Desmond Cole, winner of the 2017 PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize for freedom of expression (CNW Group/PEN Canada)

Journalist dedicates PEN Canada prize for freedom of expression to Indigenous Peoples

Writer and activist Desmond Cole dedicates his 2017 PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize for freedom of expression to Indigenous Peoples.

Cole, who is black, was recognized in a PEN Canada press release on the morning of Dec. 14 and two hours later he wrote on social media, “I dedicate this honour to indigenous peoples across turtle island who continue to face government surveillance and violence for protecting this land.”

“With the Filkow Prize, PEN Canada recognizes Cole’s integrity in putting aside personal interests to speak out about racial injustice in Canada,” said PEN Canada’s Canadian Issues Committee Chair, Carmen Cheung, in the release.

Cheung mentioned that the organization that fights for freedom of expression throughout the world, especially for writers, “understands that exercising the right to free expression often comes at personal cost.” This is something that Cole knows very well. In 2015, he wrote about being racially profiled by police for Toronto Life magazine in a feature article that was one of their top sellers in the history of the publication. By doing so, he reignited the issue of carding and its stigma in Canada and put the subject under media spotlight.

Cole starred in The Skin I’m In, a social documentary about growing up black in Canada, which increased his popularity.

In April 2016, Cole wrote a piece about Yusra Khogali, a Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder, who he said was “the subject of a racist, Islamophobic campaign to distract from her activism. It was the most popular piece I wrote all year—my editor contacted me to congratulate me on its reach.”

One year later, Cole’s protest at a Toronto Police Services Board meeting led to him being escorted from police headquarters, charged with disruption (and fined $65, as reported in the Toronto Star) for speaking out when he was asked to stop.

Cole was also a popular freelance columnist for the Star but parted ways with the national daily newspaper when his editor suggested that “activism was not compatible with his work as a columnist. The paper was widely criticized for its selective application of its policy on activism, most notably by former Star columnist and activist Michele Landsberg,” the PEN press release stated.

In a post on social media, Cole revealed that the Star’s editorial page editor Andrew Phillips discussed his “political disruption of the April 20 meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board. Phillips said this action had violated the Star’s rules on journalism and activism…He did say he hopes I will continue my bi-monthly column. I appreciate the offer but I’m not going to accept it,” said Cole, after he decided to leave the Star. “If I must choose between a newspaper column and the actions I must take to liberate myself and my community, I choose activism in the service of Black liberation,” he continued.

“Too often, Canada defines itself by looking out the window at its neighbour,” said Cole, in the PEN press release, “instead of looking in the mirror. We have to deal with our reflection, however uncomfortable that might be. I’m so honoured to receive this award.”

The Filkow Prize, named for Kenneth A. Filkow, Q.C., a lawyer, former chair of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission and member of PEN Canada’s Canadian Issues Committee, is funded by an endowment from Philip Slayton and Cynthia Wine.

The prize was given out two times before. In 2016, author and blogger Raihan Abir was the recipient. Abir fled to Canada from Bangladesh in 2015 “after receiving a series of death threat.” The very first winner was artist and environmentalist Franke James in 2015. James proved that her artwork on climate change was being deliberately censured by the Canadian government. She wrote about it in Banned on the Hill: A True Story about Dirty Oil and Government Censorship.

Cole will appear in court to face the charges of disruption in January and will be presented with the Filkow Prize, valued at $1,000, in February as part of Freedom to Read Week.

by Cherryl Bird – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Twitter @ladycbird | Instagram @cherrylbird


This article was originally published on CNW on Dec. 15, 2017 under the title: Black Journalist dedicates PEN Canada prize for freedom of expression to Indigenous Peoples, was re-published 154 times in Canada and the United States within 30 days in publications with a combined readership of  81.1 million views per day. 


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