Pubdate: Sun, 02 Apr 2017
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The Toronto Star
Author: Tonda MacCharles
Page: A1


He doesn't seek the limelight and he doesn't look any too comfortable
in it, but former Toronto top cop Bill Blair is adapting to life in
Ottawa. As the Liberals' point man for decriminalization of marijuana,
he's steering radical changes . . . cautiously

OTTAWA- Bill Blair, the former undercover drug cop who rose to become
Toronto police chief and now leads Justin Trudeau's charge to legalize
marijuana, long ago gave up his gun and uniform. But his guard is
still up. He defensively shifts position in a room when he's with a
minister, switching to what he calls "protective mode." He tries to be
casual: "I didn't have a first name for a decade," he tells a
reporter. "Now that I've got it back" - just call him "Bill." And yet
he's still all "Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am."

Blair has been the Liberal MP for Scarborough Southwest for a year and
a half. As parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice and
point man on pot reform, he's spent the better part of that time in
meetings across the country to smooth the way for the Trudeau
government to table a bill - expected the week of April 10 - to
radically change Canada's criminal drug laws.

And yet Blair, who'll turn 63 that week, says with a straight face he
doesn't think of himself as a politician. He has "tremendous respect"
for politicians, mind you. But he views himself as "a public servant."

He did have an easier time than many political rookies. After a
39-year policing career capped by a decade as Toronto's highprofile
top cop, Blair didn't have to introduce himself to voters when
door-knocking in Scarborough, where he grew up.

Truth be told, Blair - the politician - doesn't look much like he's
having fun in Ottawa.

In his Commons seat, he has the serious bearing of a police officer of
high rank. Stern, focused, barely allowing himself a wry grin from
time to time. He doesn't join the partisan to-and-fro, hates the
heckling, and doesn't often speak up in debates except when he has to
stand to say the government will or won't support a private member's

He doesn't seek the limelight and seems to be a reluctant though
polite interview subject. He's busy. He rents a small apartment in

He flies a lot, folding his six-foot-five frame into economy seats on
red-eye flights, "to save money" on hotels and get to cross-country
meetings early so he can make it home at night when possible to his
wife, Susanne. She's taken on a new role, too, president of the
parliamentary spouses association. The couple still lives in
Scarborough, where Blair met and married Susanne McMaster, and raised
their three children.

None followed him into policing. Blair's sons are communicators: one
an adviser to the Canadian Diabetes Association, the other a comedy
writer. His daughter is a playwright. Blair squeezes in sleepover
visits with his two grandchildren, aged 3 and 5, on weekends in the
GTA. And when he's not on the road talking weed with mayors, police,
city and small-town councils and public health officials, Blair does
turns at House duty - the grunt work of sticking around for debates to
ensure the government side has the numbers it needs.

After weeks, Blair finally finds time for an interview in a small,
drab meeting room close to the Commons chamber. No sit-down in his
office. No glimpse of personal mementos. No tagging along on his road
tour. Cabinet minister Navdeep Bains spots Blair in the hall before
the interview, says a quick hello, puts an imaginary joint in the
corner of his mouth, takes an imaginary draw, grins and leans in to
listen. Blair groans.

A casual approach to pot is the last thing Blair-the-cop wants to
project. What he wants is for people to know how serious this
undertaking is.

It's soon obvious Blair-the-politician has got one thing down pat: his
safe stories - anecdotes repeated to people like journalists that
appear to reveal what motivates him but in reality are narrative
shields. They tell only what he wants you to know, no more, no less.

Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien was a master of the safe
story. The current one, Justin Trudeau, is getting pretty good at it,

Blair turns out to be much better at the political ropes than he'll

He has honed his safe stories - about life as the son of a cop, about
his own approach to police work, and about the evolution in his
thinking on pot. One he relates often is how he learned respectful
policing from his father, John Blair, also a lifelong Toronto cop. "In
my house there was this notion that my father was one of the good guys
and he went out and did good every day," says Blair.

The elder Blair, a staff sergeant, and his son were rarely in uniform
on city streets together. But Blair remembers the first time. It was
not long after Blair finished police training in April 1977, a cocky
graduate. They came across a "noisy, obstreperous" drunk on the
street. "My dad stepped in front of me and reached down to the guy and
he said 'C'mon, friendly, let me help you up.' I remember looking at
my dad and thinking, that's how you're supposed to do it."

Blair's mother, Margaret Elizabeth, or Peggy, was the disciplinarian
in the home. Blair remembers how she'd yell at them when he came off
shift to stay quiet. "Magnificent," says Blair, chuckling. "A force of

His family pride is evident. His father was with Toronto police for 39
years, his grandfather a Toronto firefighter for 42 years, a
great-uncle was a police officer killed in the First World War,
great-uncles and cousins were also firefighters.

The arc of Blair's career, from undercover narc to political leader
about to change the law, makes sense if you understand this about him:
he believes talking can make a difference.

Blair never smoked pot or did drugs (and admits he doesn't know if his
children ever did). But as an undercover agent who surely looked like
a long-haired cop, he never blew his cover, because "it's everything
to do with your ability to talk, not what you look like."

Talk, the basis of community policing, was his weapon from the get-go.
Fresh out of police college, he was assigned to 51 Division, walking
the beat at Regent Park, squeezing in university classes between
shifts. Years later, in1995, he asked to be put in charge of 51
Division, dubbed "Fort Apache," telling then chief David Boothby he
could fix it.

He had a criminology degree from U of T and a long stint as a drug
officer under his belt. Racial tensions between residents and police
in Regent Park were high. Unimpressed by officers who marked progress
by the number of drug arrests on a whiteboard, Blair erased it,
dispatched them, and himself, into schools and the community centre to
reconnect with residents fearful and distrustful of the cops.

"The union went nuts initially. They said, 'Blair's soft on drugs.'
I'd just spent nine years working in drugs and I said, 'I'm not soft
on drugs, I just don't want to be stupid about it.' I said, 'Let's do
the right thing here. We can be smarter about this.' "

Asked what line he draws from all that to the work he's doing now,
Blair's voice drops: "Sometimes you have to think, what is the real

His own view later shifted dramatically after a groundbreaking 2014
report by the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health urged "a public
health approach focused on high-risk users and practices."

That's the key political message now. The government's approach to
marijuana is driven by a belief in harm reduction, a message Blair
strives to convey in all those meetings. He wants to persuade cities
and towns that the feds are not out to create a free-for-all

Legalization of marijuana will be about tightly regulating cannabis
production, distribution and consumption to get organized crime out of
the game, and to protect vulnerable young people from its "social and
health harms" - a phrase Blair uses repeatedly. That includes the kind
of harm to adolescent brain development that can come from early or
frequent use of unregulated high-potency cannabis, the kind of
lifelong career harm that can come from being saddled with a criminal
record, and worse - the kind of physical harm to kids who get more
deeply involved in the illegal drug trade on the streets.

In the neighbourhoods that Blair "was responsible for keeping safe, we
never had a kid die from marijuana overdose," says Blair. "But we had
kids die in gun violence directly related to disputes over the
territory in which that drug was being sold."

Blair and the Liberal government will soon see if the message has
gotten through to wary police forces, municipal leaders, health
providers and parents.

His former colleagues at the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police
- - who had called for pot possession to be decriminalized, not
legalized - worry the government may be moving too fast. They're
resigned "to the fact this is coming," says Mike Serr, chair of the
chiefs' drug abuse committee, but they'd like the bill to adopt a
restrictive, go-slow approach to start.

"We're going to have some challenges," says Serr, who spent 26 years
with Vancouver police and led the organized crime section there.

The chiefs are concerned there's still no standard reliable roadside
drug impairment detector for Canada; there aren't enough police
officers trained as drug impairment experts; and they say a massive
campaign is immediately needed to educate Canadians who mistakenly
believe weed can't impair their driving judgment as alcohol does. And
police chiefs oppose a recommendation of a federal task force that
would allow home growing or personal cultivation of up to four
marijuana plants. They say producers should be licensed and regulated
producers, with oversight by bylaw officers or provincial regulators
like liquor boards.

Serr has sat in on several meetings with Blair, including an hour-long
one in Abbotsford, B.C., where Serr is deputy chief, and says Blair
gets it.

"I think he's a very smart man," says Serr. "I think he's caught on to
the political side, too, and understands the challenges of, especially
the enormity of, trying to bring this legislation into place."

Meanwhile, stocks in companies that are piling up pot inventory in the
hopes of cashing in have risen since the task force report last fall
charted a possible way forward.

If Ottawa adopts the approach urged by the task force, Canada could
see a regime of controlled sales of legal recreational pot to
Canadians aged 18 and older, under a system separate from the medical
marijuana regime.

The task force proposed to leave many decisions with the provinces and
municipalities, and pointed to provincial retail schemes for selling
liquor as examples of how consumption can be controlled, but it
recommended against selling alcohol and pot at the same location.

Blair - after all his consultations - agrees many decisions will
rightly be left to the provinces and territories.

Yet he admits he was surprised to learn how complex it all is. As
Toronto chief, he was used to a well-resourced system, a council that
passed laws with city inspectors responsible for bylaw enforcement.
His cross-country consultations, however, revealed the size of
challenges from one province to another, one urban or rural setting to
the next, and the huge capacity differences between southern and
northern communities. It was, he said, "really eyeopening."

He learned "you can't just impose that from the centre. You've
actually got to go and work with local officials, and work out what
works in their experience and also their capacity to deliver with
these things. To me it was a reminder of the importance of being
careful and cautious. And I'm nothing if I'm not careful and cautious."

Introducing the bill is just a first step. The debate in the Commons
and the Senate could run well into 2018 before anything becomes law
even if some in government have boasted they'd like it in place by
Canada Day next year.

What's pretty clear at this point is the prime minister believes
William Sterling Blair has the credibility with provincial and
municipal leaders and law enforcement that the government needs.

Blair bristles at the idea he's there to put a credible face on it.
"I'm not giving anyone cover," he says. "When I get out in front of a
community or the public and I say we're doing this to protect kids, I
really believe we are."

The Conservatives, NDP and Liberals thought Blair would be a star
political catch. All three approached him to enter politics when his
contract as Toronto chief was not renewed. Blair says he didn't go
looking to run. The private sector came knocking, too, but he wasn't
interested because "money wasn't a problem" and a public service
career with the chance to do something "meaningful" was more appealing.

Blair chose the party that was once led by the only man he names as a
political hero, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. There were others he admires
who helped him as police chief - premier Dalton McGuinty and mayor
David Miller supported his efforts to counter Toronto's gun violence.
But Blair says the elder Trudeau brought Canada the Charter of Rights
and Freedoms, a law he was proud to uphold, that allowed Toronto, "my
city," to thrive, its diversity celebrated.

It's a declaration that might strike Blair's critics as

This is, after all, the chief who resisted calls to drop "carding"
after a Star series showed police stopped and documented young black
and brown-skinned males at a higher rate than whites, who was blamed
for the G20 fiasco when nearly a thousand residents were kettled in a
downpour after G20 protests at the 2010 summit turned violent.

Criticism over the G20 still clearly stings although Blair doesn't
directly respond when asked if he was unfairly blamed. "Everything
that happens in policing that city was my responsibility," he says.

Asked how he feels about his career being defined in many ways by that
moment - and knowing two class action lawsuits are pending - Blair is
blunt. "When they brought in a command structure for the event, my
name wasn't on the org chart." In other words, he wasn't in charge.

The RCMP led the integrated security unit in charge of G20

Blair won't talk in detail about it, says he's not interested in
fingerpointing. "I wasn't giving operational orders that weekend. I
did give one at the end. The event was over and everybody was going
home, and I saw that there was a bunch of people kettled at Queen and
Spadina, and I went up to the command room and I ordered they all be
released, and they were. But it was a little late and they were wet.

"My responsibility at the end was to make sure that there were lessons
learned, that policies, procedures changed."

Not much later, Blair seems to regret speaking about the G20 and
repeats he took responsibility, that's been written already. Nothing
to see here, move on. He may be concerned it wasn't such a safe story
after all.

Now, as Ottawa gets set to table its long-promised bill, which faces
at least a year of parliamentary and nationwide scrutiny, Blair looks
tired. The bags under his eyes have deepened and swelled in recent

Anne McLellan, the former Liberal minister of justice, public safety
and health who co-chaired last fall's expert task force, has worked
with Blair on policing and national security matters for nearly two
decades. He impressed her early on as one of a new generation of
police leaders who said "we need to spend a lot more time on
prevention." McLellan said from her perspective in government, it "was
an important evolution" not just when it came to spending public funds
but when it came to "creating a culture in which police and
communities are working together to keep everybody safe."

Years later, she says, Blair brings that same broad perspective to the
question of marijuana reform, and contacts from his previous life.

He drinks huge amounts of coffee and "just goes like the Energizer
bunny," not yet ground down by the slow-turning cogs of government,
adds McLellan.

"Bill is an impatient guy in the best sense of that word in that he
wants to get things done."

Blair suggests he's learning patience. "I come from an environment
where you listen to all the smart people and you get the best advice
you possibly can to make a decision, you give an order and on you go."

If he has regrets about entering politics, Blair doesn't admit to

Some were surprised when Trudeau didn't name him to cabinet. Blair
says there was no deal, no expectation when he joined the Liberal team
but he is "honoured" the prime minister sought his opinion and
entrusted him with this job.

He is not ambivalent about crackdowns on dispensaries or police
enforcement of a prohibition law that is about to change. He tells
reporters the storefront weed shops are operating outside of the law
as it stands.

On the other hand, he says prohibition isn't working. A simple pot
possession charge takes up to 22 hours of work for police and courts
to process. Blair says: "It's like the only tool we've got is a
sledgehammer and nobody wants to swing it."
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MAP posted-by: Matt