An Ominous Sign
For eight weeks last fall, there bruised and angry faces glared menacingly down on passersby from 30 massive billboards around Toronto. The four police-lineup-style mug shots—of an Asian and black man, and two white men, one of whom could be taken as Latino— were stamped with the word “deported” in large red block letters. Underneath, the copy read: “The Toronto Sun. We’ll Be There.”
To executives at the paper and to the ad agency staff who were involved in its creation, the billboard’s message was simple and perfectly logical: illegal immigrants who are criminals should be deported. To others, though, the ad unmistakably linked immigration, racial minorities and criminality. In the view of Antoni Shelton, executive director of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, the ad would “have a harmful effect on racial minorities in terms of their acceptance in society, and reinforce the notion that immigration and crime are associated with people of colour.” Samson Okalow, managing editor of The Metro Word, a 30,000-circulation biweekly paper that serves Metro’s black community, was more blunt: “That ad is just racist, period.”
This response surprises Tom MacMillan, executive director of marketing for the Sun, and Lynda Schwalm, the paper’s marketing director. Asked whether he could see how the ad’s intentded message might be misconstrued, MacMillan responded flatly: “Immigrants who are criminals should be deported. Period. New paragraph. That’s all the board said.” Schwalm was equally dismissive: “Not for a moment did I look at that board and think, ’Gee, that’s racist,’” she says. “If you’r enot an illegal immigrant, why would you have anything against it?”
Mike Strobel, the Sun’s managing editor, is the only one of the three to admit that the board’s message might be taken to be that all immigrants shoul be deported. “You could see it was going to be controversial in that respect,” he says. “I can ses why people might not get the messae if they don’t see the numbers linking illegal immigrants and crime.” His suggestion for people who dien’t get the intended message the first time: drive by and take a second look.
Gary Watson, the copywriter at Ambrose Carr Linton Kelly who conceived the billboard, believes the board carried a wouldn’t-it-be-nice-it message. “It’s realy saying, ’Let’s get serious with this issue and make something happen.’” Was he uncomfortable with the implications? “I guess if I didn’t agree with the message I never would have come up with the idea.”
The “Deported” ad, which featured models from a Toronto boxing club, was the eighth in the audacious and clever “We’ll Be There” campaign that the Sun launched in 1991. Earlier ads depicted such amusing but improbably events as Brian Mulroney and Jacques Parizeau embracing, and Ontario Premier Bob Rae and his finance minister, Floyd Laughren, neither of them big favourites of the paper, busking in the subway. The only other ad in the series that didn’t have a playful tone was in 1993 busboard that showed a trash can full of guns, which was designed to complement a “turn in your guns” campaign the paper was running at the time. As Watson points out, “We couldn’t’ come off with a light-hearted approach [for these two ads]. These serious, in-your-face approach.”
Not surprisingly, the Sun’s stance on the immigration issue is highly critical of current policies. The paper’s editorials argue that too many undeserving people are being allowed into Canada and then permitted to stay because of shortcoming in the immigration system. That’s why Lael O’Brien, the Sun account supervisor from Ambrose Kelly, felt the deported board was a good one for the paper: “The Sun is very passionate about the immigration issue. This billboard is a little bit more passionate and angry because the issue has really come to a head.” As for the possibility of the ad being misconstrued, she says, “With any message that’s half-intelligent you run the risk of having it misinterpreted.”
The issue of criminal noncitizens dominated the news last summer after two high-profile murders. On April 5, 1994, 23-yar-old Georgina Leimois was shot and killed during a robbery at a trendy Toronto cafe. Her accused killer, Jamaican-born O’Neil Grant, 22, had been granted a five-year stay on a 1992 deportaion order, partly because he had been in Canada since childhood. Then, on June 16, a 25-year-old police officer, Todd Baylis, was fatally shot in the head during a struggle with a suspected drug dealer. Twenty-five-year-old Clinton Gayle, also Jamaican-born, was charged with Baylis’ murder. Legarlly, Gayle should have been deported in 1991, but his deportation order had not been enforced.
The two murders supported the Sun’s contention that the immigration system was a mess. If examining and exposing problems in the immigration system were part of the Sun’s message before, after the Baylis and Leimonis murders they became gospel. Columnist Christie Blatchford herself said in an August column: “I was then, as I am now, devoting three-quarters of my columns to immigration matters.” Her pieces bore such scathing headlines as “Rot Remains,” “Disgrace” and “Bloody Fools.” The sadness, anger and fear the Leimonis and Baylis murders aroused were still raging when the “Deported” billboards went up across the city on September 26. Of course, that was the point. “We were looking at the ad in August when it was a hot topic,” recalls Lynda Schwalm. “It seemed like a very obvious thing to do.” Both she and MacMillan say there was little debate before the billboard was approved. The ad took a tout of the Sun executives, and although the final official approval was up to Jim Tighe, the publisher at the time, Schwalm and MacMillan say that because the billboard met with their approval, it never came down to a question of Tighe having to accept or reject it.
The fact that such an ad was so easily accepted is troubling to Okalow. He feels the media are partly responsible for this because they have largely exaggerated the magnitude of the problem with illegal immigrants and crime. “The context of this ad is what has been happening in this city over the last year and a half, and that is to whip up a general hysteria against immigrants and people of colour, and then blame them for everything except World War III.”
Linda Szeto, president of the Toronto chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council, agrees. She feels that in hard economic times, immigrants are the first ones found responsible for any social ills or criminal activity. “It is a convenient way for the Sun to sell papers. They need a scapegoat, and people tend to blame certain groups of immigrants—immigrants who are black, Asian or Arabic, not what they consider suited for Canada,” explains Szeto. “When I saw that ad, I saw hate. It could easily be my picture up there. It is not a very welcoming message.”
Or a very accurate one: according to a recent study by senior immigration department researcher Derrick Thomas, people born outside Canada are less likely to commit crimes that land them in penitentiaries than native-born Canadians.
What about the fact that the board depicted whites as well as minorities? “It’s really damn obvious when they are talking about immigration they are not talking about people who are white,” says Samson Okalow. “They are talking about people who are not white.” Michael Hollett, the publisher and editor of NOW magazine, who is white, thought so too. He was so disgusted with the ad that in a November issue he ran a photograph of one billboard that had been defaced to read “Racism hurts us all.” “There has to be room in journalism for different viewpoints, but they’ve really crossed the line,” he explains. Especially to have that kind of billboard in a country so clearly built on immigration—it is just such an impossible viewpoint to put forward.”
However, MacMillan emphatically denies that the ad was even remotely offensive. As proof, he cites the few formal complaints the paper has received. “We had six calls in a city of three million people. Six calls. More people would complain if the crossword puzzle didn’t make it in,” he argues.
Shelton has another explanation for the apparent lack of response: “This is The Toronto Sun,” he says wearily. “It is a paper that digs into the darkest corners of our minds and builds on our worst fears. You stack up all they’ve run over the years and people just say, ’There they go again…’”
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.