Black Lives Matter activists met formally with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne for the first time Thursday night in an event tackling the issue of racism that became increasingly raucous and heated.
Organizers were left scrambling as at least 350 people packed the Daniels Spectrum community centre in Regent Park to take part in the meeting, also attended by Toronto Mayor John Tory. Overflow rooms were needed to accommodate everyone, and the event was extended by at least an hour to hear more voices.
"I know we are all angry," said an audience member, Nyunyuzi Tibagwa. "I want to hear racism is a priority."
The racially diverse crowd clapped and stomped their feet, chanting "black lives, they matter," as Ms. Wynne entered the centre with a long line of community leaders, including Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister David Zimmer, Education Minister Mitzie Hunter and trustees with the Toronto District School Board.
"You care enough to be here and to have this conversation. And the patience to tell us one more time," Ms. Wynne said, to groans from the audience. "This is not a new conversation."
"I want to be uncivil," yelled one person in attendance, cutting off Ms. Wynne as she wrapped up her remarks. "I'm not angry, I'm disappointed. Do your job."
The public meeting was hosted by the Anti-Racism Directorate, established by the provincial government in February to tackle racism in government policy, legislation and services.
Minister of Children and Youth Services Michael Coteau, who also oversees a portfolio on anti-racism issues, attended the event. "Racism is real. Anti-black racism is real," he told the meeting. "Racism finds its way into small classrooms and large institutions."
But there were shouts of anger when Mr. Coteau announced the directorate would receive $5-million for its first year.
Lines quickly formed when the microphones opened up.
"You know why I started [chanting] black lives matter?" one person asked. "Because if black lives mattered, I wouldn't be here."
Many people at the meeting expressed frustration with the government's performance on numerous issues – including employment struggles, racial profiling and a systematic lack of representation – as Ms. Wynne and Mr. Tory took notes.
Ms. Wynne met briefly in April with members of the group on the steps of the provincial legislature after activists camped for two weeks outside Toronto police headquarters, just blocks away, to protest the death of Andrew Loku. The 45-year-old was shot by police last July outside a building for people with mental-health problems.
Mr. Tory had promised in April to meet in public with the group after holding closed-door meetings with black leaders in the city, including police Chief Mark Saunders. The group has consistently refused to hold private meetings with the mayor.
At Thursday's meeting, Mr. Tory remained silent, standing only to remind attendees of a series of meetings that will be held starting in September.
Black Lives Matter, once a fringe activist group, has converted growing public awareness into meetings with high-ranking officials. A pair of recent high-profile shootings of black men by police in the United States has galvanized supporters and reignited public debate about racism in Canada.
The meeting marked another step in the uneasy relationship between politicians and activists. Black Lives Matter held up the Pride parade on July 3, issuing a list of demands – including the banning of police at future Pride events – and emphasizing, more broadly, what its leaders believe to be discriminatory practices that target black residents.
Following their protest, organizers said they were overwhelmed with hate mail. The move generated a mixed public response, with Mr. Tory writing a public letter in support of the Toronto Police Association's participation in future Pride events.