London News & Search
It is no surprise that elected leaders of a city too often in the news over racism and bigotry would want to make a punchy, pro-active statement in advance of a scheduled anti-Islam rally.
Many of them may have been imagining the headlines generated by a public demonstration by Pegida Canada, with London city hall as the background visual, during the waning dog days of summer.
And so, in an attempt to get ahead of the story, councillors passed a motion this week denouncing the planned rally and declaring their unequivocal “stand against all forms of racism, bigotry and hatred.”
Accompanying the motion was a troublesome amendment, directing city staff to “prepare a council policy to confirm the prohibition of activities of organizations whose ideologies are contrary to the City of London in civic spaces and/or city-owned facilities and spaces.”
It was an emotional discussion. The motion passed unanimously.
For a variety of reasons, the race, gender and cultural diversity file has been a difficult one on Dufferin Avenue, not just for the current council, but also for its political forebears.
Neo-Nazism established a foothold on the outskirts of the city in the years immediately following the Second World War; its profile in the city, though extremely low, was durable and virulent enough to last into the 1970s. Ask any longtime member of the London Jewish community, and they’ll tell you anti-Semitic attacks against individuals and their community’s institutions go back even further.
Former mayor Dianne Haskett’s refusal to proclaim a Pride Week in the early 1990s strained relationships between city hall and London’s gay community. More recently, a banana thrown at a black NHL player by a spectator at the John Labatt Centre in 2011 caused an international stir. A sitting city councillor used the “n” word as a kind of shock tactic in 2014. An actor at the Grand Theatre was the target of racial epithets last year while walking the city’s streets between rehearsals.
Both TVO and CBC have held public forums in London at which questions of racism within the city have been explored. Occasional acts of vandalism are perpetrated against both Jewish and Islamic edifices. The practice of carding became a huge issue at the London police services board last year.
At city hall, politicians have been doing their bureaucratic best to create at least some sense of forward motion on this set of issues, mostly through its diversity, inclusion and anti-oppression advisory committee. At a public forum on racism last September, Mayor Matt Brown was roasted for council’s perceived inaction. He issued an apology.
Little wonder, then, that the prospect of yet another flashpoint this weekend was enough to whip council into overdrive.
It also whipped them into overreach.
The accompanying directive to city staff implies the municipality itself has an ideology, a system of ideals that form the basis of its corporate behaviour, as well as its economic and cultural policies. That’s a problem. A city possesses an ideology no more than it professes a religion.
More problematic is the sense that declaring the city’s civic spaces and facilities off limits to activities that run contrary to that ideology — even if it could be defined — is likely a breach of Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specifically the rights of thought, belief, opinion and expression, as well as the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Do we really want to open the possibility of a Charter challenge?
Council should pull back on that directive. Let the original motion suffice.
The best thing that could come out of this weekend’s rally and counter-protest would be a strong signal to Pegida that the old London is gone, or at least fast disappearing. The hegemony of the city’s white, middle- and upper-class — a stereotype from mid- to late-1900s, not without some merit — has taken flight, along with many head offices.
What used to be a relatively monolithic cultural identity is no more, displaced by an economy and population that is much more variegated and tolerant.
Racism and bigotry still exist in London, but the city is no longer a soft spot for bigots, xenophobes and racists wanting to peddle their ideological wares. We’ve learned a few things during the past 50 years.
City politicians can’t deliver that message — at least not with any kind of impact — through motions and amendments. Ordinary Londoners can, both through counter-demonstrations and by giving no aid or comfort to bigotry in our day-to-day lives.
At a recent public meeting on racism, one participant said that London’s citizens don’t look to city hall for their moral compass. That comes from within.
The Pegida rally is only our newest chance to prove that the Londoners of today are not the Londoners of yesteryear. Unfortunately, it won’t be our last chance.
Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist.
London News & Search