This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on February 11, 2018.
“I do not believe there is malicious intent by Toronto Police,” writes Jaime Watt, but a vulnerable community, that has been targeted by a serial killer, desperately needs protection.
Last week, Toronto celebrated an inauspicious occasion: the 37th anniversary of Operation Soap.
Better known as the Toronto bathhouse raids, Operation Soap saw dozens of Toronto police officers storm four bathhouses and arrest more than 250 gay and bisexual men on a variety of humiliating charges. Lives were changed forever — jobs lost, reputations destroyed, personal relationships left in tatters, lives taken by suicide.
The next night, thousands of LGBTQ Torontonians took to the streets with the message that enough was enough; stunning the city with the ferocity of their protests.
It marked the beginning of change between the LGBTQ community and governments at all levels. Finally, officials began to understand the damage they had inflicted on often vulnerable and marginalized people.
Since that time, there have been all kinds of legislative accomplishments and relationships between LGBTQ people and governments have grown close, if not downright cozy.
Today, it is difficult for many to truly understand the symbolic importance of the Gay Village. Church and Wellesley seems more like a secondary traffic artery, spattered with no-name pharmacies, second-rate fast-food restaurants and unassuming bars — at least from the outside.
But the truth is that this corner has been a home to thousands of Canadians.
It can be profoundly isolating to be a member of the LGBTQ community. To grow up understanding oneself to be “different” is an experience that many of us struggle to shake even well into adulthood.
Toronto’s Gay Village has been a sanctuary, a home, a place to embrace just who you are.
More than one public official has questioned why gay spaces or gay celebrations, such as Toronto Pride, still need to exist when extensive regulatory and legislative changes have been made to protect LGBTQ Canadians.
The last several months in Toronto have provided the answer.
For many years, segments of the LGBTQ community have protested their experiences with police. Advocates have argued that members of the trans community and people of colour continue to be treated differently than cisgender and white members of the LGBTQ community.
They argue these same segments of our community have been silenced, ignored and abused by institutional biases.
This public angst threatens to disrupt the relative harmony many felt had developed between the LGBTQ community and the Toronto police in the decades since the bathhouse raids.
Public battles, like the Black Lives Matters protest at Pride Toronto 2016 and the subsequent banning of the police from participation in the Pride Parade, fractured opinions of the LGBTQ community.
While much progress has been made, it has become abundantly clear that many challenges remain in the way the Toronto Police interact with the LGBTQ community.
Advocates have always had a point, and statistics have backed them up. There have been long-standing issues, including a number of unsolved missing persons cases, a propensity for police to arrest vulnerable people in the community, and sporadic efforts at crackdowns. This has painted a negative picture about the relationship between the police and a community.
Three recent cases have put a starkly human face on these issues.
In late November, 22-year-old Tess Richey disappeared after a night out at Church and Wellesley. Police responded with an investigation, but failed to uncover anything until Richey’s mother found her daughter’s body at a construction site mere metres from where she was last seen. Police called the incident a “misadventure” for several days. Last week, second-degree murder charges were laid.
Alloura Wells, a missing trans woman, was found dead on Aug. 5 of 2016. Police failed to identify Wells until November 2017, when her father went to the media. When he tried to report her missing at a Toronto police station, he said he was told that due to her past history, she was not considered high priority. Instead, he was given a non-emergency line to contact.
But the most infamous case is that of alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur. Activists and advocates have been warning that older gay men seemed to be disappearing for years now. Last summer, a poster circulated with the pictures of the missing men, warning of a potential serial killer.
Toronto police responded by denying that a serial killer existed. In a move that revealed the community’s distrust of the police, a neighbourhood association organized to provide walks home to allow for a measure of safety for those who felt threatened.
Months later, the community was proved right. McArthur has been charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder. It is alleged he had been targeting gay men for years, killing at least five. The number of charges seem likely to increase as the investigation continues.
That police denied the existence of a threat when one so plainly existed undermines their mission to provide support for a community that is so often the target of violence, harassment and discrimination.
I do not believe there is malicious intent by Toronto Police. Rather, the challenge lies in the nature and characteristics of the problem. When police raided the bath houses many years ago, the laws and regulations which were at the essence of the problem could be pointed to, identified and fixed.
Today’s challenge is actually more daunting. The Toronto Police Service must reflect on how to change a culture and how to protect a community that so desperately needs that protection.
A community of vulnerable people depend on it. And all of us must speak out and acknowledge that change needs to occur.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.