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Ontario NDP losing its voice on minimum wage

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

“When it came to issues affecting the most marginalized in our society, including the working poor, the NDP was once a prophetic voice in Ontario politics. Sadly, that voice now speaks in whispers.”

Read my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star here

The way forward for Ontario’s anti-poverty movement

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

A version of this article was published in The Toronto Star as “Ontario Anti-Poverty Movement Needs a Dose of Street Heat”.

Last week, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, heads of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, released their final report, Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario. It contains some good ideas but anti-poverty activists will have to ask themselves whether more aggressive action is necessary.

The commission called on the government to implement some of its 108 recommendations immediately, including a $100-a-month rate increase for single adults on Ontario Works (they currently receive $599 a month, 66 per cent below the poverty line); changing the rules to allow all recipients to earn $200 a month without having their benefits reduced, and raising OW asset limits to Ontario Disability Support Program levels of $6,000 for a single person and $7,500 for a couple. Adopting these recommendations would make small, but concrete material differences in the lives of social assistance recipients.

We’ve been here before. The 1988 review of social assistance, entitled Transitions, was a 500-page tome documenting all that was wrong with the system and put forward progressive measures for change. While some of these measures were adopted under the Peterson and Rae governments, in 1995 the Harris Conservatives came to power, cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent and turned the province’s social assistance system into one of the cruellest and most punitive in the country.

Despite a few tweaks since forming government in 2003, the provincial Liberals have left this system largely intact. With a dismal record on poverty reduction and an apparent willingness to balance the books on the backs of everyday people, it is doubtful whether a new Liberal leader would move us in the right direction.

In fact, just months prior to the release of the commission’s report, the McGuinty Liberals announced plans to eliminate a benefit program that gave up to $1,500 every two years to families on social assistance that were facing eviction, in danger of having their utilities cut off, fleeing domestic violence, moving from shelters or unsafe housing, or unable to replace bedbug-infested furniture or broken appliances. This followed their cut to the Special Diet program which many social assistance recipients relied on to meet their dietary needs.

The government’s formal response to Lankin and Sheikh’s report has been to announce that it will work with its “partners, both inside and outside of government, to discuss the implications of transformation, and begin creating a road map for success.” More discussions, more timetables, more debate, consultation and “stakeholder dialogue.” The government has said that welfare rates and benefit structures will remain unchanged in the interim. In the meantime, Ontario’s poor continue to face the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement — the thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations committed to ending poverty in this province — is now at a crossroads. A cynic might argue that the greatest achievement of the social assistance review process, and indeed the broader poverty reduction strategy, has been to neutralize the anti-poverty movement, channelling its resources and energies away from organizing and activism and into advocacy, away from challenging government to having dialogue with it.

History tells us that successful movements for social change play both “insider” and “outsider” politics. Social movements need advocates on the inside to push their agenda, put forward progressive policies and develop relationships with decision makers. But these insiders are powerless without the threat of disruption and mobilization on the outside, what American civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson famously called “street heat.” Organizing tenants, occupying welfare offices, knocking on MPPs’ doors, showing up unannounced at political party fundraisers, marches and demonstrations, mass political education, consciousness-raising, appealing to the moral sensibilities of the general public — these are the sometimes messy but always powerful stuff of social movement politics.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement has a surplus of insiders, but has thus far failed to bring the street heat. Faced with an intransigent government, the question now is whether the scarce resources of the movement can be turned from consultation and dialogue — the polite politics of the inside — to organizing, activism and agitation, the street-fighting politics of the outside.

Does this shift make sense with a prorogued legislature and lame duck premier? Poor people and their allies are tired of timelines, consultations and “stakeholder” meetings. The movement’s focus on insider politics has appeared to play into the government’s agenda of delay, defer and deflect.

At a meeting of the Region of Peel’s roundtable on social assistance, a woman with lived experience of poverty turned to the group and said, “We’re tired of waiting. We want justice and we want it now.” If the anti-poverty movement can’t find justice via commissions and consultations, it’s time we look for it in the streets, constituency and welfare offices across this province.

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

Published in The Toronto Star, Oct 30 2012

Ontario’s Poor Can’t Wait

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

In my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star, I discuss how quiet acceptance of austerity is not a realistic option for those living on the economic edge.

During the last two weeks in Ontario politics, we have seen a tale of two reports. The Drummond report has received a great deal of attention and rightly so: as the Star’s own Martin Regg Cohn put it, “Cutbacks are back and bigger than ever. And this time, they’re here to stay.” Millions of Ontarians, but especially the poor and middle class, stand to be impacted should the government act on Drummond’s recommendations.

Yet another report, that of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance, slipped under the media’s radar and was greeted with little fanfare by the government and general public alike. This report discusses different approaches to improving some of the key areas of the province’s welfare system and is an important step in the broader review process headed by ex-StatsCan chief Munir Sheik and former United Way of Greater Toronto CEO Frances Lankin.

The review of social assistance plays a key role in the provincial government’s poverty reduction strategy, announced by the premier and welcomed by anti-poverty advocates back in 2008. Sheik and Lankin have embarked on an extensive consultation process, speaking with social workers, policy experts, business leaders, people with lived experience of poverty, and anti-poverty advocates. Their final report, which will make recommendations that will enable government to “remove barriers and increase opportunities for people to work,” is to be released this summer.

While the Drummond report takes a largely hands-off approach to social assistance, deferring to the work of the commission, much in it runs counter to the spirit and stated goals of both the review of social assistance and the broader strategy of poverty reduction. For one, Drummond recommends rolling back the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB), a subsidy that helps low-income families provide for their children. The OCB has been partially credited with the small but nevertheless important reduction in child poverty Ontario has seen over the past few years.

But more generally the report is silent on the concerns of the poor, from much-needed increases in child-care funding to the construction of more affordable housing. Drummond was, after all, primarily tasked with discerning where to make cuts, not how to expand social programs.

If acted upon, Drummond’s austerity package could well push Ontario’s unemployment rate into double-digits. With the federal government’s continued reticence to expand eligibility for employment insurance, thousands more Ontarians could turn to a welfare system that currently does more to punish than help the poor, who have yet to recover from the 22 per cent cut to welfare imposed by the Harris Tories back in 1995. McGuinty has raised rates slightly, but these increases have not kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris levels, the government would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. You can be sure that such an increase is not in the cards in the current political climate.

So the next few years, likely the next decade, look tough for low-income Ontarians. Lower child-care subsidies, larger waiting lists for social housing, persistent unemployment and more people caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, will be derided as “unfriendly to business.”

How then do the poor make gains in a climate of austerity? Before we mine history for answers we must first ask: “Who are the poor?” The obvious answer is, “those living at or below the poverty line,” but many of us live one paycheque away from poverty. What happens to social assistance and other social supports should be a concern for us all.

And as a recent Metcalf Foundation report concluded, between 2000 and 2005 the number of working poor increased by 42 per cent, numbering 113,000 people in the Toronto region alone. Those numbers have certainly risen since the Great Recession began in 2008. And an even larger number of people are near-poor. The poor are not only those living on social assistance.

Before the great labour struggles of the 1930s and ’40s, the poor were, like today, both working people and those out of work. Those struggles led to the legitimization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to labour.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened inequality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition’s social assistance review. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that poor people’s silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.” The Drummond report tells poor people they must wait. Now it is up to the poor to reply: “We will not.”

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

published in The Toronto Star, March 3 2012 IN6

Unsung Heroes of the Third City

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

2011 will be remembered as the year when inequality moved from the margins to the mainstream of public discourse. No longer just the purview of anti-poverty activists, progressive economists and the political left, this year figures as unlikely as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney felt pushed to publicly acknowledge the widening gap between the rich and the rest, or as the Occupy movement has put it: the 1 per cent and the 99.

In Ontario, the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, the growth of precarious employment, the dismantling of the social safety net, and the weakening of a trade union movement that once was a strong force for a more egalitarian society have allowed inequality and poverty to grow relatively unchecked for close to three decades. The idea that free markets and globalization deliver prosperity for all has been thoroughly debunked by the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Prosperity has been concentrated in the hands of too few at the expense of too many.

And as report after report has concluded, our city has not been immune from these socio-economic trends. As researchers at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre have documented, over the last 30 years Toronto has become a greatly unequal place, segregated by income into three distinct cities:

City #1 consists of the richer and whiter downtown core and the well-heeled neighbourhoods that abut the city’s subway lines.

Toronto’s middle-income neighbourhoods make up City #2, shrinking in size as we become a more socially and economically polarized metropolis. The number of high-poverty neighbourhoods in Toronto has more than quadrupled since 1980.

City #3 — or the Third City — is made up of Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, with their high concentrations of racialized poverty. Generally found in the northeastern and northwestern parts of Toronto, incomes in these “inner” suburbs have declined 20 per cent or more since 1970.

While we have become accustomed to thinking of Toronto’s Third City geographically, as particular areas and neighbourhoods, the Third City can also be understood as an urban condition: a set of experiences that together amount to exclusion from the full political, economic and cultural life of our city. For instance, living in the Third City means not having enough money to take your children to the zoo or museum; it is having to choose between feeding the kids and paying the rent; it is commuting two hours to work on inadequate public transit; it is being denied a job because of your accent, the colour of your skin, or your postal code; it is being charged exorbitant interest rates by payday lenders; it is being denied access to channels of political influence for lack of resources and excluded from civic debates.

Cuts to public transit, child care, recreation centres, libraries and community grants stand to exacerbate this exclusion. People living on low incomes cannot afford to purchase equivalent goods and services on the market — things like private child care or nursery school, owning and operating a car, fitness club memberships or summer camps for kids.

No Toronto neighbourhood has become more associated with the Third City than Jane-Finch. But behind the negative media headlines and dire poverty statistics, there are people working hard to stitch together a social fabric torn by decades of rising poverty and inequality. They are the unsung heroes of the Third City, the people and organizations we hear little about.

Women like Stephanie Payne, the indefatigable matriarch of Jane-Finch who heads up the San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA). The association’s work has led to the renewal of an apartment complex long stigmatized for its association with crime and poor living conditions. Payne and the staff at the SRRA provide programs for isolated seniors, recreation for community youth, and gang-prevention initiatives.

While she is haunted by the deaths of too many of the community’s young men, Payne carries on her work emboldened by positive results as reports find crime in the complex has declined and residents’ quality of life has improved. “This is a dynamic community and people come together when good things are happening,” Payne reflects. “But when I look at the budgets and see this program and that program have to be discontinued, I think what am I going to do with the youngsters out there, are they going to be back on the corner? If they don’t have our supports, they will be back out there. That’s what I worry about.”

Organizations such as Lost Lyrics face the same uncertainty. Lost Lyrics is an alternative education program that uses hip hop culture to reach students who struggle in the mainstream education system and are often labelled as having behavioural issues. Working out of a Jane-Finch community centre, the organization has successfully bridged the streets and the classroom, empowering young people to change their lives and critically engage the world around them. But as Lost Lyrics co-founder Amanda Parris puts it: “under this mayor, our access to resources is steadily shrinking. Our programs are in a precarious position and our capacity to sustain them is riddled with question marks.”

Christopher Penrose runs another highly successful Jane-Finch program, Success Beyond Limits, which provides summer programs, peer tutoring, and co-op opportunities for local youth. He has seen the city’s budget plans and warns: “As things are right now, pre-cuts, there’s not enough. Not enough for programming, to address all the issues our youth face. . . .

“We’ve been to funerals, we deal with youth who have lost people, we deal with young people who come to school hungry. We see the effects of poverty on a daily basis. It’s traumatic. Now we are being re-traumatized by politicians who negate our experiences, making decisions that are going to lead to more poverty, more hardship. It is more than just frustrating; it is hurtful to see the direction this city is going.”

Jade Lee Hoy, an outreach coordinator with community arts organization Manifesto, another Jane-Finch mainstay, echoes Penrose’s frustrations, “When you cut these programs, we are losing talent, opportunity and energies that could be vital to our city.” Lee Hoy notes that neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch are vibrant and resilient places with a strong sense of community despite the many challenges they face.

The likes of Payne, Parris, Lee Hoy and Penrose are people whose intelligence, drive and ingenuity could earn them the big bucks on Bay Street. But they don’t migrate to corporate Canada. Instead, they work daily to cobble together grant applications, counsel the vulnerable and uplift a community. They work to mitigate the effects of poverty and marginalization. And they do so with meagre budgets, little compensation, and an abiding frustration with governments’ lack of commitment to social justice and progressive change.

Of course they reap rewards as well: the joy experienced when a troubled youth turns their life around, the deep sense of fulfillment gained when mentees grow to become mentors, the satisfaction earned watching the transformation of those deemed “at-risk” into those understood by community, peers and parents alike to be empowered. They do this work out of love; love for their community and ultimately love for our city.

As philosopher Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” With cuts to city services and social programs looming on the political horizon, we are about to see just how much love our city has for neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch.

Published in The Toronto Star Dec 23 2011

Cities on High Alert

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Here’s my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star. They have a habit of changing my titles; this one was originally “The Age of Urban Unrest?”

Last week, New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg rang alarm bells when he said that high unemployment could lead to mass social unrest in cities across the United States.  “You have a lot of kids graduating college who can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here,” Bloomberg explained. The mayor was not alone in this assessment. Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said as much back in 2008; “unemployment,” he declared, “represents a risk to the stability of existing democracies.”

Bloomberg’s warning came with his endorsement of President Obama’s new jobs creation bill. As a big city mayor, Bloomberg knows too well that the social problems associated with high unemployment, widening inequality, and economic stagnation are most acute in urban centres. Whereas Strauss-Kahn’s words proved prophetic, Bloomberg was learning from recent history.

Since the onset of the global economic crisis back in 2007-2008, cities have seen rising levels of violence and social unrest: riots and looting in the UK, intensified gang violence in major US cities, street clashes in Athens, flash robs in Philadelphia, mass protests in Madrid, ghetto dwellers and security forces facing off in Kingston, Jamaica, rival drug cartels engaged in shootouts in Juarez, Mexico; the list goes on. As many political observers have remarked, a driving force behind the Arab Spring – apart from an unquenched thirst for democracy – is unemployment, and in particular, extremely high levels of youth unemployment.

Non-governmental organizations have started making the connections as well. A recent report from the International Red Cross, entitled Urban Violence: War By Any Other Name observes, “Around the world, cities are experiencing an alarming increase in violence and its resulting misery…Chronic conflict makes daily life in some places almost like living in a war zone.”

And images of urban unrest not only flash nightly across our TV screens and occupy the pages of our newspapers, they also permeate our popular culture as never before: just watch recent science fiction films like Attack the Block, District 9, and Battle: Los Angeles. The city as a place of conflict and civil disorder is part of our cultural zeitgeist.

We have then, it appears, entered an age of urban unrest.

But London is not Philadelphia and Cairo not Kingston. From riots and looting, to mass protest, flash robs, and gang warfare, there are very different types of urban violence and social unrest with seemingly disparate causes. But while poverty, inequality, and unemployment do not tell the full story in all places, they do tell much of the story in many places.

In the case of the UK’s recent disorder, we have learned from The Guardian newspaper that the vast majority of rioters brought before the courts are young, poor, and unemployed. In the Tottenham neighbourhood, where the riots began, 54 people chase every one available job.

Where austerity and cutbacks to government services deepen poverty and unemployment, unrest soon follows.  Two Barcelona-based economists have published research which clearly shows a link between the variables. Empirical data on close to forty European and Latin American countries demonstrates a positive statistical association between government spending cuts, unemployment and levels of unrest, including anti-government demonstrations, riots, strikes and attempted revolutions.

In addition, path-breaking research by social epidemiologists has found that among advanced democracies, more equal societies (and by extension, cities) are also more socially stable and less violent.

In the absence of work and of hope, different ways of organizing human activity fill the social void. The anomie brought on by unemployment and other forms of social exclusion can be addressed through participation in other social groupings, sometimes a gang, sometimes a mob, sometimes a radical political or religious organization. When channelled into movements seeking to address legitimate grievances, as in the Arab Spring, urban unrest, disruption and disorder can be welcomed. History tells us that rough means can sometimes bring about progressive ends, especially when democratic channels are closed to those suffering injustice. Yet few urban denizens welcome the type of violence and disruption that causes misery, damage, and distress in their lives and in the life of their city.

We live in an urban age.  In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population were city dwellers. Now, for the first time in human history, the world’s urban population outnumbers its rural. As never before, the fate of humanity is tightly intertwined with the fate of the city. And whether we live in Toronto or Tokyo, Lagos or Los Angeles, safety and security are necessary conditions for a flourishing urbanity and a decent quality of life. As even the conservative-leaning Mayor of New York City has realized, addressing inequality, deprivation and unemployment with meaningful government action is central to maintaining social cohesion in an era of economic uncertainty.

Published Oct 11 2011 in The Toronto Star, pg. A19

Precarious life for young men in Third City

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Note: This piece appears in the opinion section of today’s Toronto Star under a different title: Life in ‘Third City’: Nasty, brutish, and short. I will post a longer version shortly, along with a list of young men who have lost their lives to violence on Toronto’s streets.

Last week, Andrew Naidoo was shot dead outside his Rexdale home. He was 15 years old.

To his parents, peers and community he was a fun-loving teenage boy whose smile lit up the hallways of Monsignor Percy Johnson High School, who cheered on his classmates competing in school sports, who liked to do the things most boys his age like to do: listen to music, chill with friends, talk to girls.

Naidoo’s death is part of a tragic trend of young men from the city’s racialized low-income neighbourhoods losing their lives to violence: Aeon Grant, Sealand White, Jermaine Derby, Abdikadir Khan, Lorenzo Martinez, Okene Thompson, Keyon Campbell…sadly the list goes on.

More often than not, they have died at the hands of those whose social and economic circumstances they share: poor, young men from racialized communities. They lived on Fallstaff, Chalkfarm, and in Jane and Finch; neighbourhoods like Malvern, Kingston-Galloway, and Rexdale.

Their names must not to be forgotten; they should be said out loud on our city’s streets, repeated and remembered. And their deaths continue to beg the question: How many more young people from the city’s low-income, racialized communities must lose their lives to violence before our governments declare a crisis?

As researchers at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre have documented, over the last 30 years Toronto has become segregated by income into three distinct cities. City #1 consists of the richer and whiter downtown core and well-heeled neighbourhoods close to the subway lines. City #3—or the Third City—are Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, with high concentrations of racialized poverty. Generally found in the in the northeastern and northwestern parts of Toronto, incomes in these neighbourhoods have declined 20 per cent or more since 1970. City #2 are middle-income neighbourhoods that fall in between and are shrinking in size as Toronto becomes a more socioeconomically polarized metropolis.

Those who inhabit the Third City live lives characterized by precariousness. High rents and dilapidated social housing make shelter precarious. Temporary and part-time jobs at low wages make for precarious employment. And a lack of regulated childcare compounds the insecurity of everyday life. 

Moreover, the Third City has become home to a drug market with street entrepreneurs perversely mirroring the pursuit of profits at all costs that marks Bay Street success stories. As young people in the Third City testify, you don’t have to be involved in gangs to get caught up in the violence, just be in the wrong place at the wrong time or a cocksure teen in a neighbourhood where a sideways glance or the friends you keep can translate into trouble.

Consequently, for many of the Third City’s youth, especially its young men, life itself has become precarious. Since 1998, the average age of homicide victims under the age of 25 has grown to 40% from 25% in the 1970s and a majority of those have been racialized youth from the Third City.

For years Toronto avoided the street violence which plagued U.S. cities. Yet since the late 1980s we’ve embarked on a path which would make manifest in our urban fabric the social problems of inner-city America. We cut the social safety net; we’ve neglected the built environment of poor neighbourhoods; we’ve failed to regulate precarious employment and create ‘good jobs’; we’ve yet to solve high dropout rates and youth unemployment, disproportionately impacting racialized youth; and we’ve rolled back equity initiatives which acknowledged the ways socioeconomic outcomes continue to be shaped by race.

Thus, the Third City was manufactured. And as it was made, it can be unmade, with policies to make more economically and socially secure the lives of its inhabitants.

We appeared to turn a corner with the tragic murder of Jane Creba: the problems of the Third City had made a violent appearance on the streets of the First, the spaces of commerce so central to Toronto’s competitiveness and standing as a ‘world class’ city. Commitments were made—however limited—to deal with urban social exclusion and the problems, including community violence, which it breeds.

Alas, with shifting political winds, support for such initiatives appears to be drying up.

It is time that we, as a city, confront some hard questions: Are we going to accept 15 year olds being gunned down outside their homes as our modern urban condition? Is this to be the fate of more of our city’s youth? Has Toronto become so divided, so polarized, that many of us think ‘our city’ is not ‘their city’ and ‘we’ therefore have nothing to worry about?

Published in The Toronto Star, June 8 2011

Who speaks for urban youth?

Friday, April 29th, 2011

In my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star, I explore the issues facing urban youth this election.

Which party speaks for urban youth this federal election? Over the past few weeks, media commentators have pointed to two important trends: First, Canada is an urban nation, with 15 million eligible voters living in urban regions across the country. Second, voter turnout among young people is depressingly low: there are 3 million eligible voters under the age of 25, yet less than a third are likely to cast a ballot come Election Day.

Polling suggests young people favour the Greens, Liberals and New Democrats: parties which have demonstrated some commitment—however limited—to urban issues in this campaign. A politically engaged youth is thus important for the civic and social health of our urban regions. But as comedian Rick Mercer has quipped, “as far as any political parties are concerned,” young people “might as well be dead.”

As any political scientist will tell you, in a pluralist liberal democracy, those who make the most noise—by voting, organizing, lobbying—are more likely to have their issues addressed by government. Pluralism implies many groups of relatively equal power jockeying for position and influence in political life. We live however in a country of great social and economic inequality where money and power, two things youth lack, go a long way to securing an audience with the governing classes. Young people have power in numbers, but organizing and exercising that power around common interests is never easy. Through advocacy groups and party politics, seniors have flexed their political muscle this election, pushing the parties to address their immediate concerns, from home care to public pensions; youth have yet to flex theirs.

Urban youth have their own issues: Environmental sustainability and the liveability of cities are major concerns. The young are more frequent users of public transit and would benefit from a federal role in building the green transportation infrastructure our country so desperately needs.  Funding for the arts and athletics are also a priority of urban youth, who recognize their value in facilitating creative expression and promoting social cohesion in the highly diverse landscapes of Canadian cities.

Then there are the myriad social problems facing many of today’s urban youth; problems the political parties have failed to highlight this campaign. For instance, in Toronto 40% of Black students do not graduate from high school. Drug addicted youth in Vancouver’s downtown east side struggle to secure housing and access to services. Racialized youth face discrimination and outright racism in urban labour markets and in their contact with police and the criminal justice system. The young are disproportionately represented in the ranks of our cities’ precariously employed; those workers struggling to make ends meet working temporary, part-time, or multiple jobs with low-wages and few benefits. And there are the extremely high rates of poverty and incarceration of young aboriginal people in cities such as Winnipeg and Regina.

As in any federal system, politicos will squabble over whose jurisdiction these issues fall under. It’s time to move beyond these squabbles and recognize that urban youth, and our cities in general, would benefit from a strong federal urban presence and the development of a federally-led urban strategy. Stephen Harper explicitly opposes such a notion; he’s committed to a model of governance in which the feds do not ‘interfere’ in the business of the provinces and municipalities.

But a top-down, one-size-fits all approach from the feds is not desirable either: Municipal governments are best placed to evaluate the needs of local populations, including youth. Cities have been important drivers in the design and innovation of Canadian social services and social programs. Any federal urban strategy with a youth component should recognise this and respect the diversity of Canadian cities. For instance, a program to address street gangs (with gang-exit and gang-intervention initiatives) in a city such as Regina in which aboriginal youth are disproportionately involved in gang life, will necessarily take a different form than programs in Montreal or Toronto. 

In any progressive era of Canadian politics, the federal government has exercised its federal spending power to alter Canada’s approach to issues that were essentially within provincial jurisdiction. In the fields of education, welfare, and health care, the feds have influenced provincial and municipal policies and program standards. Beyond providing necessary funding to cash-strapped cities, a federal urban youth strategy could establish a set of principles which govern access to programs and services without becoming excessively involved in their design and delivery. Pairing universal programs with targeted investments based on the social citizenship, social rights, and democratic participation and engagement of young people is vital to building such a strategy.

But an urban youth strategy is not likely to emerge unless it is fought for and demanded by young people themselves. In urban centers across our country, many youth are active in the civic life of our cities, but often in ways that don’t conform to the politics-as-usual of parties and elections. Other youth speak the language of distress and despair, with gunshots or requests for spare change on our city streets. Whatever the manifestation of their voice, politicians ignore urban youth at our cities peril.

Published in The Toronto Star online edition, April 29 2011, @ www.thestar.com

Remixing urban education

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

In my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star, I discuss the legacy of a little-known urban arts program that developed a number of Canada’s finest hip hop and Rn’B artists. 

Rappers Kardinal Offishal and Saukrates, singer Jully Black, and video director Lil’ X may not be familiar names to Torontonians over the age of 40, but anyone born after 1969 who loves hip hop and R and B is aware of these artists’ foundational roles in Canada’s urban music culture.

Beyond their shared talents, what these names have in common is a little-known initiative of Ontario’s NDP government: a program called Fresh Arts. Fresh Arts was developed under the umbrella of JobsOntario Youth, part of the larger JobsOntario training and employment program the NDP government introduced to address the labour market fallout of the early ’90s recession.

Fresh Arts attracted young people of colour from areas the City now designates as ‘priority neighbourhoods.’ Then, like today, these neighbourhoods were characterized by large immigrant populations, racialized poverty, and high unemployment; most strikingly, youth unemployment.

Staffed by dedicated community activists, Fresh Arts paired mentors from theatre, music and the visual arts with ambitious young artists whose styles and talents were marginalized both by their lack of economic resources and an arts sector that failed to reflect Toronto’s cultural diversity. It was in Fresh Arts that Toronto’s budding urban talents accessed the funding, education, and networks necessary to propel them to successful careers and years of ambassadorship for the city.

Part of the impetus for Fresh Arts was the Stephen Lewis Report on Race Relations in Ontario. The report was commissioned by then-premier Bob Rae following the Yonge Street Riot of May 1992, when simmering tensions between black youth and Toronto police reached a boiling point. According to Rae, the riot “served to remind everyone that there were systemic problems that were not being addressed.”

Lewis documented the social exclusion faced, particularly, by black youth in Toronto and throughout Ontario. Yet like other efforts to address systemic racism that stemmed from the Report (such as the Anti-Racism Secretariat), Fresh Arts fell victim to Mike Harris’s ‘Common Sense Revolution.’ Harris ended JobsOntario Youth, and with it, Fresh Arts.

The spirit of the now legendary program lives on in the Remix Project, a community arts hub which provides space for Toronto’s new generation of urban artists to flourish. Remix participants come primarily from the City’s Priority Neighbourhoods.

Once accepted into Remix, participants are matched with an established mentor who guides them through an intensive program which helps them earn credits toward a high school diploma, apply for post-secondary education and scholarships, or access start-up money for small business projects.

Remix ran on a modest budget until 2005, when Toronto’s ‘Summer of the Gun’ led to increased funding from both the federal and municipal governments, and various foundations. Since then, however, government funding has been minimal, and Remix has had to rely on the goodwill of individual donors and foundations to survive.

With over 200 graduates now making their way in the urban arts sector, Remix has improved the lives of some of the city’s most vulnerable youth. As one recent graduate told me, “Remix showed me the right path when I was in a dark place…the program gives us the opportunity to see another way for our lives. We’re not treated like charity cases, but respected by our peers.”

As the dominance of market logic eclipses social citizenship, programs like Remix are forced to depend on private and charitable sector partnerships to survive. Ultimately, this is what separates a program like Remix from one like Fresh Arts, and charity from social justice.

Although it had minimal funding, mostly from the government, Fresh Arts was grounded in the belief that young people from marginalized communities should have access to resources that better their lives—by virtue of social rights, not the tenuous goodwill of private individuals and corporate philanthropy.

Remix’s funding is neither stable nor predictable, which makes long-term planning difficult.

Indeed, as policy wonks trumpet the idea of the ‘creative city’ and the economic benefits of a vibrant cultural sector, it’s confounding why projects like Remix should have to struggle for every dollar. The city and the province must do more to support such proven successes.

Yet visions of what we can achieve collectively through government are threatened by promises of cutbacks and ‘tax savings’. As the latest city budget demonstrated, cuts to services are the order of the day, with our new Mayor promising more in the near future.

This is short-sighted. Fresh Arts demonstrated the potential of community-driven programs partnering with government to improve the lives of the city’s marginalized youth. Remix is now doing the same. Programs like these are not part of a “gravy train”; as the success of Fresh Arts and Remix graduates demonstrate, they are smart social investments that benefit us all.

Moreover, they are central to building a strong, socially inclusive city that is creative, prosperous, and just.

Published in The Toronto Star Jan 30 2011

A bad week in In-Between City

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Last week was not a good one to be living in the “in-between city,” the term urbanists use to describe areas wedged between the outer suburbs — with their sprawling residential neighbourhoods — and the downtown core of office towers, condos and cultural institutions.

In Toronto, the in-between city roughly corresponds to the postwar suburbs, or inner suburbs, that grew with the booming economy of the 1950s and ’60s. As urban researchers at York University’s City Institute have observed, their highrises, diverse immigrant populations and lower-than-average incomes are the stuff of the inner city; but their bungalows, strip malls and wide roads are quintessentially suburban.

It is in the in-between city that “one finds some of the most pronounced urban contradictions” — think of resource-wealthy places like the University of Toronto Scarborough campus shoulder to shoulder with one of the city’s troubled priority neighbourhoods, Kingston-Galloway.

Socio-economically, the in-between city overlaps with what researchers at the U of T’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies have called Toronto’s “third city,” which consists of areas with high concentrations of racialized poverty, where incomes have decreased 20 per cent or more over the past 30 years. City Number 1, which has seen phenomenal income growth, is the richer and whiter downtown core and swanky neighbourhoods clustered around the city’s two subway lines. Toronto’s demographically mixed middle-income neighbourhoods — or City Number 2 — are diminishing in number as we become a more socially, economically and geographically polarized metropolis.

As a confluence of events last week demonstrates, life in the in-between city is not easy.

Take Jane and Finch, a typical neighbourhood of the in-between city. First we had the ongoing wrangling between the provincial government and Mayor David Miller over the future of Transit City. The last Liberal budget deferred $4 billion in funding for light rail lines on Sheppard, Finch and Eglinton, as well as the Scarborough rapid transit route. For Jane-Finch residents, the Finch West LRT promised to better integrate the neighbourhood into Toronto’s urban fabric, cutting down frustratingly long commute times, providing better access to the social, economic and cultural resources of the rest of the city, and ending years of institutionalized exclusion caused by inadequate public transit.

Residents of the in-between city have the furthest distances to travel for employment but suffer the poorest access to TTC subway lines. According to the U of T’s Three Cities study, only 16 of the TTC’s 68 stations are within or near the city’s poor neighbourhoods.

Next we saw the Toronto District School Board unveil money-saving plans to close one of Jane-Finch’s public schools. While the board sees this action as rationalizing the use of its resources, Jane-Finch residents see it as an attack on their already precarious social infrastructure. They said as much in a meeting at Brookview Middle School with more than 250 parents packing the gymnasium to register their opposition to the TDSB’s plans.

With much of the city’s social and community services located below the Bloor/Danforth line, in-between neighbourhoods such as Jane-Finch have been underserviced for years, especially given the community’s pressing needs. For residents, school closures do little to address the deficit of educational resources, child care, parks and recreation, and health services that detrimentally impact the neighbourhood’s population.

If school closures and transit cuts weren’t enough, we had the latest Toronto Police Services raid targeting street gangs operating in the city’s northwest. As many of the neighbourhood’s youth and community leaders have repeatedly argued, such raids effectively prune the branches of violence, while leaving the social and economic root intact. New recruits take the place of incarcerated members as gangs quickly reorganize to protect their turf in a drug economy fuelled by demand that is largely external to impoverished neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch.

The week also saw the tragic death of well-known neighbourhood teenager Junior Alexander Manon near York University. According to initial news reports, Manon and an acquaintance were pulled over by police on Steeles Ave. Manon fled on foot and the officers gave chase. Police claim that the teen then collapsed. Manon was pronounced dead at York-Finch Hospital.

After viewing Manon’s body at the morgue, his family’s lawyer Selwyn Peters spoke with the press. As the Star reported, Peters said: “There was blood all over. He had a neck brace on. His eyes were black and blue. The issue of a heart attack is a fiction. It seems he died from physical force. He was a healthy young person.” Witnesses claim Manon was beaten by the police.

While we mourn the loss of this well-liked teen, Manon’s death has serious ramifications for police-community relations. The incident only adds to the tension and mutual suspicion that has existed for years between police and Jane-Finch residents.

Accusations of police brutality threaten any bonds of trust police may have built with residents in past years. Furthermore, the use of force undermines the city’s “soft” approach to youth violence, which focuses on education, intervention and diversion. Youth will not engage a police force that subjects them to routine intimidation and harassment.

But all is not despair: the in-between city is a city of activists, concerned parents, urban entrepreneurs and young leaders. Independent media outlets like Jane-Finch.com cover community issues and give young people a voice that they don’t have in the mainstream media.

Groups such as the Black Action Defence Committee are engaged in gang exit, youth employment and leadership development programs. Jane-Finch Action Against Poverty, the St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club, and youth drop-in The SPOT are all working around issues of social justice, effectively mitigating the marginalization experienced by their community.

Across Toronto, in neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch, hundreds of community organizations work tirelessly on issues of transit justice, tenant rights and food security, sometimes with the help of the city through initiatives like the Neighbourhood Action Plan and Youth Challenge Fund, and often on shoestring budgets.

Such efforts give residents of the in-between city hope. Hope that one day their lives will not include the drama of police raids, struggling schools, low wages and long commutes. Hope that governments at all levels will recognize the need for a comprehensive urban agenda that combats social exclusion and addresses the needs of the in-between city.

And when you’ve lived through a week like the one just passed, hope may well be the one thing needed most.

Published in The Toronto Star, May 14 2010

Welfare isn’t broken, so it won’t be fixed

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

On Thursday, provincial Finance Minister Dwight Duncan will deliver the government of Ontario’s budget for 2010. As reported in last Wednesday’s Star, Duncan is set to announce investments in post-secondary education as part of the province’s Open Ontario plan and has pledged not to embark on a reckless deficit reduction program that would threaten jobs, services, and Ontario’s economic recovery.

It is also widely expected Duncan will announce action on the province’s social assistance programs, Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). And while anti-poverty advocates have long demanded major improvements to these programs, they shouldn’t hold their breath.

In pre-budget consultations, as they do year after year, advocates for the poor – and often the poor themselves – have claimed that Ontario’s welfare system is broken and needs to be fixed. And in many ways, they are right. With welfare rates at inadequately low levels, each month thousands of poor Ontarians must choose between paying the rent and feeding the kids. They turn to food banks to supplement their monthly cheques. They forego the everyday essentials many of us take for granted – things such as basic toiletries, haircuts and some of the creature comforts that make our stressful lives a little more bearable. Ontario’s poor endure the daily grind of poverty and they do so, remarkably, with their sanity and dignity intact. Given this context, fixing welfare means raising the rates and ensuring poor Ontarians maintain a decent standard of living.

That welfare is broken is not just the cry of anti-poverty advocates and “radical” activists; groups like the multi-sector Toronto City Summit Alliance and economists such as the TD Bank’s Don Drummond have called for a much needed modernization of the province’s income security policies. It is this widespread recognition that something must be done about poverty in Ontario, and the social policies which are meant to address it, that led the McGuinty government to adopt Breaking the Cycle, the province’s poverty reduction strategy which aims to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent over five years.

So why is the government unlikely to overhaul social assistance any time soon, if ever, despite its apparent commitment to an anti-poverty agenda? Sure, minor adjustments may well be made: for instance, currently an able-bodied unemployed person who has exhausted their employment insurance benefits must be destitute (i.e. with little savings) before becoming eligible for social assistance. Calls to exempt the first $5,000 of a welfare applicant’s savings, as they do in Alberta, may be heeded by the McGuinty Liberals. But despite these potential changes, welfare on the whole will not be fixed, chiefly because from the perspective of government and the business community, welfare is not broken.

To understand why is to understand the function of welfare. Poor relief, as welfare was once commonly called, was never designed to be a benevolent handout to the poor. From its roots in England’s Poor Laws through to the punitive social assistance reforms of the mid-1990s, welfare policy has operated on the principle of “less eligibility.” The historic 1834 report on Britain’s Poor Laws, issued at the behest of King William IV, stated: “The first and most essential of all conditions, a principle which we find universally admitted, even by those whose practice is at variance with it, is, that his (the relief recipient’s) situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible (i.e., desirable) as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class.” Over 150 years later, the logic remains: The recipient of social assistance should never be better off than the lowest paid wage worker in the labour market. This is exactly what Mike Harris had in mind when his government introduced workfare and cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent, and why the McGuinty government has done so little to reverse these changes.

Since the early 1990s, the Ontario labour market has been characterized by the growth and persistence of low-wage, insecure jobs or “precarious employment.” One in six workers in the province is making a poverty wage. Whether employed part-time in the fast-food industry or working security through a temp agency, the growing ranks of the working poor live in a world of labour market insecurity. Many workers cycle between low-wage employment and periods on social assistance, as they often don’t have the required hours to qualify for employment insurance. These workers are disproportionately racialized minorities, women, youth and recent immigrants. Business needs these workers to maintain the low-wage-big profits model of the “Wal-Mart economy” and governments across the country are in no mood to provide decent jobs through an expansion of public sector employment or reverse the deregulation of labour markets they’ve so vigorously pursued.

With these shifting trends in employment, welfare functions to ensure a cheap and flexible workforce to populate the lower reaches of the province’s labour market. To paraphrase University of British Columbia professor Jamie Peck, welfare today is not about creating jobs for people who don’t have them but about creating workers for jobs nobody wants.

Miserly benefit levels, restrictive eligibility criteria and the ritualized stigmatization of those who navigate the administrative maze of welfare, are all in keeping with the government’s desire to ensure a job at any wage, under any conditions, remains preferable to the receipt of social assistance. The province’s tooth-and-nail fight to keep social assistance recipients from having greater access to the special diet program (which they may do away with altogether) is only the latest manifestation of maintaining the principle of less eligibility.

So while anti-poverty advocates are right to claim that welfare is broken, in the eyes of the province and the business community, welfare is working just fine.

 

Published in The Toronto Star, March 24th 2010