The Past, Present and Future of Racism in Toronto

The only photo of the 1933 riot in Christie Pits

This week at the Ethnic Aisle, we’re exploring the past, present and future of racism in Toronto. Racism was and is part of Toronto. Moreover, our racism is evolving. This isn’t a value judgment so much as an observation: as the city changes, so too do our experiences with prejudice, both systemic and personal.

These posts aren’t a referendum on whether each successive generation is getting any better or worse at being racist (we’re saving that for a March Madness-styled tournament post. Haha, just kidding! Maybe). Rather, think of this as crib notes on issues that often get forgotten amongst the greater narrative of Toronto the Good, with a side of self-reflection on our progressive city’s decidedly less-progressive moments.By looking at Toronto’s racism in greater contextual scope, we hope to get the ball rolling on some conversations about how we’re all getting along and where we all hope to end up.

To get things started, we look back at The Past.

Renee Sylvestre-Williams presents a timeline of Canada’s more egregious racist decisions. For example, remember that time our first Prime Minister didn’t believe Asian or First Nations folks should have the right to vote? No? Well read all about it here.

Chantal Braganza gets municipal, exploring how Toronto’s by-laws have been slightly less than accommodating over the years (hint: very passive aggressively. How totally us, right?).

Then, we address the reality of racism in The Present.

Kelli Korducki talks to the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, and learns some harsh truths about the way Canada treats the racialized internationals who work on our farms.

Lisa Charleyboy dissects last August’s Holy Chuck Burger scandal, when the Toronto restaurant thought it was ok to have a sandwich named the “Drunken, Dirty Half-Breed” on its menu.

Illustrator Roxana Parsa shares her graphic take on the GTA’s downtown/suburban divide.

Sam Tecle show, in stark numbers, how racialization of poverty leaves many non-white Torontonians in substandard housing. 

Navneet Alang on paying lip-service to diversity in a city where the media, cultural institutions and wealth are mostly white.

Anupa Mistry talks toLiza Paul and Bahia Watson, the playwrights and actors behind the hilarious Pomme is French for Apple.

And finally, our writers move on to The Future.

Denise Balkissoon argues for purposeful, perhaps policy-based, integration as the key to a less racist future.

Jef Catapang asks the experts: Canadian science fiction writers share their ideas on what “race” is, and where prejudice is going.

and Septembre Anderson wonders if racial profiling by police will always be part of Toronto.

Comment, tweet, write a response post! We’d love if you joined in the conversation.


Racism, Future: Racial Profiling & the Toronto Police

By Septembre Anderson

“Blacks arrested by Toronto police are treated more harshly than whites….

“Black people, charged with simple drug possession, are taken to police stations more often than whites facing the same charge.

 “Once at the station, accused blacks are held overnight, for a bail hearing, at twice the rate of whites.

 –“Singled Out,” Jim Rankin, Jennifer Quinn, Michelle Shephard, Scott Simmie and John Duncanson, October 19, 2002

 “You were sent here to protect us but who protects us from you?”

– KRS-One

 In 2002, a team of Toronto Star journalists sorted through mounds of police data from over 480,000 incidents to put together the Race and Crime series. The collection of articles, profiles, maps and statistics unveiled an unsettling trend in the Metropolitan Toronto Police culture: racial profiling.

For Toronto’s black communities, the Star series was just quantitative evidence of their qualitative experiences. In the rest of Canada’s most populous city, the numbers on racial profiling caused an uproar. Julian Fantino, then chief of the Toronto Police Service, denied the Star’s allegations, and in 2003, the police union launched a $2.7 billion class-action libel suit against the Star (which it eventually lost).

It’s been almost ten years since the Star released its groundbreaking report and while much has changed, much has remained the same. This year, the Star series “Known to Police” revealed that black people are 3.2 times more likely than white people to be stopped by the police.

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Racism, Future: Sci-Fi Authors Riff

By Jef Catapang

Poster design by Simon Yau. It would be a cool movie, right?

If you read a fair share of sci-fi (written by someone other than Octavia E. Butler), you might be prone to feeling like all this flesh-wringing about race will be looked upon as nothing more than a quaint marker of our times. A lot of sci-fi teaches us that race just won’t be an issue in the future. Besides, if there is still such thing as racism in the future it will be directed at robots, so who cares? Not us. It doesn’t matter how sexy you are, robots. We’re not buying it.

To get a deeper sense of how science fiction has dealt with the possibilities of human interaction and diversity, we called up some of Canada’s most intelligent and most out-there imaginations to talk sci-fi, race and the future of us.

Derwin Mak

The Shrine of the Siren Stone (in which an otaku anime-nerd falls in love with a Japanese girl dressed as a French maid who turns out to be an android)

On why scientific developments won’t change racism:

The concept of race is rather hard to define to begin with. Even though all the scientific research shows that people have the same DNA, that we have the same ancestors, there will always be some differences. I’m not saying those differences are good or bad, they’re just there and people will notice them.

On why ‘first contact’ won’t bring about world peace:

Often science fiction authors will say that we’ll all suddenly become one unified human race as we realize that we’re not alone. I’m going to take the opposite approach and say that the arrival of aliens will not make us see ourselves any more unified than we already were.

A good example is when the Europeans came to North America. That did not end the squabbling or the warfare amongst the Native American or Canadian First Nations tribes. They still fought against each other, and indeed, they even sought out alliances between the English, French and the Spanish against each other. So I don’t think that the arrival of aliens will make human ethnic groups feel like they have any more or less in common than they do now. Unless, of course, we end up being common prey.

Suzette Mayr

Moon Honey (in which an 18-year-old white waitress suddenly turns Black)

On everyone being beige in the future:

When I go to Toronto, I’m always struck by all these mixed-race couples, children, and people that I see. That it’s actually in ads now, which to me suggests some sort of acceptance in the mainstream of this as being normal—in quotation marks. You don’t see it as much in Calgary. You see it on the street but you don’t necessarily see it reflected in the media. And I remember someone telling me statistics about Japanese-Canadians, about how they’re gradually kind of disappearing as they’re inter-marrying with other races. My feeling is that perhaps what will happen is we’ll have this blending as we go. On the other hand, there’s tons of Islamophobia. I think about the Tea Party, and all the kind of stuff that’s happening in the United States, which suggests a return to segregation rather than an inter-mixing.

On our increasing capability to control what our bodies look like:

Weirder and weirder things are happening for beauty. People are altering their faces and looking more and more like cats. I wonder—there’s a certain kind of aesthetic that goes with bi-racial Asian people that seems to be fetishized and seen as beautiful. And what about these lips that people are getting, these kind of big lips? I don’t know. Are people wanting lips like Black people?

On why racism is here to stay:

There will always be an underclass and there will always be racial undertones associated with that. Think about the historical movement towards the prairie, where the desirables and the so-called whites were English people or Scottish people, and then the Irish came and they were black. And once they were integrated, well, the Italians were black. Then the Ukranians and now it’s the visible minorities. I think that’s just the way we’re genetically engineered: to be mean to somebody, to find justification to exploit somebody else or treat somebody else poorly.

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Racism, Future: Let’s Mix it Up

By Denise Balkissoon

Officially, Toronto is way multicultural. In my experience, it’s increasingly segregated. Aside from the subway at rush hour, I see deepening cliques and enclaves. Some of them don’t bother me as much as others—the white crowd at a Neko Case show is no biggie, the white crowd at the National Magazine Awards very frustrating—but the overall effect isn’t the city where I want to live.

We’ve long known that Toronto is split geographically by income, and that the growing low-income areas tend to be majority non-white. Poverty is definitely racialized in this city and it’s impossible to talk about racism without noting that all of the ways that people can be marginalized are infuriatingly linked. Remember, ethnic segregation in Toronto isn’t just about poverty—middle-class and affluent people often live in ethnic enclaves long after they’ve earned enough to have wider housing choices.

Now, I like that I can get three different Jamaican dishes from three different restaurants on Eglinton West. I’m currently soliciting invitations to go dancing at one of the Ethiopian nightspots on Danforth. But rigid enclaves can encourage an Us and Them attitude, especially since, in hyper-diverse 2012 Toronto, “racism” doesn’t just mean Anglos versus everyone else. Plenty of ethnic groups are ok with white people, but continue to throw shade at other ethnicities. Old country beef fought out in the new land keeps dominant groups dominant—grudges and in-fighting allows the historical cream to stay on top. Lack of interaction gives suspicion an incubator in which to flourish.

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Racism, Present: Toronto’s White Lie

By Navneet Alang

After the Danzig shooting. Photo by Mark Blinch, for Reuters, from

In July of this year, 14-year-old Shyanne Charles and youth worker and entrepreneur Joshua Yasay were killed in the worst shooting in Toronto’s history, on Danzig Avenue in Scarborough. Four days later, news broke of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Both times, my social media feeds lit up with fear, anger and confusion. Still, I noticed something: the people in my Twitter more easily related to a nerdy film audience excitedly watching a summer blockbuster a few thousand miles away than to a group of people hanging out in Scarborough. One person I follow actually said that, however strangely, she felt more threatened by the events in Aurora than those in Toronto’s east end.

I was as disturbed by her statement as I was sympathetic. I knew something about it was deeply wrong. Yet, at the same time, I entirely understood. As the day went on, it became clear that people seemed to share the sentiment: these people in Aurora—just like me!—were simply watching a movie, but I’ve never been to a barbeque in Scarborough.

It was then that the blindingly obvious hit me: it was that sentiment, and others like it, that are the root of Toronto’s troubles with race.

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Racism, Present: Housing, by the Numbers

By Sam Tecle


Per cent of Toronto’s poor families who were considered ethno-racial minorities in 2007


Average household income for a family living in Toronto Community housing


Average GTA household income


Salary of Chief TCHC Operating Officer Deborah Simon


Percent of newcomer renters who are in “core housing need,” meaning they spend over 30 per cent of their income on housing. Less than 25 per cent of non-immigrant renters are in the same situation.

85, 578

Households on Toronto’s affordable housing wait list in June of 2012 – an all-time high for a number that’s been steadily rising since 2008

158, 032

Total number of individuals on the wait list in June 2012


Number of single family homes owned by  Toronto Community Housing Corporation that City Council is deciding whether to sell

$751 million

Current repair backlog at the TCHC


Murders on TCHC property between 2007 and 2009


Percent of the city’s murders that occur on TCHC property


Percent of the city’s population that live on TCHC property. That means a TCHC resident is four times more likely to be murdered than the average Torontonian.


Number of TCHC community patrol officers, down from 200 in 2003. They are periodically augmented by regular police, such as anti-violence TAVIS teams.


Sam Tecle is a writer and a PhD student at York University. 

Q&A: Liza Paul and Bahia Watson, Pomme Is French For Apple

I grew up in Brampton, that far-off big-little city of Jamaicans, Punjabis and Newfoundlanders. If you rolled with the cultural collision, it was the best place to grow up. (If you couldn’t, you moved?) Brampton is a happy-weird demographic accident of the GTA. Where rainbow packs of friends are common and ethnicity figures prominently in your day-to-day interactions but isn’t necessarily a problem so much as a curiosity to be explored.

After five years in Toronto, nothing’s brought me closer to that feeling than Pomme Is French For Apple. In August I spent an hour cackling with laughter – like you only do with your closest – when I caught the show at Best of Fringe. Its mandate is delivered plain-spoken within the first few minutes by stars/creators Liza Paul and Bahia Watson: “Pomme is French for Apple – and yardie for pussy.”

THESE ARE MY PEOPLE. I love this story – about sex and women and fools you can only suck your teeth at – the way it’s told, the feelings it inspires and the girls who tell it. I have not laughed harder this year; nor have I been more impressed at what is going on in this city and who, despite what Toronto Life or the Worthy 30 tells me, is relevant.

Pomme’s been in production for two years and is so good I’m going to watch it again, this Sunday, September 23 at the Drake Hotel where it runs as part of the Just For Laughs Festival. Tickets ($15) will be available at the door. But first, I just had to talk to Bahia and Liza about brown girls, jokes and theatre in Toronto.

How did you guys meet?
Liza: We were both doing an artistic residency at d’bi.young anitafrika’s theatre. We were all working on solo pieces in the program and most people’s pieces had a tinge of sadness – but mine wasn’t and Bahia’s wasn’t either, we had jokes in ours. So after the program ended, in September of 2009, we decided to keep writing together.

Bahia: I was working on a one-woman show called In Search of Shaniqua Jenkins and Liza was working on her show called Everybody Wan Catch A Screw and it was just this vibes thing. We didn’t know what we were working on or toward but thought we’d write and set some deadlines.

Were you both already involved in performance and theatre?

L: When I started I was the associate producer at Soulpepper and d’bi approached me before she opened her theatre to do some PR. My whole job was making contracts and writing emails but I was in such a creative environment so I was like “I think I want to tell stories too, but I don’t know what that looks like.” I wasn’t able to articulate what I wanted beyond that. So I told d’bi, and that was a terrifying email to send because, living in the administrative world there’s artists and administrators and the two shall never meet. Until then I had no experience with writing or performing – nor was I sure that’s what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I wanted to write something and maybe it would be funny.

B: I didn’t go to theatre school but that didn’t reflect how much I knew or cared. The way d’bi works is so interesting because it’s a great, safe space for getting to know yourself as an artist. It’s very liberating.

That sounds like something that is unique to the “theatre world.” Does that exist in Toronto?

L: If it does I don’t know about it.

B: It was a very unique space in the people it brought together and the feeling. Continue reading