The Path Home

Written and photographed by Wayne Salmon

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I grew up in Jane and Finch. I attended school here; first, Oakdale Park Junior High (now Oakdale Park Middle School) and later C.W. Jefferys High School (now C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute).  How many lessons did we learn in that brief stretch of time?  In those classrooms, teachers invited us to absorb all the knowledge there was about the world, at least how that world appeared from a Eurocentric perspective—and many of us refused it.  Beyond all of that, there were lessons far more important that we had to learn for ourselves, lessons from the streets, like why we should do our best to avoid the police.

After a few decades’ absence, I’ve come back to my old neighbourhood with a camera to make images for CAPP. But the most important images, the most telling, are preserved only in my memory, and only those who bore witness can truly see them. What do these images say? What kind of future did our early interactions with this environment breed?

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Summer is coming to a close. Not yet autumn, the leaves on the trees have not a blush of amber or a single speck of gold.  Still, the air is much too cool for this time of year.  I walk the streets of Tobermory, Grandravine, Driftwood; streets I’ve walked a thousand times before.  Although the names and signs on some of the buildings have changed, some fresh paint added, there is a feeling of familiarity here that brings comfort.  The shape of the world has not changed, only the surface of things.  All is exactly as it had been more than twenty years ago.  So, too, are the people who live here, the position they occupy in this society and what it affords them—and nothing explains this more clearly than a cop’s attitude toward them.  The laws and policies may say one thing, but the behaviour of the police speak to a different, if not conflicting, reality.

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Somewhere in high school, in the middle of a geography textbook, I came across an image of a neighbourhood that looked almost exactly like the place I was living in.  Only this was a picture in South Africa; Cape Town.  I don’t remember what we were supposed to have been studying. Only that I had been bored, and began to flip through the pages of this text book, ignoring the countless facts that I thought had nothing to do with me.  And then there it was.  There were the houses strung together like links of a chain.  Each row of houses lay facing another, opposite a path that was less than a road and something more than a walkway.  There were no lawns.  No flowers.  No trees.  There was a kind of nakedness about the scene.  The very land itself seemed vulnerable.  The caption accompanying the image explained that this particular design was deliberate, so the police will have an easier time policing the inhabitants.  Why they needed to be policed in this way, it didn’t say.  Who had the idea first, I didn’t know.  But this is Canada, I thought.  What does the system of apartheid have to do with us?

A body, considered dangerous, must be contained.  I’ve heard about the use of the “pass” under apartheid law.  And now I’m hearing about “carding”, which the Toronto Police Service has become so enamoured with.  Technology affords us the luxury of not only doing the same things differently, but also doing them more efficiently.

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How determined our mothers were to move us out of here and into the suburbs, any suburb.  A home of one’s own.  All parents dream.  And this is the dream: to make life always better for their children.  In the meantime they asked us simply to endure.  Don’t get yourself in any trouble, they said.  Don’t let me have to come and get you out of no jail.  To get mixed up in the criminal justice system was its own sentence–for life.  If the police had your name in their records, in their database, you must have done some awful thing.  They, after all do not bother themselves with saints.

The police kept a close watch on us.  They passed through here like phantoms in the distance, eerily slow.  And when they swooped in to let us know they were real, there was always violence, or the threat of violence, which is the same thing—the difference is only a matter of bruising, where and how.  They stopped us to see what was inside our bags.  They stopped us because there had been a robbery in the area.  They stopped us to ask where we were going.  They stopped us to know where we were coming from.  They stopped us to know if we lived in the area.  They stopped us because they’d gotten a call about suspicious or unusual behaviour.  And they stopped us to see some I.D.  In those encounters we were always suspects.  They stopped us, really, to invite us to believe we were no good, and if we didn’t believe it then, they were sure a day was coming when we would discover it for ourselves.

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They didn’t hesitate to tell us where, and how far up, they would shove their batons if we should think about not cooperating.  What surprised us most was not the masochistic violence exhibited by the male cops.  We had seen this kind of thing on TV and in the movies.  What came to break our hearts was that one female cop, in the passenger side of a passing cruiser, offering us her middle finger, just because she could.  You wouldn’t think women cops could be as awful as the men.  And the only thing worse was a black cop with his white partner.  He had to go the distance to show the white cop where his loyalty lay.

Whatever we were feeling then, we did not express with rage.  Not in the beginning.  We were puzzled, at first, and even slightly amused.  Why would a cop want to see inside my school bag?  What could he possibly hope to find there to interest him?  As we got older, we began to understand the motivation behind their behaviour.  We knew.  But in a way, it was all to be expected.  We had the stories of others, much older than us, tales all at once different yet the same.

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The naming of places matters. Any crime that happened anywhere along the length of Jane Street that involved a person of colour fell under the geographic zone of Jane and Finch.  The university, a fifteen minute walk from this intersection, was outside of this zone.  Chalkfarm, on the other hand, a fifteen minute drive away, was not.  During our away games, as early as Junior High, we were instructed to say–and only if asked–that we attended a school in the west end.  Now, as I move through these familiar passageways, old memories signaled by the changes and the sameness of the place, I cannot help but wonder, what if, by design, there was a different objective for this community?  Another kind of hope? What if those with the authority and the power to shape our world had been committed to something other than controlling and confining us?  What kinds of futures could have been born here?  What kind of promise?

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