You might think that the fact that while a Black person was once considered 3/5th of a human being by the United States Constitution [the “Three-fifths Compromise” was reached among state delegates during the United States Constitutional Convention during the Grand Convention at Philadelphia took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787], that isn’t how things really work in Canada, well… perish the thought. If you think “systemic racism” is a myth, think of all the convoluted debate that ensues every time a white person engages in [or is engaged in] that debate.
Think of what happened when Commissioner Brenda Lucki was asked about systemic racism in the RCMP – how she was unable to even understand the concept, or perhaps attempted to dodge the issue? Think of how other police jurisdictions – including the so-called “arms-length” SIU – handle police interactions with Black Canadians. You cannot think of Jane & Finch – that inner part of Canada’s largest city without the issue of systemic racism being an issue front and centre although, funnily enough every forum including everyone from Toronto’s Mayor and its police chief to Quebec Premier François Legault – and especially regional and national mainline and social media would have you often think otherwise – all of whom struggle to confront and acknowledge “systemic racism” and continue to hide behind the illusion of what the definition of the term really is. Oddly there seems to be no difficulty in recognising the “gang-problem” – especially when it comes to the Jane & Finch area of the Greater Toronto Area.
Of course it is also a “gang-problem” but have you ever wondered why? Why do gangs evolve within otherwise peaceful societies? Why do people – and it is important to include every human being, while focusing special attention on Black people [those in Jane & Finch in particular] – turn to violence as a form of expressing themselves? Frustration at being marginalised in the way that no human being deserves and in a way that separates them from other white folk who live, like them, in an impossible kind of poverty and disenfranchisement? Where, you want to ask yourself, is “redemption” in our avowedly Christian Canada; in the western world… in the whole wide neo-colonial white world?
Surely it has to do as much with sociology as it has to do with economics because one has always informed the other, more so today. Economics first: the great majority of Black people, already historically deemed to be “less than fully human” are also deemed to be less employable – and if they are employed, they are almost always paid less than a white counterpart in the same job. In general, however, more black people are unemployed – and like the disenfranchised Jews of 1930’s Europe – are forced into ghettoes not of their own making. The sub-human environment breeds discontent and discontent breeds crime, but a crime that springs for the need for the sustenance that has remained elusive often for generations. So depraved does the person become that he or she may not be able to seek social or economic justice by anything else but deviant means. In the imperfect world that we live in that is equivalent to being thrown face-first against a wall and being bloodied beyond the kind of recognition accorded to the rest of humanity.
Now consider what would happen If you were thrown face-first into that proverbial wall resulting in a bloody face and not a few broken bones. The chances are you would either pick your bloodied self-up and try to jump the wall before your face came into contact with it. But what if you were held down by something more powerful than you? What then? You would then be in a fight for your life at which point one of two options might present themselves: fight your way out of the power that’s holding you down and vault over the wall, or first gain greater power over the powerful force that’s holding you down and apply that force to overcome the [erstwhile] powerful force. To do so you might need more than your wits – perhaps your fists or… how about another weapon – a wooden stick, a metal bar… a knife or a gun…? If the fingers of your hand are engaged in productive human activity no one gets hurt – that’s what makes some of us typists or painters, or seamstresses or dancers or poets or musicians. But the fingers are so crippled that they can only exist as fists, then they almost always come to be used to inflict blows upon another, or in the direst of circumstances those crippled fingers might wrap themselves around the hilt of a knife or the trigger of a gun. And when you wield a weapon you can only hurt someone else with it and that often results in taking away a life.
It may seem that this comes more easily to some, but it is also true that hurting another human being is not what human beings naturally do to each other. That catalyst comes from anger which leads to hatred. And there is a lot of both in Jane & Finch, which is why a lot of people get hurt there. Hurt has come from neglect and disenfranchisement and that is something that has festered in this part of the Greater Toronto area for decades. It has its origins in Regent Park, beginning with immigration of impoverished Europeans in 1949. But all that changed gradually until, in the 1970’s the cultural make-up of the area began to change – with the influx of [largely] Africans and Jamaicans. With black populations increasing exponentially during that period, so did systemic discrimination. The roots of racial discrimination grew out of the capitalist power dynamic in which rich white Canadian people – like their counterparts in the USA, wielding considerable economic power and control in government and private enterprise – exercised [often] brutal economic control of all other racialised communities, especially Black people, whom they [in any case] seemed to perceive as “less of a human being”; the residual effect of hundreds of years of slavery.
Unable to find gainful employment, crippled by poverty and rising cost of living many took to alcohol and drugs as a form of escape and to alleviate mental distress. Addiction developed and soon became rampant. Addictions were fed by access to drugs, the demand for which was met locally. The need for a supply of drugs changed the power dynamic in the inner city life of the area that included Regent Park and its epicentre became the areas around Jane Street and Finch Avenue. Over the decades, successive municipal and provincial governments began to police these areas using considerable force to control the drug supply and subdue the gangs that controlled it. In the guise of “serving and protecting the community” police budgets ballooned almost always at the expense of community-related projects and other attempts to engage the affected communities that were affected by neglect and disenfranchisement. Naturally, gangs flourished. A population already radicalised by this disenfranchisement found apt expression in words, written and spoken to the ethnic rhythms of Africanised culture: rap and hip-hop.
The periodic gangland killings continued until things came to a head in the summer of 2007 with the fatal shooting of Jordan Manners, a young student from the C.W Jefferys’ Collegiate. Predictably – and some would say of necessity – the authorities responded with a greater show of force, and after intense investigative activity, fairly large-scale arrests of gang members. Ever since then provincial budgets for policing have risen astronomically almost always at the expense of investment in social infrastructure projects that would have gone a long way into alleviating poverty and social deprivation, especially in this poverty-ridden but proudly resilient area of the Greater Toronto Area. It seems hard not to think that race played a hand in this as did the whole capitalistic structure of Toronto’s urban economy. Whatever the imperative this proved disastrous to a disenfranchised population already struggling to find its socioeconomic and political voice. Concurrently, almost analogously, rap and hip-hop music became more strident, the metaphorical content of which reflected this frustration and depravation. Yet much of this was lost in the conflation of the music with criminal radicalisation. In reality it was and continues to be the larger and more important element economic and social depravation that has resulted in a potent form of cultural radicalisation, something that continues to fuel the content of the music itself.
With art comes activism, but activism requires resources to sustain and sources of support – both emotional and economic seems to have dwindled dramatically – especially under municipal and provincial governments who prefer to divert budgets towards policing with a view to increased “show of force” rather than rehabilitating the community that is in dire need of being uplifted. But beyond government, the will to see hope is dimming – not simply among policy makers, but among the various interest-groups as well. That has not always been the case, though:
In 2011, The Palisades Media Arts Academy (PMAA), run by the non-profit organization San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA), provided some of this uplifting in the form of a space for local youth to channel their creativity. With funding from the Trillium Foundation PMAA opened its doors to local youth, with dreams of careers in the music industry, in September 2011. The programme faculty included Rosie Pera [who was involved with SRRA’s Elia Middle School after school program], Omar Sánchez and Rubén “Beny” Esguerra – the latter was nominated for a Juno Award in 2018 in the world music category for his path-breaking A New Tradition – The Return of the Kuisi recording of music that melded the Afro-Colombian tradition with [among other musical traditions] contemporary Hip-Hop music. An attempt to unionise with a view to preventing the misrepresentation of valuable funds for their cultural activities, all three were locked out of the programme when they joined CUPE Local 4772 by then executive director Stephanie Payne. Much to the dismay of the participants in the PMAA – some of whom, like hip-hop recording artist Nathan Baya, were supremely gifted, the premises were locked and programme shuttered.
It was only after a case brought to the Ontario Labour Relations Board by former PMAA staff alleges that the program was shut down in retaliation for “unionising” activity. It is important to note that SRRA was created by a large construction company, whose property was being used for the purposes of the programme. It was therefore easy for the board members representing the property management to lock the Pera, Sánchez and Esguerra, as well as the most deserving beneficiaries of the programme – the struggling musicians – out of the programme on a proverbial whim and without notice. Here is how the lockout was remembered: “They never gave us a good reason for why there’s no money. For me, PMAA was a home, a place to feel free, to go when you were surrounded by negativity. That was all taken away.”
A large majority of the SRRA staff, including some of the PMAA staff, voted to join CUPE local 4772 in September 2013. Former PMAA staff Esguerra said that in the year and a half following his decision to form a union, he was given extra work assignments that he, as a trained musicologist, was not professionally equipped to carry out. He also said he saw adjustments made to PMAA that affected the quality of the programming. “I was stretched in my capacities, performing duties that should have been left to a social worker. Little things that we used to get, like food and bus tokens for the participants, were taken away,” Esguerra said.
In April of 2013, Esguerra and his colleague were informed that PMAA lacked funds to continue operations and that they were being laid off, even though the Trillium grant that floated the program was slated to last until the end of 2014. “I came in one day after school and the doors were locked, and a sign on the door said ‘PMAA Closed,’” recalled [a member of PMAA] Kamalando. “I left and came back the next day and the sign was still there. About a week later, they were taking away the studio equipment. I thought it was just a temporary thing.” Within a month, new programming and staff were operating out of the former PMAA space. Esguerra’s case took seemingly forever to be resolved and the worst-affected were the young musicians who were the real beneficiaries of the programme. “These things can drag on for a long time and make people forget why they were struggling in the first place,” Esguerra noted years later.
Clearly the member of the board action who brought forward the action to suspend activity was misinformed, misrepresented facts and – above all – was culturally deaf. At any rate, two years after the suspension and a lengthy board review, the union action was recognised and in the summer of 2015 PMAA resumed serving the youth of Jane and Finch. But everything had collapsed which is why Esguerra decided it was time to serve the people he had cared for in other ways and with other programmes.
Rubén “Beny Esguerra” claims his ancestry from the Muisca [also called Chibcha] an indigenous people and culture of the Altiplano Cundiboyacense, Colombia, that formed the Muisca Confederation before the Spanish conquest. His immediate family was devoted to the arts, and to activism. This came naturally to Esguerra when he migrated to Canada and began his career in music and education. Due to their human rights work during a time of political repression where activists were being persecuted and disappeared–similar to what is still happening today–we were forced to leave abruptly and seek refuge in Canada. His lived-experience becomes even more compelling when he tells it in his own words:
“When I came to Canada, I had to adapt to a new world and faced a lot of discrimination as many newcomers do. All of this made me understand complex issues [facing racialised communities] at a young age. I quickly found stability in music, dance and poetry and this allowed me to overcome many obstacles. It was traditional music and urban cultural expressions which rescued me. I am now a professional musician, spoken word artist, arts educator and community worker. As a musician and music producer I have led multiple projects. [His nominated for the JUNO Award in 2018 has been documented earlier]. As a spoken word artist I have participated in festivals across North America, Latin America and the Caribbean. As an arts educator I have taught experiential courses that I’ve designed at the York and Ryerson Universities and regularly facilitate projects in school boards cross Ontario.”
By his own admission, however, his most rewarding endeavor is, and has always been, involvement in community projects. “I am the music director of several projects in Jane-Finch and currently lead the New Tradition Music Mobile Studio project, which engages artists in two Jane-Finch community neighbourhoods,” he says. “This reduces the precariousness of youth having to travel from one neighbourhood to another and provides access to professional engineers, equipment and music industry-related knowledge. With this project we’ve recently released the Wheel It Studios Vol. 2 · Parallel Intersections album, which is available on our website [wheelitstudios.com].”
Moreover, through his company – New Tradition Music – Esguerra is also working on his third independent album entitled A New Tradition Vol 3: Northside KUISi, as well as producing other surprise projects with high profile artists to be released sometime in 2021. The key to his approach to music and education is bringing a “New Tradition” to understanding the music continuum and recognising your place in it. His is Afro-Indigenous Colombian music from a conscious inner-city perspective. It draws deeply from his ancestry, and he explains it thus:
“Música de gaita comes from the 16th century and its instrumentation includes two Indigenous flutes from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta–the world’s tallest coastal mountain situated on the Caribbean coast of present-day Colombia–and drums that have their origins in West and Central Africa. This is the traditional music which I grew up with and continued to study during my graduate studies. Parallel to that, I also grew up in an urban Toronto context inspired by and participating in Hip Hop’s elements and cultural expressions such as Breaking, Emceeing, Beatboxing, Deejaying and Graffiti. This influenced my approach of blending traditional South American and North American urban cultural forms.
“The concepts of “knowledge of self”, and “self-creation”, are central to defining what New Tradition means to me. “Knowledge of self” [represents tradition] represents the importance of continuously researching our traditions, lineage, ancestry etc. whereas “self-creation” [what is new] represents the importance of innovation, re-invention, change, growth etc. I explore these concepts in everything that I do and it allows me to always look back and forward at the same time, he says. “There are many styles, traditions and ways of teaching music that are underrepresented in the education system. In order for youth to become engaged, it’s important to reach them through the things that they identify with while using teaching styles that they respond to. Once you’ve reached them that way, the rest is easy and they fly on their own, making the impossible, possible, with the goal of expressing themselves through their lyrics, videos, instruments and compositions.
“Music allows us to express and advocate for ourselves in many different ways. Some, who choose not to use words, express themselves through sounds, instruments and compositions, while others advocate for themselves and their community in a very specific way through their lyrics, Esguerra says. When it comes to teaching the quiet or silenced voices of the depressed to speak out he uses a simple method: “While visiting schools, I often do drumming workshops with students who are labeled “developmentally delayed” or “behavioral” and I’m always amazed by the breakthrough moments that take place when students who don’t usually participate in class, shine at playing the drums while teachers are amazed at discovering talents in their students that they had no idea about,” Esguerra reveals. His parents’ activism and his own view of the relationship between the arts and activism inform everything that he does today – in life and in his art.
“In Colombia as well as here, my parents were always involved in International Solidarity work. It was these spaces which offered me my first chances to perform my music and as a result my music began to reflect the vision of my audience,” Esguerra says. “The organizers of many of these solidarity events understood the importance of music in amplifying calls for justice, unity and action–which are at the core of these events. In turn, I also understood the power of culture as a way of resisting injustice, racism and neo-colonialism. One of the many teachings that I learned from my parents–who fled a very violent context–is that cultural resistance is very powerful because it is peaceful but never passive. It is an important aspect of every movement and struggle due to its long-term and far-reaching effects that raise the consciousness in people by reaching their hearts,” he tells me.
I ask him how COVID-19 has affected his work. Predictably he was quick to find a work-around even in these pandemic times. “Much of my work came to a complete stop in March 2020. However, with regards to the New Tradition Mobile Studio project, COVID-19 restrictions halted our progress but at the same time created an opportunity for us to quickly re-invent ourselves through apps, plug-ins, and file sharing and portable equipment. We were committed to continue this [Mobile Studio] project due to its importance in responding to the needs of the youth in the Jane-Finch community–a west end community that has historically faced many racial and economic inequalities. It is an initiative that builds a culture of peace as its lessons on cross-cultural/cross-neighbourhood understanding and collaboration is needed and is starting to have long term empowering impacts on our community, he avers. “It was our sound engineering skills and a team of 25 talented artists/session musicians–who come with diverse musical heritages–that allowed us to complete our latest production in a safe way while maintaining physical distance in one of the hardest-hit communities in Toronto during the pandemic,” he says with much emotion in his voice.
You cannot think of the Jane & Finch area without first absorbing its beginnings from 1949. The whole lofty ideals of community housing projects were doomed to fail because racism meant there was no compassion for new immigrants and the economically underprivileged. Thus the area was ripe for a violent takeover by gangs of young folk whose attraction to easy money overshadowed the will of the community to survive. Cultural anthropologists will find plenty or grist for their grinding in the violence associated with Jane & Finch. But pretending that there is no blooming culture of arts and artistry in the resilient communities there is not only a fallacy, it’s also something that has led to a dangerous and slippery slope; one that has fueled systemic racism, bolstered the politics of force and diverted large amounts of community spending to police budgets.
While it is true that gang violence should have no place in society we do live in a capitalistic society, one in which the rich have simply become richer on the backs of the very people who worked to make them rich. Capitalistic culture combined with neo-liberalist thinking casts a flawed perspective on artists and their art. When you throw in historic and systemic racism – which is not only due to racist policies, but racist thinking among society at large – you have a wide swathe of humanity who is cast adrift purely because of their colour and their culture. In ideal world, I cannot help but wonder what would happen if, instead of relying on the strong-arm of our militarised [i.e., an armed] police force, we were too late to emulate the Truth and Reconciliation Committee adopted by Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu to bring about Ubuntu [or brotherhood between blacks and whites in the newly independent South Nation? What if both police and gang member confessed to his or her “wrongs” in a public forum before laying down their weapons?
There is something else: At the start of this feature I refer to the United States Constitution wherein Black folk are referred to as being 3/5th human when it comes to constitutional rights. I was never “constitutionally” American although I did spend 1984 and 1985 living and working in Virginia. I experienced racism there – being spat upon and being referred to by the “N” word. The term “systemic-racism” had not been coined in the 1980’s. It did not need to be. As far as we were concerned, the Civil Rights Act was in existence and legally, white and coloured were equal – it was that simple. In reality, however, discrimination by racial characteristics cut much deeper even if it was never spoken about.
I decided not to stay in the USA and file for permanent residency, with a view to citizenship despite the reason I went there in the first place – my abiding love for Jazz. But after living and working in the Middle East for close to 15 years I knew that I wanted to make a permanent home for my young children [something that was not an option in the Middle East for various reasons including socio-political ones]. Canada became the desired option and so I came here with my young family. As far as I knew at the time [the 1990s] Canada was “different”. I was a student of history, so I knew about the “Underground Railroad” and believed that if freed slaves could choose to escape their fate and come to Canada, then I would certainly be welcome there. The reality was very different. When I came to Canada, I arrived as an erstwhile Vice-President of a highly successful publishing house for whom I had created and launched an international entertainment magazine for Sony Entertainment, a national freight-forwarding magazine for the freight forwarders’ association of the Middle East and a business journal for the American Business Council of the Middle East. But I was wrong.
I looked in vain for employment that fit my qualifications for over 18 months, sank into severe depression, experienced divorce and finally homelessness. While seeking employment in areas that I thought fit my qualifications and experience I sent more than a thousand letters introducing myself to prospective employers, appended with what I thought was my impressive résumé. But the “kicker” was actually lining up interviews. My British-English background got me a myriad of interviews. However, everything changed when I arrived for an interview and the prospective employers found out I was coloured. I never got a second interview and was not even dignified with a rejection letter when the vacant post was filled. “Was this the same Canada that historically welcomed freed slaves?” I asked myself. That’s when I realised that you could have laws that professed to equality which governments of many stripes paid lip service to supported and quoted ad infinitum. The reality on the ground – among many white families, the average commercial enterprise and in [apolitical] government departments – the employment engines of an economy – told me that racism was and is largely real and systemic.
But despite my years of negative experiences, exacerbated by mental illness and intense battles with anger, I can’t even begin to imagine what decades of discrimination can do to you especially when it began with slavery. Driving through Regent Park, through Jane & Finch and looking at the mindlessness and depravity of the human condition there, where you came face-to-face with untold, visible signs of poverty and disenfranchisement, you can still literally smell and hear the sounds of the sheer human will not merely to exist, but to soar above life and to excel. It is here – in Jane & Finch – that I came to realise that while life exists in the moment the will to survive is unbreakable. Invisible to the naked eye and under the skin of the many, many people who reside this region of Greater Toronto – like parts of the West Bank of Palestine and the Gaza Strip [Occupied Territories in Israel] – also resides a people that forms a mother-lode of creativity.
It is the reason why, despite the many deprecating stories of gang-violence that mainstream media regularly feed us, and just like many many elements within the institution of Canada’s police forces – something that the black and other racialised folk continue to struggle against, there is an impulse here not only to survive but to excel. No matter how deprived these outcasts in society are; no matter how victimised by capitalism, compounded by racism the instinct to survive and thrive is real. Thanks to a people’s gift for music and facilitators like Esquerra, Sera and Sánchez, who help foster it and help bring it to life this musical story that sings of an epic triumph over disenfranchisement.