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Protesters, residents and police discuss park sex crackdown at protest

Members of the LGBT community attend Walk the Beat event demanding accountability for Project Marie

Around two dozen members of the LGBT community gathered in Marie Curtis Park in Etobicoke this Saturday to protest what they believe was a homophobic undercover operation conducted by the Toronto police.

During the Walk the Beat event on Nov 19, 2016, protesters spoke and debated with local residents and police officers about Project Marie, a six-week-long police operation that saw 75 men and two women charged with bylaw breaches and one man charged with a criminal offence.

Walk the Beat was put on by Toronto police in the hopes of getting community members to come and discuss the issues in the park as well help with park clean-up. Protesters also attended the event to stand in support of the men charged in Project Marie while condemning the sting, especially in light of the Toronto police’s apology for the 1981 bathhouse raids only five months ago.

“We believe this is a continuation and a revival of old homophobic targeted policing measures,” says Lisa Amin, a human rights lawyer who was at the protest. “We are saying that community policing can be done better.”

Amin says that she was concerned about the well-being of the people who were charged.

“We know from experience that a lot of the people most likely to be arrested in these scenarios are marginalized men,” she says.

“That this sting is happening in Etobicoke and not the downtown core speaks volumes,” says Mikiki, another one of the protesters. “This is a community with lots of folks from racialized communities, a lot of folks that are new to Canada that might not have access to the larger LGBT community.”

Community members and police talk during Walk the Beat at Marie Curtis Park.
Nick Lachance/Daily Xtra

Constable Kevin Ward, one of the officers who went undercover, says that the police did everything they could to make sure the operation wasn’t heavy-handed.

“We’ve tried to come in here at the very lowest end of the spectrum for charges,” he said. “A bylaw offence, you can compare it to being pulled over and getting a speeding ticket.”

But the protesters argued that an undercover operation was a waste of time and money, and wouldn’t necessarily deter people from having sex in the park. They pointed to less confrontational options, such as putting in clear, permanent signage that states the park is not safe for cruising.

They also criticized Toronto police for not using any undercover female officers in the operation.

“I think it shows that they know very well that this is a targeted operation against gay men in particular,” Amin says. “And I think that if they were going to even pretend that this was otherwise the case, they might have found a lady cop to join them in the struggle.”

But Ward said that the exclusive use of male undercover officers wasn’t by design and was because the unit’s only female officer was unavailable during the operation.

22 Division was also criticized for not contacting the LGBTQ liaison officer before the operation began.

Ward says the liaison officer wasn’t contacted before because the police didn’t conceive of the operation as targeting any specific sexual orientation. Ward said that he has now been in contact with the LGBTQ liaison officer over the past week.

Walk in the park

Toronto police officers took residents and media on a tour of the areas where they said public sexual behaviour takes place, pointing out litter and condom wrappers.

This included a makeshift fort that Ward says some men have had sex in, though he couldn’t say that it was built for that purpose.

Residents from the neighbourhood say that they often have a difficult time using the more forested areas of the park because there are so many men cruising.

One resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, says he was sexually assaulted by a man when walking through the park. He says that three years ago a man grabbed his crotch without his consent. When he reported the incident to the police, he says that they were dismissive and didn’t follow through on looking into it.

Ward also says that when he was working undercover, some of the men would attempt to grope him without their consent.

Toronto police say they’re encouraging residents to use forested areas of the park and will reassess whether more enforcement is required in the spring.