One day after Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he won’t attend Toronto’s Pride parade until uniform officers can participate, Chief Mark Saunders said he is focusing on developing relationships with the LGBTQ community — not who gets to march.
“I certainly won’t let the parade define what our relationship is going to be with the LGBTQ-plus community. It is their parade and who they invite and who they don’t invite — it really is up to them,” Saunders told reporters Tuesday morning, moments after raising the rainbow Pride flag at police headquarters.
“My role, my responsibility, it’s number 1: Make sure we keep everybody safe, so at the parade, you will see our officers out there, doing what they do best, which is making sure that it is a fun event and that it is also a secure event.”
For the first time since 2013, Ontario’s premier will not attend the June 23 parade, a symbolic and landmark event that draws tens of thousands of attendees every year. Ford — who previously derided the event as “middle-aged men in pot bellies, running down the street buck naked” — refuses to attend until front-line police officers can march in uniform.
“He wishes all the organizers of Pride Toronto all the best for a successful month and festival weekend,” a Ford spokesperson said Monday.
Toronto police participation in the parade has been a lightning rod issue since 2016, when members of Black Lives Matter Toronto demanded that police no longer participate due to ongoing concerns about anti-Black racism and the officers’ treatment of the LGBTQ community and people of colour.
Tensions between police and members of the LGBTQ community have since increased in the wake of the arrest of serial killer Bruce McArthur, who murdered eight men with ties to the city’s Gay Village between 2010 and 2017.
McArthur’s arrest came after long-held fears within the community that a serial killer might be behind the growing number of men disappearing from the Village — concerns met with denial by police until a month before McArthur’s arrest.
McArthur, 67, was convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of the eight men, and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
McArthur’s first three victims were all middle-aged brown men who went missing from the Village between 2010 and 2012. A Toronto police task force probed those disappearances for 18 months, and in November 2013 brought McArthur in for questioning about the missing men. But police never found any criminal evidence, and they closed the investigation.
McArthur went on to kill five more men.
Former Court of Appeal judge Gloria Epstein is now leading a review of the police investigations into the missing men, examining whether the probes could have been “tainted by systemic bias or discrimination.”
Asked what message it sends when the Ontario premier refuses to attend Pride, Saunders wouldn’t comment on the premier’s decision, though he acknowledged that Ford and law enforcement have a “very strong” relationship. Saunders said his attention is on bridging the divide between police and segments of the LGBTQ community who don’t trust police.
“We know that there are concerns of trust and accountability and in order for us to be legitimate it has to be a day by day process,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out how to bring them to the table and we are actively and continuously working to develop those relationships.”
Tuesday’s ceremony marked the third year the rainbow flag has flown at Toronto police headquarters. Helping raise it was Toronto police Sgt. Henry Dyck, a gay man and police officer of 15 years.
“When I started with the Toronto Police Service, we never would have done this,” Dyck said in an interview after the ceremony.
Dyck said he was outed as a gay man when he started as a police officer and had a “pretty hard go — and had to really convince people that I could do this job as a gay man.”
“I’m just so happy that we’ve progressed a distance down the road. We’re not 100 per cent of the way there, we’ve still got work to do, but we’ve progressed so far that new officers coming on today don’t face that same kind of stigma,” he said.
Dyck, a sergeant at downtown’s 51 division, was part of the Project Prism team that investigated the disappearances of McArthur’s final two victims, Selim Esen and Andrew Kinsman — the probe that culminated in McArthur’s January 2018 arrest. He was the first officer assigned to probe Esen’s disappearance in April 2017.
He went on to supervise the newly established neighbourhood officer program in the Village; the creation of that program, aimed at building relationships, is “one of my proudest achievements,” Dyck said.
The relationship between the police and the LGBTQ community has suffered in the wake of the McArthur case, Dyck acknowledged.
“Any community that’s been through what our community has been through over the years — it’s going to make that relationship difficult,” he said. “I think we just have to work towards building back the trust of the people that we are serving. And that involves a lot of listening and trying to do the right things for the right reasons.”
With Star files
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis