Al Stapleton, 94, is visiting the fields of battle in World War II Italy this week as a member of Canada’s Official Delegation to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Italian campaign. He is our father.
This is his third visit to Italy. The second time was ten years ago for the 60th anniversary. His first visit was seven decades ago.
For the first four decades of our lives, we heard little about his wartime experience in Italy. It took a long time for the painful stories of war emerge.
He arrived in July 1943 under the cloak of darkness and raging storms as part of one of the largest expeditionary forces in history. Departing from a troop carrier, he waded ashore to a beach in southern Sicily close to the sleepy villages of Pachino and Ispica. For the next 20 months, the Canadians, made their way north fighting the Germans in a historic war of attrition. The Allies won, but there was a heavy price to pay – and not only for those who didn’t return.
Beyond frequent exposure to the loss of young lives, Al’s memories of his daily regimen on his first visit endure in sharp contrast to his present experience of comfortable hotels and restaurants enjoying carpaccio and caprese.
During the war, meals consisted of ersatz fare served erratically while accommodations consisted of tents and slit trenches exposed to two cold, wet winters and the sweltering summers of 1943 and 1944. After he returned, he experienced years of undiagnosed illness that is now well known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At the time, he was advised to deal with whatever it was on his own.
This week Al will visit three of the places where he experienced brushes with death – Cassino, Ortona and Rimini. At Cassino, Al was part of a major troop movement that inadvertently took a wrong turn when the officer in charge of the convoy misread the road signs and moved within range of the enemy. Dumbfounded Allied soldiers looked up in horror from their slit trenches as the Canadians entered into harm’s way. German soldiers looked down in confusion at the spectacle. An order was given to reverse course. Not a shot was fired.
At the Moro River in 1944, Al lived in a pup tent on the same field for two months during the wettest coldest winter in memory. Every Saturday night, two men received a pass to go south to the nearest town to see the movies. When Al got his turn, he returned to his camp to find that shelling had killed some men in his camp. The Germans used self-propelled guns that they would run up to the front line and set them in motion to shell the roads.
Near Rimini, in the small town of Russi, Al spent his off-hours in a local shoe repair shop that had thick stone walls. One day, enemy sympathizers directed shellfire from adjacent rooftops. He recalls being thankful for those stone walls. As an aside, Al also remembers the shoemaker yelling choice newly-learned English language epithets at a picture of the Pope when he hit his fingers with a hammer.
History tells us that the Canadian troops did themselves proud.
At the 60th commemoration in 2004, an Italian reporter asked:
“Did the Germans respect the Canadian army?”
Always one with high expectations of interviewers, Al replied,
“The German used volunteers against Canadians.”
Only when pressed, he explained, “elite soldiers”.
In the end, Al’s first return to Canada was unremarkable. Most Canadian soldiers in that campaign avoided spending eternity on Italian or Sicilian soil. What is remarkable is that he is participating in the 70th anniversary commemoration, one of about 30 former soldiers out of the 95,000 that served in the Italian Campaign, a 1 in 3000 chance to return after 70 years.
Truth to tell, when he was there, he was just a number, an everyday soldier; however, time raises and equalizes status and those who endure return as 30 very important people, now equal in stature, to commemorate Canadian glory.
Al was one of the lucky ones. He was in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals maintaining Enigma machines behind Allied lines. But risk for a soldier is relative. Two of his buddies in the Signal Corps never made it beyond the second day in Sicily. They were shot dead not far from Al when a German Focke-Wulf 190 strafed the Sicilian shoreline with 50 caliber guns on July 12, 1943. Their bodies were not returned to Canada and Al visited them for the first time at the Canadian graveyard at Agira in 2004. If Al had not huddled beside a tough cactus plant, he would have joined the two men buried at Agira with whom he signed up at London, Ontario on September 10, 1939.
Without these chance events of survival, Al would not be here. And neither would we, which brings us to reflect on the vagaries of war. Our existence today is a matter of dumb luck. If Al had been killed on any of these three occasions, someone else could be telling this tale. We are grateful for this turn of fate.
Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
John Stapleton, is a social policy analyst in Toronto.
Those of us who make up the OW and ODSP rolls, who haven’t worked for years, who have struggled with homelessness, addictions, mental illness and abuse, are at a crossroads in this city.
We need to understand that, unless we really start to confront the stark choices we’re facing, there will be no real opportunity to improve our lives through education, training and employment. Why is this?
There are limited resources available to us, and most of those dollars go to agencies, shelters, food banks, community kitchens and drop-ins, to maintain the status quo, to keep us from dying on city sidewalks and alleyways which would disturb public consciousness and elected officials. At least two-thirds of funding given to agencies goes to rent, staff, and benefits.
These places constitute a poor substitute- a pathetic consolation prize- for a life of value and purpose, still we cling to them, for they are all we have, and often the devil you know is preferable to the uncertainty and demands of independence and change.
So we spend our long days lining up in front of locked doors, waiting for access to dingy and crowded spaces, we line up for food banks and shelters, we line up for meals and donated clothing and for a chance to ask for TTC tokens to make it home or to a bed or hospital or to appointments with workers and other gatekeepers.
“The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it this way’.” Grace Hopper
We lose our sense of ourselves as viable individuals – understandable, since belief in our potential is absent. And we lose our sense of community, treating each other with the same disrespect and dismissal we encounter too often ourselves.
We have no champions in this fight to regain some of what makes life worth living.
Politicians and policy makers want easy wins. They want to point to success, so they go to the ‘low-hanging fruit’, those who have the least problems, those who, with a little boost, can achieve. It makes for good press, it supports the illusion that we are doing something constructive about poverty.
Many of those on the right believe there are deserving and undeserving poor. Many of those on the left believe there are categories as well, witness terms like ‘hard to serve’ and ‘hard to house’ applied to those whose labels loom large. Both blame the victims.
Many of those on the right believe everyone should work, that homelessness and poverty are a life-style choice, and that OW enables addictions and street existence. Too many of those on the left believe that people can’t work, need burgeoning supports and that increasing the levels of social assistance by one hundred dollars is the only policy corrective needed.
“To blame the poor for subsisting on welfare has no justice unless we are also willing to judge every rich member of society by how productive he or she is. Taken individual by individual, it is likely that there’s more idleness and abuse of government favors among the economically privileged than among the ranks of the disadvantaged.” Norman Mailer
On the right, there is frustration and fury about the number of social agencies targeting the long-term poor. On the left, there is a constant demand to increase the numbers and the funding given to agencies, and in spite of outcomes that are dismal they continue to say “more”.
On the right, there are stories and claims of welfare cheats, on the left they’ve given up the battle to tackle discrimination and prejudice against the poor, instead pushing children to the forefront, who, at least till they reach the age of majority, are innocent victims who hopefully can’t be attacked or denied.
Neither the right nor the left believe the long-term poor are a good bet, an easy win, if the right investments are made. Neither the right nor the left have any understanding of what keeps people on the rolls.
The best thing for the children of the poor is to see their parents succeed. Otherwise, we are simply ensuring that agencies and shelters and drop-ins will never lack for clients, that the poor are a renewable natural resource that will never dwindle.
We, those with lived experience, must challenge the status quo; we must be the change agents, we must dare to speak our truths even when gate-keepers and those who derive their status and employment from our communities deny us our right to speak, to engage, to point out the systemic failures that guarantee their jobs and our continued poverty.
Picture yourself walking confidently to the door of an agency, and reaching for your key to open that door. Picture yourself eating dinner, made up of your choice of foods, in the quiet and calm of your own kitchen. Picture yourself in a classroom learning, or in a social enterprise bringing life back to neighbourhoods.
If it’s a choice between supporting agency staff and failed programs, or using those funds to create opportunities and pathways out of poverty, which would you chose?
November 16, 2014
On November 3, 2014, I drove a woman for whom I advocate named Linda Chamberlain to two payday lending outfits. She was taking cash advances from one to pay the other after maxing out a credit card which she used for cash advances to pay for food and non-insured medical supplies. She is 65 and suffers from a variety of mental and physical illnesses.
In one month, she had racked up credit card and fees of $238, $93 for going over a credit limit, $105 in payday lender fees and the rest in interest at 19.7%. She needed $60 that morning for medical supplies and food.
Inside the second of the two payday lenders, we carefully counted out the $605 she needed to pay off a debt of $500 from two weeks before. We got our receipt and began to turn away when the ‘teller’ said with a very genuine smile “OK, how much do you need this time? You are eligible for another $500.” I said “no – that will be alright… no more loans”. The teller looked mildly surprised and I said “don’t people just pay off their loan and leave?”
She said breezily “yeah, it does happen … I remember a guy who just left after paying off his balance”.
I had a long discussion with Linda as to what she would have to do to get things under control. I called her friends. We talked about the incredible power imbalances she faced.
As I left Linda that day to shop for groceries, she turned to me and said “You should write this up and use my name”. I said I would do exactly that.
The financial literacy movement is a good thing. It is especially good for disadvantaged groups who have the most to gain from understanding our public facing financial institutions in Canada. Financial literacy means having the knowledge, skills and confidence to make responsible financial decisions.
But financial literacy as a movement ‘locates’ the problem of poor financial decision-making with the individual as opposed to our financial infrastructure and governments.
Individuals have little power in comparison to large financial institutions and their products are subject to what governments can and will regulate. Low income people who comprise priority groups for financial literacy have the least power of all.
It is possible to look at this state of affairs as a power imbalance – between low income people vs financial institutions and the governments that regulate them.
There are five elements of this power imbalance that relate to the poor:
1.A power imbalance in onus: the onus in most public facing financial dealings is placed on the low income consumer not only to understand complex financial transactions but to inform, be informed, pay, and behave in their own best interests. When there are financial troubles like inability to pay, the onus on the low income consumer always increases and the attendant costs to the consumer increases by the greatest amount.
Key examples: right of offset; insufficient funds (NSF), credit card balance limit fees
2. A power imbalance in products: the worst, most toxic products for low income people are those that are marketed the hardest with the most intrusive tactics with the least information coupled with the greatest degree of complexity. They are often the products with the highest profit margins.
Key Examples: Balance protection, accident and no-medical life insurance, pre-paid credit cards with up-front fees.
3. A power imbalance in advice: while good advice is available to the well to do, the financial advice available to low income people – who often benefit from a complicated web of benefit programs is almost non-existent.
The good advice that is available to those with low income most often receives ‘bake-sale’ funding and is held together through ‘chicken wire and glue’ networks delivered by poorly paid advisors in underfunded or non-funded community agencies, storefronts and church basements. Meanwhile, bad advice to low income people is lavishly funded by financial institutions.
While mainstream financial institutions largely choose to remain willfully ignorant of the financial benefits available to low income people, they frequently dispense flawed advice to purchase high profit instruments that are financially ruinous to the poor. Moreover, financial predators outside of the mainstream pedal questionable products to those who understand the system the least, gambling that they will be easily misled.
Key Examples: RRSP’s to low income near aged; high MER mutual funds, get rich quick schemes
4. A power imbalance in expertise: The reality is that there is almost no formal education and no curricula supporting the good advice that could be given to low income people; that is, the advice that would be in their interest. There is little reason that a financial advisor would learn what low income people require as there is little or no remuneration within the system to compensate it.
Key Examples: failure of financial advisors to recommend early CPP and TFSA’s over RRSP’s.
5. A power imbalance in advertising and media availability: Good products for those with low income suffer from almost non-existent media coverage (Rob Carrick, Ellen Roseman and Preet Banerjee are exceptions) while bad products like no-medical life insurance enjoy ‘carpet-bombing’ advertising budgets. The simple reality is that low payout, high profit products can sustain massive advertising budgets.
Key examples: High MER mutual funds and no-medical life insurance
If the five elements of this power balance were redressed and low income people became even marginally financially literate, most if not all of the above named products in the key examples above would virtually disappear as the small sliver of the population that could actually benefit from them would be insufficient to sustain their markets.
However, the size and complexity of the financial maze in Canada is growing at a much faster rate than the reach of the financial literacy tools designed to navigate it.
Training low income people to become financially literate begs the question of why there are so many toxic products in the first place.
The priority groups all of which tend to be over-represented by low income people are not ‘affluent people who just don’t happen to have any money’. They mostly live in a ‘parallel universe’ where products that are advantageous to the well-to do simply don’t apply to them.
Key Example: RRSPs -no tax deduction if no taxes paid, no tax refund, fully deducted from social assistance, and they reduce Old age supplements in retirement.
But all the financial literacy in the world will not reduce or eliminate what is known as the ‘endorsement effect’ where low income people with low financial literacy believe that products that are freely and lavishly advertised with little adverse publicity are ‘endorsed’ by the media, governments, and the public. Much more can be done as evidenced by the anti-smoking movement.
What do cigarettes have to do with financial literacy?
The power imbalance
Approximately 50 years ago, medical evidence began to show conclusively that tobacco use was hazardous to our health. Over the next five decades, a relentlessly pervasive and powerful movement changed the landscape in which tobacco products were consumed. Much of the power imbalance that was decidedly in favour of ‘big tobacco’ was reversed.
Although tobacco products did not become illegal, the power imbalance that was firmly on the side of big tobacco completely changed. It took 50 years but it did change.
Cigarettes are uniformly bad for us but as a society, we still allow them to be sold. It took us a long time to understand just how bad they were. Many financial products are just as toxic and it is taking us a long time to understand this. No medical life insurance, balance protection, and high MER mutual funds are financially toxic. Pre-paid charge cards with high fees are financially toxic.
Financial literacy is in its infancy and arguably in the same place the anti-smoking movement was 50 years ago. It may take another 50 years to get financial literacy to the place that the anti-smoking movement is today.
Let’s look at the five elements of the power imbalance that we just looked at for financial literacy.
1. The power imbalance of onus: the onus is still on consumers to refrain from smoking and to get help if they do. But sales of cigarettes are restricted. They must not be in plain sight. They cannot be sold to children and there is an onus on the industry to tell us just how bad cigarettes are for our health. The cost of cigarettes is very high. Where and when cigarettes can be smoked is highly regulated.
2. The power imbalance in products: Cigarettes continue to morph. Flavoured tobacco, e-cigarettes, cigarillos, cool cigars. Just like the financial industry, new seductive products abound. But the anti-smoking movement and government regulation continues to be strong. Every new product is carefully evaluated and intrusive regulation is never far behind.
3.The power imbalance in advice: Here is where everything has changed. All the advice is negative. No one seriously champions smoking. We are light years from telling a poor 60 year old that they should (categorically) not buy an RRSP. We are light years from telling a poor 60 year-old who is working that they should always take early CPP.
At one time we would say that someone who smokes may not get cancer or COPD and that someone close to them may not be harmed by second hand smoke. We don’t say these things anymore.
4. The power imbalance in expertise: Another game changer. For years, the tobacco companies said that there was no conclusive evidence that smoking caused cancer. Many smoked and did not get cancer. The experts all agree now. For financial literacy and the toxic products, this is many years away.
5.The power imbalance in advertising and media availability: Yet another sea change –another game changer. The sports endorsements stopped. No magazine advertising, no television, no radio. The media tap was turned off but more importantly, the tobacco industry was forced to turn on itself and publish pictures of dying lungs and anti-smoking bumper stickers.
Imagine if payday lenders were forced to put government health warnings on their products and show pictures of homeless people on their brochures. How about pictures of people being evicted? Or pictures of stacks of cash lost to high MER mutual funds? Or the money lost to balance protection schemes?
The cigarette analogue works because tobacco was thought to be a glamourous product that did not cause any harm that was later discovered to be harmful. Toxic financial products are much the same.
What do casino card counters have to do with financial literacy?
The power imbalance
Casino card counters can sway the odds in their favour when playing 21 (blackjack). Normally the odds are in favour of ‘the house’ but card counters can slowly move the odds in their favour and win enormous amounts of money. When discovered, ‘the house’ excludes the counters.
The card counter analogy is often used to describe the credit and liquidity crisis that was in part responsible for the Great Recession of 2008-09. The financial card counters introduced new sub-prime mortgage products (Collateralized Debt Obligations or CDOs) and insured them through other new products (Credit Default Swaps or CDS). When the house of cards came down when the market for CDOs dried up, the card counters protested and said they wanted to continue to play even though they ‘brought down the house’.
The financial card counters were excluded from the game but have since been allowed to re-enter. The house cannot exclude them. Yet there are new rules that make it harder for them to ‘bring down the house’.
Payday lenders and no-medial insurance brokers are the card counters on the Canadian financial landscape. They play by different rules and they take away business from ‘the House’ of mainstream financial players. Unlike the real card counters of Las Vegas fame who are excluded from the gaming table, payday lenders are more like the financial card counters that have been allowed to re-enter the game on Wall Street.
The payday lenders are permitted to charge much higher interest rates than anyone else. They tell clients that they have “accounts” but their accounts are different in that the customer is just a name in a database. There is no right of offset. They offer the low income consumer 100% protection from the financial mainstream.
But payday lenders insist that clients have mainstream accounts before they play by their own set of different rules. Their products are toxic but like tobacco, they can legally sell their products to the public.
So let’s take another look at the five elements of the power imbalance that exists between payday lenders and their public. Will it be like cigarettes or will it be like financial literacy?
1.The power imbalance of onus: The card counter is kicked out on discovery and banned from the casino.
But the card counter of Wall Street and the payday lender is allowed to game the system with the onus placed 100% on the low income consumer. Not one single product in the payday lender store, from cheque cashing to payday loans to high fee charge cards to pawn broking services would ever be purchased by financially literate persons unless they were desperate. Desperation turns onus into necessity.
2.The power imbalance in products: All the products of the card counter are self-serving. In real life, the card counter is trying to walk away with the largest profit without breaking the bank. If he inadvertently breaks the bank, there are more banks to break. Their motives are selfish.
No payday lender products are in place to ‘help’ the consumer. They are in place to make money. Real card counters are stopped before they break the bank. Financial card counters are there to take the consumer to the breaking point but not to break him or her – just to keep them at the breaking point as long as they can.
3.The power imbalance in advice: Most mainstream advice argues against payday lenders but payday lenders also know when to hold back; they know when to relent. They need to hold their customers, not destroy them.
This is where their advice comes in. The brochures and pamphlets prepared by payday lenders are the best in the industry. They are accurate, well written, use clear language and provide good advice. They are miles better and much more relevant than any written material coming from any bank or any level of government.
Their written material fully understands the zero tolerance, immediate world of their customer who needs money now to pay off creditors who want their money (now) and will punish harshly for missed deadlines.
Government and mainstream advice counsels low income people to become people who don’t need immediate money and to stay away from punishing creditors. But that is like telling poor people not be poor. Mainstream advice is for people who are already getting out of poverty, not for those who are in its throes.
For the world of poverty, payday lenders have the best advice. Their flaw is that they then substitute themselves as the zero tolerance punishing creditor.
4. The power imbalance in expertise: Payday lenders know their customers. They exploit the colour palette of fast food that boasts immediate gratification with the illusion of individual choice: yellow, red, black, brown and white.
The ‘inside’ of the payday loan store is like a casino – very different from the outside. No clocks, pastel colours, cleverly arranged shiny products hanging from ersatz trees with bows and little tags noting that they are ‘for you’ (e.g. high fee prepaid credit cards).The payday lender understands their customers and knows how to market. They are unerringly pleasant to poorly dressed customers. They never scold. They never lecture. They understand ritual payment and re-lending but most of all they understand immediate gratification. They get ‘now’ in a mainstream world that is telling them ‘later’.
5. The power imbalance in advertising and media availability: “Wouldn’t you like to leave money for your loved ones? Of course you would. Call us today”
Payday lenders and especially no-medical insurance providers understand advertising and how to entice the financially illiterate by reframing unpleasant compulsion (the world of those in low income) with empowered choice.
For example, reverse mortgage firms remind the consumer that they never have to repay until they choose to move or sell. Most seniors who need money are going to be compelled to move at some point because they become infirm or cannot otherwise make it on their own. Few choose to sell yet the reverse mortgage provider frames the unpleasant compulsion as an empowered choice.
Payday lenders frame themselves as providing easy and fast empowered choice even though almost everyone passing through their doors is experiencing unpleasant and often zero-tolerance compulsion from others.
What does the Jian Ghomeshi firestorm have to do with financial literacy?
The power imbalance
Almost no time passed before media were asking why Ghomeshi’s victims did not come forward. Just as quickly, the answer was agreed by all to be the power imbalance between Mr. Ghomeshi and his victims. They stood to lose and he stood to gain. The courts put the onus on the woman. Public opinion sides with celebrity.
But in six or seven days, the power imbalance in favour of Mr. Ghomeshi utterly and completely reversed in favour of his victims. His defense of consent vaporized. It completely evaporated in a week. The anti-smoking movement must have been awed by the speed the power balance changed. That which took decades for others took a week for Mr. Ghomeshi.
Note: It is important to distinguish between what occurred in Mr. Ghomeshi’s case is not the case for sexual assault in general but many believe that it is important start for the change that is required.
The important analogue here is that Mr. Ghomeshi’s case made public the importance of power imbalances and where they are located. In Mr. Ghomeshi’s instance, the victims believed (until everything changed) that the power imbalance did not favour them in obtaining redress.
It is a teachable moment for the financial literacy movement because the movement is based on empowering the victim to fight against financial institutions and governments that hold the balance of power over them. Until Mr. Ghomeshi was publicly disgraced, most people (and especially his victims) believed that they would not be able to obtain redress.
This is exactly the same dilemma that faces the financial literacy movement in that massive power imbalances rig the financial system in favour of an industry that games the low income consumer and governments that are only able to address a small sliver of the problems that face low income financial consumers.
Real redress will only occur when financially toxic products and practices are removed from the marketplace (or identified as toxic like cigarettes) and the power imbalance changed. Although not what he had in mind, Jian Ghomeshi gave us a textbook example of how imbalances occur and how they get redressed.
The blinding speed at which it happened was breathtaking. The fact that his defence of consent simply evaporated (at warp speed) was exhilarating.
Social movements across Canada will be studying this case closely. Financial fairness advocates will be trying to understand the nature of the event.
And at this writing, in the eyes of the law, Mr. Ghomeshi has done nothing wrong, has committed no crime, has not been charged with anything and yet his game is unalterably over. Let’s look at how Mr. Ghomeshi fares in the five elements of power imbalances.
1. The power imbalance of onus: The onus was on the women. Now it is on Mr. Ghomeshi. In court with the media’s help, the onus that is routinely placed on women in sexual assault cases can and will be redressed.
Could the same thing happen for someone who pays thousands in accumulated fees for a purchase of a few hundred dollars?
Could she get her money back?
2. The power imbalance in products: Mr. Ghomeshi’s product was his hosting and his celebrity. Most of the women became in enmeshed in the power imbalance of his products. With the change in the imbalance, they have all been released and they are all exonerated. The women who have come forward were believed and uniformly supported.
Could the same thing happen for someone who bought balance protection to insure them against becoming disabled or unemployed when they already suffered those hazards?
Could they get their money back?
3. The power imbalance in advice: Very little advice was available to the victims before the power imbalance changed. Now chiefs of police are standing up to support the women. Heads of Detectives are publicly announcing that there will be prime facie acceptance of their stories. Mr. Ghomeshi hinged his public defense on consent and the frame that values consent. Consent and the frame that values consent no longer resides on Planet Earth.
Could the same thing happen for low income people who have had every cent emptied from their bank accounts without their consent along with outsized fees and cancellation of their credit?
Could they get their money back?
4. The power imbalance in expertise: Advisers to Mr. Ghomeshi bailed from his corner as fast as they could. His only expertise remaining is legal and there is a massive legal establishment waiting to get at him from every possible angle.
Could the same thing happen for low income people who are advised at age 60 to buy RRSP’s or apply for CPP later ( at age 65) when it is irrevocably against their financial interest to do so?
Could they get their money back?
5. The power imbalance in advertising and media availability: The media turned 180 degrees on Mr. Ghomeshi. Their fawning accolades turned to ridicule and scorn inside of a week. His reputation was in tatters and his considerable talents made irrelevant.
Could the same thing happen for low income people whose bank advisors routinely provide advice that results in losses of thousands of dollars? Could they get their money back?
I always enjoy having bank staff (often managers) come to my seminars that I hold for low income people in Toronto and elsewhere. Sometimes I have a little fun at the end and ask them publicly – in front of the low income audience – if they have balance protection on their own credit cards or whether they have ‘no-medical life insurance or bank issued accident insurance.
I have yet to see a hand go up.
November 9, 2014
This blog is my submission to the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada for inclusion in its consultation with Canadians on financial literacy for priority groups.
“Scarborough has long been seen as Toronto’s wasteland and a subway is something too expensive for an outpost like Scarborough” 
Mary Wiens, CBC Reporter, Metro Morning, Toronto
Wednesday September 3, 2014
On September 3, 2014, CBC Toronto’s Metro Morning website introduced a radio interview with one Scarborough resident in the following manner:
Transit is one of the most important issues in this mayoral campaign, especially in Scarborough. Mary Wiens spoke with voters in Scarborough, who could be key in deciding who becomes the next mayor.”
This is a blog that in some ways I am reluctant to write. I like Metro Morning. I like Matt Galloway and I really like Mary Wiens. I always turn up the radio to listen to the interviews she conducts as they are unerringly empathetic and thought-provoking.
She conducted her September 3 interview with one Scarborough voter who favours the building of a subway connecting Don Mills Station to Scarborough Town Centre.
The interview covers a gamut of issues from Scarborough’s building boom to the perception that Scarborough is treated unfairly from a public transit perspective.
In less than seven minutes, the interview engages what she calls the ‘politics of resentment’ that could result from the building of a Scarborough subway line. She explores the political oddity manifested in the fact that Scarborough subways have already been approved.
“If Scarborough gets a subway instead of an LRT, everyone will have to pay more. City council has voted to approve a city-wide property tax increase to extend the Bloor line. No wonder the Scarborough subway has become a political football. There’s room here for the politics of resentment. It will mean a tax hike.”
She ends by noting accurately that a mayoralty outcome could be decided by a hot-button issue like the Scarborough subway.
But even as the Metro Morning interview did a thorough job in covering the many political nuances of the Scarborough subway debate, it also accomplished something far more damaging.
The Framing of Scarborough as a resented district
Ironically, by correctly noting that “There’s room here for the politics of resentment”, the interview itself creates that room by participating in the degradation of one of Toronto’s largest districts.
Let’s start with the framing of the story. This is not hard to do. Ms. Wiens makes it easy by framing Scarborough with no hint of guile or deception:
“Scarborough has long been seen as Toronto’s wasteland…”
Here are some on-line definitions of ‘wasteland’:
“An unused area of land that has become barren or overgrown.
A bleak, unattractive, and unused or neglected urban or industrial area.
Land where nothing can grow or be built: land that is not usable
An ugly and often ruined place or area
Something that is being compared to a large, empty area of land because it has no real value or interest.”
“…and a subway is something too expensive for an outpost like Scarborough”
Here are some on-line definitions of ‘outpost’:
“A small military camp or position at some distance from the main force, used especially as a guard against surprise attack.
A remote part of a country or empire.
A large military camp that is in another country or that is far from a country’s center of activity
A small town in a place that is far away from other towns or cities”
OK. So I don’t have to say anything more about the words used in the framing. We know how Mary thinks Scarborough has “long been seen”. The blunt force of the negative language and framing are about as subtle as being hit by a Mack truck.
And the evidence for how Scarborough has long been seen? Is it authoritative? Is it from polling? Is it from reports or commissions? The answer is no.
The renaming of Scarborough to ‘Scarberia’, ‘Scarlem’ and ‘Scareberia’
It’s not that hard to find where the evidence comes from. If you take a truly scattershot approach to research, it is possible to find a few sensationalist articles over the years that either make fun of Scarborough or link it to crime:
“Eye Weekly has noted that most media in the Greater Toronto Area has long portrayed Scarborough as an “embarrassment” and a “gang-infested wild, wild east”. For instance, the Toronto Life article “The Scarborough Curse”, by Don Gillmor, nicknamed the former city “Scarlem” and described it as “a mess of street gangs, firebombings and stabbings”. In 2005, a series of gang-related shootings in some Scarborough neighbourhoods led to the portrayal of Scarborough in the media as crime-ridden. As well, based on an informal survey of people on the streets in the Greater Toronto Area, a reporter noted that most respondents associated Scarborough with “crime” or “ghetto”.[28”
Here’s the effect on a Scarborough resident:
“Whenever I tell people I live here they make a stupid comment like “Oh, have you ever been shot?”. Sure there are some bad pockets in Scarborough, but there are bad ones EVERYWHERE – all over Toronto and every other city. I live in a nice area, and there are many nice areas in Scarborough.
And why on TV, when there is a crime and it occurs in Scarborough, do they say it was in Scarborough? When it’s in North York, they’ll say something like “Yonge and Sheppard” or something. Scarborough is HUGE, it’s almost a third of the city.”
It doesn’t matter a whit that almost all of the facts in all the articles are wrong and based on perceptions gleaned in one-off, highly selective interviews and informal surveys. The reality is that:
“…long term trends show that Scarborough is less prone to violent crime than the rest of Toronto. Between 1997 and 2006, the ratio of violent crime in Scarborough averaged 20.4% despite making up on average 23.6% of the population over that period. Murder rates for Scarborough and Toronto show no particular trend. Between 1997 and 2006, the ratio of murders in Scarborough as compared to the rest of Toronto ranged from a low of 8.8% to a high of 32.2%. According to Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, “[42 Division is] the safest division in the city”; this division includes north Scarborough. The safest part of Toronto is north Scarborough from Victoria Park Ave. to the Pickering border, north of Highway 401.”
So where are we?
The media concocts a Scarborough narrative mostly through decades of selective reporting of crime and the incessant addiction of junk journalism to scapegoating communities in which their offices are not located and their reporters don’t reside.
We know that’s going to happen and that’s going to continue.
Life on Planet Earth.
Taking stigma to the next step
But the CBC, a publicly funded broadcaster with a presumed code of conduct, takes it a subtle but catastrophic step further.
Ms. Wiens intimates that because of Scarborough’s reputation in some quarters – built on the shoddiest of self-serving evidence from sensationalist sources, means “…that a subway may be too expensive for an outpost like Scarborough”.
In other words, the subtle point being made is that Subways may be appropriate for places with neutral or good reputations but too expensive for places that have – in her eyes – bad reputations.
Unbelievable! Just writing this, I almost lose my breath.
The characteristics of successful degradation ceremonies are the lifeblood of stigma and fellow Scarborough residents, you have just experienced an attack on your District’s reputation that takes the manufacturing of stigma to a whole new level.
Fully one quarter of Toronto’s population living on over one third of its area just took the hit.
The subtleties of political subway-speak
Let’s conclude with just one more subtlety. In negative political subway-speak, subways are always ‘to Scarborough’ from the centre of the universe (hint: downtown) but subways within the downtown are never conceived as being ‘to Rosedale’ or ‘to the Danforth’ or ‘to High Park’ because none are framed as outposts. They are within the downtown’s warm positive frame, the frame to which much of the media swears it allegiance.
So when I sit in my Scarborough home, should I be thinking of the cost of streetcars? We have none.
Should I be thinking of the costs of a 400 series north-south road corridor? We are the only district in the GTA without one.
Should I be thinking about the cost of bus services that serve Rosedale even though residents there have 5 subway stations that surround their perimeter?
The answer is no because that’s the real politics of resentment. I don’t want others to get less just because I get less.
But I should not have to think that subways are too expensive because someone thinks I live in a wasteland or an outpost.
They may be expensive for a lot of reasons but surely not that one.
Js//September 7, 2014
 Mary Wiens, http://www.cbc.ca/video/news/audioplayer.html?clipid=2505716624, at 1 minute, 15 second point
When Deb Matthews meets with Smokey, the OPSEU head, wouldn’t it be cool if she said:
“Smokey, we are on the cusp of great possibilities when it comes to those who are burdened with mental illness, addictions, trauma, and poverty. ”
We have in ignorance wronged this population, now that that this ignorance has been pierced by the very same people we mistakenly de-valued, we must act to right these wrongs.
This is not to suggest workers have deliberately acted in ways that harmed their clients, but best intentions and motives have not helped to significantly alter the outcomes for those same clients.
Two factors have increased the urgency with which we must address these issues.
Economic austerity has opened the door to recognition that the diagnosis of a mental illness should never mean being pensioned off for life that everyone can and should contribute to the life and wealth of the province.
The recent report by Judge Iacobucci into police shootings of people in crisis calls for more system accountability, though I do disagree that we need more dollars, I think we can achieve better co-ordination and certainly better outcomes through re-design, amalgamation, and opening up positions for those with lived experience.
Staff, your members, need to see that recovery and independence are more than possible, they need re-education around engagement with clients, hopefully done by the clients themselves.
More and more we hear from consumer/survivors that they want to work, especially within the systems they know so well, and yearn to affect in positive ways. There is no better way to affect attitudes and assumptions about this population than by working side by side with individuals who have lived the life.
Smokey, I know you and your members are concerned about jobs, in institutions and agencies, and I respect that. But we have broader concerns, we have to look at the waste of human potential, the suffering of those who cannot aspire to contribute their talents and abilities because too often they are unrecognized and unseen.
We cannot ignore the reality that our fractured systems hive off sections of this population, in drop-ins and boarding homes and agencies, and keep them for years in exactly the same circumstances.
There is no coordination, little to no expectations of moving forward, moving on. There is heavy reliance on control and coercion, neither of which make for empowered clients. For this we all must take responsibility, especially governments that funded programs without demands for real outcomes. This must change.
The poor should not be treated as a natural resource to be exploited, nor should we feel that working with this population is a right.
We are all part of the problem. We must all be part of the solution. That will entail opening up traditional union jobs to people with lived experience: we need to re-train workers in the recovery model, ensure that everyone works together to ensure best outcomes. We must reduce paternalism, and reduce the number of programs that simply keep people in place.
While I understand that change is difficult, we cannot continue to sabotage the ability of clients to achieve by spending on programs that do not deliver, or staff that can’t see the human potential in their clients.
I’m a single mother of two boys. One is living with me. We get help from Ontario Works and live in subsidized housing. My son who lives with me is in high school full-time. He was born when I was his age and in high school.
I finished high school. I finished two university degrees. I struggle with occasional bouts of depression, chronic fatigue, and pain.
At the beginning of February this year I went to an ATM to make a withdrawal. Instead of leaving with cash, I left with overwhelming distress. There was no money for me to take out of my only bank account. Had I been a victim of technological theft? Being the beginning of the month, this was especially stressful as I would not receive my child tax credit for another three weeks. In the meantime, I had to pay for transportation to get my son to and from school, I had feed us, and I needed to meet all the other numerous costs of daily living.
When I checked my account activities to find out what had happened, I was dismayed to find that the National Student Loan Service Centre (NSLSC) had cleared out my account. I called the NSLSC to find out why they had done this to a social assistance recipient with no notice or authorization. Didn’t this have to be a mistake?
Upon speaking with an NSLSC representative, I learned that the NSLSC attempted to withdraw an even larger amount of funds. However, they were unable to do so because I did not have enough money in my account. As a consequence, my bank imposed a $45 NSF (not sufficient funds) charge against me. On the failure of their first attempt, the NSLSC proceeded to withdraw a smaller amount. They left me with me with just under $3 in my account.
The NSLSC has never withdrawn money directly from my account before so this event was a great shock to me. As far as I knew, I had not authorized them to withdraw anything. In fact, I have no bills whatsoever set up for automatic payment. So, as far as I knew, I retained complete autonomy and control over the distribution of my funds. I was wrong.
This incident spawned traumatic feelings of victimization and lack of control, leaving me in a state of terror! It was as if I had a very personal, yet intangible, invisible bully saying to me in a taunting tone:
“You do not deserve to ever achieve a sense of security. I have power over you. Power to drastically alter the quality of your life at any moment. Without notice. For any reason. At my whim, I can go into your personal bank account and take as much money as I want, leaving you totally, utterly, destitute and desperate.”
Needless to say, the actions of the NSLSC had a drastic impact on me and my son. However, the NSLSC representative I phoned explained to me that the withdrawal was not random. Rather, they had the right to take funds out of my bank account because I had submitted my Repayment Assistance application late.
And here is how that subsequent conversation went:
“But you do have my application?”
“So you know I don’t have the money. I need it back!”
“We made no error or mistake so we cannot refund the money we took.”
“But I have $3 left!! How are we supposed to live? How can I feed my son? Get him to school? Wash our clothes? You’ve left me with enough money to get to a food bank, but not enough money to bring the food home! If you have my application, then you know I’m on social assistance. How can you do this to someone you know is on assistance, regardless if they’re late?”
“I’m sorry, we did nothing wrong, so there is nothing for us to correct. As for your NSF charge, talk to your bank. Next time, make sure you get your application in on time. You must do it every six months, like clockwork. The reason we have not done this in the past is because you have always been on time.”
“Right, and this time I wasn’t on time because your system locked me out of your website after I put in an incorrect password a couple of times. So, I called you and you sent me a paper application. I received it in the crux of the holidays and I have been unwell. My health has been affecting my ability to work – that is why I am in this situation in the first place! So while my symptoms are flaring, I lost track of the application for a little while, but a lack of concentration and inability to focus are primary symptoms of my illness!
You expected me to be well within an unrealistically narrow time frame given my illness. An illness which you have on record there too!”
“There’s nothing more we can do for you.”
And so I called my Toronto Social Services (TSS) worker and explained what happened and that I had been left with $3. The conversation with my TSS worker went something like this:
“The Student Loan Centre does do that, but we have nothing to do with them”
“I understand. But, might there be any other supports available to my family? We only have $3.”
“Well, you’ll be getting your child tax credit.”
“Yes, in three weeks. And the bulk of that is already accounted for – to be put towards bills. In the meantime, we need to eat, Troy (pseudonym) needs to get to school, we need to wash our clothes, and I may be called in for a job interview that I can’t afford to get to.”
“I can only give you information on food banks.”
I decided to forgo mentioning that I only had enough money to get to a food bank and not enough to bring the food home. Instead I changed the topic, hoping to solve my problem another way.
“Last month I paid $260 for my son’s college and university applications. I sent you the receipt. The cost of that is covered right?”
“No. TSS would only cover that expense for the social assistance applicant. Children’s expenses are to be covered by the child tax credit.”
“Really? But my son applied for arts programs. These programs require him to submit a portfolio of his work to complete the application process. Submitting the portfolios is another $60 – $80 for each program. So if he wants to go to university or college in the fall, his child tax credit certainly cannot be used for our living expenses. Is TSS not invested in Troy’s education so that he will not soon become a social assistance applicant himself? We need further assistance, if not for the extraordinary circumstance of having my bank account cleared, then at least for Troy’s education! ”
“I can only give you information on food banks.”
Clearly, these two governmental systems (NSLSC, and TSS) were interacting in my family’s life in ways that were simply not working. However, rather than pointing blame toward one or the other player, I would like to outline a model of what effective support could have looked like for citizens in my situation.
A Preferred Model
TSS workers communicate with their clients on regular basis. Unlike representatives of the NSLSC, one worker is assigned to a client to work with them on an ongoing basis. They already assess much micro-data of their clients’ lives, including detailed transactions made in their bank accounts. They support clients to access services that are intended to assist clients towards self-sufficiency.
Therefore, TSS workers are in an opportune position to assess the involvement of other systems in clients’ lives, and the needs clients have with respect to navigating these systems, as they already do with respect to the Family Responsibility Office, for example.
When I applied for social assistance, it may have been helpful if I had the option of informing my worker that I had outstanding student loans that I obviously could not pay. I could have signed just one more, on top of the dozens of forms, consenting that my information be shared by TSS and, in this case, the NSLSC.
Upon doing so, the information that my income source is social assistance could have been shared with NSLSC, allowing time, money, and resources to be saved by automatically extending my Repayment Assistance status, rather than processing additional applications every six months while also informing the banks. This would not only allow greater efficiency of government resources, but it would allow me to allocate more of my personal resources toward my own development toward self-sufficiency and actualization. Multiplied by the number of OW and ODSP clients who have outstanding student loans, this could add up to very significant savings for taxpayers. Additionally, it would mean that children would not go hungry and miss school because of the financial crisis created for their parents.
Tess: May 19, 2014
I am supposed to know about retiring on a low income. That includes obtaining the Guaranteed Income Supplement for people who turn age 65.I am supporting the Old Age Security application of a woman named Linda Chamberlain. She turns 65 on July 3, 2014. This will be in some ways a dress rehearsal for my own application since I turn 65 in August 2015.
Right now, Linda has no income other than her ODSP cheque and the odd gift from others. We did not apply for a meagre amount of CPP. I wrote about that here: Linda Chamberlain and CPP
Linda’s move to Old Age Security is a good story. Her income will go from about $1,035 a month to $1,700. However, since she lives in subsidized housing, her rent will almost quadruple from $109 a month to about $510. She should get her first old age payments in August and will be cut off ODSP at the end of July.
Overall, Linda will be ahead of the game but the extras that she gets through ODSP (a special diet and gastro-urinary supplies) will no longer be available. She will have to pay for them out of her own pocket. Still, Linda will be pocketing about $265 a month in extra money and she won’t have to report to a worker every month.
Linda’s income and expenses: before and after
|Income source||Before: ODSP and Tax Credits||After: OAS/GIS/GAINS-A and Tax Credits|
|After Rent income||
|Bottom Line||Linda is About $265 a month ahead on turning age 65|
That’s the good side of the story.
The bad side is how wickedly hard it is to apply for the GIS. And that’s a story that has yet to end.
When Linda first got her notice to apply for Old Age Security, we filled out the forms together nine months in advance back in October 2013.
There is a ‘tick box’ that asks you if you want to apply for the GIS. We ticked the box.
I had noticed on-line that there is a copy of the GIS form and wanted to be sure that we could use it for Linda’s application. I reasoned that we could apply for OAS and GIS at the same time. We called the toll-free number to see if this was OK.
“You can’t use that form” said the woman from Service Canada.
“It’s not the right form. It won’t be processed. You’ll have to wait until the new form comes out”
I asked the simple question: “When will that be?”
“We don’t have a time yet but it will be in the New Year. But if you ticked the box, you will get one in the mail”
Fast Forward to March 2014 and I was starting to get nervous. We had not received the GIS application. And I had already discovered that Service Canada takes 17 weeks to process a GIS application. I didn’t like the math. We phoned again.
“It’s coming out soon – you will get it in the mail.”
By mid-April, the application had not arrived and by this point I was more than nervous and called Service Canada again.
The very friendly woman from Service Canada said she would send out another copy of the form and said I would get it within a week. Then she said:
“Why don’t you use the on-line form?”
“But I was told not to use it.”
“The new one has been up since April 1. You can use that one.”
I printed it out and Linda and I had it in the mails in a ‘New York minute’. I even mailed it directly from the Gateway postal outlet on Eastern Avenue on April 16th to avoid further delay.
For the record, the paper GIS application arrived at my home on April 30, exactly two weeks after the phone call. Two weeks later, on May 15, 2014, Linda received her own copy of the GIS application in the mail leaving her just 12 of the 17 weeks needed for an on time application. She received it precisely seven months after she submitted her Old Age Security application.
Service Canada is effectively saying that it is setting deadlines for its services that through its own actions, the applicant cannot possibly meet.
So now we sweat. The first week of August is only 15 weeks from when they would have received the application and we already know they need 17 weeks. We call Service Canada again.
“We need 17 weeks to process the application.”
I told the operator that there had only been 17 weeks and two days since the GIS form was released on-line, we did not know about it until two weeks into April, and Linda did not get her own copy of the application until mid-May.
“Then you will have to phone at the end of July and check the application with us. If it has not been processed, you will have to inform us that she is a ‘hardship case’.
“Or we could also go to her MP’s office?”
“Yes you could do that also”.
This story is not over.
Or perhaps it is just starting.
Why would Service Canada put us through this ordeal?
Why can they not publicize the date on which new GIS applications are placed on-line.
Why do they leave old forms on line and then inform people on the phone that they are unusable? There is no such warning on the website.
Why do they need so much time to process them in a timely manner but give the consumer deadlines that are impossible to meet?
But more than anything else, why can’t they simply transfer Linda’s tax return with her permission to Service Canada and make the payments for which they already know she is eligible? You can’t apply for OAS unless you file a tax return. All of the information required for a GIS application is contained in the tax return.
So Service Canada sets deadlines for applications that the applicant cannot possible meet and does so in order to obtain information that they already have.
I will update this blog in late July. By then Linda will have no money and be awaiting her first Old Age cheques.
Her rent will go up to $510 based on the assumption that she will get her full Old Age Security.
If she only gets the basic OAS of $551 a month, she will have $41 to pay a hydro bill of over $100.
If she does not pay her hydro on time, she will receive an eviction notice.
Getting enough food to live will be an adventure.
Js/May 16, 2014
I recently went on a vacation cruise to the western Caribbean as the itinerary included Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Grand Cayman – four places I had never visited and wanted to experience.
Truth in advertising: this was a luxury cruise with a high concentration of prosperous looking white people and a preponderance of Americans. But I had no idea that I was going to BORF so I started to keep notes on the experience.
The qualifications for a BORF are unique to people who travel from Toronto to another location outside of Canada and who have the chance of running into Americans. A cruise in this sense is ideal.
I should also say from the outset that I had no idea I was going to BORF and I can freely tell you that I have never BORFed before. I certainly had no idea that I would BORF eight times.
My first experience was on the back deck of the ship enjoying the sunset. A tall gentleman from North Carolina joined us on a large couch as there were no other seats available. After a brief exchange, he began by asking the secret question that initializes the BORF.
He asked: “Where are you folks from?”
I answered: “Toronto….Canada”
He broke into a broad grin, shook his head a bit and replied:
OK – I knew immediately what he meant but I was still surprised that someone would offer a reply that acknowledged our mayor’s very public persona and exploits in the first two words of a travelers’ common first time conversation.
He then asked what I came to understand as the standard second question that comprises the ritual BORF:
“You folks think he can get in again?”
I answered that under the right calculus of entrants and campaigns, it remains a possibility. He could get in again. This was received by the American with a mix of incredulity and rueful understanding.
The American then smiled painfully and said:
“Hey, y’all know that we got a President that got himself elected twice despite the damage he is doing to our country so I can understand you completely. These guys can get back in. The real problem is the voter. They don’t understand what they are doing”
At this point, I was completely dumbfounded. I had no idea that Barack Obama was held in such low esteem by some Americans to the point that this view had become – in at least some circles – the conventional wisdom.
The American then looked up and started to laugh and asked:
“Hey, you folks want to make a trade?
Just at that moment, a spectacular full moon in a light yellow orange colour I had not seen before distracted us from conversation. I had just BORFed for the first time and had seven more to go.
I had thought of this first conversation as a curious one-off . Yet it just repeated itself over and over – at dinner – in the pool – in the hot tub – on excursions – in buses – everywhere.
By now you know that BORF stands for ‘Barack Obama Rob Ford’.
BORF experiences can vary – one fellow noted emphatically that he was not a racist – but it is the sameness that is arresting, especially as several ingredients have to be baked in to make the conversation intelligible.
The first is that both Americans and Torontonians are assumed to know the names of the parties. In the classic BORF, neither the name of Toronto’s mayor nor The US president is ever mentioned.
The second is the assumption by the American that Toronto’s mayor defines Toronto and does so in a negative way. In my third BORF, when I said I was from Toronto, the gentleman just began laughing and asked: “How did he get in?”
The third ingredient is that it will be taken as an article of faith that Obama is not only performing poorly but that he is an embarrassment to his country and that a Torontonian would presumably know that.
The fourth and perhaps most important ingredient for the BORF is that it is an occasion for humour. For the Torontonian, it is just assumed that you will share in anything from an exchange of smiles to a knee-slapper of a guffaw about the Obama-Ford nexus.
After my fourth BORF, I began to realize that the BORF exchange would characterize most if not all initial exchanges with Americans on the cruise. Only once (the proverbial exception that proves the rule) did I not BORF in an inaugural conversation with an American. But in her case, she had been to Toronto last year and wanted to go on about how clean it was.
John Kenneth Galbraith defined the concept of the conventional wisdom as having four components. Conventional wisdom is simple, comfortable, structures an understandable frame and it gives you self-esteem.
The BORF is an example of conventional wisdom at work. The two men that symbolize the BORF exchange have accessible personas and foibles. The values many of us share give us permission to comfortably criticize them in a public space. Their actions and our reactions are understandable. And it makes us feel good that their transgressions are more public and more egregious than our own.
I have also come to understand for the first time the extent to which Mr. Ford’s persona has completely eclipsed and remade the concept and reality of Toronto.
So, a word to Torontonians heading south this summer:
On your mark – get set – BORF!
March 30, 2014
 Note to self: Is saying that you are from Toronto really a signal for someone to start laughing?
What if the archetype of the mad, the lonely dishevelled man screaming and scaring passersby on big city street corners could be transformed into a contributing citizen, not through the efforts of those institutions which claim to change lives, but through genuine efforts to address the self-identified needs of the ‘ chronic patient’: decent supportive housing that enables tenants to practise autonomy, integrated staffing that reflects the value of lived experience instead of coercing, controlling and crushing independence, role models who can address self-defeating behaviours learned on hospital wards and back alleys, and earned income that relieves soul-crushing poverty
When people first learn of their diagnosis, they aren’t thinking of those advertising campaigns that portray mental illness as seated in the clear-complexioned, well-dressed, gainfully employed condo dwellers, no, they think of that man on the corner, how he is shunned and avoided, and therein lies the roots of prejudice, our word for stigma. And the public, potential employers, police, educators, even those self-described champions of mental wellness, that is the image they have: that man, tormented by voices, angry at the world, dangerous and strange.
That is the image we must address – not hide from – if we are to be effective at fighting ignorance and fear. Those of us who carry the chronic label, who have been consigned to poverty, poverty much more enervating and all- encompassing than a simple a lack of money, find it very difficult to believe in ourselves when everywhere we go, agencies, drop-ins, social assistance offices, we are still treated like back ward mental patients. Since the early days of unplanned and unfunded de-institutionalization, we’ve been the object of other people’s decisions, and borne the brunt of the consequences and lack of awareness of our potential, this plays out too often in our being consigned to beds in distressed housing or shelters, in the hands of teams that bang on the door to deliver each day’s medication, drop-ins that keep us out of public view and neighbourhoods that reflect our own impoverished existence.
We die 25 years earlier that the general population: stress, malnutrition, hopelessness, depression, isolation, and the inability to affect anything in our environment. The reality is, many die without ever living, without having any respite from poverty, resulting in too much lost potential, lost contributions
We don’t understand that people need to feel valued, they need purpose, they need to be seen as individuals first, we allow poverty and labelling to camouflage worth, we see only the ‘madness’, the inabilities, the brokenness, and act on the assumption that that’s all there is to the person.
We have had to go it alone for decades, we’ve had to show ourselves what we are made of, we’ve manufactured hope and inspiration where before there was none, created opportunities for engaging with community and social enterprises, reached out to other marginalized groups to better see and understand that not all we feel is related to our diagnosis, which has helped some get out from under the weight of their label.
We know that stigma has a safe home in those staff and systems that make up our world, where we experience the soft tyranny of low expectations that keep us from achieving, keep us from breaking out of poverty and illness towards a life that matters. We compound this tyranny each time we meet without representatives from this population, each time we speak for, act on, avoid, or assume what is needed.
We keep those with mental illness apart, streamed into services ‘just for them’, and that exacerbates the belief that its all about the symptoms –we need to tear down the silos, and funding pockets to bring those on the margins together, like we do at Voices, where those with mental illness, those with addictions, stressed out newcomers, abused women, meet and learn public speaking, leadership, causation, responsibility and how to shed institutional behaviour. We have high expectations of participants, which they live up to, often grateful, enjoying learning from one another and about themselves.
There are other bright spots, where we’ve been welcomed, even sought after, to teach, to participate, to guide. Dr. Reva Gerstein was the first, when she endorsed the concept that all else being equal, those with lived experience would get the jobs at the Gerstein Centre, moreover, recognizing that many have not had the opportunity to complete their education, she instituted crisis worker training program geared for new comers and lived experience. At government tables, we are not seen as mental patients, our lived experience and advice is valued, on the Toronto Police Board mental health sub-committee, which I co-chair with Alok Mukerjee, we are valued, and have made significant contributions to furthering understanding and improving training. Deputy Chief Mike Federico is another who has utilized our abilities, even when we do not always agree.
Men and Women from Voices and the Empowerment Council participated in a video created by the police college when they talked about what it’s like when the police come to your door, what escalates situations, what it feels like to be dragged from your home into a police car, handcuffed and afraid. Nothing is more powerful than hearing from those directly affected.
We have looked at the training offered, we have made strong suggestions, and continue to do so. We know that the first time a police officer meets and confronts a psychiatric patient shouldn’t be in crisis situations, we know that a simple demand that those who wish to become officers, who take college courses to prepare, need to spend a few months working in neighbourhoods where we congregate. So that strangeness is erased, panic quelled, relationships formed. Our graduates help train medical students and social service workers, nurses and lawyers.
I vividly remember the day, seven years ago now, when two first year psychiatric residents from the U of T met with me in a coffee shop, they had heard one of our speakers in grand rounds, and felt they were not hearing any of our experience in their courses. As a result, we’ve been meeting once a month in each other’s homes- with first to fifth year residents, to discuss their learning and our take on it, and we are building a cadre of psychiatrists who will have a better understanding of who this chronic patient community is composed off.
Dr. Sacha Agrawal approached me to work with him to create consumer advisors who meet with fourth year residents during their chronic rotation to ensure that those residents see us when we’re off the ward, in our minds, with our hopes and ambitions and struggles.
To combat the early and unnecessary deaths, we send our graduates into drop-ins, to talk about the toll taken by living rough, and family doctors join us to encourage people to sign up for a primary physician.
We should be celebrating and elevating to the public consciousness the extraordinary accomplishments and contributions that have come from our beleaguered segment of society. Profiling those who have survived extraordinary challenges, from SMI, toxic families, addictions and street existence, and kept their humanity, compassion and empathy would move the hardest heart. I tell our group members, this is our Phd, this makes up our credentials.
And yet we find we have a long waiting list of people who wish to be peer workers, because there is resistance from some unions and some professionals who feel that their credentials would somehow be tarnished if they had to work alongside us.
Our presence in the work force would effectively address the roots of prejudice, and the cause of fear-based responses to people in distress, it would also go a long way to eliminate the resistance to treatment, now seen as a feature of the illness rather than a strong awareness of the social consequences of being labelled.
We need to re-think our approach to the ‘chronic’ population now.