The words emblazoned on his back are whispers from the ancestral ghosts of those that were crammed into the gaping maw of slave ships, and spit out onto the shores of foreign lands they were forced to help build. “Open your eyes. Empower your spirit. Empower your mind.” Now they cram their great-grandchildren like refuse into old buildings and defective government housing, broken by a multi-billion dollar backlog created by negligence and ineptitude in a city of million dollar housing. Orin Isaacs’ composition of slow reggae bass rumbles under the show of effortless vitality displayed by this elderly man, lurching its way forward to a thunderous crescendo, and coming to an inevitable climax when he finally speaks.
So begins the documentary telling the story of Winston LaRose, affectionately referred to by the community he loves as “Mr. Jane and Finch.” Unlike Premier Ford, he has never had to tell the community he loves them, nor has he paternalized the community by arbitrarily claiming it’s love for himself. He has spent the last 20 years demonstrating his respect and support for the community through his activism, optimism, and willingness to dispense the wisdom of his years to any who need to hear it. At its most basic, it’s the story of Winston LaRose’s run for city council in the Jane and Finch community, his life story, and his dedication to the community.
In a larger sense, it is the story of a man who has to balance the nobler instincts of activism, while also negotiating the murky waters of municipal politics, all without losing his soul. It’s the challenge of being a father to a few while bearing the weight of heart wrenching family tragedy, while doing your best to be an effective adopted grandfather to a community bearing its own forms of tragedy. It’s the story of a marginalized community trying to hold on to their dignity, determine their own political destiny, and control their own narrative; even as they are criminalized by the media and dehumanized by their own political representatives.
The story itself is not new, but it is relevant to this city, and it’s beautifully told. Inspiring in its telling, the documentary perfectly illustrates the importance of a fair representation of voices and narratives shared by events like the Toronto Black Film Festival, where the film made its debut. The director Ngardy Conteh George allowed the story to unfold organically, using a “fly on the wall” documentary style that allows the viewer to feel like they are in the room, the streets, or the parks of the Jane and Finch community. As a Jane and Finch kid myself, transplanted to downtown Toronto, I marvelled at how much hasn’t changed. I felt a deepening sense of nostalgia with every new scene. York Gate mall. Jane Finch mall. The Palisades (aka San Romano Way) all jumped out at me and sparked my memories.
Of course, the most dangerous type of documentary is at its best, when it’s showing people not necessarily at theirs. Political campaigns are not for the weak of heart, and the frustration of lacking financial and political capital, or even control over what constituency you will represent, is revealed in a scene involving Winston and his campaign team at their most stressed. It’s visceral in the rawness of emotion displayed, and made more so with the understanding that the intensity is backed by undying loyalty for this community champion, and a genuine desire to see him sitting on city council. This neighbourhood, placed at the most farthest northern point of the city, feels all but forgotten by a centrist city council with centrist ideals, making grand decisions that impact them from a seemingly far away place.
How else to explain the presence of a city councillor (Giorgio Mammoliti) running for re-election who refers to his electorate as cockroaches and rats, while gleefully dancing over the fine line of political decorum with racist rhetoric? Could you even imagine a politician in Chinatown or Lawrence Manor using racist tropes about Chinese or Jewish people to dismantle the pride of either of those communities while calling for police state style intervention? The film clubs the viewer over the head with blunt force weaponization of dog whistle politics, and gives the world a glimpse of how short a walk it is from marginalizing a community verbally, to marginalizing them politically. This is just one of the many things at stake to people in this community, and it makes it all the more monumental that a man of the people like Winston LaRose would step into the harsh environs of politics on their behalf.
This film feels important. It’s not some trite feel good story about the human condition, although parts of it will make you feel good. It’s more a story about the years of political neglect, poor city planning, crumbling housing, unsustainable living wages, and inadequate public assistance that goes into conditioning the human who, despite the challenges, still rises above their condition. It’s not a story about a pillar of the community. It’s a story about what it takes to be a pillar of your community. It’s not about lone infallible activist leaders elevated to the status of gods. It’s about the idea that even a pillar needs support, and nobody in a community of few resources can really move forward without a concentrated will and desire to do so. It’s about parents who are broken hearted, but not broken, by the loss of their children. It’s about backyard barbecues and safe community spaces. It’s about the political will required to speak truth to power while drawing your line in the sand, even when the powers that be (literally) erase and redraw the lines whenever they see fit. It’s about stoicism in the face of hardship. The ability to smile when the weight of the world is bruising your shoulders. It’s about people doing their best even when the media only captures them at their worst. In some emotionally relatable way, it’s about you and it’s about me. It’s about a man named Winston who dared to run in a political race for a community that needs more champions, and who celebrates every new year with a 100 yard dash against his own mortality.
It’s about Mr. Jane and Finch...but Mr. Jane and Finch is all of us.
Mr. Jane and Finch airs Friday February 22, 2019 at 9 pm on CBC Docs POV.
Byron Armstrong is a freelance writer and lifelong Torontonian, raised in Jane-Finch and living downtown.