Just days after what’s been described as the largest protest that London’s ever seen, city councillors have unanimously passed motions aimed at making real progress to end racism in London, Ont.
Nearly 10,000 protesters came out in support of the Black Lives Matter rally in London on Saturday.
On Tuesday, councillors and the mayor — sitting as the strategic priority and policy committee (SPPC) — took the opportunity to address community concerns.
“We know that anti-Black racism exists. We know systemic racism exists. We know both exist here in London, Ontario. The same is true for people of colour and our Indigenous friends,” said Mayor Ed Holder.
“My hope is that all of us on council and all Londoners remember the passion, the hurt and the urgency we heard from those who spoke at last Saturday’s protest. What truly matters now and what matters even more going forward is action.”
Members of the SPPC first voted on a motion aimed at city hall itself. That motion acknowledges that systemic anti-Black, anti-Indigenous racism and racism against people of colour exists in London and also stressed that council “unequivocally condemns racism in all of its forms” while acknowledging that “the corporation’s workforce is not reflective of the population it services” and adding that it will “continue to work to ensure a reflective workforce.”
The motion directs city staff to report back at a future meeting with an update on the implementation of the city’s diversity and inclusion strategy as well as next steps. The motion also asks staff to report back with metrics “that may be or are currently implemented” to show progress in hiring that reflects the diversity of the community.
Finally, the motion also asks staff to report back “with respect to the establishment of a Black liaison officer position” at the city, similar to a previously approved Indigenous liaison officer position. It was hoped someone would start in that position in June, city manager Lynne Livingstone said during the SPPC meeting, but recruitment was paused across the board at the city in March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Previous discussion of diversity among staff at city hall was met with controversial remarks from Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen. In January 2019, Van Meerbergen responded to reports about workplace diversity and inclusion by putting forward a motion to amend the reports to include a mention of merit-based focus, stating merit should be the focus of hiring and not “skin colouration and/or range of sexual orientation or variation of ideologies.”
Coun. Steven Hillier initially seconded the proposal but withdrew support after city staff said the change wasn’t necessary.
At the time, Coun. Arielle Kayabaga described the comments as insulting, noting that they are “assuming that we’re hiring people based on the identity group that they belong to and not based on their competency.”
The other two motions voted on at Tuesday’s meeting asked local school boards, the London Police Service and the Middlesex-London Health Unit to respond to issues raised by Londoners during Saturday’s Black Lives Matter rally.
Noting Coun. Stephen Turner’s involvement with the health unit, the motion was divided into two so that he was able to vote on the motion specific to police and school boards while he recused himself from the vote regarding the MLHU.
The motions will then go to full council for final approval.
Among the issues raised by Black Lives Matter London are: defunding London police and re-allocating those funds; implementing food security programs in every school; ending police involvement in high-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) density events; and for all city-affiliated groups and nonprofits serving BIPOC in London to stop working with police for Black history month events and other community events.
Many councillors raised concerns specific to police involvement in mental health calls as well as a lack of funding for public health services.
“I’ve been on a police ride-along and I’ve seen the cues that they’re responding to and I’ve seen how many of those calls are not really calls that are best served by police officers,” Coun. Shawn Lewis noted.
“And as I’ve been listening to what folks from Black Lives Matter and others have been saying about, you know — the police can sometimes escalate a situation rather than de-escalate a situation.”
Kayabaga said she, too, went on two police ride-alongs “to learn and to get an idea of what they do.”
“In one night, I think it was 70 per cent of the calls we went to were mental health-related. And on the second night, 90 per cent of the calls were responded to were mental health-related.”
Kayabaga also raised the recent death of Caleb Tubila Njoko, a Black man in London who died after police were called for a wellness check. Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, is investigating Njoko’s death.
“For so long in Canada, not just in London, but in Canada, we have seen a defunding of public health and mental health services and more funding in other things. So let’s keep that in mind as we support this motion to go forward, that we are actually willing to take action,” she said.
Coun. Mo Salih also noted concerns about police responding to mental health calls and a lack of public health funding.
“As a former chair of the police board, you know, working with Councillor (Jesse) Helmer and working with the mayor, we’ve raised it time and time again about the fact that mental health calls and who’s responding to those are just completely not the role of the police and that something needs to be done. London actually has been leading in that front and speaking very loudly,” said Salih.
“I’m hopeful that the police service board, school board and the health unit will be able to take the steps that they need to do to come out strongly and to respond to the city and to respond to Londoners, because I don’t think this is going away and people want to see results.”