After Rowena Santos refused to support improvements to Brampton’s Emancipation Park, Black community expresses disappointment
On August 1 across Canada, members of diverse Black communities celebrate Emancipation Day, to honour the abolition of slavery.
Recognized on different days, it is one of the most important events of historical significance in the world, a reminder of the atrocities and struggles suffered by Black people across much of the globe, who still live with the legacy of their treatment throughout past centuries.
Since 2020, Brampton has been singled out for having the only “Emancipation Park” in the country, after a large former park was renamed to celebrate a new legacy—the joys of freedom which so many take for granted.
Three years later, that joy felt by many community members across Brampton has been tarnished.
In February, Councillor Rowena Santos, pulled the plug on a $4.5 million project to bring badly needed upgrades to Emancipation Park.
“I know that former councillor Charmaine Williams was very passionate in advocating for this particular location for Emancipation Park. But there is a little bit of good news,” Santos claimed, after telling members of Council at a committee meeting during the 2023 City budget season she could not support the $4.5 million plan prompted by a council decision last year to make improvements to Emancipation Park.
Williams, Santos said, “is now the current MPP of Brampton Centre, in which this park resides. And so my suggestion is before the City actually goes ahead and does anything or spends any money in a very somewhat risky situation where we would be investing a lot of money for servicing on a park through land that we don’t own, is actually write a letter, perhaps from the City or from the mayor on behalf of the City, asking the local MPP who was a champion of this park, whether or not the Province would be willing to pay for the servicing so that Emancipation Park can get the amenities that the community are asking for.”
Santos made claims during the meeting that because a little less than half the land used by the park is owned by the Province (48.3 acres of the overall 110.3 acres; the rest is owned by the City) providing the servicing and infrastructure could be a risk, despite the City having a lease on the provincial portion until 2050.
Councillor Rowena Santos led a council push to halt investments for upgrades to Emancipation Park, claiming the City should write to the Province to help fund the project.
(The Pointer files)
Santos pulled the staff report recommending the Park’s proposed upgrades that was on the committee agenda, and singled out the project, which is not in her ward.
The February staff report to Council states: “The park holds sentimental recognition as in 2020, it was approved by Council to be renamed from Dixie 407 to Emancipation Park, in recognizing the emancipation of the Afro-Caribbean community. Emancipation Park is also utilized by community members as a celebratory event space and a recreational sports park. On August 10, 2022 staff presented the report Emancipation Park – Ward 7 to Council in response to Referred Matters List item (61/2021). The report outlined the status of an Emancipation Memorial, servicing, and the installation of flag poles within the park. Council directed staff to report back on means of improving the Emancipation Day celebration event, including quality and maintenance, toilet facilities, shading development, and lighting options.”
Santos objected to the expenditure.
She asked for Williams, who vacated her council seat last year to successfully run in the provincial election, to “get the Province to pay” the costs. Mayor Patrick Brown followed up, saying Queen’s Park was putting its provincial budget together at the time and the request should be sent to the government to have the amount covered. Brown said he would send the letter kicking the responsibility to the Province.
When the provincial budget was released last month, there was no money in it for the Emancipation Park improvements.
Former councillor Charmaine Williams—now a Brampton MPP—was a driving force behind the renaming of Emancipation Park.
(The Pointer files)
It’s unclear why Santos, who doesn’t represent the ward where the space is located, and was not involved in the advocacy behind Emancipation Park, singled it out as a problem during the budget process, making it clear she did not want the City to pay for the servicing. Her claims of a risk due to the Province’s ownership of part of the land were not supported by any correspondence from Queen’s Park and before she led her motion that halted the plan she failed to ask the Province if there was reason for any concern.
She and Williams butted heads throughout the previous term of council, when the current MPP was part of a bloc opposed to Brown, Santos and their allies on key governance and accountability issues that dogged City Hall over the last four years. Santos routinely challenged Williams during council meetings before she left to run provincially.
In its March newsletter, The Peel Black Collective highlighted what Santos had done, encouraging residents to call or write to their local councillor to move forward with the plan.
The organization described her move as “a disrespect to members of Black communities in Brampton who would like to enjoy the park, as they can any other park in the city.
“Seemingly every other park in Brampton receives regular service for water, electricity, park upkeep and park amenities, as most would expect from a park owned and operated by the City of Brampton. Why is this not the case for the park that is supposed to be a symbol for the City’s commitment to confronting anti-Black racism and ‘stand[ing] with Brampton’s Black community’?”
Built almost two decades ago, the fenced-in park off Highway 407 and Dixie Road includes small and large soccer pitches, cricket grounds and large open spaces where events can be held. It has no permanent washrooms, one of the priorities community members and Williams advocated for.
On July 8, 2020, it was renamed.
“Around the world, we are witnessing a historic moment in time. People of all backgrounds are coming together to collectively confront systemic anti-Black racism,” Brown said in a press release announcing the City would be renaming the space. “Here in Brampton, honouring Emancipation Month and naming a City park Emancipation Park is a powerful way for us to acknowledge the past and reiterate that we stand with Brampton’s Black community.”
Community members have been calling for much-needed upgrades, including permanent washrooms for Emancipation Park, which is home to several sports fields and event spaces.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
With the park in need of upgrades, Brown’s decision to support Santos in scuttling the plans for improvements has left community members questioning the mayor’s sincerity.
Many do not feel he, Santos and the rest of Council truly stand with them.
“The park always needed an investment and that was understood, and so community members have been looking for that investment,” Danielle Dowdy, adult citizen of the year in 2021 and one of many Black residents who sent Council an email over the issue, wrote. “There’s no running water, there’s no place for shelter, there’s no bathrooms — there’s porta-potties.”
At the February 22 committee meeting, staff brought forward their recommendation to move forward on the park’s much needed servicing — at a preliminary cost of about $4.2 million for the actual work and $300,000 for a feasibility study.
(City of Brampton)
Instead of the wide scale upgrades supported by council members last term, interim enhancement solutions were brought forward after Santos opposed the project. Staff reported that additional grass maintenance practices, tree planting, potential solar lighting options, a generator-operated washroom facility, and a flag representing the symbol of Emancipation could be approved for implementation before summer 2023.
Dowdy questioned Council’s decision and asked members to reconsider.
“When the renaming of the park was first announced, Mayor Brown stated ‘Around the world, we are witnessing a historic moment in time. People of all backgrounds are coming together to collectively confront systemic anti-Black racism. Here in Brampton, honouring Emancipation Month and naming a City park Emancipation Park is a powerful way for us to acknowledge the past and reiterate that we stand with Brampton’s Black community,’” she wrote.
“Not moving forward with a feasibility study does not reflect this sentiment. Quite frankly, the opposite message is conveyed—that the City is [unwilling] to invest in the park and is kicking the responsibility over to the Province. It's not the message that you want to send to Brampton's Black communities.”
Councillor Martin Medeiros brought attention to the concerns of the community at a subsequent Council meeting.
“I’ve received several emails from members of the Black community concerned that we’re not following a normal process as we would with other parks,” Medeiros said.
“Is this sort of normal process or is this something we would do for other parks not specific for Emancipation Park?”
Staff responded that the move prompted by Santos was a “somewhat unique” situation.
Medeiros, who supported former councillor Williams throughout much of the previous term and voted with her on many key issues, suggested community members are concerned that Santos was motivated by personal reasons.
“The allegations have been because it’s political reasons or any of that stuff, we’re basically looking at a technical sort of impediment because (provincial) and municipal land. And we’re just asking that there’s a consideration by the province to service the land for us to do the proper servicing?” Medeiros asked.
Dowdy called the situation unfortunate.
“This is supposed to be a symbol of the abolishing of slavery in Canada, it’s a symbol of freedom, it’s supposed to be a gathering place for the Black community. That’s how it was pitched for us… You can’t stay there late at night because there’s no light, no place to actually wash their hands, no running water, no shelter, no place to sit down and relax.”
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