Jan 26 2015


Municipal finance and governance is a topic that doesn’t get much attention. But interest perks when the Mississauga mayor makes a stunning admission about cancelling a planned LRT if the province doesn’t pay the full cost. Or when the Toronto mayor presents a budget that is all about “caring investments” while proposing to maintain property tax below the rate of inflation.

Both instances are snapshots of the fiscal health and governance challenges facing Canada’s large cities and city-regions and how they affect our day-to-day living. Despite growing in importance as economic engines of the country, these municipalities have a constant struggle on hand stretching budgets to meet growing demands.

It was this conundrum that led to the setting up of the Institute on Municipal Finance & Governance (IMFG). “Very few people had a grasp on managing finances, even within city governments,” says Alan Broadbent, chairman of the institute, as it gets set to mark its 10th anniversary this year. “The idea was to lay down the architecture of municipal finance, highlight how it is different and educate more and more people about its uniqueness.”

Along with Enid Slack, Alan launched IMFG in 2004 at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. And he points out that even after a decade the institute finds itself in a rarefied field. He recalls Enid declaring herself to be one of the top five experts in the area of municipal finance and then quickly admit that there are only five of them in the entire world!

Attempt to broaden the conversation

“Apart from filling the knowledge gap by providing solid research and analysis to inform policy, we want to broaden the conversation on issues that are important to cities and encourage graduate students to take up the work by giving out two scholarships each year,” says Alan.

In its full length IMFG Papers on Municipal Finance and Governance and shorter Perspectives and Forum reports, the institute addresses topics that include expenditure and revenue trends in cities, the fiscal health of cities, financial transparency and accountability, municipal borrowing and infrastructure financing, affordable housing, and transit finance.

One of IMFG’s recent papers on Toronto’s fiscal health even explains how the Toronto mayor could increase investments without raising taxes. The paper points out that user charges and fees have been an important and growing source of Toronto’s revenues. It calculated that an average household paid nearly $400 more in charges and fees in 2012 compared to what they paid in 2000 for the same services.

Creating a knowledge hub

Alan says the enormous costs that city services entail cannot be funded by the limited revenue tools that Canadian municipalities currently have at their disposal. Larger cities like Mississauga and Toronto are forced to go to the provincial and federal governments for help and in the process deal with uncertainties posed by wild card politics.

While cities would benefit if they had more leeway to manage their finances, that responsibility comes with certain political risks, says Alan. Many city leaders are not courageous enough to face the certain heat if they raise taxes and are happy to let the other levels of government take steps to raise revenue and then pass it on to them. “I guess only mayors like Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi might be prepared to take unpopular steps and face the consequences.”

Acknowledging that different cities have different needs, Alan says IMFG’s mandate is to focus on tailor-made solutions based on research and continuous learning from across the world. To achieve this IMFG holds several events each year which bring together academia and participants from the public, private, and non-profit sectors. It also hosts visiting scholars to understand how urban finance and governance issues are addressed in other countries.

“The goal is to iron out inefficiencies and ensure everybody can take part in the good life cities offer without being squeezed out. In other words, to make cities just and equitable places through evidence-based planning,” says Alan on what IMFG would be doing in its coming decade.

Jan 26 2015

The idea of unconditional cash transfer from government to individuals or families has been receiving renewed attention of late.

The concept, usually referred to as Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) or basic income, has waxed and waned in Canadian and global policy circles for decades. Support for the scheme has always been across the ideological spectrum.

It originated in the 1940s as a feature called negative income tax, where people earning above a certain amount would pay taxes while those below would receive a supplement from the government. American supply-side economist Milton Friedman backed it in the 1960s, and soon public figures of all hues were attracted to it.

While conservative politicians were attracted to the concept as a way of simplifying the social welfare and tax systems in one fell swoop, leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. saw it as the solution to poverty.

While the U.S. government sporadically field tested the concept in the early 1970s, its longest run was in a small Canadian prairie town. The almost forgotten experiment in Manitoba called “Mincome” – a neologism of “minimum income” – ran between 1974 and 1979. For various reasons Mincome ended with no final report or analysis of data from the small town of Dauphin, the saturation site where everyone was entitled to participate. The little analysis that was done showed a reduction in health care costs and higher school graduation rates.

‘Present system entangles people in poverty’

Retired Conservative Senator Hugh Segal has been advocating for GAI for years. In a recent interview Segal says that a guaranteed income is the most effective way to alleviate poverty.

“[GAI is] a much more efficient way of dealing with the issues of poverty than what we are now doing,” says Segal, who is now Master of Massey College. “The present system is not sufficiently strong to support people. But like a spider’s web, it is sufficiently strong to entangle people and it works against people getting into the workplace.”

In a Toronto Star op-ed Senator Art Eggleton also cites guaranteed income as one of three ways to end poverty in Canada. “It wouldn’t provide for the ‘good life’ but it would ensure that no one in this country goes without the basic needs of nourishing food, warm clothing and decent shelter.”

Roderick Benns, the publisher of Leaders and Legacies, in an opinion piece, says the movement to create a basic income guarantee as Canada’s next key social program has been gaining steam. “In some ways, it’s incredibly simple. No man or woman in Canada would ever fall below a $20,000 annual income threshold.”

Queen’s University’s The Journal also makes a case for basic income. A column points out that our current welfare system not only fails to eradicate poverty, it effectively reproduces it. “Instead of addressing poverty head-on, we spend billions on programs to address substance abuse, family violence, housing and everything in between. If poverty was a wound, Canada is the idiot doctor who’s done everything except stop the bleeding.”

Projecting guaranteed basic income as the very simple solution to eradicating poverty in Canada, the column in The Journal suggests only those below the poverty line should get money from the government to lift them above a certain threshold instead of every Canadian receiving a state income. “In addition to tackling poverty directly, a federal basic income is both cheaper and allows billions of provincial tax dollars spent on social programs to be redirected to education, healthcare and infrastructure.”

Multi-faceted approach needed

Advocates say GAI would replace and improve on the current provincial welfare approach which often claws back payments if recipients find even part-time employment. The idea was also investigated in a 2012 Tyee online series on anti-poverty reforms.

Amid the renewed enthusiasm, the Fraser Institute tries to put a damper. In a report titled The Practical Challenges of Creating a Guaranteed Annual Income in Canada (PDF) released on January 6, 2015, the Institute examines the concept in detail. While conceding that the idea has conceptual appeal, “particularly the potential for greater efficiency and administrative savings in the delivery of income support programs,” it casts doubts on the plausibility of GAI implementation for Canada.

The Fraser report argues there are practical design challenges stemming from a lack of clarity and agreement on even the basic features of the idea. It says the biggest challenge is for all three levels of government to agree on reforms to existing income support systems and make way for a single GAI that delivers on the promise of simplicity and cost savings.

Taking issue with the Fraser report, Kaylie Tiessen, economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Ontario, questions its starting assumption that a basic income program would serve to eliminate all other existing programs. That would be a folly as a basic income program would have different objectives, says Tiessen.

For instance, she points to a new OECD research that suggests boosting incomes for the bottom 40 per cent of the income spectrum through cash transfers and increased access to public services are essential to create greater equality of opportunities in the long run.

Tiessen says the Fraser Institute’s approach on the issue outlines what’s wrong with the discussion: treating the idea of a basic income program as a cash grab by the desperate. “That depiction is the opposite of how basic income proponents talk about the idea. They talk about it as bringing dignity, a sense of belonging and empowerment into a social safety system that otherwise stigmatizes and disempowers people as well as limits their options in life.”

In other words, rather than being a lazy idea that doles out money, GAI comes from a line of thinking that sees it as a way out of the poverty trap that many think our current welfare system leads people into.

Jan 13 2015


By Michael Jones and Daphne Mainprize, Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement

Too often the places we create are placeless because they don’t include our stories
- Michael Jones

Every community and organization needs its own mythic story. The myth serves as a gateway into our deep life together. Leaders in turn shape the culture of a place through the circulation of these stories that convey their core values. Our places, in turn, become the public stage where the wisdom of these stories may be lived out.

Most places have personal and community stories that express these values. What they don’t have, however, is the larger meta-narrative – a mythic larger-than-life story – that can inspire and contextualize the future they want to create for themselves. These larger “founding” narratives are the lifeblood of any community and often serve as the most powerful building block for creating a regenerative culture for the future.

Seeing the source of our myth begins by paying attention to the extraordinary in the ordinary. We need to lift up into the imagination the mundane activities of everyday life and see within them the small miracles, the invisible vein of gold in the life of any organization or community.

For the past year we have been co-chairs of the Mariposa Roundtable “mapping” the richness of our heritage by exploring the communities’ storied connection to the mythical town of Mariposa as detailed by the much loved Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock. As the community of Orillia embarks on an ambitious downtown revitalization and waterfront development plan – and struggles to reinvent itself and its identity following the decline of its once thriving industrial based economy – community leaders are asking: What is the story we want to tell? That is, what is the story that speaks to our unique identity, and how can this story help us learn from our past to create a positive, creative and sustainable future?

In mapping the mythic story, we take up the call to be anthropologists uncovering other untold stories, forgotten artifacts, mysterious images and hidden meanings. We polish and burnish them so they may shine again and serve as the foundation of something we may become immersed in and from which everyone can learn.

In viewing Mariposa as a mythic fable holding within it many elements of a wisdom story, we may ask ourselves:

  • What does Mariposa mean to us now? What does it look like and how does it feel?
  • What can we learn when we think about the mythic story of Mariposa that we cannot learn anywhere else? What are the key images and themes of Mariposa, and what can we learn from them?
  • How do we turn these images and themes into a storyline that will capture the imagination of visitors – or travellers and pilgrims – from around the world?
  • What are the key locations – culture, industries, neighbourhoods, networks, infrastructure, sacred sites – that interconnect in the telling of the Mariposa story?
  • If we were to imagine Orillia in twenty, fifty, or one hundred years, what will have changed and what will have stayed the same?
  • What would the storybook of the community look like? How would our built environment, streetscapes, parks, neighbourhoods, public places and place names be different from today?

We live in a world that is increasingly interconnected and interdependent. At the same time, it is more fragmented and polarized than ever before. In this turbulence it may be our mythic stories of place that serve as the bridge from our past to our future. We may not be able to retrieve our past, but we may still be able to learn from it. And this learning may lead to a vision of a future to which we can bring our gifts and unique talents to create a place in which everyone can grow and thrive.

If you are interested in discovering the roots of your own story of place – “Your Mariposa” – we would look forward to offering the Mariposa Experience in your community. As a festival, a teaching, a conversation, as an art form – “Experiencing Mariposa” is an opportunity to discover your story of and for our time and for the future. Through the power of our stories we can bring the gift of place, community and belonging home again.

Learn more: 

Originally published in Engage!, Tamarack’s free monthly e-magazine.

Dec 12 2014

Canada with multicultural faces

  • When you look at the current situation in Canada, what catches your attention?
  • What keeps you up at night? What energises you?
  • What important upcoming decisions will Canada have to make? What are the upcoming forks in the road?

These are some of the questions the Possible Canadas project is asking for an insight into the country’s future as we approach the 150th anniversary of its founding.

Created by Reos Partners for The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a coalition of philanthropic and community organizations including Maytree, the idea is to seed a national dialogue.

In a series of interviews, insightful Canadians from across civil society, business, and government discuss the major challenges facing the country and how best to address them.

The issues range from making pluralism work, renewing democratic institutions, taking our proper place in the world to using natural resources wisely.

On making pluralism work, Khalil Shariff, Chief Executive Officer of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, is curious to know how Canada and Canadian institutions will continue to adapt to an increasingly diversified population. “How will Canada manage its position as a demographic crossroads of the world? I have great optimism and confidence that Canada will manage this test, but we will have to be imaginative about how it will happen. Also, how will Canada employ its diverse population in reaching out to the entire planet? What kind of economic and cultural ties will we establish?”

Striking a similar note, Gabrielle Scrimshaw, Co-Founder of the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada, voices her concern at the lack of attention to relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people. “The aboriginal population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada… Three out of ten aboriginal people are under the age for fourteen. We have a tremendous opportunity to educate and equip these young people from a place that’s culturally centred. If we don’t talk about this opportunity now and work to get it right, we’ll be living with the consequences of our inactions for generations to come.”

‘Forever a work in progress’

Among others joining Shariff and Scrimshaw on making pluralism work is Jean Charest, former Premier of Quebec who focuses on tolerance and says Canada will forever be a work in progress. “The challenge for our leaders is to lead Canadians in appreciating what we have, acknowledging that nothing is forever, and accepting that we need to be more ambitious and challenge ourselves more.”

On renewing our democratic institutions, Armine Yalnizyan, Senior Economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, admits that the transforming views about immigration keeps her up at night. “An unsettling trend has emerged in Canada. Public policy now favours a rise in temporary foreign workers over permanent economic immigrants. When companies say they face a skills shortage, all too often the solution is bringing in a foreign worker temporarily for what is often not a temporary shortage.”

Yalnizyan says this is a recipe for growing friction between “us” and “them.” She goes on to say that this problem arises from a common view that low wages and low taxes are “good for business.” Middle-class jobs are being cut, replaced by more low-paid and some higher-paid work. “We pay tribute to a large and resilient middle class as the mark of a flourishing economy around the world, but our own middle class is being squeezed in every way, ironically in the name of economic growth.”

Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, is among those who weigh in on the democracy debate. She bemoans the lack of people’s participation in the running of the country. They have become passive consumers. “It’s very hard to wake people back up to the fact that they have power. Forty percent of Canadians don’t vote. In the by-election in Fort McMurray-Athabasca last June, only 15% voted!”

About taking our proper place in the world, we have a range of opinions from academics and business leaders. For instance, Janice Gross Stein, Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, warns against smugness. Stein says we know from good research that our big cities are not doing as well in opening doors to employment and advancement to immigrants as they were two decades ago. “Yet if we’re going to thrive, we have to attract even more immigrants than we have in the past. To many people around the world, we are the most attractive country to come to. We have to live up to that record.”

A sentiment echoed by Suzanne Fortier, Principal of McGill University when she says, “We’ve done a good job with the fundamental things that are important in society. Of course, we always have to think of how we can do better….” Turning our attention to creating a smart and caring nation, Fortier says one of the most important decisions Canada has to make is where it chooses to invest. “It’s not only investment of money; where we decide to invest our intelligence and time will also shape our country and our future.” She warns that if we are not careful, there will be more disparity and Canada will be a more divided, less tolerant, and less safe country.

On using natural resources, Tzeporah Berman, author and environmental activist, talks on the issue of resisting climate change. She worries that Canada is now doing less on climate change and has a weaker regulatory system to address environmental threats than any other industrialized country. Joining her in this section, among others, is Preston Manning, President of the Manning Centre for Democracy. Preston believes we can’t continue to engage in a polarized environment-versus-economy argument. “Nobody is out to destroy the environment or the economy—you need both—but a lot of people are willing to take one side or the other.”

You too can join the debate by reading, commenting on, and sharing these interviews on the Possible Canadas website. Media partner The Globe and Mail is also publishing selections in print and online.

Dec 10 2014

City Vote logo

By Desmond Cole, project coordinator, City Vote

The push for permanent resident voting in municipal elections is a very Canadian combination of local, national and international realities. It’s easy to focus on the bigger picture considerations such as citizenship applications or global migration patterns. Our understanding of voter eligibility is highly influenced by notions of national attachment. However, as we enter 2015 and the four-year terms of city councils across Ontario, we must continue to focus our vote reform efforts on our most local level of government.

Each new city council in each municipality represents a fresh opportunity to explore permanent resident voting. Supporters should study and replicate the processes that brought the issue before city councils in North Bay, Kitchener, Guelph, Halifax, and Saint John. Each effort began with conversations between local residents and their elected officials. Those conversations led to motions at local councils to study the impact of permanent resident voting. Councillors and mayors could then vote on the merits of the proposal for their respective jurisdictions.

Based on this model, cities in three Canadian provinces have now formally requested the right of permanent residents to vote in their local elections, and several others are poised to follow suit. Supporters can now draw on a host of consultations, media, and staff reports that have already been generated. City Vote, the campaign to connect and coordinate all of these efforts, established itself in 2014 and will continue to support local reform efforts.

City Vote now boasts a network of hundreds of supporters and advocates in at least 15 Canadian cities, including Ottawa, Hamilton, Windsor, Kingston, Edmonton, Vancouver, and several cities in the Greater Toronto Area. We’ve identified supportive city councillors, many of whom were re-elected last month and others who have gained office for the first time. We’re connected with community agencies who work with and for newcomers to Canada. These are the right ingredients for continued progress.

We’ve also made connections with jurisdictions outside Canada that practice non-citizen voting at the municipal level. During a trip to Chicago in September, we met with Local School Council authorities. LSC Director Willie Montes de Oca shared his city’s experience in engaging all parents and local stakeholders, regardless of citizenship status, in education planning, budgeting and accountability.

Our new website, cityvote.ca, is a hub for relevant media and updates from other cities. Soon, the site will include extensive research on non-citizen voting in nearly 30 international jurisdictions. Also, volunteers who wish to organize around specific local opportunities will host and update sub-pages within the site.

In recent months, the issue of permanent resident voting has earned news and opinion coverage in the Guelph Citizen, the Hamilton Spectator, CBC Nova Scotia, and the Toronto Observer, to name a few publications. And in a pre-election survey of local candidates in Waterloo region, over 95% of respondents endorsed the idea of permanent resident voting.

The post-election period is a renewed opportunity to advance our mission, city by city, council by council. If you have not already done so, now is the time to sign up for the City Vote campaign and get connected to ongoing efforts in your municipality. Every advancement in the municipal government process signals to provinces, who must ultimately decide on permanent resident voting, that local residents are ready for change.

City Vote’s progress in the last year would not have been possible without the ongoing support of Maytree and the dozens of volunteers who have assisted with the website, event planning, media and research. We thank you for your support, and look forward to continued success and partnership in 2015.


Dec 04 2014

By Sylvia Cheuy, Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement

Video by Drew Morey, Drew Morey Productions. Narrated by Bernadette Hardaker, LifeStories

Ten principles of a successful community builder

I live in a pretty special place. My husband and I were intentional about choosing the kind of community that we wanted to live in and raise our family. Today, more than a decade later, our kids regularly let us know that they can’t imagine living anywhere else, and truly, neither can we. Clearly we made a good choice.

What makes where we live great? Well, for one thing we have easy access to lots of green space and trails; a vibrant, walkable downtown with unique shops and restaurants; fantastic artisans, theatre, and music as well as great community spaces – that host farmers markets and festivals where neighbours meet up and visitors are welcomed.

But, more important than the physical assets, what makes where we live a great place are the people. Like most communities across Canada, ours is blessed with many dynamic people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work together to make good things happen.

Service clubs and dedicated volunteers regularly champion projects that are beyond the mandate of any one organization – mobilizing people and funds – to work together on projects that contribute to making our community a great place to live.  In my community, there is no greater community-builder than long-time Rotarian Doc Gillies. Like countless others throughout the region, I have been fortunate to work with, and be mentored by Doc. Recently a group of Doc’s friends commissioned this great video to share Doc’s wisdom, so those of you who haven’t had the good fortune to work along-side him first-hand can still benefit from the wisdom he generously shares by example.

Doc’s ten principles for being a successful community-builder are:

  1. Personal Credibility – Doc is active and well-known in the community. He volunteers his knowledge, skills and connections out of love for the community … not personal gain.
  2. Sense of Humour and Fun – Doc is easy-going and makes working together a lot of fun.
  3. Pick Winners - The projects that Doc contributes his leadership and energy to have strong community support that many would be willing to contribute to.
  4. Do Your Homework - Doc always comes to a project having done his homework. He has thought about what needs to happen, who needs to be involved and who will benefit – and can be engaged – in making the project a success.
  5. High Energy – Doc is enthusiastic and motivated about the projects that he champions. He is actively involved in them and inspires others with his enthusiasm.
  6. Persevere – Doc is well-known for his tenacity. If he sees a need in the community, he doesn’t rest until he moves it into action. When challenges arise, he is creative and ingenious about generating alternative solutions.
  7. Model Commitment – Doc is someone who leads by example. He is the first one to commit his time and his own financial resources to the projects that he is championing.
  8. Finish the Job – Doc finishes the projects that he starts and makes sure that they are finished well.
  9. Hand-Pick Key People – Doc is a community connector. He knows who he wants and needs involved in each project and he brings them on board to lead the project with him.
  10. Mentor the Next Generation – Doc is very deliberate about building a leadership team and mentors those he engages by working with them so that they learn how to get things done in the community.

Every town has people with the creativity, the energy, the commitment and the vision to make good things happen. “You need somebody that will bring people together, that people will rally around and say, “Come on, we can do this!” because otherwise we are in a world where less and less gets done.”

Who are the community-builders in your town? Maybe it’s you!

Learn more: 

Originally published in Engage!, Tamarack’s free monthly e-magazine.

Nov 26 2014


Coming after a string of leading indices ranking Toronto high as a world-class city, a new report released on November 14 takes some shine away from its laurels. Quoting latest Statistics Canada data, The Hidden Epidemic: A Report on Child and Family Poverty in Toronto (PDF) said the city, along with Saint John, New Brunswick, leads 13 major Canadian cities in child poverty. Equally troubling is the fact that at 29% it is on the rise again after gradually decreasing to 27% in 2010 from a high of 32% in 2004.

Providing all children equal opportunity to thrive and succeed – regardless of income, race, gender or disability – is a deep-rooted Canadian value. Yet this latest report shows that not all children in Toronto start life on an equal footing:

  • The number of low-income children increased by over 10,000 between 2010 and 2012, to 145,890.
  • There is stark inequality in children’s lives across its neighbourhoods. Low-income rates ranged from 5% to over 50%, reflecting the massive and growing polarization of income.
  • Poverty has colour as it varies significantly by race and ethnicity. Data from different sources show people of African and Middle Eastern backgrounds are about three times more likely to be living on low incomes than are those of European backgrounds.
  • Children of indigenous heritage and from recent immigrant families, children with disabilities and those with parents who are disabled, and children living in female-led lone-parent families are also more likely to live in poverty.

‘Double whammy’ for children living in poverty

The writers of the report recognize that child poverty is not separate from family poverty. It persists because family income from employment, social assistance and other income transfers is too low, and because access to services and programs is unaffordable. However, they choose to shine the light on children because poverty delivers them a double whammy. While affecting their present, it affects their future as well.

The report lists four “opportunity gaps” that impact children living in poverty:

  • Access to nutrition: Inadequate nutrition can have devastating and enduring impacts on behavioural and cognitive development, capacity to learn and reproductive health.
  • Access to housing: Quality housing is a critical determinant of child and youth health and has been shown to impact immediate and long-term physical, mental and social health.
  • Access to education: “Readiness to learn” is a proxy for optimal children’s developmental health at school entry and is assessed by the Early Development Instrument (EDI). It is a critical marker for future academic success. Students who are vulnerable on any one of the EDI scales are more likely to perform below expectations in later school years.
  • Access to Recreation: Recreation serves multiple purposes in healthy child development. Children from lowest-income families are about half as likely to participate in extracurricular activities compared to those from highest-income families.

Report is a ‘wakeup call’ for Toronto

The reaction to the report has been overwhelming in the media (see links below).

Mayor-elect John Tory was quick to promise to lead the fight against poverty. “If ever there was a wakeup call, this would be it,” Tory said in an interview in advance of the report’s release. He added it would take the work of citizens, unions, churches, politicians and other organizations to make a dent in these latest figures. “We cannot and we will not be able to solve this problem solely on the basis of resources coming from municipal taxpayers.”

The report also comes at an opportune time for City Hall. In April 2014, Toronto City Council directed City staff to partner with communities to develop a Poverty Reduction Strategy for release in late 2015. They can be guided by the following suggestions offered by the report:

  • The strategy should be driven by broad-based resident engagement, and should address the root causes of poverty, including inadequate access to market incomes, income support programs, and community services and supports.
  • The strategy should have specific timelines and targets for reducing poverty, regular public reporting on progress, and adequate funding and staffing to ensure effective coordination.
  • The strategy should be informed by solid, publicly available research on the geographic and demographic distribution of poverty in Toronto, and effective interventions to reduce poverty and its inequitable distribution.
  • Finally, since the City cannot reduce poverty on its own, the strategy needs to build a strong partnership with leaders of all sectors of society, including business, labour and community. It needs to advocate strongly for provincial and federal policies and programs to reduce poverty.


Links to reports

Links to opinions and media articles

Nov 19 2014


Fresh from passing the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, 2014, the Ontario government is open to considering new measures to ensure fairness for vulnerable workers.

“Bill 18 [the act’s short name] lays a good foundation for further labour reform, and we will continue to work with organizations like the Workers’ Action Centre. It is not an end to conversation on issues,” said Labour Minister Kevin Flynn. He was speaking at a forum for temporary workers organized by Scarborough-Agincourt MPP Soo Wong just days after the bill passed its third reading with all party support in the Ontario legislature on November 6.

MPP Wong said Bill 18 is a “springboard to other opportunities” and was built on work such as the United Way/McMaster University “It’s More than Poverty” report and the “Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Work” report by the Law Commission of Ontario.

The bill’s passing comes at a time when almost half of all jobs in Ontario are precarious: part time, temporary, or contract work. It was first introduced in 2013 as Bill 146 but when the minority Liberal government fell it “died on the order paper.”

On re-election with a majority, the Liberals quickly resurrected the bill with some changes suggested by workers’ advocacy groups. The new act supports Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy and builds on the 2014 increase to minimum wage from $10.25 to $11 per hour.

Among other things, the act:

  • Sets longer time limits and removes caps for the recovery of wages rightfully owed to workers
  • Ensures unpaid co-op students and other unpaid learners get protection under the Occupational Health and Safety Act
  • Pegs the minimum wage to annual increases in cost of living

The act is the first such legislation in Canada that holds both temp agencies and their client companies accountable for workplace injuries, overtime and public holiday pay, and unpaid wages. The new rules make it easier for workers to seek redress when they are short-changed on their wages.

While some labour activists may not see the new act as going far enough, most welcomed Ontario’s Bill 18. Activists will expect the government to maintain the current momentum and add further measures to safeguard workers in precarious jobs. In the meantime, we can see the act as an important milestone in protecting workers as it lays the foundation for more change.

Nov 07 2014

Signpost: Make Change Happen

By Enrique Robert, Executive Director, Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Centre

In the second week of October this year, thanks to Maytree, I had the opportunity to attend the Collective Impact Summit hosted by the Tamarack Institute. The five-day conference was intense and overwhelming and yet I would not want anything less from it.

I have been struggling with what to say about a conference that had every minute filled up with learning and teaching activities. It’s difficult to choose one category over another when everything related to the events – even the most innocuous of conversations – was a source of learning. One such encounter was on an elevator with a delegation from Kanehsatàke in Quebec. I felt an incredible affinity with them as we shared our experiences, they as First Nations in Canada, and me as an immigrant.

Thus if everything was a learning experience with exciting interactions, why am I having difficulties sharing my experience? Perhaps because the intensity of the event didn’t take away the familiar trend I felt from the first keynote speaker to the most humble side conversation. After few weeks meditating and reading the presentations online, I decided to share the impression the conference gave me.

To do that I need to tell you a little story first.

From the early nineties to the first few years of the 21st century (sounds great when I say it like that), I have worked as a support and community development housing worker with the homeless and hardest to house in south east downtown Toronto. My initial work was with the Rupert Hotel Coalition as a support worker and ten years later as the last Executive Director of the Open Door Centre and Room Registry. The experience was interesting to say the least.

It was at the time when the conversation on how to revitalize Regent Park was beginning. Shelters were becoming permanent solutions for many as not-for-profit housing was not being built. It was a time of severe cuts to social services and the devolution of services from the federal government down to the province and from the province to the city. Social service agencies and service providers were struggling to meet the needs of the poorest of the poor. Within that context I had access to a partnership initiative by a group of service providers and policy makers including St. Michael Hospital and the Public Health Department addressing the needs of south east Toronto.

The ‘odd’ coalition

The initiative was called the South East Toronto Project (SETo) and came into being in 1989. In the words of Lorraine Purdon, Founding Director, “from the beginning it [SETo] took the form of a ‘high level focus group,’ in which leaders among major service providing agencies jointly advocate for improved services, find ways of better coordinating services, and develop projects to address key areas of need.

“This work is taking place in an area of Toronto that has very high and complex service needs. The area covered by SETo has a high ethnic diversity, a large immigrant population, high rates of mortality and high school drop-outs, and the second lowest-income postal code in Canada. SETo strongly believes that it is important to bring together people who know issues and barriers with people who can help to implement desired change.”

This “odd” coalition, and I’ll explain the term “odd” in a moment, was addressing homelessness in an integrated manner having not just the traditional voices but also having the most “important” voices at the table. Professional voices always have had a seat at the proverbial table. The concept of “important” in this case were the homeless people themselves. Executive directors of not-for-profits agencies and senior vice presidents of hospitals sat as equals among equals with community development workers and service recipients addressing issues concerning service providers finding common ground to address poverty, harm reduction, determinants of health, food, etc. to make services accessible to the most vulnerable.

That is what I called an “odd” coalition: the humbleness of the experts and the bravery of the service recipients addressing needs beneficial to the community as a whole, those who were homeless and those who were not.

Perhaps the most iconic of these small successes occurred when St. Michael’s Hospital hired a former homeless person to greet, in the emergency department, homeless patients and provide some sort of interpretation, breaching the gap between the mutual distrust of those hospital staff that see homeless as nuisance and the patients whose experience with institutions have been bad.

Equity at the table

However, what in my opinion was important about the initiative was not the commitment to the work or even the partnership. We all have seen initiatives and good intentions to address systemic problems. What was, at least for me, innovative was the format of the work, the structure of the partnership, the commitment to equality and equity in the input and participation and the “how” that was outlined in a paper called the “Alignment Model.”

The model intended to have at the table all the people SETo would impact. Decisions were arrived as a collective. All the voices that should be heard were heard. All opinions were considered because they mattered as decisions were made through consensus. The Alignment Model was the vehicle to implement what at that moment was an innovative way to deliver services.

The Alignment Model is not a new term, nor is Community Development or Collective Impact for that matter. What the conference or summit did for me was to legitimize and justify what has been, at least for me, a new concept that I have not seen reproduced since. It also gave me a way to express something I had struggled to explain to others: Equity among the voices at the table.

At the conference I asked the same question again and again at my learning table: how is “Collective Impact” able to balance the power differentials among unequal partnerships? Why would a funder align itself with a small service provider? Or why would an expert pay attention to a non-expert? The answer for some was simple: That is what Collective Impact is about! Yet I felt such a standard answer was too simple.

Personal commitment

To implement a concept that simple implies a complex set of rules to facilitate the results. The answer was so obvious and simple that I couldn’t see it. Then came the “aha” moment. It requires a personal investment not by the institutions or the agencies but from the people. Collective Impact is a people commitment not corporate or institutional but personal: one must buy in.

I realized that for the SETo partners the answer had been the “Alignment Model.” Exploring a service approach and personal experience, I realized my personal answer was: Community Development. My understanding of Community Development is in its more pure meaning: Community as synonymous of building strong civil societies and development as synonymous with growing and building equity. Or using another name: Collective Impact.

That is how the magic happened for me at the summit. There were almost daily or even hourly “aha” moments like when Brenda Zimmerman explained that Collective Impact “is not throwing a rock which is predictable but throwing a bird which flies away” or “it’s not a program, it’s not a service, it’s a community engagement.” Perhaps the best quote that I heard at the summit was “Time is too short and things are too bad for pessimism” (Dee Hock.)

The greatest learning of the summit for me was hope for the future, that individual conscience must be part of the decision-making process. One cannot and should not rely on cold, impersonal institutional guidelines but on individual commitment to a better future.

One thing becomes very clear and rewarding for me: the magic happens with Community Engagement as it becomes alive whether it’s called the Alignment Model, or Community Development, or Community Impact.

The great learning is what all of us have known since the beginning of time: success comes from the individual, and the personal commitment to change.

Thank you Margaret Mead for reminding us this:“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Nov 04 2014


This year the lines have become longer again – nearly a million Canadians visit food banks each month. In March 2014, 841,191 people used the service, a 1% increase compared to the same period in 2013 that saw a drop of 4.5% from the previous year.

Canada continues to wrestle with the dismaying fact that 170,000 more people each month are seeking assistance compared to when the economic downturn started in 2008 – a 25% increase. Given that March is an average month for food bank use, it is estimated that 1.8 million people will depend on them for food this year.

This and other troubling trends that contribute to the increase in food insecurity are some of the highlights of the HungerCount 2014 study released on November 4. The numbers would have been higher if access to food banks in the Maritimes had not been restricted due to severe storms and consequent power outages and transportation difficulties in late March this year, the study says.

“The job market is very tough right now,” said Katharine Schmidt, Executive Director of Food Banks Canada, which coordinated the annual study involving more than 4,000 food programs. “The unfortunate combination of low-paying jobs, inadequate supports for the unemployed, and a lack of training opportunities for Canadians is keeping food bank use near record levels.”

Figures from the study show that the changes in food bank use have closely followed the national unemployment rate. As people find work, they are less likely to access food banks. At the same time, 12% of those helped by food banks are working, and an additional 5% are receiving Employment Insurance – showing that a job does not always lead one away from the food bank.

The study found that each month 90,000 Canadians are forced to ask for help from a food bank for the first time. Four in ten of those relying on this assistance are children. The number of single adults helped by food banks each month has doubled since 2001 – from 80,000 to 158,000.

“It has been six years since the recession sent food bank use soaring,” said Schmidt. “It is time to stop waiting for things to improve – it is time to start acting to make real investments in policies that will reduce the need for food banks.”

The study proposes key policy recommendations to reduce the number of people who need help from food banks. These include investing in affordable housing, providing more effective supports to low-income families with children, and helping Canadians get the skills they need for the well-paying jobs of today.


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