The Jane-Finch community held a meeting and nobody came.
Not Toronto councillors Georgio Mammoliti or Maria Augimeri. Not MPP Mario Sergio. And not MP Judy Sgro.
Only Councillor Anthony Perruzza showed up.
“Unfortunately, this is typical for us,” said Wanda MacNevin, of the Jane-Finch Community and Family Centre. “Our five political representatives have never sat down in a room together to discuss our needs or what they can do to help. It’s no wonder nothing changes.”
The community, which intersects three city wards, had invited its municipal, provincial and federal politicians to hear the results of a survey conducted by a local task force that asked residents what “neighbourhood improvement” meant to them.
The survey was the community’s response to the Toronto Strong Neighbourhood Strategy 2020, a 15-year city effort to improve the health and wealth of its poorest districts.
Of Toronto’s 31 so-called “Neighbourhood Improvement Areas,” Black Creek and Glenfield-Jane Heights scored lowest in terms of health, well-being and social equity. Both neighbourhoods fall within the Jane-Finch community, an area in the city’s northwest corner that residents say is getting worse, not better, in terms of social services and economic opportunities.
“There is a profound level of poverty and lack of engagement of local politicians,” said MacNevin, a member of the Jane-Finch Toronto Strong Neighbourhood Strategy Task Force, which conducted the survey as part of a larger report on the area’s woes. “How does a community like Jane-Finch change or grow in an environment like this? For things to happen, the politicians have to be talking to each other.”
Sgro and Sergio sent representatives to the meeting. Augimeri’s assistant was sick. And Mammoliti never even responded, MacNevin said.
Perruzza listened politely, said Sabrina “Butterfly” GoPaul, who helped organize the forum. But he spent most of his time checking his cellphone, she added.
“It is very frustrating,” said GoPaul, who grew up in the neighbourhood and is an outreach worker for the Black Creek Community Health Centre.
“While individuals in this community are incredibly resilient, there are so many structural problems that resiliency alone will not overcome,” she said. “Our schools have the highest expulsion rates in the city. We have more children in child welfare. And our residents are disproportionately subject to police carding and other forms of racism.”
Cheryl Prescod, executive director of the health centre, raised her three children in the area and has been involved as both a resident and a service provider for 25 years.
She is also frustrated by the neighbourhood’s continuing struggles.
Not only are residents impoverished, but most of the grassroots community programs are under financial pressure, living from grant to grant.
Many area residents rely on precarious employment with no health benefits. Often, it means they can’t afford to fill prescriptions when they are sick, which leads to more serious illness. When they call an ambulance, they are hit with an even larger bill, Prescod said.
“And we all pay more when they end up in hospital,” she added.
Ill health is also related to residents’ lack of access to nutritious food. Fear of crime keeps many indoors and robs them of the simple pleasure and physical benefit of walking in their neighbourhood, she said.
With few jobs in the neighbourhood and poor transit, many residents are forced to buy cars to get to work. And yet the area’s high rates of automobile vandalism and theft mean drivers with Jane-Finch addresses pay more for car insurance than those in other parts of the city.
Meantime, the scarcity of affordable child care means young mothers can’t go back to school to upgrade their skills or pursue employment, Prescod said.
Living conditions also add to the community’s woes. Public housing buildings that date to the 1970s are in dire need of repairs. Private apartment towers are no better, she added.
“We want to see the public and private sector take responsibility for their properties and bring them up to acceptable standards,” said GoPaul. “We don’t want the land sold to fund the kind of gentrification and resident displacement we have seen downtown.”
But Councillor Mammolitti, who criticizes GoPaul and other social service workers as the only people in the area who benefit from public money, disagrees.
“These buildings need to be torn down and replaced with mixed-income neighbourhoods,” he said.
Area MP Sgro, who was recently re-elected to Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government, has complained bitterly about how nine years of Conservative rule in Ottawa has short-changed Jane-Finch.
Successive Conservative budgets did little to promote job creation and ignored single parents, blue-collar labourers, low-income seniors, struggling students and unemployed workers in Humber River-Black Creek, she said.
But Sgro, who says she has also called meetings with area councillors and has not been able to get them all to attend, bemoaned the lack of a common political front.
“One of the things that is damning to communities is when you don’t have that social cohesion and you don’t have the political cohesion, either,” she said. “Coming together, recognizing the challenges and trying to find solutions would be a much better way to go.”
“Now that we’ve got a minister for families, children and social change — which is the first time ever — we’re going to be able to look at these areas and I hope work together with the city and province to make sure we’ve got funding... and we’ll see the difference.”
Trudeau’s new tax-free child benefit could pump as much as $500 a month more into the wallets of low-income families with children, Sgro noted.
“That should stop people from having to go to food banks at the end of the month. I think it’s going to make a huge difference in communities like ours,” she said.
MacNevin, who has sent the Jane-Finch task force report to Mayor John Tory, Premier Kathleen Wynne and numerous other public officials, isn’t going to wait for area politicians to act.
She and the other task force members are making plans to meet with the mayor, Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell and Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, who are both in charge of poverty reduction for their respective governments.
“We are tired of our area being treated like an afterthought,” she said. “We need some action.”
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Sources / More info: tst-jf