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With an election in 2022, it's worth considering the mayor's mealy-mouthed defence of Toronto police’s violent "clearing" of park encampments and where we want to be as a city post-pandemic
Toronto thought it was getting more competent government and a kinder, gentler brand of conservatism when it elected John Tory mayor after the Rob Ford catastrophe. Ford made international headlines for smoking crack – and other misadventures. Now, in the wake of George Floyd and the questions of police violence that raised, Tory is making international headlines for something completely different but no less shameful – his response to Toronto’s crisis of homelessness.
It’s been a mostly middling seven years for Toronto under Tory. And with an election looming in 2022, it’s worth considering the mayor’s mealy-mouthed defence this week of the Toronto police’s continued violent “clearing” of park encampments – and just how far we’ve really come since Ford – and where we want to be post-pandemic
The mayor’s antipathy toward those he considers self-appointed advocates of the unhoused is well known. But this week he went into deep, dark denial mode on the role his policies have played in the continued assault on Toronto’s unhoused population. It’s increasingly becoming the issue by which Tory’s mayoralty is being defined. And not in a good way.
The mayor has been letting the city’s corporate relations team handle most of the questions about escalating police violence related to the clearing of encampments in parks in recent weeks. But on Friday he appeared on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.
Ostensibly, the interview was set up for the mayor to respond directly to questions about video and images circulating on social media of baton-wielding cops beating, choking and using pepper spray on “protestors” at Alexandra Park and Lamport Stadium. Tory said he hadn’t seen the traffic on social media, but he defended police actions anyway describing cops as “public servants, very professional and compassionate people just doing their jobs.”
That was demonstrably false. Police and private security dispatched by the city to enforce trespass orders at the parks deliberately trashed tents and other belongings of people who have been living there. Photographers on the scene also captured images of one police officer grabbing a woman by the throat. Another showed a police officer with his knee on a person’s neck. Twenty-six people were arrested at Lamport.
The aggressive police behaviour, which followed a similar episode at Trinity Bellwoods weeks earlier, was too horrifying for most Torontonians to watch. Five city councillors were prompted to issue an open letter demanding an “end to the violence and extreme show of force.”
The letter signed by councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam, Gord Perks, Mike Layton, Josh Matlow and Shelley Carroll – perhaps there’s a Tory challenger among them? – notes “the escalating tensions between Toronto police, encampment residents and their supporters.” And the councillors fear a worse scene in the days to come as an encampment at Moss Park seemingly looms next on the city’s hit list.
The letter “desperately” urged Tory “to adopt a non-violent approach when it comes to encampments.”
The arbitrariness of the violence and destruction of property by police was disquieting, to say the least, even to the most casual observer. But the mayor has turned a blind eye. Instead, he blamed “protestors” for the violence. “Who started it?” he fumed during his CBC interview.
The Toronto Star sent Tory’s media relations people links to photos and video of the mayhem. And the mayor eventually took a look. But he replied that he couldn’t comment on what was clearly police brutality absent the context. It was a lawyer’s response. Besides, Tory argued, he’s a member of the Police Services Board and shouldn’t be commenting in the event police actions should come before the Board for review.
It was all too convenient coming from Tory. Truth is, the issues at play for people experiencing homelessness have never been a budget priority for Tory because it’s not their votes he’s after. It’s the votes of homeowners complaining about what an unsightly mess the encampments are making of the city that Tory is concerned about. The only thing that the removal of people from parks will do is move them back under bridges and places in the city they occupied before the pandemic – and where it will be harder for city staff to get help to them. Maybe keeping them out of sight is the point.
No one likes the idea of people sleeping in parks – even those showing up to support people living in encampments agree. Another thing most people can agree on is that permanent housing is the solution. But that’s never going to be built fast enough to deal with the current backlog in social housing.
Tory, however, can’t play the victim here. Perhaps if the mayor had turned his meaningful attention to fixing the shelter system in the first place – instead of shortchanging social services in favour of more money to keep the police budget fat – the encampments and resulting scenes we’ve been witnessing could have been avoided.
The COVID crisis has no doubt exacerbated the issue of shelter for the city’s unhoused. But under Tory, the issue of more people living on Toronto’s streets has been handled as more of a nuisance than a public health emergency.
We saw it before the pandemic in the city’s refusal to open emergency shelter spaces when existing shelters are filled. Faith groups have been calling for more action from the city for years (literally). But for Tory, housing for the city’s poor is not a priority.
He’s called out the province for not doing its part. But they don’t run the city’s shelter system, which is supposed to be an emergency service available to anyone who needs it. Only, it’s typically at over 90 per cent capacity on any given night in Toronto. Also, not everyone can get in for health and safety reasons.
The issue of people choosing to live on Toronto’s streets is not going to go away. It’s bound to get worse with the city’s leases for shelter spaces in hotels set up during the pandemic set to expire in October.
The gap between rich and poor has never been greater in the city. Toronto could follow the lead of L.A., for example, and allow purpose-built tiny homes to help deal with the current emergency.
But the mayor seems to have little appetite for solutions that don’t involve the police.
As he considers another run at re-election in 2022, there doesn’t seem to be a natural political opponent waiting in the wings to give Tory a run for his money. That’s too bad. Toronto could really use a conversation about where the city is headed that involves more than just what property tax increase the haves in the city can stomach.