May 24 2016

map of Canada made of housing - iStockphoto

In April 2016, I participated in the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA) Conference where I connected with a variety of stakeholders on the issue of affordable housing. The conference included insights from journalists, all three orders of government and housing advocates from communities across Canada. It offered a space for policy discussions, networking opportunities, and a chance to explore best practices from different parts of Canada – and beyond.

Here are some of my takeaways; many of which are key issues that are currently top-of-mind to housing advocates.

National Housing Strategy met with hope and skepticism

During the panel “A Post-Budget Analysis – Applying Federal Policy Change to the Municipal Housing Agenda,” Pamela Hine from the Yukon Housing Corporation moderated a discussion with Jeff Morrison, executive director of CHRA, and Carole Saab, Senior Director, Policy and Government Relations, Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), about how to best leverage the “down payments” promised in the federal budget.

The panel left the audience both hopeful and skeptical. Hopeful that this was the beginning of a long-term relationship with the federal government, yet wary that this government would have the resolve to fund housing into the next decade as needed.

This led to a question about the promise of a National Housing Strategy. One audience member pointed out that if we want to own the strategy we have to ensure opportunities for all voices to be heard.

The good news is that many municipalities have already developed strategies with broad consultation. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to keep a firm grip so that the strategy remains in the hands of community stakeholders.

The right to housing

A panel of activists and thinkers from across Canada (BC, NWT, ON, and QC) wrestled with the idea of “What Does the Right to Housing Look Like in Canada?” Panelists shared a variety of perspectives: urban, rural, and northern as well as a First Nations’ point of view. They were in agreement that we do not currently have the right to housing in Canada. But because Canada is a signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, they also agreed that the country needs to think of housing as a right.

If Canada had an articulated and enforceable legal right to housing for everyone, as has been introduced in other jurisdictions such as Scotland, it would be easier to work on and implement promising housing strategies. Housing First, for example, moves people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing, subsequently providing them with necessary supports. Yet as promising a solution as Housing First is, this approach is not the same as the right to housing. In fact, to be successful, it relies on the enforceability of the right.

The discussion concluded with a delegate from the Aboriginal Housing Management Association commenting that with the federal government’s nation-to-nation focus, First Nations groups might have the best opportunity to lay the groundwork to achieve the right to housing as a policy.

Urban renewal: examples from Paris

Generally all major urban centres have seen double digit increases in prices of housing and appreciation of property, as this article in MoneySense shows. At the conference we heard that without policy and resources that address urban change, people will be dislocated, leaving families living far from work, school and healthy food.

It was fascinating to hear that Paris has recently decided to increase the amount of social housing to 30 percent as a way of mitigating gentrification in the downtown core. As well, the Paris Transportation Workers Union developed housing in a variety of neighbourhoods so that workers could live near their work. In Toronto this would mean a TTC employee who works in Scarborough living in Scarborough instead of Etobicoke.

The Paris experience also builds on the idea of aligning goals and activities such as creating access to social housing, reducing of greenhouse gasses by lower travel times and distances and leveraging asset development based on pooling of resources.

Showcasing good housing practices in Montreal

A definite highlight of the conference was the mobile tours which introduced delegates to different Montreal neighbourhoods.

The first tour, Strategies for Inclusion of Affordable Housing in New Residential Developments, showcased a range of social housing, co-ops, and mixed development below market rate condominiums with social housing units on a 1:3 ratio. For me, the most impressive aspect was the investment in housing at the Rosemont metro station with below market rate condos, social housing and an amazing co-op with geothermal heat, solar dryers, and AutoShare cars, all within 100 metres of the metro station and a brand new library across the courtyard.

The second mobile tour, The End of Shelters – A New Vision of Emergency Services and Access to Permanent Housing, started at the Brewery mission. We were introduced to the process that men and women go through as they access shelter, move to transitional housing and then get a unit relatively quickly, depending on the issues they have.

We also visited two organizations in Point Saint Charles. The first was Ril Point Saint Charles, a non-profit working to improve housing for the residents in the area. We then visited Batir Son Quartier, a collaborative non-profit that has developed 10,000 units of housing, much of it cooperatives, while focusing on its mission to serve grassroots organizations with strong memberships. I loved this organization; it was focused, humble and knew who it was serving – the residents of Point Saint Charles.

Overall the congress was one of the better conferences on housing – perhaps because we seem to have a government that is acknowledging its responsibility for investing in a housing future. Similarly, the representation of delegates from across the country and especially the number of First Nations providers was encouraging.

My hope is that many of the connections that were formed will lead toward:

  1. establishing a platform that stakes claim for the upcoming consultations on a National Housing Strategy; and
  2. developing a codified right to housing which could potentially enshrine a national housing program with long-term investment horizons.

The Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA) is a national organization with the mission of ensuring that all Canadians have an affordable, secure and decent place to call home. 

This year, Maytree supported Victor Willis, Executive Director at Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC) to attend CHRA’s annual conference, which brings together housing advocates from across Canada.



Victor Willis is the Executive Director at Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC)

Apr 27 2016

Photo - poverty protesters

Individuals and families receiving provincial social assistance are living in the deepest poverty in Ontario. Many are poorly housed, hungry and sick.

Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program are supposed to provide assistance to people who are in financial need. Unfortunately rates are so low for the 900,000 people who rely on social assistance, that once on the programs, many recipients spiral deeper into a cycle of poverty.

Ontario’s social assistance rates do not reflect the real costs of living in communities across the province. This is partly because the provincial government does not set social assistance rates based on an evaluation of the actual costs of basic necessities, but sets them according to other political considerations.

Benefits include two parts: a shelter allowance and a basic-needs portion. In 2016, the shelter allowance for a parent with one child was set at $609 a month by the provincial government – an amount so low that it bears no resemblance to costs families are forced to bear. In the Toronto area, with the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment running at almost $1,300 a month, families on social assistance are often forced to find deficient and unhealthy alternatives. Many families spend upwards of 80% of their income towards rent, placing them at extreme risk of homelessness.

The inadequacy of social assistance rates are also felt at Ontario’s food banks. According to the Ontario Association of Food Banks, nearly 70% of all people coming in for emergency food are in receipt of provincial social assistance programs.

The lack of healthy food and safe shelter affects health. As a result, those living in deep poverty are far more likely to suffer from chronic conditions or poor mental health.

Social assistance rates have been set at an inadequate and inhumane level. Rates today, adjusted for inflation, are still lower than they were before a former provincial government slashed them by 22% overnight in 1996. This level of inadequacy is contrary to Canada’s commitment to human rights through the UN International Convention on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, to which the provincial government is bound. The rights of the most vulnerable have been grievously ignored for twenty years.

There’s now a push to address these inadequate rates through a new advisory group.

On April 14, 2016, the private member’s bill 185, Ministry of Community and Social Services Amendment Act (Social Assistance Research Commission), presented by Hamilton East-Stoney Creek Member of Provincial Parliament Paul Miller, passed second reading unanimously (80-0), with assenting votes from all political parties. The advisory group, or “Social Assistance Research Commission,” would be created through bill 185.

Should the bill become law, this Commission would be tasked with defining regions in Ontario based on economic geography to determine the cost of living in each region and recommend provincial social assistance rates based on this analysis. Bill 185 is now bound for the Standing Committee on Regulations and Private Bills for review.

This is groundbreaking work and represents the first real political momentum to address social assistance rates in a generation.

Bill 185 would also address some of the critical components to a human rights approach to poverty reduction, including having measurable goals, timely evaluations, and engaging people with lived experience of poverty. The bill would appoint experts knowledgeable on the economic and fiscal challenges of Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, immigrants, refugees and injured workers.

The bill would create an arms-length process to recommend adequate social assistance rates (somewhat similar to the method for determining MPP salaries). Apart from the costs of housing, food, clothing and hygiene, the Commission would also be tasked with looking at transportation, internet access, and basic telephone service. The ability to participate in society and to be free from isolation are necessary to an individual’s equal participation in their community.

The bill would also mandate the Commission to look at the interaction between social assistance and precarious employment, child support payments and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act. No legislation exists in isolation. Weakening of employment standards directly contribute to recurring periods on social assistance. Child poverty is directly affected by provincial treatment of child support and other benefits.

Bill 185 is an important step forward towards fixing social assistance and restoring opportunity, dignity and a future for its recipients.

For more information about bill 185:


Laura Cattari is vice president of Canada Without Poverty and chairs the social policy working group of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction @AdvocacyHamOn


Tom Cooper is director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction @tomcoopster

Apr 27 2016

New logo collage

Maytree’s logo and tagline have changed. Our communications pieces, such as the website, newsletter and letterhead, have a new look. This visual change is another milestone on the journey that we started a year and a half ago when I joined the organization as president.

Our logo combines a strong “M”, representing Maytree’s determined presence in anti-poverty work; a red maple leaf, locating us proudly as Canadians working on the universal issue of poverty; and the tagline, Poverty • Rights • Change, signalling the approach we are taking to our work.

Many who have worked with Maytree in the past will know that our focus on poverty is not new. From our beginning almost 35 years ago, we’ve dedicated ourselves to creating solutions to poverty.

So what has changed?

In this next phase of our evolution, we are bringing a human rights approach to our poverty reduction work. For us here at Maytree, poverty is not a choice for those who experience it, rather it is one that we make as a society. By allowing our economic and social systems to perpetuate poverty, we are denying people’s human rights. For us, there’s a clear connection between eliminating poverty and protecting human rights.

Protecting the rights of all people living in Canada will therefore be one of the most enduring ways to fix the systems that create poverty.

Some of our priorities over the next few years include building a human rights culture in Canada and deepening it by establishing the case for the inclusion of economic and social rights in the poverty reduction work of governments and civil society. As well, we will focus on developing and promoting policy ideas that address the systemic causes of poverty and provide solutions to protect economic and social rights.

One example of our work in this field so far is our participation in Canada’s review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In our submission to the committee we made recommendations on how cities in Canada could become key stakeholders and participants in delivering on Canada’s obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. We’re also engaged in several initiatives that focus on better access to affordable housing. This work includes the development of policy options and direct investment in projects that will improve housing affordability for people and strengthen communities.

Another commitment is to ensure that people with lived experience are engaged in the process of finding solutions to poverty – an important aspect to any rights-based approach to poverty reduction. This will help strengthen the connections between civic communities, people with lived experience, and institutions to address poverty and build a culture of rights.

Maytree has always valued working with others, listening to the voices of communities to understand their most pressing needs and priorities. As a small charitable organization, we realized a long time ago that to have impact, we can’t do it alone. We’ve worked with governments of all levels because they are central in creating solutions to poverty. At the same time, we’ve emphasized the importance of collaboration and working with partners including civil society organizations, policy advisors, major institutions, and people with lived experience of poverty. It is only by working together that we can build strong and vital communities.

While a new logo and tagline will never bring about change, they are one more step on our journey. Our focus on poverty, rights and change will be a long road, and we hope that you will continue on this path with us.


Elizabeth McIsaac is President of Maytree.

Apr 14 2016


Last fall, Maytree supported West Scarborough Community Legal Services to provide training through its Community Leadership Building program for community leaders to educate them about important poverty, human rights and housing issues in Scarborough.

We spoke with program lead Regini David, Outreach and Law Reform Coordinator/Paralegal, about what they learned and how other communities might benefit from their experience.

What role does West Scarborough Community Legal Services play in the community?

Regini David: West Scarborough Community Legal Services (WSCLS) is a non-profit organization and legal aid clinic in east Toronto. We prioritize community development and law reform. We have been a key participant in the ongoing fight to legalize rooming houses in Toronto suburbs to create safe and affordable homes for low-income individuals. We also advocate for better protection for precarious workers under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act (ESA) and the Employment Insurance (EI) program. The Community Leadership Building program is another initiative that aims to empower members of our community and give them a voice.

Who did you engage in the program, both through its development and implementation?

RD: At WSCLS, we always listen to community concerns and identify the community leaders who want to do something to make change. Through our years of work with our east end legal clinics, we have identified key issues affecting our community. Employment issues – particularly those faced by precarious workers and the working poor – are critical. We’ve also identified community members who want to make a positive change. Many of these individuals contacted us because of their own issues related to poverty.

Through the Community Leadership Building program, WSCLS has trained 21 community leaders who are unemployed, people of colour, women, new immigrants and/or marginalized workers. In December 2015, we held a two-day leadership training program for community leaders, focusing on:

  • Public speaking
  • Leadership skills
  • Ontario’s Employment Standards Act
  • Law reform: Looking at the Fix EI and Rooming House campaigns
  • Outreach techniques and how to organize our communities for change

What would you consider to be the greatest success of the program?

RD: The program has created opportunities for community members to support one another, as well as helped advocate for law reform. Our community members participated in Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review by making submissions to the review’s Special Advisors and to the Ministry of Labour. Their submissions gave voice to the struggle of precarious workers – a voice that must be heard in this review.

The members of the leadership group helped organize the launch of Toronto East Employment Law Services (TEELS) and gave a presentation as to why free employment legal services are important in their community, which garnered positive feedback from Premier Kathleen Wynne and Legal Aid Ontario.

Were there any outcomes that you did not anticipate?

RD: We did not anticipate the growing positive effect that the project would have on the other parts of the city. This has happened in a few ways – primarily because some of our community leaders have moved, and are bringing their leadership and influence to their new communities. Second, our community leaders are connected to ethnic media and to social media, and so have “spread the word” further and more effectively than we anticipated.

“I worked hard and my employer did not pay my vacation pay for two years. When I asked I was targeted and got terminated. I learned that it is illegal. WSCLS is helping me to obtain my basic rights. It is important that other community members know about the free employment services available to them in their neighborhoods so that they can get help to fight to obtain their basic rights. I am proud to be a member of the leadership group and take the knowledge I have learned to my community.” Prabakaran, member of leadership group

How will the program contribute to reducing poverty in Toronto?

RD: Precarious workers are vulnerable for a variety of reasons. When they are not paid what they are owed, they experience poverty and cannot afford lawyers to fight for their rights. Having to piece together part-time work also affects their quality of life. Most of these precarious workers are part-time workers, seasonal workers, contract workers, temporary workers, people of colour and women. Free employment law services can help individuals obtain their unpaid wages or EI benefits – to survive and pay their bills.

The Community Leadership Building program takes this a step further by engaging community members in law reform work that could benefit precarious workers more widely. For example, many part-time and seasonal workers are not eligible to collect EI benefits because they do not meet the minimum 910-hour requirement to qualify to receive benefits.

Our leadership groups – along with many others, including labour groups, legal clinics, and other community organizations – have been advocating for EI reform for a long time.

We are so thrilled to see that the federal government has allocated money to improve the EI program. One of the changes included in the federal budget is to reduce the 910-hour threshold for new entrants and re-entrants as of July 2016. This is a big victory for many precarious workers. (Read more about EI changes in the budget.)

Working with other legal clinics and our communities, we have now secured permanent funding for this program so that we can continue to help precarious workers in the underserved area of east Toronto.

“I have been treated differently because I am a temporary worker. I was not allowed to sit in the lunchroom with other permanent workers. I was not invited to the Christmas party. I was paid less than other permanent workers who did the same work as me. This is discrimination and I want to make a change in my workplace and be treated equally. Therefore I decided to advocate for temporary workers’ rights. The leadership program provided a space and opportunity to bring our voice to light.” Ondine, member of leadership group

What can other groups learn from your experience?

RD: Organizing community members is a tough job and a long-term commitment. It is important to see community members as advocates and not as victims. Sometimes people have a hard time with this concept, because we often see them as victims in need of aid.

Understanding where these people are coming from, giving them agency to affect the decisions that will impact their lives, and allowing them to have a voice will bring about change in their community, and in society as a whole.

The community voice is powerful; politicians and decision makers will listen and pay attention.

“I am so empowered as I was able to build my knowledge through the leadership training. I always wanted to do something for the community but I did not know how to go about it. The leadership training helped me to find myself and get involved with confidence.” Renuka, member of leadership group

“Under the current policy there is no paid sick leave for workers and I had to work while I was sick. This is not fair. I joined the leadership group because I want to change this. The leadership training gave me the confidence to speak about our concerns to the decision makers.” Akilla, member of leadership group

What are the next steps for the alumni and the program?

RD: The leadership group alumni have already started to build more awareness in their communities via community media and social media. They have created a monthly schedule that outlines community advocacy and outreach for the rest of this year. Some of the activities they will be working on include creating media and content that will increase awareness about the group, law reform work and continuing outreach. Alongside this, the members of the group will continue to speak and advocate for multiple campaigns, including those aimed at reforming EI and the Employment Standards Act.


Tina Edan is Manager, Strategic Communications at Maytree.

Apr 04 2016

balanced stones - iStockphoto

I have been preparing for the community engagement learning event Tamarack is doing in Ottawa this week, called Community Engagement: The Next Generation. One of the workshops I wanted to do was on engagement of marginalized populations, in particular those living in poverty. My exploration of this topic led me to some provocative writing by Vu Le, who is a writer, speaker, and executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a capacity building organization with a focus on levelling the playing field for people of colour as well as small, grass roots organizations.

I was particularly drawn to a piece he wrote on his blog about “Trickle-Down Community Engagement,” and his writing became the catalyst for one of the workshops I am doing, aptly called “Avoiding Trickle-Down Community Engagement of the Marginalized.”

With minor paraphrasing here is what Vu Le wrote:

Trickle-Down Community Engagement is when professionals bypass the people who are most affected by issues and instead engage and fund large organizations and systems to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free and on our timelines, within our rules of engagement and end up grateful for our largesse.

It’s hard-hitting criticism but also too often the truth. I encourage you to read his postings on the topic. I did some thinking on the topic and I asked myself what causes trickle-down community engagement; why does it happen? I reflected on my own varied experiences of engaging people who are poor, homeless, and further marginalized by an illness or disability, lack of education, or by racism. Here are some of the reasons I came up with:

We narrow our conversations about poverty to meet our institutional needs
As organizations, we often focus on poverty in terms of how it affects us, in particular our organizations and our work on the ground. Our required loyalty to our mission and vision can have the undesirable effect of a containment of poverty and related challenges to that which fits what we are doing. In other words, our mission and vision creates a kind of closed system and a bias in terms of how we see people who are poor, see impoverished neighbourhoods, and how we see possible solutions.

Such a bias often ends up with our community engagement of the marginalized being about us, not them. They become the means by which we can better refine what we are doing (again within our mission and vision) rather than being  open to discoveries of perspectives, ideas, and insights from the engaged that points to other things we should be paying attention to.

We still see poverty as the manifestation of personal flaws
Hard as it might be for many of us to admit, it is also the case, too often, that we still see poverty as a personal flaw, as being primarily, if not solely,  the result of bad choices rather than rooted in circumstances that have caused harm and suffering to people. For example, a female client who has a grade eight education, is addicted to alcohol, and lives with a man who beats her will be judged for being pregnant. How could she let that happen, given her drinking and the violence? Or what on earth is wrong with her for living with such a man? Doesn’t she know she has to stop drinking now?

Stuff like that. Of course, as helping professionals we understand cause and effect; we understand that circumstances set courses of action in motion that lead to pain and despair. Still, our judgements sneak through more than they should. It’s not that we do so maliciously, but the idea that people should be totally responsible for their actions is engrained in us. It’s a black and white thing, right?

The truth is that traumatized people often end up in terrible circumstances and within those circumstances also make bad decisions. Just dealing with her “decision-making” skills is not only wrong and unhelpful, it is degrading.

Marginalized people can’t be leaders out of their situation
The bias that people living in poverty are flawed personally also moves us see them as being incapable of leading and/or being full participants in their own journey out of their current reality. Because their lives are so screwed up, and because of their perceived complicity getting to the state they are in, we just default to professionals and institutions as being those best suited to find and deliver solutions. After all we have the education and the experience. We know systems (or so we think we do), and we have networks that help us do our jobs, regardless of whether or not we are doing the right jobs.

Funders value large institutions more than grass roots groups
Small, citizen-led organizations more often than not have no funding other than the nickels and dimes they are able to muster on their own. While there is some change going on here with funders, the prevailing practice still seems to be to value big over small, professionals over lay people, and big impact story agencies over impacts that are strictly local.  Grassroots organizations lack “our” sophistication, lack “our” networks, and can be perceived as being made up of dysfunctional people.  Their chances of getting funding are stymied in all kinds of ways. Many lack charitable status or any formal status at all. They are told by funders that they do not have the capacity and skill to do what they are proposing, but funding for capacity building is rarely offered.

As well, the growing movement toward collective impact or large-scale collaborative efforts can be a huge problem for grass roots groups. As funders shift priorities to such big efforts, the pool of money they have for smaller, niche efforts decline. And imagine the challenges of a small, grass roots organization trying to play in the same collective impact field of the big institutions. Not only do they lack the resources to join in, what status would they have in such a crowd?

A while back I had a conversation with a funder in the United States. That funder had decided to direct all its money to collective impact initiatives and to do so they were defunding all of their agencies. While large organizations typically have a strong revenue mix and can survive one funder’s dissipation of funding, smaller organizations will not fare so well and I have a feeling many will become broken if not lost to us.

Seeing the marginalized as a homogeneous group
Another crazy habit professionals have is that tend to see people who are poor or otherwise marginalized as a homogeneous group. We group them into a perception field fed by data about their demographics, education, income, and so on. If lack of high school is a major issue/problem in the community and those we are targeting for engagement have a high incidence of not graduating, do we conclude that they are all of similar intelligence? How often do we tell one another we need someone with lived experience at the table? Maybe even two of them. That way, we will have the poor represented, right?

We ask the marginalized to participate and contribute without compensation
Engagement efforts can, by design, exclude those targeted from participating. When we ask a low income resident to speak at a forum or ask a grass roots organization to help organize a gathering, why is it that more times than not, we don’t pay them? We are paid to be there after all. By paying them I don’t mean giving a low income speaker a $25 gift card to a grocery store. First, their contribution should be honoured financially in a real way, not be a token. Second, we tend to give gift cards so that, you know, the poor person won’t spend the cash on booze or something that shouldn’t be her priority. It’s demeaning. Ask yourself if you want to be participate in a gathering that held you in such light?

We often pay insufficient attention to logistical considerations
Other reasons why our designs encourage lack of engagement is that we give short shrift sometimes to locating gatherings near public transportation and fail to fund the trips. Not every person living in poverty has a bus pass. Often gatherings are planned at hours of the day low income workers can’t attend. In other words, we want them to participate within our work day. And child care: its absence will mean some parents can’t come, can’t participate.

We tend to see problems having technical solutions
There are other challenges we create to community engagement. For example, as Vu Le indicates, we see adaptive challenges as technical problems requiring formula solutions that fit our logic models, our plans, our resources.

This tendency to invoke technical solutions is a major reason why the majority of resources are spent on managing the marginalization of people. I know that is not how most would put it. Typically we say we have to stop managing poverty and solve it. I agree! But even that statement has one important thing missing: people.

People do not marginalize themselves. They are marginalized by others, which is often what we call the mainstream. I think this is critical for us to keep in mind. Marginalization is done to people by other people, not by those who are marginalized.

This suggests to me that our focus on food banks and programs that help people cope with being disadvantaged is really about managing the actual disenfranchisement of people. It’s not that we shouldn’t have food banks; when people are hungry we should feed them. But when all there is are food banks; well that’s another matter altogether.

We are compelled to control the engagement
Most often the nature of community engagement is about what an institution is thinking of doing or its need for more information and “input” from its clients or target population. This is not wrong, but it is limiting when it comes to the full engagement of others. Our focus means we create and maintain control on how things go, what questions get asked, how much time is spent on this or that, and so on. Either there is no space for the “tangents” participants might come up with or they are addressed as “parking lot” items.

Getting to the core of engagement: having conversations with people
We need more community engagement that are about community conversations. People talking with one another, seeking to understand, and moving through whatever hubris might be in the way toward a place of working together to generate possibilities and strategies. The best engagement happens on shared ground, with an acceptance of one another for all we are and what we bring to the table as our offering.

All of us are flawed and all of us have the same need for self-expression, for being heard and taken seriously. We can’t claim community engagement if all we do is have a community meeting, or send out a survey, or hold a few focus groups. Those activities may be consultative but they are power-based consultations that allow others influence on our terms and only if we decide to be influenced.

To end poverty or homelessness or to turn racism away will happen because of changes in community. Professionals can contribute much but we won’t pull it off. Governments won’t either. And not the private sector. And it can’t just be the three sectors collaborating well; it will take the people as well – those who marginalize and those who are place on the margins.

Toward an emphasis on community development
This is the call for community development in its many forms. People working to improve their neighbourhoods, towns, cities, and on. A key driver for community development is the extent to which there is community capacity building resources and efforts to identify and grow grass roots leadership, to not only share our skills but teach them in community while we are taught by those we are engaged with.

Funders and helping institutions need to loosen their grip on service outcomes as their guide and invest good money in community capacity building for its own sake as well as to address community issues and of course opportunities.

I am as guilty of poor community engagement as the next guy or gal, so please don’t assume any “holier than thou” attitude here. I have done some pretty bad community engagement, especially around building social housing. I’d like to think I learned from those mistakes, but also from those times I have done a fairly good job of it.

Remembering the Operation Friendship story
Back when I was the Executive Director of Operation Friendship, we had received funding to build a major multi-purpose centre in the inner city. The community consultation on the project took place before I arrived, but I was given some “design elements” that participants of community meetings identified as important to them.

Two of them stood out. They wanted open space on our property for our clients (mostly homeless, addicted, and transient men) to hang out; that way they wouldn’t be on the front steps of the neighbours. And they wanted our roof lines to be no higher than the other houses on the block.  In other words, they didn’t want our institution to look like one, towering above everything else. They wanted us to fit into the community and as I read the notes it became clear as well that they wanted what we built to look residential, not like offices

The short story is we pulled that off, as indicated below in the photograph.

Our drop in centre was set back and in the middle of our complex. On each side, in two houses, were where our staff had their offices. And rising up on either side of the drop-in centre and wrapping around behind it was a two storey rooming house for 40 hard-to-house seniors. You can barely see it from the street.

The spirit of engagement was also evident in our inclusion of the seniors in the design of the rooming house and other spaces.  Given their age, they had grown up with porches so they told us in no uncertain terms that the houses for our staff had to include porches, which ended up being wrap-around verandas. They also wanted benches in the courtyard, which they got. As much as possible they wanted to be outside.

During the design phase of the rooming house, we teamed up with the architect to hold a “design session” in the old drop in centre. We gathered dozens and dozens of magazines and put post-it notes and markers and other crafty things on tables and asked the seniors to make a collage of what a home meant to them.  It took a little prodding to get them started but once they did, they produced some very telling images and had some fun in the process.

We learned from the images that safety of person as well as of their food was paramount. They didn’t want to be beaten up or have their food stolen. Other images spoke of the importance of social interaction; they were full of people. One poster board had a huge lock in the image and we learned that many of our tenants had a strong need for strong locks on the door.

When construction began, we went to the drop in and asked if anyone there had engineering experience. Three raised their hands and one said yes to being the in-house inspector of construction. He went to all the meetings and he participated and demonstrated he knew his stuff. He caught a few things that needed fixing as well. After each meeting he shared his “report” with whoever was there. Not everyone listened, but he didn’t care. He just focused on telling those who wanted to know.

All of that was, I suggest, pretty decent engagement. It happened because we wanted to make sure we did what we could for people who for most their lives never had a say in such things. We risked being creative. After all do drunk old men really want to make collages? And we made sure they were kept informed and the staff engaged the construction folks, the funding bureaucrats, and the architects and engineers with a fierce commitment to get what the seniors identified as important. We didn’t win every battle, but we won a lot more than we lost.

Maybe there is a metaphor here. Maybe community engagement is about wins and losses sometimes. And maybe to gain ground toward a better community, we have to lose some ground too. And often losing ground also means losing status and power. That’s something professionals have a hard time doing and it is also the very thing we should be striving to do.

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


Mark Holmgren is Director of Vibrant Communities Canada, Tamarack Institute.

Mar 17 2016

Prescription and capsules - iStockphoto

Daruun works at a paint factory and suffers from low blood pressure with frequent fainting spells. He can’t afford the heart medication prescribed by his physician. His neighbor Denise has diabetes which costs her $2,300 a year for insulin and supplies. She works in the public sector where her employer-provided health benefits cover the cost, so she doesn’t have to worry.

In Community Health Centres, our health service providers see a lot of people like Daruun who cannot afford the prescription drugs they need to be healthy. A recent Angus Reid poll found that 23 per cent of Canadians say they or someone in their home cannot pay for their medications and are skipping doses or cutting pills to make them go further. Drug coverage depends on who your employer is, your age, your income and where you live in Canada.

Our right to health as Canadians should include, along with universal coverage for medical and hospital services, access to the medications prescribed by our health service providers. However, Canada is the only developed country with a universal health system that does not cover prescription drugs.

Moreover, our current patchwork of public and private drug plans is inefficient, costing government, businesses and families billions of dollars every year. In fact, Canadians are paying some of the highest drug prices in the world because, unlike other countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we don’t have one public plan that can negotiate the best rates. A growing body of research shows that a national drug coverage plan that is public, affordable and safe would ensure access to prescription medicines and could save over $7 billion annually.

This is why a number of organizations came together last year to launch the Campaign for National Drug Coverage with the aim of getting this issue on the federal election agenda. The campaign was successful with three out of the four major parties including it as part of their official platforms. As well, the media picked up on the issue, including a CBC town hall meeting on whether Canada should have a national drug plan.

The election hasn’t stopped the campaign. On November 18, 2015, the Toronto Star published a letter from 331 health professionals and academics urging the government to put Pharmacare at the top of the Canadian health care agenda.

Since the election, federal and provincial health ministers have met and agreed to create a working group to explore how to improve Canadians’ access to pharmaceutical drugs. The new government has promised to provide greater bulk buying to bring down the cost of prescription drugs in government plans. But it has yet to commit to a new universal pharmacare plan.

Canadians will need to keep up the pressure on the new federal government. Only when everyone has equitable access to the medicines they need to be healthy, are we all better off.


Jacquie Maund is Policy & Government Relations Lead, Association of Ontario Health Centres.

Mar 07 2016

Workers in urban area - iStockphoto

In recent months, the living wage has been capturing the attention of local governments across the nation. Following New Westminster’s lead in 2011, Vancouver committed to a living wage last summer and now Cambridge has just become the first city in Ontario to make that pledge – with Hamilton and Toronto following close behind in considering their own policies. What unique value and impact do municipalities add when they commit to supporting a living wage? And what does municipal commitment mean for living wage advocates, employees and the community?

I’ll never forget the day I was standing at the bus stop at Carleton University, huddled under a heat lamp trying to stay warm, and heard a peer declare “I’m just tired of being poor all of the time.” I silently echoed that sentiment. It’s hard to get rich. It’s even harder to live poor. In our growing low-wage economy, many of us are doing the best we can with what we have, sometimes working two or three jobs, just to keep the hydro on.

I count myself lucky. I now work for an organization with a leadership that understands that employees working to reduce poverty need to live free of the fear of living in poverty themselves and, of course, has the means to make it happen. Non-profit organizations across the country have been the first among many to consciously step up and commit to paying a living wage, with the conviction that they are able to reduce poverty for at least their own employees and families.

Small and medium businesses have also been quicker to adopt the living wage. As the Ontario Living Wage Network’s Tom Cooper has said, because of the close nature of the small or medium-sized business owner’s relationship with their staff and community, you might be amazed at how sympathetic local business employers are. Your own morning bakery could be the next great supporter.

Municipalities are the next frontier

Maybe surprisingly, municipalities are in the business of creating and sustaining healthy, vibrant communities; unsurprisingly, a robust economy and social inclusion are two essential elements of this mandate. They care about how people are getting along, getting around, and interacting with the city’s infrastructure. Income security measures are intrinsically synergistic as they provide the space for individuals and families to be more independent, have positive impacts on well-being and community participation, and benefit the municipality as a whole.

But I often encounter confusion and sometimes trepidation when I talk to people about municipal living wage policies. When a municipality adopts a living wage policy, it commits to employing its own city-staff at a living wage rate. Though it creates a positive market for contractors to employ a decent wages, it doesn’t necessarily mandate businesses and other organizations to follow suit.

The municipality itself acts as a champion and advocate, inspiring other cities across the country and businesses in their own region, to adopt a living wage by being a role model. Municipalities can set the stage for others to get on board, shift our attitudes about the right to decent compensation, and make tangible changes for residents who are struggling to meet ends meet.

In Vancouver, a living wage policy will mean their 6,000+ city employees are guaranteed to earn at least $20.68/hr., and in Waterloo it will mean their 565+ staff are guaranteed to earn at least $16.05. These wages will increase as the cost of living also increases. (For a sample of the goods and services included in a living wage market basket, read the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Working for a Living Wage (PDF)).

Depending on the local certification program, this policy might extend to students, part-time employees, contracted employees, and sub-contracted employees. For many municipalities, full-time staff are already earning a living wage, and the focus is on bringing contract workers, such as custodians, crossing guards, and interns up to an income that will cover proper housing, nutritious food, medical care, and other basic necessities for wellbeing.

I commend those municipalities who have taken the lead in the living wage movement. Among other traits, it takes courage, commitment, and strong leadership. Now as the movement marches forward, our focus will shift to the first followers and early adopters as key ingredients.

Learn more:

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


Natasha Pei is Community Animator, Vibrant Communities, Tamarack: An Institute for Community Engagement

Mar 03 2016

When Mayors Lead conference logo

It is a unique time in Canada’s history. Across the country almost every provincial and territorial government has or is considering a poverty reduction strategy. At the community level, many cities are enacting poverty reduction strategies focused on reducing the number of Canadians experiencing poverty. On top of that, we have a new and energized federal government.

There are many examples of leadership on poverty reduction at the municipal level. Mayors such as Don Iveson in Edmonton and John Tory in Toronto have launched major strategies, while mayors Walter Sendzik in St. Catharines and Matt Brown in London have announced new advisory panels on poverty reduction. In 2015, Medicine Hat became the first city in Canada to end homelessness.

We know the economic and social costs that poverty has on people and the cities in which they live. This is a time of real hope as cities, provinces and the federal government are joining together to support one another with the goal of significantly reducing poverty in Canada.

At the 2015 National Poverty Reduction Summit in Ottawa, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi called on cities to take leadership around ending poverty and “to push our conversation further: into our communities, the minds of our decision-makers, our business leaders, and others, and start creating partnerships together.”

Acting on this call to action, Vibrant Communities Canada, in partnership with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and the City of Edmonton, invite you to be among the 300 people attending Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead in Edmonton, Alberta, April 5 to 7.

Together at this gathering, we will:

  • Deepen our understanding of poverty in communities and its impact on our cities’ economic and social prosperity;
  • Share and learn about successful strategies and proven solutions tested by extraordinary innovators (including the launch of a key paper on the work of cities reducing poverty);
  • Develop and advance best practices to strengthen policies, systems, and collective actions to reduce poverty across the country;
  • Advance our understanding about what is being done to address the impacts of poverty on Aboriginal people; and,
  • Inspire one another with an in-depth and interactive experience of Edmonton’s poverty reduction strategy which includes a full-afternoon tour in the downtown core, followed by a reception at City Hall.

The attendee list includes mayors, city councillors, inspiring thought leaders, community leaders and poverty reduction advocates who are interested in learning about best practices in community-based poverty reduction and how to coordinate our collective efforts to reduce poverty throughout Canada.

Our confirmed speaker list is growing, and we are looking forward to hearing from:

  • Mayor Don Iveson, City of Edmonton
  • Mayor Nadheed Nenshi, City of Calgary
  • Mayor Brian Bowman, City of Winnipeg
  • Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell, City of Toronto
  • Mayor Mel Norton, City of Saint John
  • Mayor Johnathan Cote, City of New Westminster
  • Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director, First Nations Child and Family Society of Canada
  • Brock Carlton, CEO, Federation of Canadian Municipalities
  • Alan Broadbent, Founder and Chair Avana Capital Corporation and Maytree
  • Stephen Huddart, President and CEO, McConnell Family Foundation
  • Andrea Cohen Barrack, CEO, Ontario Trillium Foundation
  • Elizabeth McIsaac, President, Maytree
  • Celeste Licorish, Coordinator, Speak Now! Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction
  • And there are more to come!

Please visit the event website to see who else will be attending and to learn more about the gathering.

Poverty is a complex yet solvable problem. Together, we have the wisdom and the experience to be a national, dynamic force for change. Join us for this important dialogue. Let’s work and learn together in order to influence how our governments and communities can turn the table on poverty and support our nation’s most vulnerable people.

Maytree is an event partner of Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead.


Mark Holmgren is Director of Vibrant Communities Canada, Tamarack Institute.

Feb 23 2016


I have recently returned to Tamarack after spending seven years working at BlackBerry where my role focused on inviting and distilling the experiences of users and translating them into recommendations for action. From this experience I have come to appreciate that there are lessons about engagement that the for-profit sector can share with those of us in the non-profit sector interested in discovering new ways to effectively engage with stakeholders. Below you will find what, for me, are some of the business sector’s key lessons that come to mind when I think about effective engagement.

  • Invite your trusted friends first – In the for-profit sector, we called this a “staged roll-out.” In college or in your social settings, you might have called it the “pre-party.” Turn on the music, try out the wine, dim the lights. See how people react. Regardless of the way you describe the approach, the premise is to invite a smaller group or groups to try out your engagement strategy before opening the doors wider. Start small and actually execute your strategy rather than just talking about the plan. See what people respond to and get the conversation started. Once you’re relatively satisfied with how your chosen few are engaged, open up the doors to others. Consider how quickly you let the flood gates open, and whether or not participants in your early engagement efforts could be helpful in recruiting others. Find a balance between letting people in and ensuring the engagement remains active. It can be easier to deepen engagement when people have been warmed up to it. Don’t forget, hosts and participants both have critical roles to play, so be a gracious and humble host; let your participants know what’s expected of them; and thank them (regularly) for being there.
  • Plan for regularly scheduled programming – All aspects of engagement cannot be prescribed, nor should they be. Spontaneity, creativity and organic movement are all part of the (desired) process when it comes to what you and members of your community or engagement initiative contribute. With that said, sometimes there will be a lull in dialogue and sometimes your initiative may need a reminder of its purpose, its principles, and its intended pillars of success. For those reasons, be sure to plan for regularly scheduled content. An e-newsletter, social media posts, blogs, well-crafted emails can all help to achieve this. Think about your audience to determine the tone and frequency. Anything delivered via social media should increase in frequency (i.e. daily), email or e-newsletters less frequent (i.e. weekly or even monthly), and blogs somewhere in between.
  • Measure your ROI – I firmly believe that you need a few months of data, perhaps even a full year, accompanied by qualitative/experiential notes, in order to set proper benchmarks and targets for success. I also know I’m an impatient person and sometimes waiting for all of this data can get a bit boring. So, look at your strategy, set some basic goals (based on any previous data, if you have it) and then make time to evolve from there. For example, if you have 100 Facebook followers with little to no social media strategy over a year, aim to double that with a strategic plan in six months. If your last town hall yielded 50 people with one round of invitations to 200 people, aim to send out multiple rounds of invitations, to the same people, and look to increase participation by 20%. Whatever the numbers are, if your emails aren’t getting opened, your website is not seeing an increase in visitors, or your social media followers are not increasing even though you’ve employed an engagement strategy for growth (or stability), then the return on your investment in time and money is poor. You need to measure key performance indicators to know how well you are performing. Start with the data you’ve got, keep your measurements simple and consistent, and go from there.
  • Strategic experimentation – Okay, so this might be a bit of an oxymoron, but I never like to do things the same way twice. After all, where’s the room for creativity, innovation and improvement? This does not necessarily bode well for the above point on consistency with measurement, but it can yield success in terms of execution. Take what you know about your community, the people in it, your cause and the circumstances surrounding your engagement strategy, and then throw a little caution to the wind. Try something new, take a little risk, then step back and analyze its impact. See what sticks, and then, perhaps, incorporate the change into your strategy going forward.

And, finally, don’t forget the importance of closure. All engagement must come to an end at some point, which is either planned for or organic. If you were at a party that ended with the hosts telling you to let yourself out, would you come back? Whatever the lifespan may be and however you get there, be sure to end your relationship with participants appropriately. Most importantly, be clear about “the end” and what they can expect next (if anything). Closure, despite marking the end of engagement, marks the potential for successful engagement the next time around.

Learn more:

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


Rachel Gainer is Director of Engagement at Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement.

Feb 09 2016

Rights written on paper scraps - iStock photo

When Maytree approached me about whether my community would be a pilot site for a new workshop on human rights and poverty reduction, I jumped at the chance.

As director of Pathway to Potential (P2P), the poverty reduction strategy for Windsor-Essex, I am always reflecting on how we frame the work that we’re doing. P2P is composed of a diverse group of stakeholders who collectively work to reduce the number of individuals and families living in poverty in Windsor and Essex County, to raise awareness about poverty, and support individuals, groups and organizations engaged in poverty reduction work.

Framing poverty in Windsor-Essex

One advantage of having just two full-time staff is that we are quite nimble, always seeking new ways to put the spotlight on poverty as an issue requiring urgent action.

How we frame poverty depends on who we’re talking to. If the audience is primarily concerned with fiscal responsibility, we might make the “business case” for poverty reduction. If health is top of mind, we might talk about the social determinants of health.

Regardless of how we frame it, though, poverty rarely receives the type of public attention it deserves. Further, to the dismay of many antipoverty advocates, there seems to be a widespread assumption among the general public that charity is a solution to poverty.

Approaching poverty from a rights perspective

The workshop, Ending Poverty the “Rights” Way: A Human Rights Approach for Local Communities forcefully challenges this assumption. This human rights approach strengthens the ability of communities across Canada to advocate collectively for a national poverty eradication plan, and also paves the way for participatory processes that will spur greater municipal action on poverty.

Participants at our workshop in November 2015 were especially energized to learn about the various ways communities in other jurisdictions are working to “bring rights home” through tools such as municipal charters and participatory budgeting processes. We also engaged in thought-provoking discussions about the extent to which our local Housing First model was adhering to a universal rights-based framework. I emerged from the workshop with a clear vision of how P2P could integrate human rights into our ongoing policy advocacy efforts.

No one is suggesting a human rights approach to poverty reduction is a panacea. Still, it’s a lens that hasn’t received nearly enough attention among those who are working to reduce and, ultimately, eliminate poverty in Canada.

Charity is good, justice is better

Food. Housing. Economic security. These are human rights, integral to the dignity of every person.

Charitable approaches are essential insofar as they meet people’s immediate needs. But charity alone will never solve poverty. We must acknowledge that traditional charitable responses to poverty might meet immediate needs without ever altering the underlying structural inequities that create and keep people in poverty. In Dom Hélder Câmara’s words, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

The role of leadership

Despite the piles of studies and the numerous lofty commitments governments have made over the past few decades, Canada’s record on addressing poverty is abysmal.

It’s time for policymakers to take the rights-based approach to poverty seriously. Bringing our federal policies in line with our international obligations will take political courage, but it must be done.


Adam Vasey is the Director of Pathway to Potential