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Desmond Cole Will Be Fine; The Canadian Media? Not So Much

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DESMOND COLE
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The single most exhausting part of writing about non-white issues for a predominantly white audience (in a predominantly white industry) is that the burden of proof is always squarely on your shoulders.

Even when you're speaking to your own lived experiences, you need to convince your entire hypothetical audience that, for example, yes, racial profiling exists in Toronto.

Desmond Cole rose to the challenge, and in the two years since he wrote his seminal Toronto Life article, he's been everywhere, tirelessly and patiently insisting that yes, this is all very real. He's been a journalist. He's been an activist.

On Thursday morning, he resigned as a columnist from the Toronto Star after he was told he couldn't be both at the same time. He explains the situation on his blog better than I ever could.

Cole will be absolutely fine; his words and his mind cannot be contained to any single publication. He still has a steady radio gig, he has a book coming next year, and editors from The Globe and Mail and CBC literally offered him jobs in the Twitter thread about his departure.

So let's get to the heart of the bullshit here: Why can't a journalist be an activist?

And to clarify: Desmond Cole was a columnist, a position that exists so writers can showcase their voice and individual opinions. Not all journalists are columnists, but all columnists are journalists.

At what point does the conviction behind a columnist's opinions (which he is paid to share and demonstrate) transform them into a full-blown activist? Are we saying that a columnist can be too opinionated to be employable? Is activism somehow incompatible with the written word?

If you don't have the answers to these questions, don't worry; neither does the Toronto Star.

UPDATE - In a column published on May 5, the Toronto Star's public editor Kathy English pointed out that Cole's editor informed him of the Star's policies and expressed a hope that he would remain as a columnist.

While she believes the policy should be upheld and enforced, English went on to acknowledge that previous Star columnists have been allowed to continue their activism while writing for the outlet.

Canadian media has a diversity problem in every sense of the phrase. It's not just limited to the Star -- gaze upon the relative homogeneity of the Globe, ostensibly Canada's leading newspaper -- and it clearly can't be fixed by simply hiring more people from minority groups, as Cole's situation has sadly proven.

The problem is that the deck will never be dealt in the favour of young, non-white writers and editors when the immortal and immovable columnists of every publication tend to be older white folks. Cole was dinged for having the temerity to openly protest the ongoing actions of Toronto police, and ended up leaving the paper over it.

Meanwhile, at the National Post, Christie Blatchford has been served with a libel notice for (once again) writing a column attacking a female victim of sexual assault.

Rosie DiManno is allowed to conduct innovative and shocking experiments on sentence structure at the Toronto Star.

And Conrad Black, no matter who he is writing for, never uses five words when 50 will suffice. (Also, atheists are apparently destroying Western society.)

But yo, at least they aren't activists, right?

The scope of a news organization is defined by its team members; with every new perspective that's added to the whole, the greater the chances that a story will better reflect the truth of the matter.

Black writers can't be expected to continually argue and prove the very basics of their life experiences every time they're granted some space in a publication. Can you imagine a (non-female) sportswriter being quizzed by readers about the foundations of their sports knowledge?

Yet open up any Canadian news piece about Black Lives Matter, Islamophobia, or misogyny, and I promise you'll see the equivalent.

And the interests, passions, and -- yes -- activism of these writers cannot be suddenly tagged as problematic or unbecoming of a journalist simply because their views are too political or inflammatory for some editors (or, more likely, the wrong type of political) and their readers.

The idea that every single Canadian columnist isn't performing some form of activism by actively (see how words work?) sharing and arguing their views in public editorials and opinion pieces doesn't stand up to scrutiny. And singling out black activism as the sole unacceptable form of it says more about the Star leadership than they probably wish to share.

The scope of a news organization is defined by its team members; with every new perspective that's added to the whole, the greater the chances that a story will better reflect the truth of the matter. The Toronto Star just lost a hugely valuable (and sorely needed) lens into how a huge part of its city experiences everyday life.

The takeaway isn't to hire another black person, or to hire two: it's to make damn sure that if you hire anyone to be a columnist (even if he's hugely popular but for some reason still only a contract worker), you're prepared to let him or her be as opinionated and active as anyone else on your staff.

(But also, yeah. Hire some black people.)

Mike Sholars is a blogs editor for HuffPost Canada.

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