racism to the forefront locally and around the globe.

More than 15 deputations, written and verbal, were delivered at the June 17 meeting of the Regional Municipality of York Police Services Board, the civilian body that sets policy direction and oversees York Regional Police and to which the police chief is accountable.

Organizations and individuals alike urged the board to ensure York police’s senior leaders and officers are representative of the racial and ethnic diversity of the communities they serve.

More than half of deputants noted that two upcoming deputy police chief vacancies -- one of which was created with the promotion of new Chief Jim MacSween -- offer an immediate opportunity to appoint an individual with a demonstrated background in community policing and commitment to engaging York Region’s diverse communities.

Deputy Chief André Crawford's term ends Nov. 6, 2020, where, since 2013, he oversees York police's administration branch and financial services after being re-appointed to a two-year term in 2018.

There were also calls for the collection of race-based data on such things as police stops and outcomes, the creation of an anti-Black racism committee, the end to policing in local schools, and implementing a York police budget cut proportionate to the estimated budget shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Black community is in pain,” Vaughan African Canadian Association executive director Shernett Martin told the police board. “The recent murder of George Floyd and the incessant anti-Black racism ravaging both sides of the border is unleashing trauma on our community that seems unrelenting.”

“It has seared through the heart of Black men and children, and it has pierced the womb of every Black woman who heard the cries of Floyd as he cried out for his mother,” Martin said. “So we are hurting, and we have a right to be hurting, and a right to express that however we see fit.”

Martin said the No. 1 challenge in York Region’s Black community is a lack of support from governments, and those systems and institutions need to be governed by policies that hold them accountable.

“When we enter public spaces, we feel the presence of unconscious bias, we are faced head-on with white privilege in every room we enter, and subtle and overt anti-Black racism is something we navigate daily,” she said.

“With no one on this (police) board that is Black or a person of colour, this board is in jeopardy of leading a police force without the lens of inclusion,” said Martin. “If you plan to lead officers and their leaders during this tumultuous time in our history when anti-Black racism is rampant and the pain of my community is palpable, you need to have representation.”

The Vaughan African Canadian Association has been a strong partner with York police under its two former police chiefs, Martin said, and it is committed to continuing that relationship to address inequities and systemic biases.

One contentious issue Martin raised was about police liaison officers in schools.

“Local leaders are calling for an end to policing in schools,” said Martin, who offered the example of York police being called to a Vaughan high school because of a Black female student who was wearing short shorts and a crop top.

“There must be a better way to talk to a student about her dress than calling the police,” said Martin. “It’s very traumatic for Black students to see police in the place where they go to school.”

Parent activist Charline Grant, a mom of three sons who is on a steering committee of advocacy group Parents of Black Children, shared her personal experiences with anti-Black racism in York Region.

“I’m here as a parent ...I am here looking to see how we can work together to ease our fears and give our children back their childhood,” said Grant.

Grant recalls in 2012, after the fatal shooting of 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin at the hands of a former neighbourhood watch captain, her son asked to go to the mall with some friends.

“I said, 'are you nuts, as Black boys you don’t get to go to the mall and hang out',” Grant said. “I had to break it down for him. My children didn’t have a normal childhood, didn’t ride their bikes outside unless I was there.”

In April 2020, when the Grant family was moving into their new Woodbridge home, her 18-year-old son came into the house and told her York police were outside.

“The neighbours called the police, and the officer said they got a call about suspicious guys around the house,” she said, adding a second police car showed up soon after the first. “They asked my husband for ID, asked to show proof this was our house, and my husband said I could put in the code for the garage to show we live here.”

After a discussion, the police were satisfied the family were the homeowners and they went back to cars, Grant said.

“My husband went over to the police and said, you know why you’re here. They said, yeah, we’re discussing it now,” she said.

Grant posted about her experience on social media, and said she received many messages from people saying that also happened to them in Markham, and various other communities.

“I knew it wasn’t unique to me, there are so many what-ifs in that situation, because if my husband had faced a number of microaggressions that day, it could have gone a different way,” she said.

“As a mother, I want to be able to tell my children that when you’re out there, it’s not so scary for you,” said Grant. “For us, our life depends on these phone calls.”

For Markham graduate student Nayani Nandakumar, who is a member of the Tamil diaspora, increased diversity on the police board and with frontline officers is needed at this time.

“My friends from the Black community, they’re not doing that great right now with everything that’s going on, the constant killing of Black men,” said Nandakumar. “Moving forward, we have to work together, we’re not in a position to put up walls.”

“My reason for being here is based on not only Floyd’s death, but the protest this past Saturday in Markham that was organized by young Black leaders,” she said. “It hit me in the head, that hey, there’s still racism going on in the same school I went to 15 years ago.”

Police services board chairperson and East Gwillimbury Mayor Virginia Hackson said, “We are listening and we have heard that much more needs to be done and we are here to work with you, this is just the beginning.”

“This discussion today is only the beginning, we are committed as a board to ensuring that anti-Black racism, and other forms of racism, including systemic racism, are not tolerated or ignored, and the board, along with the chief, are committed to working with our community partners and our Black community leaders to find solutions,” said Hackson.

The York Police Services Board is made up of seven members, including chairperson Hackson, Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua, York Region Chairman and CEO Wayne Emmerson, regional council appointee and vice-chairperson John Molyneaux, and provincial appointees Jennifer Fang, Josh Cooper and Walter J. Perchal.

An individual can be appointed by the Region of York or the Ontario government. For more information, visit here.

To watched the archived June 17, 2020 York Police Services Board meeting, visit here.

Here are some voices from the written deputations:

“I was shocked to see that there are no Black members (on the police services board). It would be unlikely that the Black communities in York Region will be considered fairly without a Black member on the board. Surely this issue has been considered, given the common knowledge that Black people, as well as Indigenous people and other people of colour, are targeted by police, treated with violence and discrimination, and are oppressed by the whole Canadian system.”

Claire Rice, Newmarket

“I live here with my two kids, two dogs, and my husband, and we genuinely love this community. With that love comes a responsibility to do better by it when we see the opportunity for positive change. We wanted to write and share our hope to see substantial changes across all possible governments, industry, and public services. It's time that we take a step back and ensure measures are in place when people are being hired, and positions are being elected.

“We have become aware that two new deputy positions are open. We feel very strongly that the board needs to be diverse in terms of race and gender and measures need to be in place to ensure that we have proper representation of all community members. We would also like to voice that it's crucial to our community's success and safety that race-based data needs to be collected. We really are in this together, and it's time we see every person represented to ensure that all voices are heard.

Ashley Arkeveld, Newmarket

“We must strive to ensure that all members of our community have a voice, and that includes our Black community. Black children need to see more people in positions of power and authority who look like them, and white children also need to see that these spaces are not just for white people.

“Parents can talk to their children about race all they want, but if the spaces they exist within are not showing Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC), then it slows down the extremely important work of untangling the anti-Black racism that does exist in this country.”

Holly Douglass, Newmarket

“Real change is: Making actual investments in communities that are based on what those in communities know that they need; collecting race-based data that, in point of fact, will show with clarity the needs of communities as well as delineating the impacts of policies and programs that fail to prioritize, or even recognize, their needs; funding investments that ensure skilled staff work right in the community alongside the racialized and marginalized people there to build trust and; working collaboratively with the communities to address larger systemic concerns while also assisting with the creation of community cohesion and helping to optimize the assets that exist in all communities.”

Yvonne Kelly, Social Planning Council of York Region co-chairperson

“I very strongly believe that the board needs to be diverse in race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. This is essential as the board needs to reflect the community that it serves. I also believe that gathering race-based data is essential in order to identify inequities within the policing system and to affect change in the community, while holding members of the board accountable to the community that it represents.”

Amy Cooper, Newmarket

“Every effort must be made to create a command team that is reflective of the diversity of York Region. We are aware that the York Regional Police Services Board currently does not reflect York Region's profile, as one the most, if not the most diverse community in Canada, and YRP can serve as a change agent in this respect.

“Anti-Black Racism, hate crimes are currently at the forefront within your jurisdiction and beyond so it’s critical that the police command team continues to build on the positive legacy left by police Chiefs Armand Labarge, and Eric Jolliffe.”

Lee Miller, York Region Alliance of African Canadian Communities chairperson

“The horrific racial events of late really opened a lot of eyes in the community and around the world, it is in all communities. There’s more to be done, and there always will be. York Regional Police, compared to other services, is far ahead of the curve, but obviously, there’s more to do.

“My ask of this board and the service is, there has been and still will be changes coming in leadership at YRP. Stay steadfast on course and maintain the leadership in our diverse community, and use the strength if offers.”

Don Pratt, York Regional Police Community Advisory Council member

"The Markham African Caribbean Canadian Association has worked in partnership with York Regional Police for decades. We would like to encourage the Police Services Board to put a candidate (for deputy chief) in place who has strong ties to the community and has extensive background in community policing. In these times, we are reminded of how crucial it is to extend and enhance public trust."

Pat Howell, Markham African Caribbean Canadian Association chairperson, past-president