This story is part of “Still Fighting,” a series exploring the past 50 years of LGBTQ2 activism in Canada.
In 1981, police descended on bathhouses across Toronto in a sting called Operation Soap, which became one of the country’s largest mass arrests. In response, LGBTQ2 activists took to the streets to protest, calling on police to take responsibility for what they had done.
Queer and trans people — as well as queer and trans spaces — had long been targeted by police, and to say that relations with the country’s police forces have remained tense in the decades following the raids is an understatement. Over the last few years, an ongoing debate about the inclusion of uniformed police in Pride parades across Canada has created fractures throughout queer communities. Groups like Black Lives Matter continue to call for accountability in the deaths of trans and queer people of colour.
Tensions came to a head in Toronto in 2018 when Bruce McArthur was charged for the murders of eight men in the city’s gay village. The charges came after years of community fears that someone was preying on some of the city’s most vulnerable men; those concerns were repeatedly dismissed by police, who explicitly told media there was no evidence of a serial killer targeting gay men.
Xtra sat down with Tim McCaskell — an activist, author and longtime member of the Body Politic collective — and Shakir Rahim — a criminal defence lawyer who co-led the Alliance of South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP) campaign for an inquiry into missing persons cases in Toronto post-McArthur’s arrest — to discuss police accountability.
Tim, you were present during the bathhouse raids in Toronto. Can you take us back to what that was like?
Tim McCaskell: It was a “best of times, worst of times” situation. The community as a whole was under attack. We [the gay community] had, throughout the 1970s, spent most of our time getting noticed, because nobody cared about us at all. But then we saw this huge resurgence of right-wing populism, and the police who had never been particularly content with the [Criminal Code reforms regarding gay sex] that happened in 1969 suddenly saw their opening — they were going to close down this gay community, which had become quite pesky by demanding police reform.
Police were already putting pressure on the gay bars. They were trying to close down the entire commercial scene and drive men back into the closet. We were faced with the very real possibility of seeing all the work and all the gains that we had accomplished in that decade, from 1972 to 1981, go down the tubes quickly.
In the time since then, what have you seen? What strikes you about the ways LGBTQ2 communities are treated by police and vice-versa?
McCaskell: The relationship between the police and our communities has become much more complicated because we’ve become much more complicated. For some people, police are now friends that protect their property; for other people, they’re still the same assholes that arrest you all the time. That creates divisions in the community, because when we look at this institution we see completely different things depending on our social location.
Shakir, what sticks out to you?
Shakir Rahim: I think there is a low level of competence around understanding marginalization from an intersectional perspective. And I think the reaction to, for example, Black Lives Matter illustrates that you may be a Black person first to a police officer, rather than a queer person. Or you may be a Black and queer person to a police officer. What the police will look like [to you] will differ based on how you are identified.
There’s the challenge: How do we organize and ensure there is the buy-in to necessary accountability, when members of the community are approaching the issue from such different vantage points?
McCaskell: The huge discrepancy in those vantage points is the key to understanding what’s going on now. I mean, nobody in their right mind would have ever dreamed to ask the police to march in a Pride parade in the 1980s. You couldn’t find anybody who would have thought that was a remotely good idea. Whereas now there are some people who do think that’s a good idea. Those vantage points are really, really different now.
Rahim: And I think the [Bruce] McArthur case was illustrative of that. What we’re talking about is an absence of effective investigative attention to queer men. And it’s been a big wake-up call.
It even took a lot of effort [for us] to get the mainstream media thinking about this through a racial and queer lens. Initially, it was like: “Let’s do a hit out on Church Street. Let’s call the 519 [Community Centre] and then we’ve crossed off the queer angle of this story.” That’s it.
Often, the police would put out statements or allude to the possibility of these missing men wanting to purposely disappear or go back to their home countries. There was a real racial angle to this. And I don’t think we’ve had the necessary reckoning yet in terms of understanding the racial angle to the McArthur case.
Let’s pause on the McArthur case for a moment. Shakir, can you speak a bit to your work with ASAAP regarding this case?
Rahim: With ASAAP, we co-led the advocacy for the now-ongoing independent civilian review into missing persons investigations being led by Justice Gloria Epstein. As an organization, we knew that there needed to be some steps toward accountability. We led bilateral negotiations with the mayor and the police board to establish this review. We also started a community working group to draft terms of reference for what the review will examine and how and when.
But it was interesting to me, in that process, that there was a sheer lack of acknowledgement that [the police] could have done something wrong [in the McArthur investigation]. They will maintain they did nothing wrong and will only suggest that there may be something to learn [from that case]. Meanwhile, you have McArthur as an interviewed person with connections to three of the missing men. You have people coming to the fore saying, “This man has choked me,” and there was no investigation.
At the same time, you have cops telling you not to approach people because they’ll spit on you and you’re going to get HIV. In the same breath you have Project Marie [an investigation in Toronto, which targeted gay men]. You cannot ask the community to come hold your hand while you’re saying these things at the podium. And to me, that’s what the McArthur case with the police illustrated: I looked for good faith. We work with people who are willing to work with us in good faith, even if we may not be totally politically aligned. But there still remains that lack of self-awareness and lack of responsibility.
McCaskell: And with that case, it took a family of a white guy who’d persisted and persisted to get the police to even begin to think about these kinds of connections — and then all of a sudden, you know, the cat was out of the bag.
Rahim: I will say there were some individuals within the service who I believe are reform-minded and get some of the issues. You can have individuals within institutions who think progressively — but institutions are still institutions.
Do I believe that change is possible within the police? I do. I think of it as a harm-reduction approach: We can improve parts of it, but what we really need is to rethink how we approach questions of public safety and what it means to have a system that addresses that. What is the vision for public safety and community support beyond conventional ideas of policing?
The other big plank is accountability. That’s why the missing persons review is so important. We will get an objective observer telling us: “Here is the story, and here’s where the failures were, and here’s what they were.” It will no longer be one group saying this, another group saying that. There will be some authority behind it.
Tim, do you think this kind of institutional change is possible?
McCaskell: There certainly has been a change in police behaviour to parts of the community — the established part, the middle-class part — but I don’t think that’s been the result of so much of the work that’s been done with the police over the years. I think it has to do with the status of that part of the community.
It would seem to me that we all have a better relationship with police when communities are no longer marginalized.
I would not disagree with doing work around the police and looking at it as a harm-reduction strategy. But recovery is also really important. That harm reduction is a step toward recovery, and we’re not going to recover from these kinds of relationships with institutional power until particular groups are no longer marginalized because of their race, immigration status, sexual orientation or gender identity.
The police have tried to make amends in some cases. There was an apology, for instance, for the bathhouse raids in Toronto. Is it enough?
McCaskell: Well, it was not an apology. They didn’t say sorry; the word “sorry” was not in that statement. There was an expression of regret. Of course they regret it: They lost all their cases [around the raids]. They got a huge PR black eye for it. It was a stupid move for them. I mean, people still talk about the bath raids 40 years later.
Rahim: I appreciate that apologies matter to some communities. Speaking just for myself, they don’t really matter to me. I care about action, and I think the best form of apology is action.
What do police need to do to improve their relationship with our communities?
Rahim: A simple first step would be showing they are willing to listen to criticism. In Toronto, police should conduct a series of fully open town halls with the community, where everybody can air their grievances. There should be a clear statement of responsibility around the McArthur case that mistakes were made, and that there has to be a fulsome internal evaluation of what those mistakes were. There would have to be direct engagement with the organizations that represent the most marginalized members of our community — sex workers, our trans community.
I don’t think these steps mean the relationship is repaired or that it’s done or that we’re on the path to talk. But those would be examples of concrete things that would actually indicate something, whereas right now I feel like we’re in disarray.
McCaskell: I’m a little more pessimistic about where those steps lead, because I’ve seen similar kinds of things happen so many times — and they’ve always been used to turn down the heat, but not turn off the stove.
Rahim: The question in a way transcends the queer community. I think you also have to think about who is becoming a police officer and why. That’s a deeper conversation that’s going to have to happen. We have to deal with the underlying driver of this problem.
Answers have been edited for clarity.
This story is part of “Still Fighting,” a series exploring the past 50 years of LGBTQ2 activism in Canada.