Tuesday, July 6, 2010

toronto: a reassessement

just as i was starting to develop my first ever toronto hate-on, hans stepped in.

"As a Newfoundlander living in Toronto, I spend a lot of time making fun of Torontonians. It’s not just me; making fun of Toronto is widely accepted throughout Canada (and its affiliates) as a bit of a national sport.

Last weekend however I saw a very different side of Toronto, and it’s one that may change forever the way I talk about Torontonians.

We often rant about Torontonians being diffident, blunt, insensitive, loud, demanding, and self-righteous. Normally, pretty non-endearing qualities. But last weekend I saw those same qualities deployed in defense of Canada’s human rights and civil liberties. With the same dogged and self-confident determination they use to defend their spot in the subway lineup or refuse to give up that lone parking space that a dozen other cars are vying for, they refused to give up their civil rights to a police force that didn’t explain itself, didn’t justify itself, and acted as though the law comes in a distant second to the barked order of a masked officer with a gun. Torontonians refused to give in to random searches, and were beaten and tossed into wire cages rather than surrender their rights. They refused to stay off their own streets even when menaced by hundreds of cops – more like soldiers, at this stage – on horseback or with clouds of tear gas rising from further down the road.

It’s hard to think of Torontonians as being heroic, but there actually was something heroic in the way they responded to the havoc being wrought by a billion dollars worth of riot cops let loose on their streets. Many such moments were captured on video and are circulating the Internet: a couple dozen brave souls singing the national anthem and waving Canadian flags as a platoon on horseback charges them down, clubs swinging. Unarmed protestors courageously challenging the vandals who were looting while hundreds of armed cops in body armour stood idly by and cowardly refused to lift a finger to help. Homeowners opening their doors to give refuge to total strangers fleeing down the street, pursued by cops firing teargas and potentially-lethal rubber bullets. Most Canadians are used to seeing such scenes in the movies that get filmed in this city; but this time it was for real and the bullets weren’t blanks.

There was even a palpable difference to the city’s nightlife on Saturday. The weekend nightlife went on, but in bars and clubs around the city, tables of clubgoers sat huddled in small groups around their Blackberrys and iPhones, reading Twitter updates to each other from the heart of the downtown. It was around midnight by the time the riot police descended on the last 300 protestors and bystanders they’d surrounded and trapped for several hours, but thousands of Torontonians were in bars reading aloud to each other the description of the final assaults as narrated in Tweets by TVO’s Steve Paikin. It was a surreal, and very Toronto moment. However much it must have seemed to them at the time, those 300 protestors were not alone in that moment.

Many of the protestors who came out the next day never had any intention of participating in a weekend protest. For many of them, it wasn’t the G8 or the G20 that brought them to the streets. It was their outrage at the police brutality and at seeing their streets transformed into a war zone by a seemingly out of control band of armoured soldiers. It wasn’t political ideology that brought them to those streets, but a sense of collective outrage and – possibly the first time I’d seen it in Toronto – a sense of shared humanity.

A friend of mine who was arrested pointed out that it wasn’t so much courage that led to her arrest, as just being there when the cops started randomly attacking people. And it’s true – many of those arrested and beaten were simply bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time: people stepping out of their downtown apartments for a cigarette; employees trying to get home from work; transit users left stranded in the middle of the city when the TTC abruptly shut down. Many of them had no intention of being caught in a protest that day. Which makes their behavior all the more dignified and worthy of respect, when compared to the disgraceful and unconscionable brutality of a police force that was supposed to be trained and professional.

Something I realized that weekend is that Torontonians are raised with an almost insatiable need to protest. Not with banners and marches, normally, but protest as a way of indicating disagreement with the status quo is almost second-nature in Toronto. We hear it every day – Torontonians protesting about the streetcar being late, about the grocery prices being too high, about the taxes they pay and the gym not being open on a statutory holiday. It might be closer to grumbling than protesting, but Torontonians are not afraid to let you know when they’re not happy about something. And while we normally find it a bit rude and annoying, last weekend it became something completely different. It became the front-line in the defense of an entire country’s human rights and civil liberties. They were arrested by the hundreds; tear-gassed and beaten by the thousands; but they continued coming out of their homes to defend the streets of their city by the thousands and the tens of thousands. Armed only with their iPhones and their Toronto attitude, they stared down a billion dollars worth of violent intruders in body armour on their streets, and they held the line.

While the police chief parades an increasingly bizarre array of feeble and misleading excuses - which only insult the intelligence of Canadians and the integrity of his profession – and the mayor (curiously fearful of the chief for once) abdicates his responsibility to protect the people of Toronto by refusing to hold an independent public inquiry, they may both find that they have only succeeded in awakening a community consciousness in Toronto – and across Canada - that will prove a far more powerful force than any weapon in the entire billion dollar arsenal of the G20.

And while I now wish more than ever that I was home in Newfoundland, I certainly have a new respect for the Torontonians around me. And I don’t think I’ll ever make fun of them, quite the same way, again."

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