‘Hold their feet to the fire’

It is a practical and political fact of life that there are times when forceful advocacy is absolutely necessary to hold individuals and institutions to an acceptable level of accountability.

Meaningful change, in the form of substantive changes in policy and practice, is too frequently held back by the frustrating effects of injustice, indifference or complacency.

It is therefore heartening to hear of the valuable contributions of the Coroner’s Inquest into the death of Andrew Loku, a mentally ill Black man whose interaction with two police officers led to the ultimate tragedy involving police use of a firearm.

Firstly, there is the major significance of the finding coming out of that Coroner’s Inquest: homicide. Death occurred as a result of an illegal action on someone’s part. However, that finding has no binding application and therefore does not automatically lead to the laying of criminal charges against the police.

This finding contrasts sharply with the conclusion reached by the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) last year 2016, to the effect that the police’s use of lethal force was warranted.  As a result, no charges were laid against the police.

The second important aspect of the Coroner’s Inquest was its official issuance of thirty-nine (39) recommendations for the meaningful change in policy and practice that the Loku case should impose on the police and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.

Specifically included in those recommendations were a host of inter-related and holistic measures intended to introduce a responsible and humane approach to policing that  gives full consideration to such causal and remedial factors as mental health and/or addictions, anti-racism, particularly anti-Black racism, implicit and unconscious bias, fear inoculation, de-escalation and crisis communication.


Those recommendations were set out in great detail in order to point the way towards meaningful change in the toxic exchanges that so often arise between the police and three categories of vulnerable persons: Black persons, mentally ill persons, and persons suffering from addictions. The recommendations were specifically addressed to the police, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and the Mental Health community.

The very demanding efforts required to bring about such meaningful, long-term change also cause us to heap praises on Mr. Kinsley Gilliam of the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC). On hearing of the outcome of the Coroner’s Inquest and of the extensive recommendations issued by that authority, he indicated to this newspaper what he and BADC meant by their intention to hold the relevant feet to the fire:

“… holding their feet to the fire,…means that  there will be active follow-up with all, with all the parties to whom recommendations have been directed, to monitor their plans for implementation and actual activity towards implementation;  and we will assess where we are a year from now. And if we don’t find sufficient progress, we will seek a writ of mandamus in Superior Court, to force them to implement the recommendations.”

The highly positive results and consequences of this Coroner’s Inquest did not come easily. Sustained advocacy and public protest against the ruling of the SIU forced the authorities to convene the Inquest.

Similarly, a sustained public outcry over the initial decision not to lay charges against the police provoked a change of direction in the Sammy Yatin case. Sammy Yatim was an emotionally challenged youth who was shot in an empty streetcar by a Toronto police officer in 2013 after he refused to obey an order to drop a knife.

The police officer in that case was acquitted of second-degree murder, but found guilty of attempted murder for continuing to fire after the dying teen had fallen to the floor. He is currently free on bail, pending the ongoing appeal of his sentence of six years in jail on the second charge.

There is no doubt that there is a culture of racial profiling and out –and-out racism on the part of some police officers in Ontario and throughout Canada.

So the question remains: How can Canada’s racialized communities ever hope to see meaningful and long-term change in a country and a world in which racism has been entrenched for centuries and centuries?

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”, said Desmond Tutu, paraphrasing an already well-known concept. Is there another, more forceful way to say the same thing?

“Hold their feet to the fire.”