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Arts Desmond Cole’s feature on carding lit a fuse under the city’s elite, but why did it take so long?

Among a certain segment of Torontonians, there is little love for Toronto Life magazine. Every month, the city mag churns out a glossy blend of real estate envy, materially minded service journalism, and schadenfraude about the town gentry's ups and downs. Some find it intoxicating; others, noxious, especially in regard to the magazine's sometimes narrow vision of what constitutes a good neighbourhood.

So there was some cognitive dissonance when, after a run of typical covers aimed at its chattering class readership ("Trouble in the House of Rogers," "The Power List," "McMansion Wars," etc.), Toronto Life's May issue featured a simple photograph of journalist Desmond Cole and the cover line: "I've been stopped by cops on the street 50 times. I'm not a criminal – A memoir about being black in Toronto." The article lit a fuse on a long-simmering conversation in the city about carding, the troubling police practice of stopping individuals and demanding identification. Last Sunday, when John Tory reversed his position and announced that he would push the Police Services Board at its next meeting to end carding, he cited Cole as an influence.

It's the way journalism is supposed to work, but so rarely does: A story shines a light on a problem, the issue is taken up by citizens, they lobby their political leaders – and voilà! So there was justifiable pride in the Toronto Life offices this week. But if the episode illustrates how journalism can still effect change, even as the industry is in notorious turmoil, it also suggests something deeply troubling about this city's calcified power structure and the limits of media.

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When editors first spoke with Cole last fall about writing for the magazine, he envisioned an article about the lived experience of black Canadians, something that explored an array of troubling questions: Why are so many black Canadian children in the child welfare system? Why are so many more black children, relative to their peers, expelled from school? But when he filed his first draft, he recalled this week, his editor Emily Landau told him, "in a nice way, 'This is absolutely not what we're looking for.'" She encouraged him to tell more of his own story. As the article evolved, he settled on carding.

He's actually been writing about the issue for years: In fact, his first piece for the website Torontoist, where he is a staff writer, covered a Weston-Mount Dennis community meeting on carding. (The photo accompanying the story is of then-superintendent Mark Saunders taking notes at the meeting.) "I would write these stories, with details of what the police were doing that I found shocking – that were very, very difficult, if not impossible to explain, that were discriminatory," he said in an interview. "And, outside of a loyal readership within Torontoist and my own network, I didn't feel the word was getting out."

He shaped his Toronto Life piece to reach out to a new audience, to put them in his shoes. "I wanted to broaden the conversation, and so specifically targeted people who don't know but who would probably be concerned if they did," he explained.

"When I think of the average Toronto Life reader, I actually think of someone like John Tory. I think of somebody who has done well financially, and I think of somebody who's interested in civic issues and believes themselves to be socially quite liberal, but quite frankly is not – how shall I put this? – they're not close to the experiences of people who really need support and advocacy and a voice in our city. That's the reason why a lot of content in Toronto Life makes people that I hang around upset."

The article hit like a cluster-bomb. Within minutes of Toronto Life posting it on the afternoon of April 21, Cole's inbox, Twitter feed, and voicemail were flooded. For weeks afterward, he seemed to be everywhere – on radio, in print, and on unlikely TV shows such as CTV's daytime gabfest The Social, where the discussions tend more toward whether women should grow out their armpit hair. Still, even as the wider conversation unfolded, Tory remained unmoved.

Gordon Cressy, a civic leader and former city councillor, found himself troubled by reading the piece. "I think for the white community – or the non-black community – the Desmond Cole article finally lit a fire and said, 'This is not right, this is not fair out there.' Up until then, the black community was fighting this one on their own with different press conferences, and no one appeared to be listening in the power structure. So, you call your friends." Some had already read the piece and had been similarly moved.

Cressy and his friends in Toronto's aging but still active power elite – a group he jokingly calls The Elders, which includes former mayor Barbara Hall and former attorney-general Roy McMurtry – convened a press conference at City Hall last week to call for an end to carding. Days later, Tory changed his stance.

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Cole already had another reason to celebrate. Publishers and literary agents were among those who flooded his inbox after the article was published, and he'd signed with the Westwood Creative Artists agency. Last week, Doubleday Canada won a heated bidding war for a book based on the article. While it will include some of his own personal experiences, Cole said "the book is more about a larger exploration of the experiences of black people within our country. I feel this is a topic that requires a lot more exploration than we have done. I see the way that we incessantly compare ourselves to Americans, in terms of relationships on race, particularly with blacks and whites, and I think this is done as a way of avoiding our own issues and our own stereotypes and biases in this country."

While Cole is elated with Tory's change of heart, his feelings are tempered by the way it came about. "It's very sad, and should concern people. Because not everyone will get a feature in Toronto Life to air their story," he noted. After all, Cole had been there during a Police Services Board meeting, when John Tory sat and listened impassively to testimony from lower- and middle-income black people who were living in fear of random police stops.

"It's not a good sign, when you can have that direct contact with leaders and they won't listen to you. But they will listen to essentially their peers, who might not experience this issue in the same way at all, who might not know a lot about it."

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