I'm a sucker for a good public rally. I get emotional standing shoulder to shoulder with my fellow citizens, united in a grand cause. You're standing in the street, and maybe for once you feel like it really is your street, too. This pure practice of citizenry can sometimes bring me to tears.
So I'm downright jaunty as I step onto Dundas Square on Sunday afternoon, November 13, just as the Uniting Toronto Against Guns (UTAG) rally is revving. Or trying to get the motor started - or trying to find the keys to the ignition?
Alas, this is not to be one of those good public rallies.
It should've been. After all, the awareness that Toronto is awash in guns has been the top story for the last four months. But there's a catch. The Coalition of African Canadian Associations, representing virtually every major black community org in the city, is nowhere to be seen.
A few weeks back they issued a bold action plan, insisting that since it is their neighbourhoods that have borne the brunt of the violence, they should set the agenda.
Their far-reaching vision goes beyond the simple bromide of super-jails and tougher sentences.
The package calls for a black criminal justice diversion program, economic initiatives focusing on black youth, repeal of the Harris-era Safe Schools Act and more. You can almost hear the French chorus over the fire engines in suburban Paris waving their arms across the Atlantic, yelling, "Listen to them before it's too late!"
"This is a community-driven and community-focused approach," Margaret Parsons, exec director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC) and coalition spokesperson, tells me.
After the first bout of publicity, the document right now is a bit of a guarded secret. No one will directly speak to it while the coalition tries to put a summit together with Mayor David Miller, Premier Dalton McGuinty and the PM. No one from the coalition would even officially hand it over to me, and I had to scrounge to get hold of it.
As one coalition member told me, "We don't think it is fair to give the plan out to the media and have it debated before government leaders have a chance to engage with us on it."
But back to the rally. The weather's cooperating. CFRB's Spider Jones, the rally's MC, is doing his street cred motivational speaker's shtick for the 300 to 400 mostly white people in the square. A 4-by-8 sign full of random tabloid-style headlines stands on the opposite side of the stage. My favourite: "Man shot at his door. Lax laws to blame." There's a surprising number of young men in shirts and ties in the crowd. Hmm, different.
Rally co-chair and Global TV broadcaster Peter Kent is introduced, but no mention is made of his candidacy for the federal Tories in St. Paul's riding. He calls for the restoration of community programs, getting at the root causes of violence and tougher penalties for gun crime. Then Jones bounds back onto the stage and explodes into the microphone: "Peter Kent, folks. He cares."
Jones, who in a past life was a great boxer (he also did time in the U.S prison system), tells the crowd, in case they didn't hear Kent, that we need stronger gun laws. I agree, and so does everyone else in the crowd.
He's on a roll now, almost yelling: "If you get caught with a gun, we're going to put you so deep into prison that they're going to have to pump sunshine into you and feed you with a slingshot." More cheering. I'm not sure what he means or if he really said it or if I got the wrong rally. But things are moving quickly.
Soon he's introducing the members of the rally's organizing committee. Okay, we're back on track. Maybe we're going to hear from some folks from the African Canadian coalition. Well no, not exactly.
Chris Bullen of the Association of Black Law Enforcers, a member of the African Canadian coalition and a supporter of UTAG, is announced, but he musn't be here since he doesn't come to the stage.
There's the dignified Audette Shephard and Elsaida Douglas, both powerful speakers, representing mothers who have lost young sons in gun violence.
Other committee members' names are called, some of which you'll recognize: former police chief Julian Fantino, former Mike Harris attack dog Jim Flaherty, Senator Art Eggelton and Argo CEO Keith Pelley. None of them have shown up.
Then provincial PC leader John Tory is introduced. This is getting weird. Now all the participants are up on the stage like it's the encore for Live 8. Tory is stuck behind the sign, which is endearing in a way. I scribble in my notebook that Tory doesn't feel the need to turn this into a photo op. However, when I look up from my notes, I find he's at centre stage, waving to the crowd.
I've been had. Jones is saying something about not promoting gunfights, but rather, let's promote pillow fights. He directs us to turn around, and yup, there's a bunch of people who in a moment of surreal cosmic event planning have coincidentally organized the flashmob fight at the same time and in the same place as UTAG's rally. I decide it's time to leave.
Coalition spokesperson Hugh Graham of the Black Business and Professional Association tells me that to his knowledge the umbrella group was not invited to participate. I phone around to a few other members and none of them had heard of the rally until it was over.
UTAG spokesperson Bernie Morton tells me that at least two dozen African Canadian orgs were asked to be involved. "We really tried to be as inclusive as possible,' he says.
Sandra Carnegie-Douglas of the Jamaican Canadian Association isn't sure if her group was invited or not, but she says she wouldn't have participated anyway. "This heavy focus on law and order does not work as a deterrent,' she says.
Says Parsons about the new wave of crackdown proposals, "Mandatory minimum sentences create career criminals.' The ACLC says experience in the U.S. and studies by legal scholars confirm the ineffectiveness and lack of deterrence of mandatory minimum sentencing.
But the rally wasn't just about law and order, was it? I heard what the speakers said about community programs. John Tory doesn't support repealing the Safe Schools Act, but he admits that it has flaws and wants it reviewed.
"Once you throw a kid out of the system, you're almost guaranteeing a problem later," he tells me after his Live 8 moment. I ask if he's in favour of an arm's-length civilian body to oversee police complaints, another coalition demand. "We need to ensure the existing system works," he says as his handlers start to pull him away.
"The notion of some body is not out of line with what is needed," he yells to me over the P.A. system while walking backwards toward the stage. What did he say?
On the subway, I read over the petition the rally organizers were pushing. Hmmm no mention of Kent's call to get at the root causes. All four of the demands are about sentencing for gun crimes. Pillow fight aside, not a good public rally at all.