Bill Blair’s saving face

Top cop turned star Liberal candidate openly talks carding, saying he realized years ago the practice cost the force "a very high price." So why didn't he do anything about it?

The mood was upbeat and the room packed as Bill Blair launched his campaign for the federal Liberal party nomination in Scarborough Southwest on May 12. Liberals past and present from across the city showed up to lend their support. 

Those who hold Blair responsible for the worst police abuses during his tenure – rampant misconduct during the G20, a cop budget that consumes one-quarter of Toronto’s property taxes, the racist practice of police carding – wonder why the Liberals, under leader Justin Trudeau, are so eager to have him. 

The truth is that Blair’s many political friends are happy to stand with him despite reservations about his record, even on carding. His decade of community networking as chief made him far more allies than foes. And that’s usually enough in politics.

Former Liberal MPP Alvin Curling, who represented Scarborough North in the legislature for 20 years (including a short stint as speaker) and is a respected elder member of the black community, is among them. He says Blair distinguished himself as the leader of the country’s largest and most complex police force. 

“I have great respect for Bill. Here’s a man who has dealt with a lot of tough issues, especially here in Scarborough,” says Curling in an interview before the formalities begin. “He has always let it be known that Scarborough is not a place with a high crime rate, although that is the perception.”

Yet the Jamaica-born Curling, who co-authored the oft-cited Roots of Youth Violence report that noted “the continuing and devastating impacts of racial profiling in Ontario,” is highly critical of carding. 

“I am completely against police carding. The way it is being done has not worked well for the community, especially for the black community.” 

When asked how he squares that with his support for Blair, Curling suggests the police service and its civilian bosses on the Police Services Board are equally reluctant to end the controversial practice. “Coming out alone would have been very difficult.” 

Scarborough Southwest councillor Michelle Berardinetti, who’s serving as Blair’s campaign co-chair, says local enthusiasm for Blair’s candidacy stems from the fact that “he’s a Scarborough boy – people here feel comfortable with him.” The former chief was born just outside the riding and owned a home in Malvern for years. But the councillor also wavered on Blair’s legacy when it comes to carding. 

“He’s tried to address it as best he could,” she says halfheartedly, before adding, “We all have a history on some issues, and he will have to bring that through the campaign. He’s spoken to residents here about it.… He’s not hiding from it.”

In the most literal sense, Berardinetti is correct: Blair is not hiding from his record on carding. 

I have been one of his fiercest critics on the issue, but when he saw me from across the room, he left someone he was speaking with in mid-sentence to shake my hand and offer an interview for as long as I wanted once the formal part of the proceedings was over. 

In the 20-minute discussion that followed, Blair repeatedly refused to acknowledge the damage done by a policing practice that has needlessly documented thousands of innocent residents, tarred reputations and treated black Torontonians like criminals. 

I ask Blair if police collected too much information on innocent civilians during his tenure. He tells me about his force’s need to react to the now infamous streak of violence during the so-called summer of the gun in 2005. 

“I felt the problem was violence, and the way to make communities safe is to prevent that violence, prevent that victimization.” 

He says that’s why he made a decision to put more officers on the street in “priority” neighbourhoods. 

“I directed them to go out into the neighbourhoods, introduce themselves” as any beat cop would, says Blair. He makes it all sound so benign, before acknowledging that “over time, there was too much emphasis being placed [by police] on the quantity of the information being collected and less on the quality.”

Blair says he realized three years ago that the force was “paying a very high price… a high social cost” for its carding practices, and he expressed that opinion to two of his deputy chiefs. (Does he want us to infer that they were Peter Sloly and Blair’s successor, current chief Mark Saunders?) But it doesn’t seem anything was done about it.

Blair claims it was at that point that he looked at international examples of training and information-gathering to improve community relations. 

It’s a nice story. But it borrows loosely from history and glosses over the reality of those who have experienced carding. 

As Blair admits in our interview, Toronto police have been collecting information on innocent civilians for longer than he’s been on the force. His suggestion that the practice was only escalated in certain neighbourhoods in 2005 in response to gun violence ignores the fact that for as long as black people have lived here in large numbers, they have pointed to racist mistreatment not only by police but by virtually every institution in society. 

Thirteen years before the summer of the gun, former MPP Stephen Lewis wrote about black residents’ complaints of unequal treatment by police in a report commissioned by the province on anti-black racism within government institutions. “I’ve heard enough expressions of concern and enough anecdotal horror stories about alleged racist episodes that it’s clear we have to correct the balance,” he said then.

In 1988, the Black Action Defence Committee was founded in response to the killing of an unarmed black man, Lester Donaldson, by Toronto police. Racial profiling, undue scrutiny and harsher police treatment were endemic to the system decades before the summer of the gun. 

Blair’s refusal to take responsibility for the worst impacts of police carding means some will never support him. 

But the depth of his support in his Scarborough backyard is exemplified by Zubair Patel, a Muslim who’s serving as Blair’s co-chair alongside Berardinetti. Patel tells me about Blair’s reaction when the Toronto 18 were apprehended in an alleged plot to storm Parliament Hill and behead the PM, a plot authorities linked to radical interpretations of his Islamic faith.

“He contacted the community leaders, he stood in a mosque. He didn’t have to do that,” says Patel between bites of his dinner from a styrofoam container. 

He also cited Blair’s handling in 2009 of a group of Tamil protesters who blocked the Gardiner Expressway to draw attention to the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

“He would tell people who complained about the situation, ‘Those are my neighbours you’re talking about.'” 

While many blacks may feel Blair did not stand up for them, he has a reputation for defending other marginalized groups. It’s worth considering that his alienation of black organizations and allies, and of police accountability boosters in general, is not enough to hinder his political ambitions. 

As Patel remarked to me, “He’s a friend. He’s made many relationships, and that’s what you need in politics.” | @nowtoronto

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