TORONTO — Janaya Khan is no stranger to urban parks. Abundant near the public housing projects where Khan grew up, the sloping green oases were a gathering place for the Toronto resident's group of black friends.
The parks were also where Khan learned as a teenager that blacks could be “criminalized for simply existing.”
Sitting on a bench at downtown Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park, where kids played catch and a community garden flourished, Khan recounted being repeatedly stopped, punched and thrown to the ground by local police officers without apparent reason. Members of the group were questioned, Khan said, and heckled, and asked whether they belonged to a gang, and told that no one cared about them.
Khan, 28, is a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Toronto, where the movement has its largest international contingent, established in 2014. As protests took place across the United States following recent police shootings of black men, Canadians were talking about Black Lives Matter for a different reason: Earlier this month, the activists held up the city’s Pride Parade, refusing to end their sit-in until organizers of the gay-rights event signed a list of demands.
In a city that is often lauded for its diversity — nearly half the residents are foreign-born — Black Lives Matter is challenging the notion that Toronto is a refuge for all races.
At the Pride Parade July 3, Black Lives Matter was an “honored group,” a title which earned them a spot just behind the grand marshal at the head of the parade. Through the weekend’s pride festivities, the activists set up booths and led moments of silence commemorating the recent mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. It was following such a moment of silence that dozens of Black Lives Matter members stopped marching and sat down at a major intersection, bringing the parade to a halt.
“Pride Toronto, we are calling you out for your anti-blackness,” another co-founder, Alexandria Williams, shouted into a megaphone.
As other members spoke about the forgotten contributions made by people of color in the LGBTQ community, some parade-goers clapped. Many others booed.
“Your racism is showing,” Khan said into a megaphone. Rodney Diverlus, 25, another co-founder who, like Khan, identifies as queer, read aloud a list of demands that included more Pride funding for a black queer youth group, the hiring by Pride of more black transwomen and indigenous people, and the removal of police floats from future parades.
“The presence of police might make some of y’all safe,” Diverlus said, “but it makes a whole lot of people in our community unsafe. And if you’re down for an inclusive Pride, you are down for a police-free Pride.”
In less than half an hour, Mathieu Chantelois, executive director of Pride Toronto, signed off on the demands. The parade resumed, and people cheered.
Then the death threats started coming. As news of the sit-in spread, Khan said, Black Lives Matter received a torrent of calls, emails and other messages laced with racial language. Khan said the activists were called the N-word and “savages.” One emailer wrote: “You’ll never be part of our community.”
There was also criticism from public figures. Margaret Wente, a conservative columnist for the national Globe and Mail newspaper, called Black Lives Matter activists “the new bully on the block … a tiny group of noisy activists who borrow their branding and their belligerence from the United States.” In a letter to the Toronto Police Association obtained by The Washington Post, Toronto Mayor John Tory expressed his support for police officers and their history of both marching in Pride and keeping “its participants safe.”
"We thought the parade was hijacked for a political agenda to exclude," said Mike McCormack, the president of the city's police union. Police brutality "is an issue for Black Lives Matter in the States. To say that we have the same issue in our Canadian policing model — I just totally reject that idea. The numbers don't back it up, the culture doesn't back it up."
Pride organizers revised their commitment to Toronto's Black Lives Matter group, telling local newspapers that they were not prepared to bar police floats from Pride.
The discussion continued into this week, when a singer performing at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game altered the lyrics of the national anthem, "O Canada," to include "all lives matter." The phrase is generally considered a rejection of the Black Lives Matter movement, and prompted criticism on social media.
The Tenors, the group to which singer Remigio Pereira belongs, publicly apologized for the impromptu political statement, condemning it as a "lone wolf" act.
Pereira, who has been suspended from the group, wrote on Twitter that he hoped for "a positive statement that would bring us ALL together."
Black Lives Matter Toronto and other community groups are slated to meet with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Mayor Tory this week.
Speaking on a CBC radio program, Ontario's minister of anti-racism praised Black Lives Matter's efforts.
"When you talk about race — period — people get uncomfortable, because people don't know how to react," said the minister, Michael Coteau.
Advocacy groups have asked for race-based statistics on police shootings to be released, but institutions such as Statistics Canada, the Toronto police and Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, a police watchdog group, say they do not track such data.
Instead of numbers, then, Canadian Black Lives Matter activists have names: Jermaine Carby, a black man who may or may not have had a knife when he was fatally shot by police in 2014; Andrew Loku, a Sudanese immigrant who was shot and killed by police in 2015 while holding a hammer.
The activists say the idea that Canadians are immune to racism is a myth.
"Thinking of Canada as a multicultural haven is a misnomer," said Diverlus, co-founder of the Toronto Black Lives Matter group. "Canadians wear a mask of niceness that also makes it impossible sometimes to address issues of anti-black racism or violence. The cops might not slam your face to the ground, but they'll card you every chance they get."
"Carding" refers to random checks performed by Toronto police officers who stop people on the street to ask for their identification and run their information through a database. An investigation by the Toronto Star found that black individuals were disproportionately entered into the system, even though such checks rarely led to arrests or charges. Blacks make up 2.9 percent of Canada's population, compared to about 13 percent of U.S. residents. In Toronto, 8.5 percent of the population is black.
Desmond Cole, a 34-year-old writer and activist in Toronto, wrote about his experiences being stopped by the police more than 50 times in a piece that won a Canadian National Magazine Award.
"We avoid responsibility for racism by saying it's not as bad as it is in the U.S.," Cole said in an interview. "Why is it so easy for us Canadians to imagine and rationalize this idea that black people could be treated even worse?"