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Canada's Most Prominent Black Activist Is Fighting Doug Ford. He Also Has a Message for White Liberals.

Desmond Cole says the recent election of Ontario's right-wing premier is Canada's Trumpian moment.
Desmond Cole.

Desmond Cole.

At the center of Canada's burgeoning black resistance movement is journalist-turned-activist Desmond Cole. The 36-year-old Torontonian was a popular columnist at the Toronto Star, Canada's second-largest daily newspaper, until May of 2017, when he abruptly severed ties, saying that the paper's publisher had complained that Cole was "writing about race too often." But recent events in the Great White North suggest that race isn't being written about enough.

The Star is considered a liberal voice in Canadian media—the paper endorsed Justin Trudeau for prime minister, unlike several other major papers—yet in Cole's view, Canadian liberals are more focused on maintaining their nation's reputation for tolerance and inclusion than on taking real steps to address the racial tensions in their country.

"White Canadians comfort themselves by saying, 'At least it's not as bad as it is in the U.S.' That's a deflection tactic," Cole says when I meet him on a July afternoon at the Toronto radio station where he does a weekly show. "Anti-black racism is always terrible for black people. So it is a bit rich for white Canadians to congratulate themselves on inhabiting a space that is less racist. It's not for them to say, but that's who is usually leading this conversation."

The consequences of white liberal hypocrisy are readily apparent to anyone willing to look, Cole says. That hypocrisy happens when we condemn systemic oppression even while benefiting from it, or when we avoid the deep discomfort of calling out racist friends, family members, and colleagues. One indirect consequence is the empowerment of xenophobic leaders. The African-American critic Ismail Muhammad put it this way in the Paris Review:

I find myself bored with the chorus of outraged liberal critics who sound the alarm every time Trump breaks another democratic norm. But it's worth inquiring why white supremacy continues to surprise us when white-race hatred is such an intractable aspect of American society. And how our shock perpetuates that violence.

In Canada, Cole says, "politicians have recently gone from being completely resistant to talking about anti-black racism to attempting to co-opt it. Now the thing to do is to frame yourself as a champion while doing nothing." White liberal Canadians look down their noses at the state of race relations in the U.S., Cole says, just as white coastal liberals in America often do toward Middle America and the Deep South. Cole's journalism urges of his largely white, liberal audience to look more closely in the mirror.

In his column for the Star, Cole frequently criticized police carding, Canada's version of stop-and-frisk, a process to which he says he's been subjected dozens of times. One of his essays on carding, "The Skin I'm In," swept the Canadian magazine awards in 2016 and became the basis for a primetime documentary that aired on CBC last year—a rude awakening for the millions of white Canadians who had viewed police violence against black citizens as a uniquely American problem. Cole is currently expanding the essay into a book, due out early next year, after a four-publisher bidding war.

Cole's rise to prominence as an activist and intellectual has paralleled the growth of Black Lives Matter Toronto following numerous cases of police brutality in the region over the last several years. One of the most heinous of those cases is currently unfolding in court: In 2016, Dafonte Miller, an unarmed 19-year-old, was beaten to the point of losing an eye by an off-duty cop. The cop claimed that Miller had attempted to steal his car and then resisted arrest, but months later it came out that the teenager's only provocation was refusing to respond to the cop's taunts as he walked home late one night. Miller's lawyers have since alleged a police cover-up.

BLM Toronto's demands range from official acknowledgment of anti-black racism within local government and police forces, to specific actions, like financial compensation for the families of black Canadians who have been subjected to police brutality, and the removal of a middle-school principal who told a 13-year-old student with an Afro that she needed to change her hairdo.

Even though 1.2 million Canadians identify as black, and have often experienced systemic oppression no less serious than that of black Americans, Cole, the son of Sierra Leonian immigrants, explains that the civil rights movement north of the border has never succeeded in keeping the issue front and center in the national conversation—until now. "We have really shifted the dialogue and said, 'This is a thing in Canada, and whether you want to talk about it or not, we're going to make you.'"


Cole, whose manner of speaking readily shifts from polished professor to fiery preacher, has waged a very public feud with Toronto Mayor John Tory, a centrist politician who recently increased police presence in black neighborhoods. At a Toronto Police Services Board meeting in July of 2017, Tory had Cole arrested after Cole refused to cede the floor during the public comment session until his demands about the city's carding program were met. "Until my community gets justice, fuck the rules of procedure," Cole said after the meeting.

Shortly thereafter, at an Emancipation Day event (celebrated in Canada as the day the British empire abolished slavery), Cole again heckled Tory as the mayor was giving a speech. "If you're going to be here tonight, you have to hear and see what black liberation really means," Cole screamed. The crowd then began chanting, "Black lives matter, black lives matter."

This summer, racial tensions escalated further with the election of Doug Ford, a conservative, populist-style politician, as premier of Ontario.

Doug Ford, considered a Canadian Donald Trump—or, if you prefer, "maple-glazed Trump"—by many progressive Canadians, is the brother of the late Rob Ford, Toronto's infamous former mayor, who once referred to himself as "the most racist guy around." (Admittedly, Rob was wasted when he said that.) This was one of countless invective-laden statements that surfaced during Rob Ford's scandal-ridden career. Now, his brother seems to be treading similar ground: In late September, Doug posed for a picture with his arm around Faith Goldy, a white supremacist running for mayor in Toronto, an image that immediately went viral.

"Many believe it was really Doug who was the mastermind of his brother's actions and agenda," Cole tells me as we sip juice at a café near the news-talk station where both the Ford brothers and Mayor Tory have hosted shows of their own.

Despite Rob Ford's racist, womanizing, wife-battering, homophobic, crack-smoking, booze-guzzling, and gangster- and prostitute-consorting ways, he remains an icon in Ford Nation, as the brothers refer to their largely suburban, working-class base; hence the tidal wave of support for Doug as premier (Rob Ford died in 2016). His party surged ahead in the polls when Doug stepped into the race after his party's original candidate was felled by a sex abuse scandal. The conservatives were even "impinging on what was a liberal fortress in Toronto," one pollster noted as the election heated up. "This is very unusual."

On the eve of the June 7th election, Cole tweeted, "I don't want to wake up on June 8th and read that 53 percent of Ontario's white women voted for Doug Ford. Y'all better come correct."

Exit polling is almost unheard of in Canada. The only exit poll for the June election with a significant sample size didn't look at racial identity, but it did find that 33 percent of women voted for Ford—a fairly high number given that the vote in Canada is split among three major parties.

Making Ontario Great Again

Doug's political career has been less scandal-plagued than that of his brother, or of Trump, though, according to media reports, he's been very much a part of the Ford family's sordid history, which is steeped in drug-trafficking, domestic violence, and connections with the Ku Klux Klan. Doug was known on the streets as a mid-level hash dealer in the 1980s, though like his family members, and, like Trump, he's managed to avoid criminal convictions.

Some of his more egregious offenses have been rhetorical: During his time as his brother's top adviser, he called one female reporter a "little bitch"; said another reporter's criticism amounted to a "jihadist attack"; and characterized Toronto's Pride Parade as a bunch of "middle-aged men with pot bellies running down the street buck-naked."

Ford has repeatedly said that no one has done more for Toronto's black community than he and his brother, a claim that Cole has written many columns debunking. "I love them, they love me," Ford told reporters while explaining that he would not be attending a pre-election debate put on by local black leaders before the election.

"This is the language of a racist," Cole says. "I was one of the only voices in the Toronto media landscape to challenge [the Fords] when they first started saying that, back in 2014. When you have an almost totally white media industry, as we do here in Canada, it perpetuates denial [of racism], rather than questioning it. They go all in for ideas like, look at all the black people supporting Ford, when there is not a shred of evidence."

North99, an organization founded recently to combat the rise of the far-right in Canada, has compiled a laundry list of Ford's links to the alt-right, along with more than a dozen ways in which his political playbook mirrors Trump's, ranging from tax breaks for the wealthy to calling for his opponents to be locked up to displaying insensitivity toward disabled people.

Among Ford's first acts as premier are bringing back "buck-a-beer" pricing at Ontario's provincially regulated liquor stores, pulling Ontario out of Canada's federal climate change plan, curtailing the province's basic income pilot program, and canceling Ontario's refugee resettlement program—once lauded as an emblem of Canada's humanitarian priorities. "I'm taking care of our own first," Ford said in May.

"That was a very clear dog-whistle to those who are afraid of the demographic changes that are occurring," Cole says. (As of 2014, more than half of Toronto residents are foreign-born.) "Doug Ford understands that and has tried very hard over years to position himself as a leader of the movement for white people."

Gerrymandering Toronto?

When I sit in on Cole's radio show in late July, Ford has just announced that he intends to cut Toronto's city council from 47 representatives to 25, an incendiary move that the premier claimed was simply an effort to make better use of taxpayer dollars. While Ford Nation may have cheered, the move set off a full-blown political crisis for the rest of Toronto.

A provincial judge blocked the move in September, but hours later Ford invoked the "notwithstanding clause" of Canada's constitution, which essentially gives him the right to overrule the judge. Provinces have almost total legal authority over their cities under Canadian law. As one local pundit described it, if Ford wanted, he could "abolish the entire municipal government and appoint a dancing dog as all-powerful Czar of Toronto." The redrawn council districts will be in effect for the municipal elections planned for late October.

Cole devotes most of his show to the topic, painting Ford's plan as an effort to gerrymander Toronto, a liberal island in an increasingly conservative sea. "It's a naked power grab meant to water down the power of people who don't vote conservative. This has dire consequences for black people because, if the council is more conservative, we won't be able to stave off some of the attacks on black life that we have been able to recently."

In late August, a large bloc of Toronto's city council members, many of whom stand to lose their jobs in the October elections, voted on a resolution to sue the province to stop Ford's plan, though a final court decision is not expected for months. In the meantime, Toronto's liberal majority find themselves in a similar state as their counterparts in progressive enclaves south of the border: shocked and disgusted by their newly elected leader.

But Cole doesn't lay blame at the feet of Ford Nation. "White liberalism is all about opposing racism in principle, but not about putting their time and money—or their bodies—where their mouth is. It's the everyday white people who consider themselves fair-minded, but don't lift a finger when black people are under assault, that will determine what happens next."

The statement could just as easily apply in Trump's America.

"Another big problem with the white liberal mentality is being afraid to offer solidarity and support out of fear that black people will be offended or angry," Cole says. "'What if I say the wrong thing? What if I get called a racist?' So instead they sit it out and watch what happens. But for black people, this is a matter of survival. We will be out in the streets campaigning, organizing, resisting. The question is, who wants to join the party with us?"