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North Toronto forum tackles inequality

MPP Mike Colle speaks at a forum on income inequality. Photo by Michael Hudson
MPP Mike Colle speaks at a forum on inequality. Photo by Michael Hudson

By Murray MacAdam

Faith groups joined forces with community agencies and Liberal MPP Mike Colle to sponsor a town hall meeting in North Toronto on inequality. The forum highlighted disturbing trends as well as examples of innovative community action. It drew 75 people, including Archbishop Colin Johnson and other Anglicans.

Held at the North Toronto Community Church on March 20, the event began with a greeting by Pastor Rick Zelinsky, who affirmed Christian justice texts such as Acts 2:44, in which community resources were shared to meet everyone’s basic needs. “For us, it’s all about sharing,” he said.

Mr. Colle, MPP for Eglinton-Lawrence, told the crowd, “We’re here because we’re frustrated.”  His riding includes some residents who enjoy lives of luxury and others who live in the low-income Lawrence Heights neighbourhood, which is marked by 60 per cent unemployment and families torn apart by poverty and deprivation. “I see utter despair,” he said. “I see people living in bedbug-infested apartments.”

Mr. Colle lamented today’s tax-cut mentality, even among public housing tenants, which is often coupled with criticism of public services such as transit. Echoing a common theme at the event, he said citizens need to “change the conversation” about the value of taxes in providing services for all, especially those on the margins.

He made an impassioned plea for action from churches and corporations, as well as government.  “Yes, government should be doing more. We need to raise the minimum wage. But what are you doing?”

Keynote speaker Trish Hennessy says public services are the 'great equalizer' of Ontario's society. Photo by Michael Hudson
Keynote speaker Trish Hennessy says public services are the ‘great equalizer’ of Ontario’s society. Photo by Michael Hudson

Keynote speaker Trish Hennessy, from the Centre for Policy Alternatives, outlined how income inequality has widened since the 1960s, when the Liberal Party, led by Prime Minister Lester Pearson, campaigned on the slogan, “Good things happen when government cares.” In the past 30 years, Ontario’s poorest citizens have lost ground economically, while the richest one per cent have enjoyed a 71 per cent leap in their income.

Public services are “the great equalizer” of Ontario’s society, she said, and they are paid for by taxes. When she said “taxes are the gift we give each other,” the audience burst into applause. She added that the average middle-income family receives $41,000 in public services such as health care, education and programs.

Inequality affects all of us, she noted, mentioning that societies with a wide rich-poor gap tend to have more crime than more equal societies. Ontarians shouldn’t accept rampant inequality as inevitable, she said. “We need to change expectations of what’s possible.”

Virginia Mills, a member of a local ecumenical social justice group called Voices for a Just Society, spoke of her group’s efforts to help create the political will needed for social change. “This work is about what we believe it means to be faithful. We need to be outraged that there are so many Torontonians living on the streets.”

Representatives from community organizations outlined creative ways in which low-income residents are being equipped to develop their skills and build more humane communities. Shelley Zuckerman from North York Community House outlined how youth and new Canadians are learning how democracy works and how to get involved through a program called Democracy Talks. The North York Harvest Food Bank is involving its clients in community kitchens and trips to nearby farms. Yet the amount of food distributed has doubled in the past five years, said director Anete Chawla.  “We’re quite concerned about what that bodes for the future,” she said.

Archbishop Johnson called for new ways of thinking and acting about poverty and inequality. He rejected the scarcity argument, which is often mentioned in public policy debates, saying “we have all the abundance we need.” He also noted the change in public discourse in recent decades, from speaking of “citizens” to “consumers” to today’s common term, “taxpayers.” He said, “We need to grow our capacity to talk about citizenship again.” He echoed the call to action, encouraging forum participants to help shape public policy. “Let your voice be heard.”

Murray MacAdam is the diocese’s Social Justice and Advocacy consultant.