Bill Blair for Parliament? A deep dig into this horrifying story

When news of the campaign to draft outgoing Toronto Chief of Police Bill Blair to run for the Liberals in Scarborough showed up on my Twitter feed a few days ago, I literally could not believe it. My first thought was that it had to be some kind of joke, or hoax – maybe somebody was out to make the Liberal Party look bad. (Not exactly a difficult task these days.)

Sadly, the deeper I dug, the more substance this story seemed to have. There is indeed a campaign to draft Blair, whose last day as Chief is April 25, to run in the riding of Scarborough Southwest. But there are also a lot of unanswered questions from the media coverage so far, the most pressing of which is: Who is behind this ridiculous effort? It’s hard to say for certain, but my best guess is that the campaign is an astroturf effort by the Liberal Party.

Before we go any further, a brief recap is in order. Blair’s been Chief at TPS for almost ten years now, and his tenure has been marked by a series of controversies and major abuses of power. The biggest unmitigated disaster of Blair’s time as Chief was unquestionably the G20 summit in 2010, when well over a thousand people were arrested and held without charge in horrific temporary prisons. It was the largest peacetime mass arrest in Canadian history, and it was totally indiscriminate.

Blair characterized protesters as “terrorists sweeping through our city“, responded to video evidence of a half-dozen officers violently beating an unarmed protestor (who was charged with assaulting police) by saying the video had been tampered with, and has remained adamant in insisting he’s proud of the work the force did that weekend, resisting calls to resign at the time and ever since. Testimony of his subordinates has made clear that Blair was a driving force behind the mass arrests, but he has been treated with impunity by the justice system.

Beyond the G20, Blair’s tenure has been controversial for the widespread use of carding, a program for stopping innocent citizens, people who are not suspected of any lawbreaking, and collecting information on them. Carding has disproportionately targeted people of colour, especially young black men. Carding essentially gave police officers an excuse for their institutionalized racism, and has been politically toxic to the TPS ever since the Star released a report in early 2012 delving into the racial bias obvious in the data.

Last April, the board which oversees the Toronto police ordered Blair to change the practice, an order which Blair ignored; bickering between the board and Blair continued into Blair’s final meeting as chief yesterday. Blair talked a good game about racial profiling in his early days as chief, which has left a lot of people confused about where he stands on this issue, but if you judge him solely on his actions, his tenure as chief has been terrible for relations between TPS and racialized communities.

I could go on with the criticisms of Blair, but that’s not the purpose of this post, so I’ll confine myself to just one more issue – TPS’ horrific treatment of the mentally ill. The most famous incident is probably the August 2013 murder of Sammy Yatim, in crisis alone on a streetcar with a pathetic little knife in his hand.

There was also Michael Elgion, who was wielding scissors and wearing a hospital gown when he was shot and killed by police in February 2012. Sylvia Klibingaitis, in the midst of psychosis, called police on herself in October 2011, saying she feared she would kill her mother because she was “pure evil”; when cops arrived, they shot her.

Any one of these incidents could have been enough to prompt Blair to reassess TPS’ use of force policy, its mental health policy, or even whether its frontline officers should be armed. A lawsuit by the Yatim family targets Blair, alleging that TPS should have known the cops in question were “incompetent” and “insufficiently trained”. But things remain the same, and Blair has never apologized.

So basically, this is not the type of guy we should be encouraging to join federal politics. We should be holding Blair accountable for his misdeeds and his crimes. We should be asking ourselves how we can avoid ever having a Chief of Police this awful again.

But not according to draftbillblair.com:

Dear fellow Liberal,

As you know, we are on the cusp of making history. Justin and his team have promoted the promise of Hope and Hard Work; and people across this country are starting to believe in politics once again.

Exciting candidates have put their name forward from coast to coast, and we in Scarborough Southwest have the opportunity to bring one of our own on board!

Bill Blair, the current Chief of Police Service for our fine city could very well be our next MP. An MP that has served the public and the city of Toronto for over thirty five years; an MP who grew up in our neighborhoods; an MP who is not afraid of what it takes to stand up for the public good.

We have a chance today, to show Bill that we will back him, like he has backed us for so many years. Let’s show our support to have Bill Blair become the next Liberal Candidate and MP for Scarborough Southwest!

First of all, “promoted the promise of Hope and Hard Work”? That’s terrifying in a vaguely Soviet way, and a total word salad to boot – some of the worst political boilerplate I’ve encountered in a long time. (Also: does nobody understand how to use a semicolon?) So right off the top, we can see that this is not a slick or well-organized campaign (or that it doesn’t want to seem like one). And the numbers support that. The campaign has mustered twenty-five likes on Facebook, and @Liberals4Blair has a mere 15 followers on Twitter, one of whom is yours truly. This after some full-spectrum news coverage on Thursday.

The campaign got written up in the Star, the Post, and the Sun, and received passing mention in the Globe. Strikingly absent from all of these accounts: anybody willing to go on the record as being associated with the campaign. Most reporters didn’t even touch on that question, and the Sun just regurgitated a press release:

In a statement to the Sun, the Draft Blair movement described itself as “a group of local Liberals, acting independently” to get the police chief to run.

“With a proven record of public service, including 10 years as a progressive police chief in Toronto, Bill Blair is uniquely positioned to not only represent the community of Scarborough Southwest in Parliament but to speak with experience on the issues that matter to Canadians in communities across our country,” the group stated. “As chief of police, Bill Blair demonstrated a strong sense of integrity by applying his convictions for the betterment of the people of Toronto, experience that he would bring to the national stage.”

Yes yes fine but who is behind this? I’m dubious in the extreme that there are that many ordinary Scarborough Liberals who are passionate about recruiting Bill Blair – and none of them are publicity hungry in the least.

As far as I can figure, there are three possible explanations.

1) Somebody is trying to make the Liberals look bad.

This was my first thought, and it’s almost certainly wrong. I mean, I personally would be ashamed to have my name in any way associated with Blair’s, but to think that the Liberal Party of Canada has that kind of integrity is pure naivete on my part.

2) Blair is behind this. 

His tenure is, of course, almost up, and election season is just around the corner. He’s gotta do something, and this is a pretty plush job!

(The Post report notes that it would entail a substantial pay cut, to which I rolled my eyes. Mike Harris to Magna, John Baird to Barrick Gold, Stockwell Day to his totally-not-a-lobbying-firm Stockwell Day Connex – the past decade is littered with examples of politicians resigning and then cashing in big-time on their connections – provided they played nice with industry while in office. Running for Parliament could be the most lucrative move of Blair’s life.)

But would Blair mount this kind of effort while still in the Chief’s office? And more to the point, would he do it without knowing if the Liberals wanted him?

I think it’s more likely that…

3) The Liberal Party of Canada is behind this.

Somebody commissioned and publicized this Forum Research poll showing that if Blair ran as a Liberal, he would beat incumbent NDP MP Dan Harris, who won by a mere 2000 votes last time around. These polls don’t pay for themselves.

The Post also pointed out that there is an active contest for the nomination, and that some people have been running for over a year. But little details like what the Liberals of the riding want wouldn’t stop the LPC. From Nicholas Ellen:

The Liberal Party of Canada have been having a tough time of it in Vancouver East. Today [Feb. 10 2015] was supposed to be nomination day, but it is now postponed indefinitely. Yesterday the nomination date was suddenly cancelled when it was revealed to the media that the Election District Association had been flooded by fake memberships. Today, some of those EDA executives spoke out to reveal the scope of Ottawa’s interference.

It’s bad. The executive members of the LPC’s EDA in Vancouver East are quite specific in their accusations.Vice President Russ Miller accused the former BC President of the Liberal Party, Brian G. Rice, of directly interfering in the nomination of marijuana activist Jodie Emery. He claims Liberal Party insiders orchestrated a whisper campaign to discredit her amongst her supporters. Previously thought to be the frontrunner, Emery found herself the target of intense internal party criticism.  In December, her nomination was blocked.

[…]

And all of this comes the day after they accepted without qualms the entry of disgraced Conservative MP Eve Adams into their party. There’s little doubt she will be installed behind closed doors by the same party hacks in another “open” nomination, as we saw in Vancouver South. What is the purpose of this level of interference? Where is the much-touted commitment to Canadian democracy from Justin Trudeau?

The Montreal Gazette reports on perceived Liberal interference in a nomination contest there, with several of the involved candidates publicly calling on Trudeau to respect the open nominations process. And then of course there was the Eve Adams fiasco. One gets the impression that the Liberal brain-trust, such as it is, is pretty determined to have the nominees it wants where it wants them, and process be damned.

(The Liberals are certainly not the only party to do this – just this week in Simcoe North the NDP revoked the membership of one of the candidates for their nomination on the day of the nomination contest without explanation – but they have been pretty egregious about it this election cycle.)

So one could see this as the first step in what would essentially be a coronation of Blair as the candidate for Scarborough Southwest. And ultimately, that’s the way I’m reading this. Certainly, if it was an attempt to drum up grassroots support for Blair, then this is the last we’ll hear of it – reaction on Twitter was overwhelmingly negative, as were the comments on all of the articles linked above. Even if this is the first step in a party-supported campaign, then it’s off to a pretty mediocre start.

Reaction from insiders so far has been pretty tepid. For instance, longtime Liberal advisor Warren Kinsella blasted the campaign on Twitter, essentially asking Justin Trudeau if he was for real with this shit. No prominent Liberal has been willing to step forward and endorse the concept, or even speak positively about it. Still, as we’ve seen, much of the process can take place behind closed doors. I’ll be keeping my ears open for more news on this – I expect that we’ll hear something next weekend, when Blair is officially a civilian, if we’re ever gonna hear anything at all. In the meanwhile let’s all keep our fingers crossed that this is some kind of horrible nightmare.

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I don’t know a whole lot about Bill Blair, I’ll admit that right off the bat. What I do know is that none of that sounds like the “promise of hope” (that right there sounds like a Hallmark Originals movie title). And what integrity?

If, by some off-chance he’s nominated, will we have to call each other “comrade”?

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