Toronto Life, August 2011
How the G20—with its burning cars, broken storefronts, violent beatings and mass arrests—ruined Bill Blair’s popularity
On June 26, 2010, Bill Blair was in the middle of the most complicated week of his career. The G20 summit had transformed the peaceful city that Blair had spent most of his life protecting into something closer to a police state. Protesters filled the streets. Steel fences sliced through the downtown core, guarded by black-masked riot police. Busloads of officers had arrived from across the country—cops who didn’t know Toronto’s streets and were technically not even accountable to Blair. Decisions about G20 security were being made by the Integrated Security Unit, a coalition of police and armed forces. The RCMP was responsible for controlling the area within the summit fence. The Toronto Police Service, assisted by officers from 21 provincial police detachments, was left with the rest of the city. The division of responsibilities was so unclear that as the summit began, even the head of the police board was confused about exactly where the ISU’s job ended and the TPS’s began. Blair was worried. International summits like the G20 rarely ended well. The chief had studied recent summits in preparation for the event, and what he found wasn’t encouraging. In Genoa in 2001, police had shot a protester to death. In 2009, rioters looted stores in Pittsburgh. Blair hoped to learn from history’s mistakes, but with tens of thousands of protesters meeting thousands of police officers, there were plenty of opportunities to make new ones.
Before the G20, Blair was as popular as a police chief can be. Crime was down, there had been no major scandals during his five years in power, and Torontonians seemed to agree that his emphasis on putting uniformed officers out on the streets was what was needed. More than that, Blair was likeable. He was intelligent and articulate, and he radiated a kind of unostentatious decency. In an Ipsos-Reid poll from 2009, his approval rating was 88 per cent. That same year, the Toronto Police Services Board unanimously agreed to renew Blair’s contract ahead of schedule, the first time in recent history that Toronto’s chief had been granted a second term. When the National Post ran a profile headlined “The Most Popular Man in Toronto,” it was hard to disagree.
Until that June weekend. On the Saturday of the G20 meeting, Blair watched TV news and closed-circuit feeds at police headquarters of the first images of protesters burning police cars and smashing windows. By now the events that ensued have become well-known to Torontonians, though familiarity has made them no less disturbing and surreal. Over the next two days, police arrested 1,118 people, the largest mass arrest in the history of Canada. Among those taken into custody was a TTC employee walking to work in full uniform, who was tackled by police and spent the next 32 hours in a makeshift prison. A 57-year-old employee of Revenue Canada sitting on the grass at Queen’s Park with his daughter was pushed to the ground, his artificial leg torn from his body, before he was dragged to a paddy wagon. Nearly a hundred police officers removed their name tags, rendering themselves anonymous for purposes that are unsettling to consider. Of all the videos that have emerged since the summit—clips of protesters being shot with tear gas, beaten and bloodied—perhaps the most telling was a simple sound bite. When a young man objected to a search, protesting that he was not required to give up his backpack in Canada, an officer looked him in the eye and said: “This ain’t Canada right now.”
The chief stayed at headquarters all Saturday night, leaving for only 45 minutes to speak to reporters before returning and working through the next day. On Sunday evening, while police were holding hundreds of people in the rain at Queen and Spadina, Blair was summoned to the InterContinental hotel by President Barack Obama, who wanted to thank him personally for all of his work.
In the weeks after the motorcades left town and the G20 ended, the calls for Blair’s head began. Newspapers that had traditionally been sympathetic to the chief were suddenly demanding his resignation. A former head of the Special Investigations Unit also called for Blair to step down. The ombudsman of Ontario, André Marin, described the G20 as the “most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history” and singled Blair out for criticism.
A year later, as the results of various reviews, inquiries and lawsuits continue to trickle in, the G20 stands as the moment that changed the way many Torontonians think about their police force and its chief. Blair, once so easy to trust, has appeared defensive, evasive and dishonest. By the time he owned up to policing mistakes in June, the damage had been done.
* * *
Bill Blair grew up surrounded by cops. His late father, John Thomas Blair, was a 39-year veteran of the force, who filled the Blair family’s Scarborough home with his friends and co-workers—policemen hanging out, talking shop, leaving at strange hours to start their shifts. Today, a picture of John Blair hangs on the wall of the chief’s office. Taken from the front page of an old Toronto Telegram, it shows John next to a young Queen Elizabeth at a mall opening in 1959. It is one of the chief’s most prized possessions. When Bill Blair met the Queen during last year’s royal visit, his staff took a photo of the event and surprised him with a framed picture that combined the two portraits. In the composite image, which also hangs on the chief’s wall, the black and white face of John Blair hovers over his son’s shoulder.
Despite his upbringing, Blair didn’t always want to be a cop. After graduating from Sir John A. MacDonald Collegiate, where he played on just about every sports team, Blair began studying economics at the University of Toronto with the vague idea of continuing on to law school. To pay tuition, he took odd jobs, including work as a plainclothes security guard at Fairview Mall. Between shifts busting shoplifters, he met Susanne McMaster, who was working part-time at the information desk to supplement her job running the audio-visual department at the school of nursing at Seneca College. The two were married in 1977. They have three children, all grown, none of whom have followed their father into the police service.
In 1976, when he was in third-year university, Blair decided to take time away from his studies and try out the family business. He enrolled in police college in Aylmer, Ontario, where he met Kim Derry, another son of a policeman. The two became close friends. When they graduated, Derry volunteered them both to walk the beat in Regent Park. For a kid from the suburbs, working on the city streets was fascinating and thrilling. It didn’t take long for Blair to abandon the idea of law school, though he completed his bachelor’s degree in economics and criminology part-time over the next six years. As partners, Derry says, he and Blair seemed to share a psychic connection: “I would do something and he would automatically know what I was going to do, and vice versa.” The young Blair impressed the veterans of the division with his uncanny ability to recall the finer details of any arrest. “They’d say, ‘What about this guy here?’ and Bill would remember the name, the date of birth, the phone number,” Derry told me. They led the division in arrests and quickly climbed the ranks, moving through their careers in virtual synchronicity, with Derry often just a step behind his more polished friend. A year after Blair was promoted to sergeant and brought to 52 Division, Derry was made sergeant and joined him. When Blair bought a house in Malvern, Derry moved five doors down the street. When Blair became chief, Derry became one of his deputies.
After leaving Regent Park, Blair worked undercover for the drug squad. He investigated organized crime and led some of the biggest drug busts in Toronto history. In 1995, he agreed to return to Regent Park as staff inspector, the man in charge of the entire division. It was a curious decision. Located at the centre of what was then one of Canada’s most notorious housing developments, 51 Division was seen as a career killer, the place officers were shunted when they angered their superiors. The cops liked to call it “Fort Apache” after the John Wayne western about a U.S. Cavalry regiment isolated deep in Indian country. The nickname was telling. The police often acted as if they were fighting a losing war against a continent of savages, emerging from the safety of their vehicles only to chase down and arrest teenagers.
“It was horrible to think that these were the people who were serving and protecting my community,” says Pam McConnell, the city councillor who has represented the area since 1994. “The interactions between the police and the community were so confrontational that people felt unsafe.”
Just weeks after Blair arrived at Regent Park, a race riot erupted. Stories about how it began differ widely, but according to the accounts of residents at the time, cops were chasing a suspected drug dealer through the housing development when a young black resident shouted at them to slow down. “Go suck my dick, nigger,” the officer allegedly responded. When the resident grabbed his own crotch and returned the invitation, the chaos began. People streamed out of the low-rises and onto the streets, throwing bottles and yelling profanities at the officers. Forty-five police cruisers from across the city screamed into the area, officers leaping out to pepper-spray and restrain the residents. In the end, several officers were injured, and three people were arrested and brought to the police station, followed by a crowd that gathered around the brick headquarters, chanting angrily.
A day later, residents held a meeting at the Regent Park community centre. Against his staff’s warning, Blair decided to show up. The fluorescent-lit hall was over-capacity, crammed with people exasperated by years of ill treatment. When Blair entered the room, the din grew louder. “People were shouting and screaming, thumping their fists into their hands,” McConnell remembers. Blair took a chair and set it down in the centre of the linoleum floor. With the residents standing around him, he said he would answer their questions.
“The first question was the toughest one,” Blair told me recently. “They asked me, ‘Are there racists over at 51 Division?’ If you say no, everyone knows you’re lying. And if you say yes, it’s kind of tough to go back to the station and work with your people.” His response is a kind of model in miniature of the Blair approach to diplomacy. “What I told them was that racism is a problem in society and among all humans,” Blair recalls. “I recruit from the human race and we’re as human over there as we are in this room. So can police officers let bias affect their decision-making? Absolutely. And if racism is a problem in society, can it be a problem in my police department? Of course it can. But the only way to address that is to do it head-on. Let’s talk to each other and work through this. If police officers have done something wrong, I’m quite prepared to hold them accountable. But let’s not make the assumption that they’re all doing something wrong.”
According to people who were in the room, the speech was remarkably successful. “I don’t know how he did it, but he was able to calm things down,” says Gene Lincoln, a community health worker in the neighbourhood. Over the next three years, Blair followed up his words by making many changes at 51 Division. He took officers out of their cruisers and put them out on the street, where they would have to interact with residents; he held his officers accountable, suspending nine of them for the alleged abduction and beating of a suspect; and, to create a larger police presence, he convinced the mounted unit to exercise their horses in the back alleys of the neighbourhood. Crime went down, and community relations improved dramatically. When you talk to people from Regent Park today, they point to Blair’s time there as a turning point.
51 Division is at the centre of his personal narrative. A picture of the building hangs on his wall, and he continually returns to the topic in interviews, at public consultations and in his annual guest lecture to criminology students at U of T. His leadership in Regent Park was a big reason he was named chief.
It was on April 26, 2005, on the steps of police headquarters, that the 51-year-old Blair became the city’s youngest chief and its first with a university degree. Four former police chiefs attended a lavish swearing-in ceremony with Boy Scouts, Scottish bagpipers and Chinese cymbal players. After the tumultuous term of Julian Fantino, Blair’s appointment felt like a fresh start.
Blair told the crowd that policing “works best when the relationship with the community is strong and respectful.” This was hardly novel stuff, but he gave doubters reason to believe he wasn’t just paying lip service. In the same speech, he talked about racial profiling within the service. “There is no greater challenge to our relationship with diverse communities than the corrosive issues of racism and racial bias,” he said. “It will not be tolerated in the Toronto Police Service and must not be tolerated anywhere in our society.” It was a pointed remark. Just three years earlier, when the Toronto Star had printed an investigation on racial profiling, then-chief Fantino had emphatically denied that racism played any part in the TPS. The Police Association even sued the paper for $2.7 billion for libel on behalf of its 7,200 officers (the judge threw the case out). Blair’s admission was a deliberate attempt to mark the beginning of a new era. The Blair-led police would own up to their problems and earn the public’s trust.
* * *
It’s hard to believe Blair ever fooled anyone as an undercover cop. He looks like he was born wearing a uniform. His hair, mostly white now, with a slight widow’s peak, is cropped short in the nondescript style of police around the world. At six-foot-five, with a build that’s grown thicker over his years behind a desk, Blair is imposingly large. Normal-sized objects like mugs and pencils look small and weirdly delicate in his hands. He carries himself with the loose, easy confidence that comes with being the biggest man in the room. In public, the chief’s default listening expression is a pronounced frown, his down-turned lips creating grooves that neatly delineate his chin like the jawline of a marionette. Blair himself isn’t a naturally stern person—he has an easy sense of humour and is quick to find the absurdity in a situation—so more than anything the expression feels like a purposeful attempt to project sternness, the practised look of a man who has said he conducts himself as if his every action could appear on tomorrow’s front page.
As with the very best politicians, Blair has a knack for making personal connections. He is one of those rare people who seem to genuinely thrive on interactions with strangers. “Bill likes and cares about people,” explains Barbara Hall, the former mayor, who became friends with Blair during his time in Regent Park.
A few months ago, at the Etobicoke Civic Centre, I saw Blair in his element. The event was a public forum for citizens to talk about their concerns, but it seemed no one had received the invitation. As I walked in, the only person in the audience was exiting in disgust. “No one’s in there, it’s a joke,” he said. Eventually a handful of citizens filtered in, followed by a few dutiful journalists covering the event. We sat in awkward silence waiting for Blair, who had been held up by rush-hour traffic.
When the chief entered the room 15 minutes late, he immediately broke the tension. “Did you start without me?” he asked, shaking his fist in mock anger. Far from finding the situation uncomfortable, Blair greeted the sparse gathering as a happy opportunity for an intimate chat. Taking over the proceedings, he called on audience members one at a time like a grade-school teacher. An elderly man in a windbreaker stepped up to the microphone to complain about graffiti. The chief listened intently, his brow furrowed, his chin resting in his hands, before thanking the man for his question and launching into a virtuosic soliloquy. He began by attempting to give the questioner some context (“Some people actually consider graffiti desirable and view it as an art,” he said), then pivoted to an affirmation of the man’s feelings with what seemed to be a reference to the “broken windows” theory of crime (roughly: most graffiti isn’t gang-related, but people think it is, which can create fear and the appearance of lawlessness, which can lead people to avoid their streets and parks, which can in turn lead to a genuine uptick in criminal behaviour). Throughout the seven-minute speech, Blair offered up a series of comments that seemed designed to shrink the distance between chief and citizen: “I empathize…,” “As a fellow citizen…” and “I own a house and a fence too, and I know I’d be upset if someone spray-painted them.” The man’s original question about what exactly police were going to do in the neighbourhood wasn’t really answered, but he seemed satisfied. He had a chief who listened to him.
In much larger ways too, Blair has proven to be a skillful builder of alliances. To survive, a police chief needs to carefully balance the demands of a variety of groups: the Police Services Board, the mayor and the powerful Police Association, the union that represents the rank and file and is aggressive in defending the interests of its members. Blair has proven remarkably adept at reaching out to critics and finding ways to make them allies. If Fantino was a political brawler, attacking his critics and the media with zeal, Blair is a skillful conciliator, finding common ground with his adversaries and working to bring them into the fold.
Instead of meeting the Ontario Human Rights Commission in adversarial tribunals, for example, Blair began a partnership with the commission (led by Hall) to try to eliminate discrimination within the service. He became close allies with former mayor Miller and has been working hard to develop a relationship with Mayor Rob Ford. Rather than battling with the chair of the Police Services Board, as past chiefs have done, Blair has built a friendship with Alok Mukherjee, the soft-spoken human rights activist and board chair. Last winter, at the invitation of the Indian government, the two of them toured from Kashmir to Mumbai as a “relationship-building exercise” with India. The trip also served as a pleasant opportunity for Mukherjee to introduce Blair to his home country. When he announced that Blair would be given a second term, Mukherjee was effusive in his praise. “In the years of his leadership,” he said, “crime rates are down, community trust in the service is high, and the relationship between the police and the community is extremely positive.”
* * *
Last June, 15 years after that tense meeting in Regent Park, Blair was once again asked to get up in front of an angry public and speak for the police. Just like in 1995, Blair’s task was to acknowledge public anger while remaining credible to the men and women in uniform who work beneath him. But this time his public statements made an ugly situation worse.
On the Tuesday after the G20, with images of Torontonians being dragged away by the police still all over the news, Blair held a press conference to justify his officers’ use of force against violent protesters. “They came to commit crimes and to victimize people in this city. The evidence of their intent is on display before you today,” he said, gesturing to a table of weapons. Mixed in among a machete, golf balls and baseball bats were the kind of costume chain mail and foam-covered arrows that are used in live-action role-playing games, a chainsaw and crossbow from an arrest unrelated to the G20 and a set of decorative bamboo poles confiscated from a same-sex couple who intended to use them to hang a rainbow flag.
After the summit, the SIU announced that it was looking into six incidents in which protesters or onlookers were severely injured. (Less serious complaints are handled by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, which received 357 complaints against the police; at press time, none had resulted in charges or official reprimands). The SIU’s mandate is to investigate police altercations that lead to serious injury or death, though it tends to decide in favour of the police. According to a 2010 Toronto Star analysis, between the SIU’s inception in 1990 and 2010, the agency conducted at least 3,400 investigations. Only three police officers have ever been sent to jail. In November, after reviewing the evidence, the SIU announced that it would not press charges in any of the six incidents. The agency noted, however, that there was “probably use of excessive force” against protester Adam Nobody, who had his nose broken and his cheekbone shattered. In a video posted to YouTube, Nobody is clearly tackled by police and punched repeatedly. The badge number on Nobody’s arrest sheet didn’t correspond to anyone believed to have policed the G20. Initially, the SIU couldn’t identify any of the officers involved.
When the SIU released its report, Blair attacked the agency for even musing about the possibility of excessive force. In an interview on CBC radio, he said that the video of Nobody had been “tampered with” and that it was “very likely that what has been removed sheds light on why the man was arrested and why force was used.” Blair apologized days later, when the man who shot the video signed an affidavit swearing that the video hadn’t been altered in any way. In response, the SIU reopened the investigation.
Days later, on December 7, Blair was in B.C., chairing the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, when his hotel room phone began ringing at four in the morning. Toronto journalists were looking for him. That day, the front page of the Star had featured a grainy picture of one of the officers who had arrested Nobody, taken from a new video obtained by the paper. The headline was a provocation: “What Now, Chief Blair?”
That same day, Marin released his report on the controversial Public Works Protection Act, the piece of wartime legislation that had been secretly resurrected before the G20 summit. Marin called Blair “ground zero” for the regulation. On the Friday before the G20, Blair had told the media that the regulation allowed police to arrest anyone who came within five metres of the summit fence. Provincial officials quickly notified Blair that no such rule existed, but the chief didn’t bother to inform the public until after the summit. He later said that he was “trying to keep the criminals out.”
According to Marin, the request for the regulation had come directly out of Blair’s office. (Blair says the idea was suggested by city hall lawyers who worked for all of the participants involved in policing the G20, and the request came through his office only because the law required that it come from the Police Service.) Marin’s report also contained a damning internal memo. Written in the days after the summit, the email from one OPP officer to another argued that the OPP shouldn’t participate in a joint press conference with the Toronto Police because the “TPS has made many public mistakes over the last 72 hours,” including misrepresenting G20 weapons. “If a joint press conference were to be held, the questions would be direct and we would either be forced to contradict TPS in front of the media or by silence tacitly endorse what they say,” the email continued. “The public has largely supported police security operations for G20. What is not supported is the actions by TPS and the inconsistencies of answers they continue to provide.”
The next day, while the papers in Toronto excoriated Blair for hiding out on the West Coast, he hastily organized a press conference in Victoria to try to explain himself. Blair spoke against a floral wallpaper backdrop in the lobby of the Empress Hotel as a piano tinkled light jazz. Wearing a suit and tie, shorn of his usual uniform, the chief looked uncharacteristically frazzled. He delivered the sound bites he had been repeating since the summer, only this time without the usual conviction. “We are pursuing all of those investigations with vigour,” he said, seeming to trip over the last word. Cameras flashed around him. “We are absolutely committed to getting to the truth.”
In interviews over the next few days, Blair waived off demands for his resignation and defended himself against Marin’s report. The photograph from the Star eventually led to a charge of assault against Constable Babak Andalib-Goortani—the first police officer to be charged for his actions during the G20.
When I interviewed Blair in late February of this year, nearly eight months after the G20 summit, he greeted me with a lopsided grin and an offer of coffee. “I go through a lot of this in a day,” he said, pouring a mug for himself before sitting down in one of the padded rose-coloured chairs in his office.
Across from him sat the police’s head of communications, Mark Pugash, a slim, grey-haired man who looks about half the size of Blair. After working together throughout Blair’s tenure, the two of them have a well-developed routine in which Blair plays the jocular boss and Pugash his put-upon assistant, weathering the bigger man’s ribbing with mock weariness.
“I have no short answers to even the shortest of questions,” Blair warned me as we began. “So what’ll happen is my people will get really mad at Mark, because this will go way over time. But I don’t mind people getting mad at Mark.”
“Oh, that’s very generous of you,” said Pugash.
Over the last year, talking about the G20 had become a regular part of Blair’s schedule. His responses have grown impenetrably smooth. Blair asks for the public’s patience and says that the police are still looking into possible misconduct. He talks about the complexity of policing such a massive event—“Trying to separate those who came with a peaceful intent and those who came with a non-peaceful intent was very, very difficult.” He says that he can’t just respond to a few pictures or a few moments of videotape—“I’ve got a responsibility to ensure that we get not just some information, but all the information. My process requires that we get not just the truth, but the whole truth.”
Blair says he has regrets about the G20, but they are limited to a few specific events. He regrets that police weren’t able to react faster when protesters began smashing windows on Queen Street. He regrets not communicating the details of the so-called “five-metre rule” more expeditiously. He regrets that protesters were held in the rain for so long at Queen and Spadina. Mostly, though, Blair seems to regret that the G20 was ever held in his city and that the event has cast such a long shadow over him personally and over the work he’s accomplished as police chief.
He claims to have learned a lot from the past year, particularly about the media and the way stories can take hold. “The impact of social media has been interesting,” he said. “This is a very interesting phenomenon. Citizen journalists…”
Pugash cut in. “What does that even mean, ‘citizen journalist?’ ”
“It means we no longer have to worry about sourcing, fairness, accuracy or editing,” said Blair.
“Or supervision,” added Pugash.
“Information doesn’t have to be verified,” Blair continued. “People can post opinion as fact. You can say anything. If it’s interesting—it doesn’t matter if it’s true—if it’s interesting, it goes viral.”
Blair brought up the example of “Officer Bubbles,” the cop who was made an international laughingstock when he was caught on video threatening to arrest a young woman who was blowing bubbles at a G20 protest.
Blair said the media had been missing the context completely. “They’d been throwing urine and feces at us all day, and bleach.” Not these specific protesters, he clarified when I asked, but protesters in general.
“And then a group of the activists, they come up and they’ve got their video camera, and it’s a little street theatre. She’s blowing detergent into the policewoman’s face. The policewoman’s probably being more than reasonably tolerant.”
In the YouTube clip, another police officer, a tall man with a shaved head and sunglasses, then tells the young woman: “If the bubbles touch me, you’re going to be arrested for assault.”
“People have actually asked me, ‘What are you going to do about this guy?’ Well, what do you think I should do about this guy?” Blair sounded incredulous. He ticked off the facts on his fingers, one by one. “He was civil. He was accurate. He provided information when asked. He didn’t hit anybody. So what are you going to do about it?” Blair shrugged his shoulders, as if stumped. “Not much. I can’t think of much to do under those circumstances.”
“There was a comment afterwards that this is ridiculous because bubble solution is harmless,” said Pugash. “Well, how do you know that’s what it is? How do you know it doesn’t have urine? How do you know it doesn’t have ammonia?”
To me, the idea that the baby-faced protester might have created an ammonia-laced bubble solution to try to injure some cops seems a little far-fetched. But perhaps it just illuminates the vast chasm between my way of thinking and that of the police. The police are trained to anticipate the improbable and look for danger in seemingly innocuous situations. It’s the kind of thinking that their jobs and even their lives depend on. It’s also the kind of thinking that might help explain some of the events of that weekend—rounding up citizens blocks from the summit site who just happened to be wearing black, arresting entire groups of protesters, treating mouthy university students as if they were international terrorists.
As we finished the interview, Blair joked about whether or not I planned to dig up the usual police critics for the article. “Any article about the police has gotta have John Sewell,” he said, shooting an ironic grin at Pugash. Sewell is the former mayor and journalist who has become the city’s most outspoken critic of the police (a “smarmy, self-appointed watchdog of police conduct,” according to former chief Bill McCormack’s memoir, though Blair is far more diplomatic). “I doubt he’ll have anything too nasty to say about me personally,” Blair continued, explaining that the two of them know each other from years ago, when he and Sewell’s wife, Liz Rykert, served together on the board of the Children’s Aid Society. (True enough, Sewell had much to criticize about Blair’s handling of the police service, but called the chief himself “a very personable guy, a nice guy”).
By that point, Pugash was displaying subtle but undeniable let’s-wrap-this-up body language. As I gathered my notebook and recorder, Blair continued speaking. Once we were done talking about the G20, he was jovial again, back to the affable guy I’d seen in that meeting in Etobicoke. “You know, I once had lunch with him at Jane Jacobs’ house,” he said. We had since moved on to other topics, so it took me a moment to understand that he was still talking about Sewell. “I came to visit her and John was in the kitchen cooking,” he continued. “Do you know Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities? I take a lot of my inspiration for running the police from that book.”
It was a strange offering, an anecdote that seemed to come out of nowhere. It felt like Blair had sized me up, not incorrectly, as a young journalist who cared about urban issues, and he was presenting Jacobs and her work as a shared interest. A cynical move, perhaps, or maybe just an extension of his approach in Regent Park—find a point of commonality, build a dialogue, go from there.
* * *
Ask Blair’s many supporters about what happened the weekend of the G20 and an awkward silence fills the room, followed by a tentative, halting defence. They talk about the unfairness of holding an event like the G20 in downtown Toronto and giving the police chief just four months to organize it. They hint darkly about the other police organizations involved, like the ISU, which was formed for the G20 and then immediately dissolved. They talk about the Police Association and the kind of pressure the powerful union can bring to bear on a chief. “You can’t be a transformational leader and be so far ahead of everybody that when you turn around, nobody’s behind you,” says McConnell, the implication being that appeasing the rank and file is preventing Blair from leading as boldly as he would otherwise.
The police themselves don’t make any such excuses. Derry, the easygoing, mustachioed deputy chief who has always been less politic than his best friend, says he considers the G20 a policing success. No world leaders were harmed, the fence wasn’t breached, and the city’s economy was not significantly disrupted. “All in all, it would be nice if we hadn’t arrested 1,000 people,” he admits, but he thinks the arrests were justified and necessary to “subside the carnage.” Derry seems baffled and genuinely hurt by the criticism his friend has received. “The critics continue this sort of…I’ll call it a vendetta,” says Derry. “At what point do you sort of say, ‘That’s enough?’”
When I next met Blair in late April, he had other things on his mind. The police were in the middle of negotiating a new contract, which was preoccupying him. Our interview began late and was cut in half so that he could meet with the family of Liu Qian, the York University student who had been found dead in her apartment.
I wondered if he felt unfairly singled out. After all, Alphonse MacNeil—the senior RCMP officer who served as head of the coalition of RCMP, OPP and local forces that was ultimately in charge of security—had essentially disappeared, leaving Blair to stand up again and again and offer skeptical journalists the same handful of unsatisfying answers.
Blair spoke carefully.
“Listen, I am the chief of police in Toronto. When people have questions about policing in Toronto, it’s my responsibility. I can’t duck, I can’t leave town, I can’t not respond to those things.” He seemed fed up by the whole thing. “I can’t indulge in frustration and anger. I still have to speak for the Toronto Police Service.”
But the questions keep coming. Throughout May, the Toronto police and the SIU sparred back and forth over the case of Dorian Barton, a curious onlooker who had his arm broken by an officer while taking pictures at Queen’s Park. There are photos of Barton being attacked, and the perpetrator is clearly visible. And yet, 11 cops, including two of the suspected officer’s supervisors and a roommate of his, said they were unable to identify the officer. In June, after the Toronto Star revealed his identity as Constable Glenn Weddell of the Toronto force, he was finally charged with assault causing bodily harm. That same month, former judge John Morden began to hold public hearings as part of the Toronto Police Services Board’s independent civilian review of the G20. Morden hasn’t announced when his review will be completed, but once he’s done, a 1,000-person class-action suit will proceed.
At the end of June, Blair released his own report on the G20, in which he admitted that the force was insufficiently prepared and overwhelmed. There was no explanation for why police removed name tags or for the alleged beatings of Barton and Nobody. It’s safe to say that Blair will continue repeating his collection of talking points for the foreseeable future.
Blair’s father was a big fan of what he used to call “sage advice”—simple wisdom that could help a young officer find his way through the complex world of policing. “Be firm but be fair” was one of John Blair’s favourite sayings. “You’ve got two ears and one mouth—listen twice as much as you talk and you’ll fit in better” was another. Bill Blair has his own sage advice. He likes to tell his officers to act as if somebody’s watching. Know the rules, know the regulations, but at three in the morning when you’re out alone on a dark street and your conscience is your only witness, do what you know in your heart is right. “You’d be surprised how easy it is,” he told me.
At the end of that second meeting, Blair had gone over time yet again. Pugash hustled me out into the hallway, where men in their pressed wool uniforms stood waiting. I thought about Blair’s advice. Explained that way, good policing sounded so simple. The more I considered it, though, as I walked down into the vast marble interior of police headquarters, the more complicated it seemed. What’s in your heart isn’t necessarily what’s just. There can be many different versions of “what’s right.” Standing up for an unpopular employee who had been mocked around the world for losing his temper on the job is, in many ways, a thankless but fundamentally decent thing to do. And I can imagine nothing feeling more right than protecting your friends and co-workers. Siding with the public over his own officers could cause a chief to lose the respect of his force and ultimately his power, and what good would an out-of-work chief do? Then again, losing the public’s faith could yield the same outcome. As I thought about it, an infinite number of possible choices spread themselves out in front of me, and picking one seemed like murky business. Walking down the steps of police headquarters and out into a bustling Toronto—a city that Blair has helped make safer, if a little less trusting—it seemed murkier still.