Volume 38, Number 6: November/December 2004

Fighting for My Town: Looking Forward by Looking Back

We’ve lost ground in Toronto. From the increase in permanent homeless and food-bank users, to the lack of tenant protection, to the freeze on social housing and the minimum wage, to the use of racial profiling by the police and immigration and, finally, to the rapid deterioration of our water and air quality. The poor, black and brown communities have been the hardest hit by the changes in our city. Yes, we’ve made significant gains on a number of these issues and in electing a progressive mayor and council. But the gauge that we used to determine what we are fighting for has shifted backwards over the last 20 years. We need to recognize this to move forward.

Among activists that get up every day determined to change the social conditions in the city there has always been a great divide–between those who are on the ground building immediate solutions and those calling for long-term social change. We need a re-assessment at this point with input from both sides to reflect on our long-term goals and short-term strategies.

Corporate interests have been targeted in anti-globalization campaigns, but rarely in local municipal struggles. Corporation-first political representatives at the provincial and federal levels have ripped up tenant and environmental protection, slashed welfare rates and set up workfare, eliminated employment equity and weakened human-rights and anti-racism programs, stopped the production of affordable housing and downloaded many social programs and services like transit without a tax base so our cities are forced into financial crisis. We need to identify the interests of corporate power in developing fightback strategies to address these issues in our cities.

Housing

In late 2002, the police and private security evicted one of the most powerful and creative challenges to the state of homelessness in Toronto: the Tent City community. No new units were built to respond to increasing homelessness in Toronto or to house the former residents. These former residents were moved into the private housing market and provided with rental subsidies. This group has remained housed since that eviction, destroying the myth that many homeless people live on the street as a lifestyle choice.

The group at the centre of the Tent City community was the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC), a group that has fought to identify the crisis of homelessness in Canada, as well as a solution: the need for the federal government to provide an additional one per cent of the federal budget to build and support affordable housing. TDRC continues to lead this fight.

But where the struggle gets stuck is that rental subsides are now seen as the only short-term solution to homelessness. This is a victory for the real-estate industry. Beginning in the 1980s real-estate organizations lobbied for two things as their solution to the lack of affordable housing: elimination of tenant controls and establishment of rental subsides. At the beginning of the 1990s, urban real estate dropped in value for the first time in 30 years. Apartment- and office-vacancy rates plummeted throughout that decade while construction unemployment reached above 20 per cent of its workforce. Things were so bad that some NDPers and construction unions lobbied for subsidies for developers and supported mega-projects like the Olympics as ways to turn things around.

The Harris government was elected in 1995 with the financial support of the real estate industry. The first act of the Harris government was to cut welfare rates and impose workfare regulations on social-assistance recipients. Harris then moved quickly to eliminate rent controls and tenants’ rights and to put an immediate stop to the building of affordable housing, either co-op or social housing. The development industry closed rooming houses and saturated the downtown with luxury condos built in many cases on industrial sites where workers once had jobs.

Downloading was another culprit–Chretien passed it down to Harris, who passed it down to the municipalities, so that both senior levels of government withdrew from taking responsibility for social housing and gave it to the cities without the necessary financial resources. The City of Toronto was given full responsibility to run the Toronto-based housing units of the ex-Ontario Housing Corporation, while Harris provided little money, even as thousands of units needed the three “R”s: replacement, renovation, or repair. In a precedent-setting response, the city is now looking to re-develop Regent Park, the oldest and largest public-housing community in Canada, by means of a public-private partnership.

In the 1990s homelessness grew by leaps and bounds. There came to be two “shifts” in Toronto’s financial district–the office workers in the daytime and the homeless on the hot-air grates at night. Faced with a deeper homelessness crisis, many activists felt they had no choice left but to fight for increased shelter beds. Of course, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and TDRC have organized squats and the Tent City community. But even the hostels that had once been considered too dangerous to sleep in are now full, and not just during the cold months. An increase of shelter beds has been provided, mostly in the basements of churches, as during the 1930s.

Racism

The Toronto Police is still in denial about its practice of racial profiling since last year, when the Toronto Star published a systematic examination of police records that revealed a higher arrest ratio among members of the black community. Police Chief Julian Fantino’s amnesia has even overlooked his own very public campaign to establishing racial profiling when he was a Police Inspector in the early 1990s.

The Black Action Defence Committee first identified the issue in the late 1980s, when it organized a campaign against the large number of black men shot by police. Numerous organizations and individuals from the Black, South Asian and Chinese communities have spoken out for years against racist treatment from the police force, but it took the Star’s series to force extensive public scrutiny on the police practice of racial profiling.

The ability of the Toronto Police Services Board to deal with this issue and supervise the police has been effectively weakened. The Board is currently in a power struggle between Fantino supporters and those pushing for change in police practices. The choice of Fantino’s replacement as chief next year will be an important gauge of the progress on the issue of police racial profiling.

In the aftermath of September 11, the Anti-Terrorism Act and the new Immigration Act have extended racial profiling to the Muslim and South Asian communities. Maher Arar and others have been detained, tortured and deported, and the anti-immigrant backlash has resulted in police interrogations and the destruction of religious centres. There has also been a rise in anti-Semitic activities. This has resulted in extensive organizing by Muslim, Jewish and immigrant communities and the No One is Illegal campaign to draw attention to and stop discriminatory practices, physical assaults and property destruction.

School-board funding was cut under Harris. As well, the Tories and others promoted three-strikes-and-you’re-out policies as a result of the perception of the increase of violence between students in the schools. As a consequence, the Toronto Public School Board now simply suspends students who are in conflict; whether for fights, insubordination, or swearing. But like the issue of streaming, which drew a large focus at the end of the 1980s and has since been ignored, the kids most negatively impacted by this new policy are members of the poor and black communities.

Toronto’s corporate, political and media establishment is still primarily white men. One of Harris’s first acts in 1995 was to eliminate the Employment Equity legislation that at least exposed barriers to employment for black and brown communities. The economic apartheid that exists in Toronto, which has been identified by Grace Edwards-Galabuzzi and others, is rarely looked at when media attention is drawn to the latest shootings within the immigrant and black communities.

The Environment

As soon as the temperature rises above 15 degrees in the spring and summer, we get smog that totally debilitates anyone with asthma or respiratory disorders. This smog, which used to provide an air cover for the Toronto region alone, now often extends over the entire golden horseshoe–the land between the Great Lakes, from Toronto to Owen Sound to Windsor. In the 1980s air pollution was identified as a social problem created by corporate polluters, coal-burning generators and the effects of global warming. Strategies were developed to limit the use of fossil fuels in heating and electrical generation and to reduce the use of cars and trucks.

Warehousing operations and shipping were restructured in the 1990s with the advent of just-in-time production, which led to the increase in the use of trucking and the reduction of rail operations. Harris cut support for public transit and downloaded the responsibility for its operations and maintenance to cities. Car use has increased as the city’s transportation option, while transit services have been cut and few alternative-fuel-source vehicles have been introduced, compounding the smog problem. Smog days are now seen as an issue for individuals affected, who must protect themselves by staying inside.

There are many social-intervention strategies to address environmental and health issues, like the recent banning of pesticides, toughened anti-smoking by-laws and the wet/dry city-wide cycling and composting plan for 2005. But for the most part the strategies and practises are individual ones, and not the social ones of the 1980s. Harris eliminated a broad range of environmental inspectors and established self-inspection protocols. Recycling, sunscreen and bottled water are now common individual consumer strategies that do not target root causes of pollution and smog.

Steps Ahead

I chose to look at these three issues because I think that poverty, racism and the environment are the key issues for urban activists to address at this stage. I do not want to suggest that incredible work and progress has not been made on these issues, but I also think that the root causes of these issues are not always openly addressed and that individual solutions are often seen as ends in themselves.

In Toronto, it’s clear that poverty, racism and environmental degradation are now deeper and more pervasive. We need a broader discussion to address these issues. There are many activists, organizations and communities in the trenches fighting day-to-day battles or investigating strategies and policies to bring about change to the conditions in our cities. But for the most part we’re fighting in our own areas. We need to find a way to pull together municipal summits to talk about these issues. Support for institution building is crucial. The key to building coalitions that will fight for common causes is for constituent and community organizations to be strong.

The support of First Nations’ leadership on these issues is fundamental. Native communities have had a long and extensive experience of poverty, racism and environmental degradation and have a strong contribution to make to the settlement of these issues. We need to build a Left presence on these issues. There is a growing influence of free marketeers on urban issues that has contributed to the sense that only individual solutions can address these issues. Not only do we need to help provide leadership on the issues of poverty, racism and the environment, but we also need to encourage the organized working class to be more centrally involved.

Otra mondial es posible.

David Kidd is a CUPE municipal worker and a veteran community activist in Toronto. He is a member of CD’s Editorial Collective.

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