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Opinion: We must defund the police across the board — in Ontario, Toronto, and U of T

Racism is foundational to Canada, and we must put pressure on institutions of all scales
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

This past summer, social media timelines have been transformed into an ongoing memorial of Black and Indigenous people who have been lost at the hands of an indifferent white supremacist state. From the killing of George Floyd to the shooting of Jacob Blake, we have seen protests against policing and anti-Black racism erupt across this continent.

The public is demanding the protection of Black and Indigenous lives, but at times it feels as though these cries are unheard. The Louisville Metro Council has passed ‘Breonna’s Law,’ — which will ban no knock warrants — but Brett Hankison, Myles Cosgrove, and Jonathan Mattingly, the cops who killed Breonna Taylor, have not been arrested.

Closer to home, Ejaz Choudry, Chantel Moore, D’Andre Campbell, and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, among others, have all died during police responses to mental health calls in recent months.

There are more names, more tragedies, and more stories of unfair and unnecessary loss piling onto one another. This unjustified violence is bound to continue without a total systemic overhaul, a complete reimagining of the state and its services. How can this be done both immediately and effectively? Black folks who have been at the forefront of this movement for years have delivered the answer to us on a silver platter, and white people are showing up late: we need to defund the police.

In Minneapolis, the site of George Floyd’s murder, city council members have already set motions in place to disband its police force. City Council President Lisa Bender has acknowledged that the current system of policing is not working. Bender claims that we need to listen to Black leadership and find support within communities.

The sentiments of Bender’s pledge have been echoed across North America, and an abundance of folks are calling for similar action in Canada. In Toronto, we have seen a half-hearted proposal by city councillors Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam to temporarily cut the city’s police budget by 10 per cent, which amounts to a $122 million reduction — and even that motion failed.

Mayor John Tory has pushed for reform within police services rather than abolition, claiming that he refuses to support “arbitrary” cuts to the Toronto police’s $1.22 billion annual budget. Tory’s sentiment was reflected by Toronto’s city council in their recent decision to forego budget cuts to police services, instead approving an incremental budget increase of up to $50 million to cover the cost of implementing body cameras.

The effectiveness of the use of body cameras has been widely criticized, therefore raising questions of whether this is an appropriate action on the council’s behalf. It is already apparent that there is a staunch difference between action in Toronto and Minneapolis.

Though both municipalities have embedded histories of brutality against Black and Indigenous folks in their policing, only one of the cities is moving forward to dismantle such a violent structure. Why is this? What is stopping communities in Canada from taking steps toward defunding the police, even when there is so much violence and brutality perpetuated by the institution of policing?

The Police Services Act (PSA), which became law in Ontario in 1990, is responsible for the conduct of all police services operating in the province besides the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the establishment of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU).

This act provides context for our discussion on defunding the police in Ontario. Section four of the PSA states that  “adequate and effective police services” must be provided in all Ontario municipalities, including “crime prevention; law enforcement; assistance to victims of crime; public order maintenance,” and “emergency response.”

Beyond these criteria, what is deemed to be “adequate and effective” in terms of policing is not clearly explained in the PSA. This complicates the disbandment of municipal police forces, but what if Toronto, for example, decided to disband its police force anyway? At what point would a budget cut be significant enough for it to be considered a breach of the PSA? It is unclear how great of a cut would threaten the status of police services as “adequate and effective” in any given municipality.

If a community in Ontario were to reduce its municipal police services beyond what is considered to be “adequate and effective,” the provincial government would intervene. According to section 19(1) of the PSA, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) is responsible for “providing police services in respect of the parts of Ontario that do not have municipal police forces.”

The province has the authority to charge the municipality for the use of the OPP, placing the burden of the financial cost on the community. Unlike the city of Minneapolis, city councils in Ontario are unable to defund and dismantle their police forces without intervention from the provincial government.

Recent decisions made by Toronto’s city council further enshrine the police force that the PSA actively protects, and the public is not happy about it. The 16 of 24 councillors who opposed the budget cut have been called out for their actions, with citizens expressing their disappointment and disdain. This work that is being done by the public is integral to achieving tangible change within the system and imagining realities outside of it. Public demand brought discourse on police abolition to the table, and continued action will create spaces to continue that discussion.

It is important to note that one piece of provincial legislation is not the only barrier to defunding police services in Ontario. Racism is embedded in the foundation of this country — in institutions of all scales. Therefore, it is necessary to put pressure on all scales in order to further the movement of justice for Black and Indigenous lives. It is also necessary to break down the conglomerate of these braided scales so that we can better understand and interact with them in constructive ways.

This includes the scale of academic institutions. The existence of a police force specifically dedicated to the University of Toronto, Campus Police, perpetuates and reproduces legacies of colonialism, surveillance, and violence against Black and Indigenous people.

In a recent open letter to U of T President Meric Gertler, faculty, staff, and students at the university brought attention to concerns surrounding Campus Police, noting the multiple experiences of students — particularly racialized women — who have been handcuffed after seeking mental health support.

The open letter reads, “The calls to defund and abolish police are increasingly global and supported by research that shows us that policing does not make people safe. It is an institution premised on the assumed need for fear, domination, and force; it threatens, harms, and sometimes kills.”

As students, we must recognize the problem of policing close to home and take action against it. Indeed, the open letter importantly calls for an end to Campus Police: “The institution of the police is irredeemably racist and threatening to Indigenous and Black life. Therefore, the University of Toronto must end all partnerships with Toronto Police Services and all carceral institutions and work with members of the university and surrounding communities identified by staff, students, and faculty to foster safer campuses.”

Anti-Blackness is intertwined into the very existence of policing, and therefore, if you commit to anti-racist work, you commit to abolishing oppressive institutions. If you are an Ontario resident, part of your anti-racism work may be to reach out to your local MPP and demand a repeal of the PSA. If you are a resident of Toronto, continue to voice your outrage and disappointment in recent decisions regarding police reform made by your local councillor.

And as a U of T student, support the demands calling on the administration to defund and abolish Campus Police.

Madeleine Reyno is a recent graduate from Victoria College with a specialist in human geography and a major in environmental studies.