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Lunch with Bill Blair: Ex-police chief-turned-Liberal on carding, the G20, and why tough laws don’t make us safer

Watch: Bill Blair reflects on his time as Toronto police chief and talks about his Liberal candidacy.

SCARBOROUGH, ONT. – Bill Blair has only made a couple of visits to Bluffer’s Restaurant, a rustic waterfront spot with white tablecloths and an easy listening soundtrack, overlooking a picturesque marina in Toronto’s east end.

But they were important meals: This is where Blair met with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau last spring and decided to run for politics.

“That’s how you get to know all the staff here,” Blair says, upon being greeted by a waiter.

“Be the only customer, and hang out with Trudeau.”

Blair claims both the NDP and Conservatives tried to recruit him, but won’t go into specifics about who personally called him up.

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“I was approached by all of them to run.”

But his talk with Trudeau was different.

“The rest really wanted to talk about winning an election and getting a seat, and quite honestly I really wasn’t looking for a place to sit down,” he says.

At 61, dressed in a dark suit and patterned blue tie, the former Toronto police chief is still tall and imposing; calm, but intimidating.

He says his toughest times as chief came when children got hurt on his watch – and claims he can name every single child who died during his decade manning the force in Canada’s largest city.

I ask him to.

“Thanks for the test. I know their names,” he replies, biting into a ring of squid.

After 39 years as a cop, Blair says he wasn’t ready to stop working when he retired as chief earlier this year.

“I had options to go into the private sector, but quite frankly I like public service. I think it’s the highest of callings. And I wanted to find a way to continue to serve.”

Born and raised in east Toronto, Blair is running for a seat in Scarborough Southwest, although he moved downtown a few years ago to be close to police headquarters.

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READ MORE: Federal Election 2015: Scarborough Southwest riding

But it won’t be an easy road to the House of Commons.

In addition to tough opponents NDP incumbent Dan Harris and Conservative candidate (and fellow cop) Roshan Nallaratnam, Blair’s political campaign is dogged by a less popular episode of own history as police chief.

Green Party candidate Tommy Taylor is running against Blair primarily because Taylor was detained in the G20 protests.

But Blair says he has learned to grow a thick skin.

“When you’re in a job like that you have to get up and decide you’re going to do what’s right – and it may not be what’s popular,” he says.

“I always knew, every single day, that on any given day as I was out there trying to do what I thought was right, there was going to be criticism.

“If you can’t live with that, then you can’t do the job.”

Ghosts of the G20

It has been more than five years since the G20 summit was held in Toronto on June 26 and 27, 2010 – the largest security event in Canadian history, due to the high-profile international leaders in attendance.

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It also resulted in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history – more than 1,100 people were detained, including hundreds who were “kettled” for hours in a downpour at a busy downtown intersection.

Questions still linger about Blair’s role that weekend – and it clearly frustrates him.

In a letter to the Globe and Mail responding to an editorial suggesting he’s never been held accountable for what happened, Blair defended his actions, saying he “took responsibility, held myself and my people accountable and took the necessary action to serve the public interest.”

(Another senior officer, Supt. Mark Fenton, was recently found guilty by a police disciplinary tribunal for ordering unlawful mass arrests.)

“For me, what was important at the end of the G20 is, when everybody else left town, this was my town,” Blair says, resting his hands over his mouth.

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“I’m the chief of police. And I answer questions from the people of Toronto. And they had a lot questions about what had transpired in the G20. So I stood there and answered their questions – for five years.”

He points to a 70-page after-action review penned in June 2011 as proof that he has taken responsibility, even as he maintains the RCMP led the security efforts and he did not authorize any operational commands.

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The report points to inadequate training and ill-prepared officers, and finds that some “containment” measures went too far. The Ontario civilian police watchdog also released a report that found poor planning and excessive force.

Blair’s report recommends better training including a major event specialist, improved intelligence sharing, a review of mass disorder tactics, and improved temporary detention centres, among other things.

Blair also points out the force only had six months to prepare for the meeting – as opposed to two years – and urban centres are rarely called upon to host.

“As a chief of police, when you’re in charge of the thing, it doesn’t mean you’re to blame for everything that goes wrong – but you’re always responsible. I take that responsibility very seriously,” Blair says.

“Being responsible is holding people that made mistakes to account. Being responsible is, if there were deficiencies in our preparation, our planning, our policies, our training, our equipment or our tactics, then to identify those and to remedy them. And I’ve done that.”

Bill Blair at Bluffer’s Restaurant in Scarborough, Ont. (Laura Stone/Global News)
Bill Blair at Bluffer’s Restaurant in Scarborough, Ont. (Laura Stone/Global News)

Race, carding and the cops

Blair is adamant: Carding solves crimes – or helps prevent them altogether.

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The police practice of randomly stopping people and collecting information without arresting them has been the target of scrutiny and blistering criticism from Black Lives Matter protesters and Ontario’s Corrections and Community Services Minister alike.

Numerous investigations have shown carding disproportionately affects black people and people of colour.

READ MORE: Carding enhances public safety when done ‘right,’: Toronto police chief

Blair recalls being asked when he first became chief whether racial profiling was possible.

“I said of course it is, we come from the human race. And so all of our police officers may be subject to human frailty and racism is a problem among humans, and so it could be a problem among my police officers. But it’s not tolerated here,” he says.

He says police officers work with diverse communities and receive “very impartial” police training.

“In acknowledging it, it gives us the opportunity to actually work hard on preventing it. If you deny its existence, you can’t do anything.”

Blair cites one case in which a sexual assault suspect was nabbed after being stopped by police on random patrol

“It helps criminal investigations every single day.”

Striking a balance on terror law

Blair believes good public safety is all about balance.

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“You can’t compromise people’s rights and freedoms for their safety, nor should you ever compromise their safety for their rights and freedoms. It’s a very, very difficult balance,” Blair says.

“Those of us who have been tasked with maintaining that balance struggle with it all the time. And we may be found to have on occasions erred,” he says, launching into his explanation of whether racial profiling exists.

It’s a balance Blair’s party has struggled with when it comes to terror law: The Liberals courted scorn on both the left and right by voting for the Conservatives’ anti-terror Bill C-51 this past spring.

Trudeau has said he’d amend parts of the bill, and add oversight.

Blair says the anti-terror bill, which has been criticized by security experts and now faces a Charter challenge, will help security agencies to share information – crucial to prevent tragedies like the 1985 Air India bombing. (Some security law experts have argued the bill doesn’t address gaps in Canada’s intelligence-gathering identified in an Air India report.)

“The law enforcement community and the national intelligence community understand the need for oversight, understand the need for accountability. It’s the way things have always worked for us, and there’s nobody that doesn’t get it,” he says.

The Ford saga

Perhaps one of the more unexpected controversies of Blair’s tenure was his public rift with Toronto’s then-mayor Rob Ford and his councillor brother, Doug, after police retrieved a video appearing to show Ford smoking crack cocaine.

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Blair won’t go into specifics about the police investigation and won’t say why Ford was never arrested.

It must have been a crazy time, I say.

“Yep,” says Blair, taking a bite of his seafood salad.

“But not crazy. Because the law … doing the right thing and telling the truth, they bring a certain calm to it.”

He will say this: It was an “emotional time” for Toronto. Blair became the target of the Ford brothers’ ire when he said at a press conference that he was “disappointed” about the alleged video.

“It was very traumatic for the city. I tried to acknowledge that, and even in acknowledging that, I took a lot of criticism,” Blair says.

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“I knew it was difficult for the people, and I attempted to acknowledge that. And then got beat up pretty good for doing that.

“Oh well.”

The difference ‘between tough talk and smart action’

When bad things happen, the first response is often: what went wrong? What law, practice or policy would have prevented it?

That’s not always the answer, Blair says. It wasn’t the answer in 2012, when two men were gunned down – and many others, including a 13-year-old boy, were injured – in a teeming mall food court; or when two young people were killed and 23 others badly hurt in the city’s worst mass shooting, on Scarborough’s Danzig Street that same summer.

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READ MORE: Murder charges withdrawn against man accused in Danzig shooting

“There wasn’t any new legislation that was required, and there wasn’t a lot of things either the city or the province or even the federal government could do,” Blair said.

He told officers to get out into the streets and make people feel safe again.

“I told the cops, ‘We’re not out there to make more arrests, we’re not going to arrest our way out of this thing.’ … It scares people when you’re running through the neighbourhood grabbing people up and throwing them into cars,” he says.

“I want people to see the cops here and know it’s ok, there’s nothing bad happening, it’s ok. Come on out.”

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It’s one reason Blair has second thoughts about the Tories’ “tough-on-crime” agenda.

“There’s a world of difference between tough talk and smart action. Smart action is based on evidence, fact, experience, public consultation, analysis,” Blair says.

While it may be politically beneficial, Blair believes these laws don’t actually work.

“Did it make the country safer – which quite frankly. is my interest? I don’t think so,” he said.

“The things that do make communities safer are people working smart in neighbourhoods to make them more resilient…to address some of the things that strongly correlate with crime: lack of opportunity, lack of employment, early dropout rates, poverty, lousy housing,” he says.

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Blair cites Regent Park as an example: The neighbourhood, a notoriously rough, under-serviced area home to one of Canada’s oldest and largest public housing complexes, has undergone significant gentrification in the past decade. That transformation’s garnered mixed reviews as its new highrises struggle to re-establish a sense of community and accommodate socioeconomic diversity.

But Blair believes no matter what, people need to live their lives unafraid.

“I think our safety is in jeopardy when people are afraid to go to public space. When they won’t take the kids to the park, you won’t engage with your neighbours, you stop going to all the main streets and commercial districts in Toronto – they become less safe,” he says.

“Fear is the greatest enemy of public safety.”