When Doug Ford’s support collapsed last year, it was hard to imagine him back from the brink, poised to win another mandate. But Ontario’s conservative premier is now in the final stretch of his first re-election campaign—and he’s leading the polls.
Unlike when he was vocally pro-police as a Toronto councilor, these days Ford’s praise for the police is toned down. But budgets show generous spending on police.
Ford’s tone also shifted on racism, but little actually changed. Last year, he claimed racism was not as systemic or deep rooted in Canada as it is in the US. After the backlash, Ford backpedaled and dedicated a trickle of funds to anti-racist programs. But his government failed to meet a key demand of community and anti-racism activists: defund police.
The mood among Canadian voters is shifting. Ten years ago, the police were the most trusted institution in Canada, and people had more confidence in cops than in the school system, the courts, and the media. By 2019—the same year a majority of Canadians said they thought racism was not a serious problem—the police still enjoyed the support of about half of Canadians.
Then came the police murder of George Floyd just over two years ago.
Public consciousness of police brutality and racism in Canada soared. Days later, when Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell from her balcony and died after six police arrived in response to a 911 call, thousands protested. In the two years since then, police have killed dozens of people in Ontario, including a baby boy.
As the revolt against police brutality spread across the United States in 2020, a majority of Canadians said they support defunding the police. Meanwhile, amid a rise in hate crimes in Ontario—including vandalism of synagogues, a vehicle attack that killed a Muslim family and a man trying to enter a mosque with a hatchet—most now believe racism is a serious problem.
As COVID-19 surged last April, Ford and his cabinet shut down playgrounds and gave police arbitrary powers to stop anyone they wished. Opposition emerged left and right: activists and civil liberties groups warned about racial profiling, and those opposed to the lockdown criticized it as the beginning of a police state.
But protests and upheavals haven’t led to the change many were expecting. Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives are now predicted to win another majority. Rather than remind the public about Ford’s failures on policing and anti-racism, these issues have been relegated to the background during Ontario’s election campaign, and opposition parties are offering little in the way of structural change.
Ford’s funding police through the back door
The May 16 leaders debate set the tone for the campaigns. That night, the word “police” was mentioned only three times, and racism was discussed for less than eight minutes over one and half hours. Despite protests and increasing public disagreement with the status quo on policing, none of the three major parties—the Progresssive Conservatives, the NDP and the Liberals—have offered meaningful alternatives.
Jeff Monaghan, an associate professor of criminology at Carleton University who studies police violence, says the omission is disappointing. “In a context of Ontario, where there has been a series of crises, with a series of killings, it misses the mark,” he told The Breach.
The PC’s 2022 budget—the party’s de facto platform, which outlines spending if reelected—downplays law and order. Police are mentioned seven times and crime is left out altogether, other than a passing mention of the backlog in criminal courts.
Hidden in the budget, however, is an additional “$96 million over three years to protect public safety and critical infrastructure during unlawful demonstrations” that would end up in the hands of Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).
“This is symbolic,” says Monaghan. “It speaks to the fact that Progressive Conservatives have to make symbolic overtures to anti-racism to demobilize opposition.”
These symbolic gestures were followed by real action—in favor of the police—when Ford promised an additional $75 million to the police to fight “gun and gang violence”.
More of the same from the Ontario Liberals
“There have been 30 to 40 years of efforts to change recruitment to make the police more diverse,” says Monaghan. “But in Canada, police are still overwhelmingly white and male. There’s also lots of research showing that marginalized people who join don’t want to change it, but want to be part of the existing institution.”
The Liberals are also making big promises to reign in far-right violence, in part by increasing the power of Crown Attorney units to persecute hate crime.
But critics point out that criminal law cannot address racism and hate crimes. “More prosecuting means more racialized people suffer,” says Elene Lam, founder of Butterfly, a group that advocates for Asian and migrant sex workers in Toronto. “We need community resources to end white supremacy, not criminal law.”
In response to attacks on mosques and synagogues, the Liberals are also promising to “make it a punishable offense to engage in intimidation within 50 metres of religious institutions,” another policy that fails to account for systemic racism and power.
“The law views both a white supremacist attacking a mosque and an Indigenous residential school survivor attacking a church the same,” said Chanelle Gallant, co-founder of the Migrant Sex Workers Project. “But given enforcement, someone who graffitis a Catholic church is more likely to be prosecuted than the guy who targets a mosque.”
Vague promises on ending police violence
After George Floyd’s murder two years ago, the Ontario NDP promised in a policy document to “end police violence.” And as the province’s official opposition, the party is best positioned to beat Ford at the ballot box.
In that same document, they applauded those who “marched in the streets demanding justice… including the defunding of police.” But substantial reforms like cutting police budgets are nowhere to be found in their policy plan. Rather, the party waffled, with a vague promise to delegate decision-making on police powers to elected representatives.
In May 2021, the NDP supported an “anti-trafficking” bill that would allow for warrantless entries and searches, including private homes and businesses. This would continue the practice of migrant sex workers being deported, and sex workers would be compelled to answer questions despite their Charter right to silence. The bill would also provide an additional $300 million that would mostly go to police.
The party’s election platform is even less inspiring. Whereas the policy plan promised to “end police violence,” the party’s policy platform promises to “end unlawful and unauthorized use of force by police.”
Monaghan says that for the NDP to be “wishy-washy” on police violence “goes against the core of the defund the police movement.”
Real solutions to the problem of police violence and abuse are within reach, having been advanced through a growing movement to defund the police and redirect funding to other social services. But in Ontario, none of those solutions appear to be on the table in the 2022 election.
“Racialized communities and those who are harmed by policing are speaking loud and clear,” says Lam. “The police and the criminal system are the root of racist violence. Increasing police powers and funding will not address the problem. Defund the police and give money to the community.”