Toronto’s unabashedly in-your-face celebration of everything LGBTQ is set to take place on Sunday against a backdrop of nasty recriminations involving the community, police and black citizens, and the sobering reality of a man charged with killing eight people, most of whom frequented the city’s gay district.
The huge Pride Parade, one of the country’s most colourful and flamboyant outdoor events, will see more than 120 groups march the downtown route — but uniformed police won’t be among them.
Self-described “out and proud” Const. Danielle Bottineau, the force’s LGBTQ2S liaison officer, said she has been left with conflicted sympathies over the tensions with the gay community that has led to the formal exclusion of uniformed officers from the parade for the second year in a row.
“It’s been a tough couple of years for me personally, because I’m very much immersed in the community and the service,” Bottineau said in an interview. “It’s been emotional, it’s been tough at times; I’ve had anger, I’ve had crying, I’ve had it all. I’ve seen both sides.”
Police came under fire from the LGBTQ community for failing to take the disappearances of gay men seriously for years — until January, when they arrested and charged self-employed landscaper Bruce McArthur, 66, with killing two men. The number of first-degree murder charges against McArthur subsequently rose to eight.
With many residents feeling shock, grief and horror, police Chief Mark Saunders inflamed the situation when he initially suggested no one in the gay community had come forward with information that might have led to an earlier arrest. He later said it was not his intent to blame the community.
Bottineau said challenging a police force culture based on hetero-normative white male privilege has been an ongoing battle fought by LGBTQ officers willing to make themselves visible. At the same time, she said she understood the difficulty the community has with the police service.
“Unfortunately, we did our part where we weren’t doing the best job, and we need to take ownership of that,” Bottineau said. “I would love to be back in the Pride Parade at some point, and that will happen, but it’s just going to take time.”
While the big parade is important, said Bottineau, who will be following events from a command centre in case needed, the priority is to repair relationships with the community and figure out how police can do a better job dealing with its members.
Tensions involving police and the parade were brewing in 2016, when members of Black Lives Matter abruptly halted the march to present several demands, among them that uniformed police, their floats and cruisers be excluded. The group cited tensions between the force and black citizens arising, from among other things, racial profiling.
Pride organizers acquiesced, saying officers could participate if they gave no indication of being police. As a result, the force did not march last year, but Saunders expressed hope uniformed officers would be invited back this year.
His idea didn’t fly.
In early April, Pride Toronto and five other organizations co-signed a letter opposing a formal police presence, citing the missing-men investigation.
“Despite the fact that many of us felt and voiced our concerns, we were dismissed,” the groups said. “This has severely shaken our community’s already often tenuous trust in the city’s law enforcement. We feel more vulnerable than ever.”
In response, Saunders said he recognized how fraught the issue was, and said he wouldn’t push participation this year.
“My hope is that this move will be received as a concrete example of the fact that I am listening closely to the community’s concerns,” Saunders said in a statement.
Former police board chairman Alok Mukherjee said Saunders was right to focus on rebuilding a relationship that has “clearly been frayed or even broken,” while a review of how police investigated the missing men situation takes place.
Meanwhile, unlike his predecessor Kathleen Wynne, an openly gay supporter of Pride, incoming Ontario premier Doug Ford has been noncommittal about taking part in the parade. Ford said he would consider marching if uniformed police were invited back.
Despite the controversy, the parade, which caps off weeks of gay-themed events, is expected to draw as many as one-million spectators to the sidewalks — and police will be on hand helping ensure security.
“This is the weekend’s premier event, bursting with performances, floats, marchers with messages, queens, kings, outstanding community groups, and more glitter than you can shake a disco stick at,” organizers say on their website.
Pride Toronto and Black Lives Matter Toronto did not respond to repeated requests to discuss the situation.
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press