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Demonstrators threw pink paint on a King Edward VII Equestrian Statue at Queen’s Park in Toronto on July 18, 2020.

Carlos Osorio/The Canadian Press

Three individuals charged with vandalizing statues in downtown Toronto were no longer in custody early Sunday morning, after an hours-long rally for their release that the Toronto Police Chief later characterized as a distraction from more important issues of anti-Black racism.

Now several MPPs, lawyers and members of the Black Lives Matter movement are calling for the charges against the protesters to be dropped. The controversy comes amid continuing protests over police treatment of racialized communities and the presence of public memorials to people who committed historic injustices.

Competing narratives have also emerged about what occurred on the night of July 18 with regards to the detainees’ access to counsel.

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On Saturday morning, a Black Lives Matter demonstration began at Ryerson University and moved to Queen’s Park, focusing on calls to defund the police. During the protest, a statue of Egerton Ryerson at Ryerson University and another of John A. Macdonald at Queen’s Park were painted bright pink.

Daniel Gooch, Jenna Reid and Danielle Smith were arrested and detained by police after being found covered in paint near a van with painting supplies.

At approximately 5 p.m., Toronto Police released a statement that the three had been charged with three counts of mischief and conspiring to commit an offence, and that two had been released.

But hours later, TPS tweeted that the detainees had “declined to sign the release forms to leave custody. They will be released as soon as they sign, and we would like them to do so.”

By then a crowd had gathered outside police headquarters, including the counsel for the detainees and several MPPs.

According to Saron Gebresellassi, lawyer for one of the individuals charged, the last detainee did not get released until after 2 a.m. She called the incident an “embarrassment” to Toronto in light of the growing global movements for police accountability and transparency.

“The international community is monitoring Toronto and so this is not the Toronto that we want to show the world,” she added.

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She also said that she is calling on the Canadian legal community to advocate for dropping all charges against the three individuals.

Ms. Gebresellassi said police did not allow her to speak to her client on the phone until approximately 3 p.m on Saturday, which was only a brief conversation.

She said that she had to wait hours to receive information from the arresting officer, and then waited until midnight to speak to her client again about conditions of their release, which she calls “unconstitutional” and a violation of charter rights.

However, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said in a statement Sunday evening that the lack of access to counsel was a “false narrative,” and that the detainees were given access to counsel by mid-afternoon but “chose to remain in custody” into the early morning.

“We record these processes, and the moment that counsel was selected, access was provided,” Chief Saunders said in the statement. “It is unfortunate that a narrative has been manufactured that does not further the very real issues we are facing with anti-Black systemic racism, and the dialogue around the police and the community.”

Several MPPs who were on the scene in front of police headquarters backed Ms. Gebresellassi’s assertions on social media and to The Globe and Mail that she was prevented from speaking to her client.

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Rima Berns-McGown, MPP and Official Opposition critic for poverty and homelessness, said she arrived at the scene in the early evening.

She is also calling for the charges to be dropped, arguing that the statues are a monument to past injustice and need to be part of a larger conversation about how society celebrates historical wrongs.

“The issue here is that you have these statues of people who have committed colonial violence and, and racist violence, frankly, and who still stand for those things at a time when in theory, we are trying to turn Canada around and to make amends for centuries of that violence, and yet the statues still stand,” Ms. Berns-McGown said.

On Sunday morning, the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter held a press conference demanding the charges be dropped.

John Struthers, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said that the current context puts a political weight on the decision to arrest and charge protesters.

“In ways it’s a political question,” he said. “The police have discretion to charge anyone at any time with anything and there were many offences that perhaps are not charged.”

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