An Act of Protest

Desmond Cole says his piece

Around the time he departed the Toronto Star in May 2017, leaving behind a column that brought him a wide audience if not big money, Desmond Cole was pressed to confront a question: Was he a journalist or an activist? To the people who doubted Cole’s fitness to write for the Star, those roles were distinct and incompatible. An activist takes a position, while a journalist weighs all sides and seeks the truth somewhere in the middle. The latter definition, which assumes that everyone operates in good faith and that no one is flat‑out wrong, has been proven inadequate in today’s media environment. For one thing, it can’t deal with the lopsided polarization that gave rise to Donald Trump and that might see him re-­elected this fall. When one side takes an extreme position, it drags the middle with it. But the truth usually doesn’t budge: it just gets lost in the scramble for supposed balance.

A devotion to the appearance of neutrality spurred Cole’s bosses at the Star to issue an ultimatum: activism or journalism. But even that didn’t settle the question; it just inflamed the debate. Now, with his debut book, The Skin We’re In, Cole chronicles a year on the front lines of anti-­black racism and offers concrete answers about his place in Canada’s media ecosystem.

As a writer and a familiar voice on the radio, Cole has engaged in painstaking research and has repeatedly unearthed facts to form compelling and true narratives. That’s journalism. His activism has informed and coexisted with it, but it has never diminished it.

Donald Trump’s election and the resurgence of hate groups in the United States have highlighted how little progress has been made when it comes to race relations in that country. More recently, the COVID‑19 pandemic has killed a disproportionate number of Americans of colour — a disparity rooted in deep-seated inequality. It’s a deadly example of the type of systemic discrimination that many Canadians swear doesn’t exist here. But with The Skin We’re In, Cole offers a timely reminder of the depth, breadth, and costs of racism north of the border. He yanks smug and complacent Canadians back to reality and forces all of us to confront the ways white supremacy thrives in this country.

Cole doesn’t just recount a year spent fighting for justice. He also attempts a tricky task: finding the common thread that connects a diverse set of black experiences. One connection, and a source of solidarity, is that all different types of black Canadians — straight and gay, urban and suburban, native born and immigrant — deal with the same business end of racism.

In 2007, for example, Jordan Manners, a black student at C. W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in Toronto’s North York neighbourhood, was shot in a school stairwell. His death prompted the Toronto District School Board to invite uniformed officers to roam the hallways. Though the initiative aimed to reduce crime and improve police-­community relations, Cole illustrates how black students often became collateral damage: profiled, punished for trivial transgressions, and shunted into the criminal justice system. He connects the initiative to the 2009 arrest and expulsion of an unnamed black student at Northern Secondary School, where most students are white and many come from money:

According to several students who witnessed the incident, it escalated when the student referred to the cop as “bacon.” So here was a Black student who had negative feelings about the police. An officer whose priority according to the police chief was relationship-building might have started a conversation, or simply said nothing at all.

Cole also offers a play-by-play account of the events that prompted Black Lives Matter Toronto to blockade the 2017 Pride Parade, as a way of protesting the presence of uniformed cops. The move wasn’t just a knee-jerk lashing out, as some claimed; it was a logical response to an unspoken but very real police mandate to enforce anti-­black racism. Bathhouse raids in 1981 and other violent incidents speak to how the Toronto police have often viewed the LGBTQ community: as people who deserve to be on the receiving end of force, not citizens worthy of service and protection. “Queer people of colour,” in particular, “had to carve out their own spaces and services.” Questioning the presence of uniformed police at Pride celebrations is more rational than condoning it, Cole argues, especially if you’re black and LGBTQ.

And Cole details Nova Scotia’s centuries-long cycle of racism and alienation. In the 1780s, the future province became the landing spot for slaves who had been promised freedom in return for supporting England during the American Revolution. A generation later, Halifax became the departure point for many of those same refugees. Sick of crippling racism, they sailed for Sierra Leone, where Cole’s own parents were born many decades later. “British imperialism, which led to the colonization of both Canada and Sierra Leone, produced me, and informed the stories I’m about to share with you,” he writes early in the book. Then, in his final chapter, he writes about Abdoul Abdi. Born in Saudi Arabia to Somali parents, Abdi arrived in Halifax at age seven and quickly became a ward of the province, dependent on the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services to complete the paperwork that would make him a citizen. Fourteen years and a litany of foster homes later, Abdi pled guilty on several charges, including dangerous driving and assaulting police with a vehicle. The conviction jeopardized the only home he had ever known. “DCS never applied for Abdoul’s citizenship, so when he was sentenced for a crime in his adult years, he became vulnerable to a deportation order.”

Cole makes a convincing case that several strains of racism are pervasive in — and native to — Canada. It’s not just in Nova Scotia that we see the promise of a better life repeatedly followed by the failure to honour that promise. And then there’s Cole’s own experience.

He owes much of his public profile to a powerful personal essay he published in Toronto Life in 2015. In it, he detailed the dozens of times Toronto Police demanded to see his personal information, under the guise of a humiliating stop-and-frisk-style program we now call carding. Racial profiling might be an abstract concept to white Canadians, but Cole’s essay made plain that it’s a frightening reality for many black folks. The piece earned him a National Magazine Award and helped propel him into other mainstream media gigs, like an AM radio talk show and that ill-fated column at the Star.

The hiring of Cole by Canada’s largest daily signalled that mainstream outlets were, at last, open to pro-black voices. But the dissolution of the relationship also revealed double standards, framed by race, that can make corporate newsrooms uncomfortable places for outspoken journalists of colour:

By the time I quit, the column had been reduced to every two weeks; I had no contract, no membership in the union, no benefits, no apparent prospects for advancement within the company; the president of the board of directors had suggested I write less about race issues; and I’d just been advised that I had violated the paper’s code of conduct by staging a sit‑in at a meeting of Toronto’s police oversight board.

At an April 2017 meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board, Cole had admonished members for the carding system, which “the Star had devoted an impressive amount of time and resources to documenting.” After speaking up, he refused to leave the proceedings. That’s when his editors at the Star said he had broken the rules of objective journalism “by engaging in public protest.” They told him he had a choice: “I needed to choose between my column and my activism; to restrict my Black struggle for the privilege of writing for the paper twice a month. Shit, I didn’t even have a dental plan.”

I was a reporter at the Star when all of this unfolded, one of just two black journalists on a staff of more than 150. Cole called me after a meeting with Torstar board chair John Honderich, and we talked about how the company’s attitude mirrored a cynical, industry-wide strategy. Hiring Cole as a freelancer allowed the Star to borrow his following and boost its online readership without having to invest in the writer generating the new traffic. And steering him away from writing about race sent a clear signal that decision-makers valued his audience more than they did his ideas.

The controversy concerning Cole’s dual role as activist and journalist laid bare other troubling standards governing the contemporary news business. A shrinking industry means applicants outnumber jobs, which renders many freelancers expendable and interchangeable. The trend also lets deeper-­pocketed, more prestigious companies presume they can employ writers for two or three days a month and control how they spend the other twenty-eight.

Besides, the distinction between activist and journalist is a false one. Cole’s activism kept him on the mainstream media’s radar between gigs and helped build the following that those outlets leveraged when they hired him. Cole wasn’t even a reporter tasked with staying neutral. He was a columnist, paid to stake out a position and argue it. His activism doesn’t diminish his opinion writing but instead informs it.

People seem okay with this truth if the writer involved is, say, Naomi Klein. None of us would expect her, in the name of journalistic objectivity, to give equal weight to both sides of the climate change debate. We know what she publishes will be informed, presented in good faith, and biased toward saving the planet. “The same newspaper that told me I could not be an actor and a critic had somehow managed, before my time,” Cole writes, “to give columns to internationally known activists.” There was also the Star’s Catherine Porter, who had “misstated some facts” about an environmental demonstration she attended shortly before Cole was hired. “The same public editor who later admonished me for ‘becoming the news’ wrote that ‘Porter is right in her understanding that she has explicit permission — and encouragement — to take a public stand and act in line with her views on social justice issues.’ ” The rules shouldn’t have changed for Cole, but they did.

Cole could have spent a whole chapter of The Skin We’re In arguing the point, but he instead lets the facts and their context speak for themselves. In short, he does what journalists are trained to do. Instead of telling us about uneven playing fields inside Canadian newsrooms, he shows us. And he answers a question that underpins several of the book’s key events: Is Desmond Cole an activist or a journalist?

Simple. He’s both.