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Toronto Let’s worry less about the word ‘racist,’ and more about the effects of racism in Toronto

Michael Tibollo is pictured in Vaughan, Ont. on Oct. 19, 2015.

Peter Power

Even before the issue blew up in the legislature, Torontonians noticed that Michael Tibollo, the new Ontario Minister of Community Safety, wore a bulletproof vest for a recent visit to Driftwood, the neighbourhood at the intersection of Jane Street and Finch Avenue West.

On July 8, 10 days before Mr. Tibollo brought it up himself at Queen’s Park, former mayoral candidate D!ONNE Renée tweeted the now-infamous photo of the politician in which he’s wearing the vest, standing with three young black men and Premier Doug Ford.

“What message are you sending…?” Ms. Renée asked. “Not a good start…Do better.”

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But it was the minister’s own comments that sparked a fire on Wednesday, when he replied to an NDP MPP’s question about the Progressive Conservative government’s position on the practice of street checks and carding, which disproportionately target young black and brown men.

Ensuring that Toronto is free from gun violence is his priority, said Mr. Tibollo, who also oversees Ontario’s Anti-Racism Directorate. “Personally, I went out to Jane and Finch, put on a bulletproof vest and spent 7 o’clock to 1 o’clock in the morning visiting sites that had previously had bullet-ridden people killed in the middle of the night,” he said.

These comments are inarticulate – I’m pretty sure that bullet-ridden people are already dead – but they do belie where Mr. Tibollo’s mind goes when prompted with a question about policing and people of colour: guns, and a historically low-income area full of non-white families.

After all, he lives in Woodbridge, where there was a nightclub shooting this past weekend, and which has been the site of significant targeted mob violence in recent years. And most of the recent shootings in Toronto’s current epidemic have occurred downtown. But it’s Driftwood, at Jane and Finch, that he mentioned.

So while he may have been wearing the vest at police insistence, as he said, it was his decision to bring it up, in that way, in response to that question.

Driftwood is an outer suburb neighbourhood that’s long been denied a share of Toronto’s riches, where residents deal with bad public transportation, a lack of good grocery stores and other urban ills. And now, just like always, the people who actually live there are being overshadowed in the discussion of their community, as we all focus on which politician is scoring points, and how.

Most attention is being paid to NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who called Mr. Tibollo’s comments “inexcusably racist” on Twitter Wednesday afternoon. He shot back an accusation on the platform of “petty partisan politics.”

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Mayor John Tory waded in on Thursday at a meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board, where he presented a plan to combat gun violence in the city, including doubling the number of CCTV cameras in the city.

At the news conference, the mayor was asked about a letter sent out by the group Jane Finch Action Against Poverty, demanding Mr. Tibollo’s resignation and condemning his “racist and discriminatory comments.”

Though he mentioned that he’s never been offered a bulletproof vest on a police ride-along, Mr. Tory declined to comment on the letter. He did manage to say, though, that “people are inclined to throw the word ‘racism’ around with respect to all kinds of things,” including at him.

It’s shameful to see white political leaders making the conversation about the word “racism” rather than the realities of racism. It’s simply a fact that people who live in poverty are more likely to be racialized and vice versa, and that in Toronto, one community where such people live is Driftwood. Clearly, suggesting the neighbourhood is so dangerous it’s like a war zone is a slight against people of colour. If it makes Mr. Tibollo or Mr. Tory feel better, we could also call the comments classist, as they’re also discriminatory toward those who are low-income and poor.

Imagine if, instead of considering the idea of racism a personal insult, politicians considered it a problem worth solving. Here are some things that Jane Finch Action Against Poverty and others in the community have been asking for, for years: better public transportation, good jobs to commute to, affordable childcare and easier access to fresh, cost-effective food. And yes, an end to carding, which has never been shown to deter crime.

Like I said, people were watching before this latest scandal: In April, the Jamaican Canadian Centre in the area played host to a debate to discuss these and other issues with the candidates for premier. Mr. Ford declined to attend, another reason those who live there might be hesitant to give his cabinet the benefit of the doubt. As Ms. Renée’s tweet shows, people who care about the neighbourhood already knew they were being led down the same, stereotypical path.

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At Queen’s Park on Thursday, Mr. Tibollo defended his wearing of the vest and declined to apologize, though he did acknowledge his comments were sloppy. “Obviously I’ve learned that the way you say things should be perhaps more careful,” he said. “Because I honestly didn’t think that I was being offensive in what I was saying.”

But this is not about being offensive, or offended. It’s about correctly identifying the problems at hand, and caring enough to fix them.

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