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Manon Morin of Bradford, Ont., sits beside her son at their home. Her son and four other boys were banned from the local recreation centre, a punishment their parents argue is racial discrimination. Morin's son did not want to be identified.

Photography by Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail

Security footage captured the incident as a pixelated blur of activity in the hallway of a recreation centre. In the foreground, a few white girls are practising figure skating moves. In the background, a group of tween and teen boys – nearly all of them racialized, many of them Black – are huddled together chatting. Suddenly, some start chasing others, and a cluster end up on the floor in a struggle. After several seconds, the fight is broken up.

No one was injured. Police didn’t attend the scene. No one was ever charged.

Yet several staff at the BWG Leisure Centre in Bradford West Gwillimbury, a town an hour north of Toronto, described this March, 2017, incident as “the most violent” one they’d ever witnessed, and five of the boys were given a year-long ban from the centre, where many played basketball daily.

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A police officer in town, warning that “the problems could migrate,” suggested the Black and brown boys’ photos be posted at the town’s only public library and the ban extend to that space, too. Many youth spent their lunch hours and did their homework there. Town staff agreed and added this to the punishment.

White patrons had been punished before for disruptive behaviour, and some were even repeat offenders, but their bans were only ever a month long and didn’t extend beyond the rec centre – except for the most serious cases in which individuals committed arson or carried concealed weapons.

To the racialized children and their families, being barred from the only library and rec centre in the community was tantamount to excommunication, says Manon Morin, the mother of one of the boys who were banned.

In a town of 35,325 where there are only 780 Black residents, representing 2 per cent of the total population, the families of the boys saw the harsh punishment as a clear case of racism and filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

“They had taken away his self-worth and his dignity,” Ms. Morin says of her son.

“I always call it a ‘sentence.’ I don’t even use the word ‘suspension’ or ‘ban’ – it was a sentence.”

Bradford, like so many towns within a 90-minute drive of Toronto, has become an attractive place for people priced out of the city. Most commute to work outside the region and then return at the end of the day to their single detached homes in a town where a median income of $93,254 can buy you more than it would in the Greater Toronto Area.

The town began as vast stretches of farm land, which later gave way to a core of modest postwar bungalows and a main drag dotted with independent bakeries, flower shops and hair salons. In recent years, it has sprawled out into young subdivisions filled with spacious single-family homes, big box stores and gleaming new facilities such as the Bradford West Gwillimbury Leisure Centre, an expansive complex built in 2012.

On a Monday afternoon in March before the COVID-19 lockdown, a large group of teenagers are shooting around on the six basketball hoops in the gym, which is directly across the hall from the pristine ice rink. The basketball players are mostly racialized kids; the five children in Timbit jerseys playing hockey on the rink, each skating with their own coach, look to be white.

Three years earlier, Ms. Morin’s son had been one of those gym kids: a lanky basketball player who made a beeline for the rec centre after school to sharpen his skills, hang out with his friends and, in the throes of a very satisfying growth spurt, learn to dunk. In 2017, when he was 14, he and his friends had dreams of playing together on the high-school basketball team and thought daily practice at the rec centre was the way to get there.

“It was his happy place,” Ms. Morin says. She liked knowing her son was somewhere safe where he was being supervised by adults.

Despite being a regular, the teen could tell he and his friends, the ones who were racialized, weren’t always welcome. They were all paying members of the centre, but were routinely asked by staff if they’d paid, were accused of smoking marijuana on the property and were reprimanded or kicked out for grabbing the rim when dunking, all things they didn’t see happening to white patrons.

One afternoon, the teen and some of his friends were involved in a short fight that happened in the hallway of the recreation centre. There’s no agreed-upon version of events, but in Ms. Morin’s submissions to the tribunal, she says one boy slapped his friend, then began charging at another boy, at which point Ms. Morin’s son put the first boy in a headlock. Several others then joined in, pushing and kicking. The boys’ families were informed that, pending an investigation, the kids weren’t allowed to attend the centre. Ms. Morin’s son tried to attend twice that week and was turned away by staff; the second time, he got into an argument with one staffer, according to the town, and yelled at him from outside the door.

A week after the fight, the teen and the other boys, who were accompanied by their parents, met with the leisure centre staff to review what happened and discuss possible punishments. All were given year-long bans from both the centre and the library, except for Ms. Morin’s son, who got an additional three months for “verbal abuse” of the staff member he interacted with after the fight.

Ms. Morin remembers her son’s sad confusion that day when he learned he could no longer step foot in the place that had become his second home. For a teenager, 15 months felt like an eternity. He said: “Mom, I’m not a bad kid. What did I do? I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” she recalls.

In a letter, Ms. Morin appealed the ban; she says the boys should face consequences for the fight, which all agreed they had participated in, but that the ban from two of the only safe places youth could hang out in the town was too severe. She pointed out her son would be attending high school in the fall and needed to access the library for his education. Staff denied her request, and the requests of other parents to shorten their children’s bans.

That fall, Ms. Morin met with the town’s mayor and chief administrative officer to complain that the investigation into the incident and the punishments meted out were tainted by racism. The town’s human-resources director was asked to investigate and after reviewing incident reports and background information and interviewing the three staff who were responsible for determining the punishment, she concluded there had been no wrongdoing on the part of staff.

Frustrated, Ms. Morin and several other parents filed applications with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, which heard two of the cases in 2019, more than two years after the fight and the bans.

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Ms. Morin remembers her son crying in confusion the day he learned he couldn't go to the recreation centre any more.

Geoff McKnight, the town’s chief administrative officer, recalls feeling confident he and staff were in the right, that they hadn’t let bias influence their behaviour. And, he says, walking into the hearings, the legal team was confident they’d win. But when the hearings went on much longer than they anticipated, he thought, “There perhaps is more to this than I had originally anticipated.”

Mr. McKnight and others at the hearing learned how destabilizing the punishment was for Ms. Morin’s son, whose self-image was tied to basketball. Within a few months, feeling like he did not belong and that “his life was now over,” the teen started cutting class and using drugs, he testified during the tribunal hearing. He says he believed the punishment he and his friends received was intended to get rid of the Black kids who frequented the centre.

The adjudicator, Eva Nichols, pointed out that several white people can be seen in the video, including the young figure skaters, and there were a few white boys who reported the incident to staff, but none were questioned.

“Only racialized youth were questioned, and only racialized youth faced consequences,” she wrote in her decision, released in November, 2019.

An analysis of the ban log kept by the leisure centre revealed that white people who had disrespected staff or engaged in disruptive behaviour were suspended for a much shorter period than the racialized boys were – one month versus a year or more for the boys involved in the fight – and some were even repeat offenders.

Nana Yanful, a staff lawyer at the Black Legal Action Centre, says this isn’t surprising: She’s seen the way Black youth in leisure spaces, especially basketball courts, are surveilled, harassed and held to a different set of standards than their non-Black counterparts. “There are all these stereotypes around what it means for Black people to occupy space in numbers greater than one,” she says. “We see time and time again the way our spaces our policed.”

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Ms. Nichols ruled in favour of the boys, concluding they’d been victims of racial discrimination by staff. This charge is hard to prove, which makes rulings like this exceedingly rare.

A point Ms. Nichols hammered on was the way multiple staff – none of whom had seen the fight in person, only on low-grade security footage – described it as the most violent incident they had ever witnessed.

“Repeating this comment over and over again contributed strongly to the stereotypical observation that Black males are likely to be aggressive and even violent,” she wrote. She also did not buy that Ms. Morin’s son had verbally abused or intimidated the staff member he interacted with in the days after the fight.

Those allegations, she said, “further reinforces the likelihood of racial discrimination, since Black and racialized youth are often viewed as particularly aggressive.”

The stereotype that Black people have a higher capacity for violence has been used throughout history to justify enslavement, segregation and use of force by police, Ms. Yanful says.

“This criminalization, this hypersurveillance, overscrutinization – it happens in our schools, it happens in our community centres, it happens, obviously, in policing, it happens in employment,” Ms. Yanful says. “Where are you safe? Where do you feel comfortable?”

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She sees many parallels between this case and ones she’s handled in the education system, where Black children are suspended and expelled at far higher rates than their peers. In the Toronto District School Board, for example, 42 per cent of all Black students are suspended at least once, compared with 18 per cent of non-Black students.

Those stereotypes extend to adults, too, which Kim Martin, the mother of another boy who was banned, has felt intimately, living in Bradford.

“I go off, I become an ‘angry Black woman’ or someone that they may classify as not being educated,” she says, which is why she opted to have Ms. Morin, who is white, represent her son at the tribunal rather than doing it herself.

While Ms. Morin was notified her son had been banned from the leisure centre through an e-mail from staff, Ms. Martin found out when a police officer delivered a letter to her home.

She grew up in a largely Black neighbourhood in Toronto’s northwest, but moved out of the city to escape the systemic racism, she says. “You saw them not taking care of your housing or your building or the community you had pride and joy in. The government didn’t care any more and you know they didn’t care because of the type of people that lived there.”

She followed the path of other Black families out of an underfunded neighbourhood to a quieter community.

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“You’re like, ‘Okay, well, let’s have what we see on TV’: the house, the dream ... but when it came to the racial side of it, I was not expecting that,” she says.

Soon, word spread about the incident and the five banned boys came to be perceived as gang members by some of the white townspeople, Ms. Martin says.

Carl James, a professor at York University who has extensively studied anti-Black racism in education, says while the boys were not charged with any crimes, being barred from the two main recreational and educational spaces in their community was a type of criminalization.

“Imprisonment doesn’t always mean being behind bars; it can also mean limiting where you have access to. You might not have access to learning, you might not have access to recreational activities, places to hang out that might advance your knowledge and enhance your opportunities,” he says.

Especially in small communities with few alternatives for recreation, basketball is “a very significant and important sport for these youth,” he says.

The ban, both mothers say, robbed their sons of their childhoods and prompted both to quit basketball. Ms. Martin’s son played for a league and would use his time at the leisure centre to improve his skills, but after the ban, gave up playing the sport entirely. Ms. Morin’s son not only gave up playing, but lost interest in watching – the boy who was once a Raptors diehard fan barely tuned in to see his team become NBA champions last year, Ms. Morin says.

Sylvester Murray gets ready to teach kids basketball at the Thornton Montessori Academy in Cookstown, Ont., this past September.

Sylvester Murray, a Black man who grew up in Toronto and now serves as a child youth worker in Bradford, says the race and class stratifications in town have always been stark. He’s seen firsthand how they play out at the leisure centre after starting two basketball organizations in town.

He’s seen staff complain about and discipline Black kids for goofing around on the basketball court, and talk about them as if they were threatening adults. “They don’t see our kids as kids,” he says.

The emphasis on hockey over basketball – sports that were coded white and privileged versus racialized and accessible – is something youth brought up a lot during a public consultation hosted by the town in early March this year.

That consultation was part of an equity review spawned by the tribunal decision and led by Tana Turner, a Black diversity and equity consultant (Ms. Turner plans to deliver a report with her findings and recommendations to staff in early 2021). The youth who attended, almost all of whom were racialized, told stories about frequently being asked if they paid admission fees, being accused of smoking marijuana on the property and of being kicked out, or reprimanded for grabbing the rim when dunking, something they’ve seen white patrons do without issue.

“Their attitude and the way that they treat you makes you not want to go there,” one youth said. “We get treated like criminals,” another said.

They described being hassled by other patrons for being too aggressive when playing, and several said they had been called racial slurs by other patrons. “There’s been times where an adult … will call us the N-word or say something racist to us and we’ll go tell the workers, but nothing will be done,” Ms. Morin’s son says. “But if we swear at somebody, then it’s a huge deal and we’re not allowed to come back.”

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The tribunal adjudicator, Ms. Nichols, ordered the town to pay Ms. Morin’s son and Ms. Martin’s son $15,000 in damages. She also ordered the town to review its practices to ensure they did not contravene the province’s human-rights code. Although the ban had been lifted even before that, the boys have only gone back to the centre a few times. The space feels unwelcome, they say.

At the public consultation, several youth suggested the leisure centre would be a more welcoming place for them if staff were replaced.

“So you don’t think they can be retrained?” one of the facilitators asked.

“You can’t retrain ignorance,” Ms. Morin’s son said.

Mr. McKnight, the town’s CAO, says he initially believed he and staff were in the right in how they’d handled the situation. But he has given their practices – including having police involved in determining punishments – more thought.

In the summer, after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, marches and rallies denouncing anti-Black racism sprang up around the world, including Bradford.

“It was illuminating,” Mr. McKnight says. “I gained an even greater appreciation for the difficulties that visible minorities face and and Black youth in particular ... and we have a role to play in that here, too, not just as a regional government but as a community in general.”

Mr. Murray, who spoke at one event, says it was the first time he’s felt comfortable talking openly about racism in front of so many white neighbours. It’s a subject he generally avoided addressing in the past, including when he found many supporters of Donald Trump and his immigration policies among the congregants at his church in 2016 (in frustration, he left the church).

Nadia Sinclair, who for years had been the lone Black member of the town’s diversity committee and organized one of the Black Lives Matter rallies in town this summer, is on a new anti-racism task force the mayor started. This week, the town released a 21-point diversity and inclusiveness action plan.

While she says she was encouraged to see council in a town as white as hers even find the language to speak about racism, she isn’t convinced townspeople necessarily want to see anything change.

She noticed that a week into the global protests against anti-Black racism and police violence in June, locals were growing tired of it. She heard them call into local radio stations to complain about it and suggest they had no responsibility to bear since they didn’t enslave anyone personally.

Rob Keffer, Bradford’s mayor, says he, like Mr. McKnight, was surprised by the tribunal ruling. After reviewing Ms. Nichols’s reasons, however, he says he believes unconscious bias was to blame and says the solution lies in educating town employees on unconscious bias and trying to recruit more racialized staff.

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Still, he maintains city staff responsible for banning the boys “acted in good faith.”

“I don’t think our employees acted in a racist way,” he says.

Hearing that frustrates Mr. Murray. “They can’t see past their noses,” he says. “They’ve never lived it or walked it.”

Task forces and human-rights tribunal rulings don’t change the fact that being racialized puts a target on your back, he says. “Anonymity is impossible. You can’t just be a kid in this town if you’re not white.”

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