“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.
(To be sung to the tune: City of New Orleans)
Riding on the ‘District of Scarborough’
Union Station, Monday morning rail
Thirteen cars, two thousand restless riders
Two Conductors; we don’t carry mail
All along the southbound odyssey – the train pulls out of Kennedy
Rolls past malls and condos made of steel
Tanker cars that have no name, freight yards back to work again
And megalots of high-end automobiles
Good morning, Toronto, how are you?
Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the ‘District of Scarborough’
I’ll be done 10 circuit trips when the day is done
Dealing transit plans with Toronto City Council
None agree – ain’t no one keeping score
As the paper war that freezes movin’ forward
Feels the wheels grinding ‘neath the floor
And daughters of long-time residents, sons of the ‘newly here’
Ride our fathers’ carpets made of steel
And mothers with their babes asleep rocking to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel
Good morning, Ontario, how are you?
Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the ‘District of Scarborough’
I’ll be done 10 circuit trips when the day is done
Sunset on the ‘District of Scarborough’
Changing trains again at Kennedy
Almost home – repeat again tomorrow
Through Rouge Hill’s darkness, there’s no guarantee
As Guildwood station closure seems – to fade into a bad dream
And Government still ain’t heard the news
Birchmount bike lanes gone again – the voters will please refrain
This borough’s got the ‘growing poverty blues’
Good night, Canada, how are you?
Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the ‘District of Scarborough’
I’ll be done 10 circuit trips when the day is done
With apologies to Steve Goodman, composer of the ‘City of New Orleans’ whose song is, as John Prine once noted – and I paraphrase here -the “best damned railroad song I ever heard”.
Perhaps the best version of the song was performed by Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody Guthrie.
One of the most instructive exercises we do with group members at Voices From the Street is to ask what would have helped them avoid the life path they’ve been on, lives mostly filled with pain and challenges and want, decades spent on the streets, in shelters or housing that is barely safer than a park bench.
This is after we’ve stressed the importance of each person taking responsibility for bad decisions, and/or bad actions; without that acknowledgement it’s difficult to move forward constructively, it’s part of being an adult to own up to mistakes.
Sometime later, we pose the important question of what society’s responsibility is: those teachers, ministers, police, parents, and agencies that are supposed to protect the innocent and vulnerable, where were they, what were they doing, at the critical time when lives were being broken, twisted, and stunted. We ask this not to excuse the individual, but to show that we are part of a system that has failed too many, and needs, though it doesn’t want, our direct input to do right.
The answers come with tears, rarely anger, mourning a life that could have been, should have been easier, rescues that might have happened, if our social services, our education system, our children’s aid offices were functioning as funders and the general public expect them to.
It is heartbreaking, children left to fathers, ‘uncles’ or step-fathers who beat or sexually abused them, going to schools where these earliest experiences leave them vulnerable to bullying by their peers and to predatory behavior from those who thrive on breaking trust, who pick up the scent of hurt and damage and salivate as if they were sitting down to a feast, a feast provided by those who turned away, who blamed the victim, who failed their duty to protect and defend the defenceless.
Gay children, children of color, poor children, children in the first throws of mental illness, doomed by prejudice, laziness, massive systems failure, those children blame themselves, of course they do, how could they not, when everyone they looked to, before giving up entirely, seems to blame them. They must be bad, deserving of each beating or failure or loss.
These are not the people profiled on agency or government websites, to show how well programs are doing. It would be instructive if they were. “Here is Jane Doe, who we might have helped if we’d been more responsive, more timely, more dedicated to our profession, she wouldn’t have been abandoned to bad men, addiction, prostitution, mental illness or prison. We failed Jane Doe, and we own that failure, and will ensure we correct our mistakes through revised policies, placing people with lived experience on our boards and staff, and most importantly through removing front line workers and executive directors who’ve grown too jaded or self-important to do their jobs. Honoring Jane Doe, all the Jane and John Doe’s, means accepting that they deserve better from us.”
We only catch a glimpse of culpability when the victim dies and an inquest results, nothing requires us to respond to the barely living. Our system routinely fails those most in need, and blames the failure on those they neglected.
Governments, unions, accrediting bodies, those who work in the systems that are so dysfunctional, all conspire to maintain the illusion that we have a strong social safety net, none of these sectors want tackle the bloated, inefficient, ineffective systems that serve only themselves, and those who are least damaged. No wonder ‘the poor will always be with us.’