Activists flood Toronto city council meeting, demand end to TPS cooperation with immigration enforcement

Toronto Police Services is in violation of the City of Toronto’s Access Without Fear policy, which guarantees access to city services to all residents of the city regardless of their immigration status. What’s more, TPS misrepresented both their policies and their obligations in a report to Toronto’s city council.

Those were the accusations levelled by a coalition of community groups and activists at a meeting of council’s Community Development and Recreations Committee this morning. In a series of well-prepared and impassioned deputations to the committee, representatives from a broad array of organizations working with different affected communities detailed the many ways in which Toronto police violate non-status immigrants’ right to access law enforcement without fear of deportation.

The consequence of this, as many of the deputations made clear, is that many communities are fearful of turning to the police even in the most severe emergencies.

TPS’s policy is that they will not ask for proof of status unless they have a “bona fide” reason for doing so – what they call their “Don’t Ask” policy. They also contend that, once they have discovered that a person is a non-status immigrant, they have a legal obligation under the Ontario Police Services Act to inform the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).

Both of these positions were hotly disputed at the committee meeting.

On the question of “Don’t Ask”, deputants provided example after example of cases where this policy simply wasn’t followed.

Carding, TPS’s blatantly racist policy of stopping and questioning people not accused of any crime for the purposes of building up a database of information on racialized communities, was mentioned repeatedly in this context. I’ve written about some of the problems with carding before, but its intersection with migrant justice is a grossly underreported aspect with the program.

To choose one example among many, Tings Chak, representing No One Is Illegal Toronto, talked about the case of Daniel Garcia, who was stopped by police in Parkdale for one of these general-purpose questionings. When they found out he was a non-status immigrant, TPS contacted CBSA and Garcia, a high school student, was deported.

Another example of police actively collecting information on people’s status is the School Resource Officer Program. Approved by the Toronto District School Board in 2007, the program places officers in schools and encourages them to interact with and get to know students. Multiple deputants alleged that these officers are in fact past of an intelligence-gathering operation, and indeed, a 2011 TPS report seems to confirm this (PDF):

A weekly Tactical Intelligence Strategy meeting brings together front-line enforcement, intelligence, TAVIS Response Teams, GTA enforcement partners, and other stakeholders (e.g. Canada Border Services Agency) to share information and dynamically respond to violent crime and weapons within the community…The School Resource Officer (SRO) FIO is a now a permanent member of the weekly Tactical Intelligence Strategy meeting. Being involved in this intelligence-sharing assists in identifying youthbased community issues and trends that contribute to youth participating in gangs and violent crimes.

In other words, intelligence gathered by police officers working in schools, officers who work to create relationships with students by coaching teams and running extracurricular activities, is being shared with, among other nameless agencies, the CBSA.

Gita Madan of Educators for Peace and Justice also spoke of the tension created by constant in-school police presence is for non-status parents and children in interacting with the school, and stated that she had personally seen many examples of non-status children turned away when they tried to register with schools, in contravention of the TDSB policy.

Deputants also pointed to many examples of witnesses and victims of crimes who were handed over to CBSA by the police. A tragically recurring theme in these stories was violence against women. Facing violence, rape, and robbery at the hands of partners, clients, or strangers, many non-status women who turned to police found themselves deported in short order. One woman who defended herself against her partner’s violence  was arrested, had her children taken away, and was deported.

Brendan Jewitt of  Parkdale Community Legal Services pointed out that involvement in a crime, even as a witness, isn’t even a prerequisite for police involvement. He represents a man who fell while getting off a bus and badly hit his head. Police arrived to investigate, discovered the man was a non-status immigrant, and immediately put him into the custody of the CBSA. He was denied proper medical care for over three months and is now permanently blind.

Given TPS’s behaviour in such cases, it’s no surprise that many choose not to report such abuse. Particularly vulnerable in this regard are sex workers. As Elene Lam, the executive director of Butterfly, an Asian migrant sex workers support project, powerfully put it, if a woman without status came to you, and said she had been raped and beaten and robbed, would you recommend to her that she go to the police, and risk being imprisoned and deported as well? This is a question she faces every day in her work, and in the over two hundred cases she dealt with in the last year, not one woman felt safe going to the police.

On the issue of TPS’s supposed obligation to report non-status immigrants to CBSA, deputants were unsparing in their criticism. TPS has protested for years that they essentially have no choice in this matter, and this claim was featured prominently in the report being considered by the committee. However, a cursory reading of the law in question demonstrates that this is simply not the case.

The Ontario Police Services Act, Reg. 265/98, Section 5(1), states:

A chief of police or his or her designate may disclose any personal information about an individual if the individual is under investigation of, is charged with or is convicted or found guilty of an offence under the Criminal Code (Canada), the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (Canada) or any other federal or provincial Act, to

(a) any police force in Canada;

(b) any correctional or parole authority in Canada; or

(c) any person or agency engaged in the protection of the public, the administration of justice or the enforcement of or compliance with any federal or provincial Act, regulation or government program.

The key word in all that legal language is may. The police may disclose information regarding somebody’s status to CBSA, but there is nothing in the law that says that they must –  and indeed, Section 6 of the Act specifies that they should consider what is reasonable in the case and what is in the public interest in choosing to disclose or not disclose information.

The committee was meeting in part to take up a report from TPS regarding their compliance with the Access Without Fear policy, passed by Toronto City Council in 2013. Coun. Joe Mihevc, for one, thought that it was going to be largely a formality, and most councillors seemed surprised at the level of public interest in and opposition to a relatively routine report. Many councillors expressed shock at the charges deputants made against TPS. Councillor Kristen Wong-Tam, sitting in on the committee’s meeting, was harshly critical of TPS’s non-cooperation with the city on this issue, citing a year-old request for data on how many people TPS reports to CBSA which had still not been responded to.

In the end, the committee agreed unanimously (with Coun. Paula Fletcher absent) to pass an amended motion by Coun. Mihevc to essentially refer the matter to city council for further discussion and request that TPS provide them with more information and possible policy developments in October. (At publication time, the motion as amended was still not available on the City of Toronto’s website, but I will add a link to it when it is published online.)

This motion fell far short of what No One Is Illegal had requested, a request repeated by most deputants:

  1. For the committee to refuse to accept the TPS’s report, and to request the development of specific measures by TPS and the province “that will ensure that undocumented Torontonians do not live in fear while accessing the city”
  2. For the committee to urge TPS to stop carding and racial profiling
  3. For the committee to work with the Social Development, Finance and Administration department of the City of Toronto government to ensure that the City was not falsely claiming to the public that TPS was accessible to all, regardless of immigration status

Despite the relative timidity of the motion put forth by Coun. Mihevc, its passage guarantees that the issue will be discussed by council as a whole on June 10 or 11. At that point, any councillor may amend it.

Deputants represented organizations including No One Is Illegal Toronto, Maggie’s Toronto Sex Worker Action Project, South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, Jane Finch Action Against Poverty, Parkdale Community Legal Services, Health for All, Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape, Educators for Peace and Justice, Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, Butterfly, Disarm Toronto Police, Urban Alliance on Race Relations, and Network for the Elimination of Police Violence.

Strikingly, the vast majority of deputants were women of colour, speaking to an all-white and mostly-male committee. This was fitting, as it is racialized communities which are most heavily affected by the TPS’s continued refusal to uphold Access Without Fear.

At one point, Coun. Jon Burnside dismissed the fear that many racialized people have of police, accusing Ellie Adekur-Carlson, Chair of the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence, of hyperbole. Adekur-Carlson firmly pushed back, reminding the councillor that all these people had taken the time to come down and tell the committee about their actual lived experiences in the affected communities, and asking him to listen with an open mind.

Burnside didn’t seem to take this well, leaving the committee meeting for over an hour before returning in time to vote in favour of Mihevc’s motion.

We can only hope that other councillors will be more open-minded and more willing to listen on this issue in the weeks to come.

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