Jul 21 2016

In our efforts to create social change, are we the proverbial David, or are we actually Goliath?

In this video, social and political entrepreneur Dave Meslin talks with Groundforce founder Chris Cowperthwaite about the art of using the “massive power of the masses” to build strong and engaged teams of people working towards social change.

Drawing on his experiences with the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT) and Cycle Toronto, among others, Dave discusses the strategies and tactics he uses to tap into what he sees as the widespread desire to “do something meaningful” and to overcome the obstacles that can discourage people from participating in community action.

Find out:

  • What we can learn from stores about creating enjoyable and welcoming spaces
  • Why he prefers small donations from members to larger grants from foundations
  • When top-down leadership can help or hinder a team
  • Why it’s important to know your members’ postal codes
  • How quilts and exposed pipes can help keep people involved

Lastly, hear why Dave thinks that the last thing we need to make social change is more Dave Meslins.

Watch the video Leadership Development from the Ground Up.


Bonnie Mah is Policy and Communications Officer at Maytree.

Jul 07 2016

Children chasing butterflies

Maytree’s human rights approach to poverty reduction connects with my interest and experience working to improve the lives of children, a journey which began while working as a consultant with UNICEF starting in 1999. I quickly learned that children’s issues are not simply a matter of charity or needs, but a matter of justice and fulfillment of human rights.

Meeting immediate needs versus acknowledging rights

The International Convention of the Rights of the Child was signed by world leaders in 1989 as a special agreement that recognized the right of children to special care and protection. It has received unprecedented international support. In fact, the only country in the world that has not ratified it is the United States. However, in spite of ratifying the Convention, many governments continue to respond only to children’s immediate needs rather than their rights.

Needs- and rights- based approaches present different starting points. Focusing on immediate needs follows a charity model of addressing poverty. In the interest of only addressing the needs of children, it does not consider the broader context and systems which created those needs in the first place. For example, because children may be institutionalized before the details of their situations are assessed, they are vulnerable to the choices that governments or other institutions might make on their behalf. By not looking at a child’s entire situation, it is impossible to recognize where the system might be failing them. This exposes them to band-aid solutions which can result in actions that exacerbate the problem. Declaring a child “at risk,” for example, focuses on how to mitigate that risk or achieve an outcome that separates the child from risk. As a result it does not address how the child landed in the situation in the first place.

In contrast, a human rights approach based on the Convention of the Rights of the Child starts with a holistic view of a child’s situation and considers where the system may be failing him or her. It identifies which rights are not being guaranteed or protected, as well as the root cause of each violation. In the case where parents are not able to protect rights because of poverty, unemployment, marginalization or other circumstances that make them vulnerable, it is the responsibility of the government to provide support and work with them to enable the family to fulfill their children’s rights.

The Convention also guarantees children the right to have their voices considered in relation to decisions that affect them. This means expressing their views in their own voices in a medium of their choice and giving their views due weight. Such an approach adds to the government or institution’s understanding and assessment of a child’s complete situation which can help identify where their rights are not being acknowledged or where the solutions being implemented do not meet their needs.

Labelling children ignores issues with the system

During my time at UNICEF I was responsible for legislation and public policy in accordance with the Convention. This included compiling best practices for juvenile interventions.

In Latin America, where social institutions are often under-resourced, children considered to be “at risk” are institutionalized, rather than having their situations assessed in detail. To do so would require more social workers and healthcare practitioners, more coordination and ultimately an analysis of the system. In the needs-based approach, governments are quick to label children as “street children” or “children at risk,” detracting from the fact that there are systems that are broken that are creating these conditions.

It is a one-size-fits-all approach that treats all children the same, ignoring the specific needs of children with disabilities, those facing domestic violence, sexual exploitation, or who have to work to sustain their families.

I once interviewed a Chilean man who grew up during the 1980s. Government authorities found him begging in the streets and not going to school. Without considering or exploring the details of how he got there, the authorities labelled him “at risk,” separated him from his family, and decided that institutionalization was the best solution for his case. They placed him in an orphanage where he was supposed to be provided with food, education and healthcare.

After experiencing abuse, he escaped and fell into a life of crime. He told me that all the children he met in the orphanage were put through the same procedure, regardless of the details of their situation. Those in charge of the system neglected to assess their individual situations in their entirety, therefore addressing their needs only partially.

A needs-based approach systematically fails children because it doesn’t begin from an analysis of their rights. This approach to “protecting” children was standard procedure in many parts of the world during the second half of the last century and continues in many places today.

What it means to focus on the rights of children

Looking at the above example, what would a rights-based approach look like? When government authorities found the child begging in the streets and not going to school, they would have referred him to social services. He would have met with a social worker, who would have asked about his family and had his overall situation assessed. If possible, the family would have been contacted and interviewed and, from there, they would have assessed and reported on his situation in its entirety.

During the assessment, the social worker would determine whether he was in an abusive situation (i.e. domestic violence or sexual abuse) or if there was a lack of resources to care for him. If it was a case of abuse, this would lead to charges against the adult responsible and their subsequent removal from the home. Before putting him into an institution, social workers would try to find another family member to care for him.

Protecting children’s rights means recognizing that poverty is created and systemic. It also requires us to look at everyone’s ability to claim economic and social rights. This includes rights related to the workplace, social security, and access to housing, food, water, healthcare and education.

Children’s rights in Ontario

Children’s rights were recently acknowledged in Ontario through the report Because young people matter, released by the Residential Services Panel convened by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS). It follows a system-wide review of Ontario’s child and youth residential services and offers a critical look at what needs to be done to ensure that children receive quality care.

It is encouraging that during the research phase of the report, among the 865 people consulted across the province, 264 of them were young people. This reflects one of the report’s central themes that the voices of children need to be heard and their rights respected.

Among the recommendations suggested in the report are that MCYS create:

  • An advisory council of children, youth, families and caregivers to provide access to clinical expertise and lived experience;
  • A Data Analytics and Reporting Unit to collect and analyze all data including Serious Occurrence reports, quality of care assessments, as well as data related to gender, race-based and identity rights; and
  • A Continuity of Care Unit mandated to monitor changes in placements and care trajectories of each child in care.

Even though the report does not use a formal rights-based approach, some recommendations and elements are consistent with it, including:

  • Creating mechanisms for accountability and governance;
  • Measuring progress within an organized system of updated and coordinated data and information;
  • Providing access points and improving the quality of service through training and capacity building of staff, addressing the needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit young people in residential care and adequate services to marginalized groups; and
  • Including those with lived experience to poverty, in particular youth and their families, in the decision making process.

While the report makes no overt reference to the Convention of the Rights of the Child or to the improvement of the domestic legislation or regulation, it is an important step toward examining the systems that create poverty, protect children’s rights, and ensure that children can actively assert their rights.


Amaya Renobales is an International Human Rights Consultant and Maytree Intern

Jun 16 2016

Tower of houses - iStockphoto

Earlier this year I joined the Maytree team to lead several emerging initiatives on housing affordability. My background in global development and international relations (largely rooted in human rights), my experience in the world of social innovation and social finance, along with my work on housing affordability and urbanism, has led me here.

In my role I focus on engaging with partners to explore new thinking and approaches and help move them from concept to action. As someone with experience in strategy and collaboration and a passion for seeing projects get off the ground and evolve, I’m excited to contribute to Maytree’s work.

Cities and provinces across Canada are currently pursuing strategies that aim to break the cycle of poverty. Central to these efforts is ensuring that people can find a decent, affordable place to live. In Canada, access to safe, secure and affordable housing is an important factor in our understanding of what it means to be an inclusive and prosperous society. The right to adequate shelter is essential to living with dignity and supporting well-being. At Maytree, as we focus our work on rights and poverty, housing affordability has emerged as an important area of impact.

Maytree’s emphasis on durable solutions to poverty means supporting multiple interventions on an issue. Together with our partners, we’re looking for ways to make the housing system more equitable and tackling affordability by working directly with residents, partnering on innovative ideas, and exploring policy options to protect the economic and social rights of the most vulnerable members of society.

Here are a few areas we’re focusing on:

Working with residents

Engaging people with lived experience of poverty
We are investing in processes that engage tenants and residents, building their capacity to shape and implement viable solutions to safe and secure housing. This includes Maytree supporting the process of engaging with tenants living in Toronto Community Housing to facilitate local discussions during the City of Toronto’s public consultation of the Mayor’s Task Force on Toronto Community Housing.

Supporting innovative ideas

Tower Renewal Partnership
The Tower Renewal Partnership is an initiative to transform aging post-war apartment tower neighbourhoods into more complete, resilient and low carbon communities through retrofit, connected growth and community-led revitalization. Tower neighbourhoods are a critical piece of the affordable housing system in large urban areas, the majority of which are in need of significant energy and community investments to ensure they are safe, healthy and vibrant places to live. The Tower Renewal Partnership is led by the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal, DKGi and Maytree.

A Way Home
Maytree has supported A Way Home, a national coalition whose work focuses on preventing, reducing and ending youth homelessness in Canada. Its work focuses on supporting communities and governments to develop and implement comprehensive strategies. A Way Home’s Youth Homelessness Human Rights Guide was developed in partnership with Canada Without Poverty, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and FEANTSA (the European Federation of National Organizations working with the Homeless). The guide, which was released in Canada and Europe on June 9, aims to assist in the identification of systemic causes and solutions to homelessness by bringing human rights to the forefront of decision making. It will be contextualized for the European Union and translated into a number of languages in the Fall.

Policy opportunities

The Housing Benefit
A housing benefit (or housing allowance) would help people pay their rent. Unlike traditional social or affordable housing programs, where a certain group of homes are set aside in which tenants pay a rent that is affordable to them, a housing benefit stays with the people rather than the home. Households in need could use the benefit to help them afford rent in a home of their choice, including privately-owned buildings. A recent research report by Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy looked at possible design approaches for a housing benefit (sometimes called a housing allowance program). Maytree’s policy brief Could a housing benefit help tackle our affordable housing challenge? provides an introduction to how a housing benefit program works and how it could be a step towards universal access to affordable housing.

National Housing Collaborative
The National Housing Collaborative (NHC) is a time-limited, cross-sector initiative developing a defined number of targeted, transformative policy options that can inform the national housing strategy committed to by the current federal government. Convened by United Way Toronto & York Region and supported by Maytree and others, the NHC recognizes housing is integral to the health, well-being and prosperity of our society.

Shaping Futures
We are also participating in Shaping Futures, an international knowledge exchange and knowledge-building project. Its aim is to provide a forum for dialogue on housing policies for the 21st century. Shaping Futures is bringing together experts from Australia, Canada and the UK with input from the US, the Netherlands and France. Building on existing research and knowledge, it will create new insights and directions for policies.

As we work in each of these areas, we are engaging with people with lived experience of poverty, allies in government and civil society organizations, policy advisors, employers and major institutions. It is only by working together and seeking a variety of solutions that we can transform our cities to become more inclusive and resilient.


Hadley Nelles is Lead, Housing Affordability at Maytree

Jun 09 2016

image from report cover

Last summer I was fortunate to meet Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, at a conference concerning the legal needs of street youth. I hung on to her every word, as it makes so much sense to ground our arguments and strategies concerning youth homelessness in international human rights law.

Just last week the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness launched the Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness. The definition asserts that:

Youth homelessness exists because of the denial of the basic human rights of young people and once identified as such, must be remedied as such. Practically, this means that policies, laws and strategies aimed at youth homelessness must recognize international human rights obligations, and be grounded in a human rights framework that will inform all stages of development, implementation and evaluation. A Human rights approach requires a paradigm shift, so that instead of creating laws which discriminate or punish youth, all levels of government must urgently address the systemic causes of youth homelessness and provide legal protections for their human rights, including the right to housing. It is an understanding that youth homelessness is not merely about individual circumstance, but rather a failure of states to act on their human rights responsibilities. (Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness, p. 7)

On June 8, 2016, A Way Home Canada released a comprehensive Youth Homelessness Community Planning Toolkit to ensure communities have the knowledge and tools to plan and implement strategies to prevent and end youth homelessness. Following the Toolkit, we’re proud to release what we consider to be a companion guide to enable communities to adopt and effectively use the language of international human rights law in their plans. Youth Rights! Right Now! Ending Youth Homelessness: A Human Rights Guide is a collaboration of Canada Without Poverty, A Way Home Canada, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and FEANTSA (the European Federation of National Organizations working with the Homeless).

To help us launch the guide, which was funded by Maytree and the Laidlaw Foundation, Lelani has prepared a short video concerning youth homelessness and international human rights law. Please circulate widely and remember that ALL youth have human rights!

Originally published on The Homeless Hub blog.


Melanie Redman is Executive Director, A Way Home: Working Together to End Youth Homelessness in Canada

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.