Farewell, Chief

After 38 years of service, ten of those as Chief of Police, Chief William Blair will retire today. In honour of his retirement, more than 1,100 people came to see him off and wish him well on April 23.

From Chiefs of Police around Ontario and the world, to fellow officers, Service members, politicians, former chiefs and his family all came together to bid farewell to the Chief.

In a VIP reception earlier, the Chief was honoured by his peers and counterparts from around the country, continent and the world, through words of gratitude, encouragement and retirement gifts ranging from a fire axe, to a plaque from the FBI to Sudbury’s special coffee called ‘the night watch’ to many, many honorary police badges. The Chief had a good laugh when he was told by TTC CEO Andy Byford that his present, a model streetcar, was delayed and would be given to him shortly after as it was in the shop getting a special inscription on it.

At the dinner, itself, many people spoke of Blair’s legacy as an officer and as Chief of the Service. An entertaining video traced Blair’s history as an officer and one as a young man to his current role and how he got there. From his “pensive but troublemaker” personality as a young boy, to his teenage years as a football player up to his work in the drug squad, his ‘Amigos’ and what his wife and children imagined post-retirement life would be like (not fun for Susanne).

The Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell said that, while there were many things to praise Blair on, the most important one she could comment on was his “dedication and passion to public service”.

Mayor John Tory said, on behalf of the people of Toronto and on behalf of the city, he was there to pay tribute to Blair and thank him for his Service. “I am an unabashed admirer, I would often say…that the Chief is not perfect but he is one of the best things that happened to Toronto.”

Tory described how, as the head of Civic Action, he met with the Chief on many occasions. What struck him about that was how Blair would be there “not talking about law enforcement or policing but on how he could help people in the room…not only did he talk about it, he would suggest something that could be done to advance the community… and that’s my kind of Chief,” said Tory.

Tory also joked about the Chief’s ability to talk – a lot. “I knew how to talk before I had a talk show, I knew how to talk even better after I did a talk show, I know how to talk and talk and talk…well, so does this guy know how to talk,” said Tory, laughing.

On a more serious note, the Mayor spoke about the Chief as a person who cared a lot about the role he had as a person serving the public. “This is a man who is as pure of heart as anyone you will ever encounter.

“Bill Blair has always been true of heart, he has always been professional, he has been devoted and compassionate and caring of the men and women he leads and the people of Toronto and of the city itself, and I will say to you sir…wherever you go next, know that you will go with the gratitude of a great city and of a very grateful city. And you have played a significant role in making this city great,” concluded Tory.

The Chief is dress uniform tuxedo shaking the mayors hand
Chief Bill Blair thanks Mayor Tory Photo: Sara Faruqi

The Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, commended the Chief on his dedication to community and building relationships in the city. “The ethos that has been in place since he has been chief is one of commitment to community, one of building relationships and by building those relationships making communities safer.” She also thanked him, saying, “I’m very grateful to you on a personal level on the advice and counsel you have given to me over the years.”

The Reverend Brent Hawkes said he was touched by the symbolism of being asked to speak at Chief’s retirement dinner “given the history of the gay and lesbian community with the police.” Hawkes touched upon the changes in policing had seen since the Bathhouse raids in 1981, where he was beaten and arrested by police. Since then, “many people have worked hard to change this…and many of you within the Service both past and present” acknowledged the Reverend.

Hawkes gave credit to the Chief for changing the service to one that was more inclusive, “I think the Chief’s most important legacy has been the changing face of the Toronto Police Service; the number of women, visible minorities, who’ve been recruited and promoted, has seen a rapidly different police service. Equally, an important legacy has been the continuing improvement of the relationship with the LGBT community. The Chief marching in the Pride parade was a huge symbol of inclusion – his zero-tolerance for discrimination has been crucial,” said Hawkes.

“I personally trust that Chief Blair’s heart is in the right place,” said the Reverend.

Chief Blair’s daughter, Rachel, echoed Hawkes words about her father’s heart being the right place. “…Despite the rhetoric of newspaper stories, at the heart of it is a person who simply walked the streets and asked people for their stories, a person who took on the monumental, unheard task of listening, not with agenda but with heart,” said the youngest of Blair’s children.

She said that, while occasions such as the retirement dinner were a “wonderful way to tell someone you appreciate them,” they were also a chance for “the room to know how much my father appreciated you – the city.”

Photos: Blair over the years

The chief smiling
The Chief listens to his children speak at his retirement dinner. Photo: Sara Faruqi

Blair’s two sons, Matt and John, also spoke about having the Chief as a father. In many moments in his children’s speeches, the audience got to see the Chief of Police as he was to his children, perhaps most when his son, John, narrated an anecdote any child will remember of their father – questioning bad jokes made by dad.

“I recently visited home after spending some time out of province, talking to dad about work, his work and mine, we were talking for a while when his face went serious and he said, ‘Son, is either of us going to talk about the elephant in the room?’”

“My dad had recently been given a large brass elephant as a gift that he was very proud of, and he waited, I assume, until I arrived at the house to the room where he kept it – to use that joke,” said John, to loud laughter in the room. The point of the story, John pointed out, was that while his father has often had to be stern and serious when the situation calls for it, he has taken “every opportunity to be a guy, be a dad and be himself… something that means a lot to us.”

Blair’s eldest son, Matt, and the father of the Chief’s two grandchildren, spoke about what he had learned through his father and what he would carry on. Matt said he knew his children would get the opportunity to know their grandfather “both in the flesh as a gentle giant like my grandfather before him and by example in the form of the father I try to be,”

The eldest son also said that, while neither he nor his siblings followed their father’s, grandfather’s or great-grandfathers’ footsteps in public service, they were always taught that one does need to not wear a uniform to serve the community.

The Chief’s wife, Susanne, spoke last, before the man himself had an opportunity to speak. She spoke about how she knew when he was appointed Chief of Police, his position as a public figure might affect her family but they would need to remind themselves of who he truly was through the criticism, anger and frustration that often comes in a role of responsibility and accountability to the public. “I know the measure of this man, I know his integrity and that’s all that matters – Chief, you have done well, Billy I will protect you,” said his wife.

In the end, when an emotional Chief Blair finally addressed the crowd, despite Tory’s earlier joke – he kept his last few words as Chief quite short. He thanked everyone who he had the opportunity to have worked with over the last 38 years, a list too long to name everyone, said the Chief, and he thanked his wife and children.

“The men and women of the service are 8,000 extraordinary people I know, have come to love, admire and respect…they share our values, they go out there and choose to serve, choose to answer a call and choose to run towards danger, to make a difference,” said Blair, “and they do it with the best of intentions and we are blessed to have such extraordinary people, and I have been blessed to be their chief of police.

“Let us always be careful to reach out to each other, to be supportive of each other, and to be in that place of social cohesion and inclusion that we should always aspire to be,” said the Chief, on keeping the city a diverse and safe city to live in.

“And, now, let me bid you all adieu from this position and this privilege that I have been given. It has been the honour of a lifetime to be the Chief of the Toronto Police Service, to know all of you and to serve with all of you. I believe we have made a difference and I’m grateful for the opportunity that I was given to contribute to that,” said the Chief, in his closing remarks.

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