I've always felt John Tory was far better in municipal politics than on the provincial stage. I am in lockstep with his position on the current priority neighbourhood debate working its way through Toronto City Council, and I hope the Community Development and Recreation Committee considers his words below before making up their minds on this one. For the full link on Civic Action's website, check out: http://ow.ly/5Cm3p
July 12, 2011
Community Development and Recreation Committee
Toronto City Council
10th floor, West Tower, City Hall
100 Queen Street West
Toronto, ON M5H 2N2
Dear Community Development and Recreation Committee Members,
I am writing to you in my capacity as Chair of the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance concerning the proposal to rename and review the programs put in place to improve our Priority Neighbourhoods.
Since its original inception as the Toronto City Summit Alliance, one of CivicAction’s principal concerns has been to identify measures we can undertake together, the results of which will be a healthy, prosperous and inclusive city region.
To me, and to most if not all of all of the thousands of people involved in CivicAction’s work, this has meant that addressing the special and often acute needs of some of our neighbourhoods stands high on the priority list. As a result, we have been very supportive of, and have in some instances partnered with the United Way, governments and other non-profit organizations, in efforts like the Strong Neighbourhoods Task Force to help the residents of those neighbourhoods overcome some of the unique challenges they face in trying to build up their lives and build up their neighbourhoods.
As you know, my long history with the United Way predates my return to a leadership role in CivicAction. In all of that time, and in visits to every one of the 13 Priority Neighbourhoods, never once has anyone mentioned to me any feeling of stigmatization as a result of this designation. I recognize that some residents may be concerned about labels, but the many I have met have told me that the Priority Neighbourhood designation gives them a sense of hope, because maybe, just maybe, it will encourage some focus on these areas with their special needs, and might in turn lead to crucial public and private investment. I have often said in my own speeches that the “Priority Neighbourhood” designation may in fact be too polite in that it doesn’t really seem as urgent as is the actual need to help some of our fellow citizens who are struggling the most.
My experience in public life has taught me to be very wary anytime I see people proposing a name change for a government program. I have learned that such a change is often proposed when the real intent is to downsize or eliminate the program. In the case of Priority Neighbourhoods, there are only success stories to tell, many of them modest, but representing a beginning. There have, however, been mentions of these programs being “handouts”, and of making programs available to an even broader range of neighbourhoods. These words seem to hint at the possibility that the real result of a name change would be to see some of these initiatives spread thinner, diminished or abolished and, notwithstanding the city’s financial difficulties, this would be a grave mistake.
None of the programs initiated under the Priority Neighbourhood heading amount to “handouts” as most people would understand that term. In many cases they do indeed represent a hand up: a small homework club here to keep kids in school, a recreation program there to give kids something to do. And far from chasing private investment away, the Priority Neighbourhoods program has attracted MILLIONS of dollars of investment, through generous donations to the United Way which have created Neighbourhood Hubs, to corporate sponsorship of new recreational facilities and the beginnings of some business investment.
There is indeed a spending problem at City Hall, but it does not lie in the programs like this which offer modest help to some of our citizens who are most in need. In my view, the Priority Neighbourhood programs may well offer the best rate of return of almost any dollars spent. While I’m sure we can find ways to deliver these programs more efficiently, just like all of the others, I would hope we will protect these initiatives as we go forward since the need is increasing, not diminishing.
One of the other things I have learned in my time in public life is that having a debate about a name change is much easier than actually addressing the real issue itself, whatever that may be. If you think about it for a moment, in the absence of any evidence whatsoever of any feeling of stigmatization, what possible benefit will come from spending even five minutes debating the name, as opposed to addressing the real issues facing these neighbourhoods, whether the dilapidated state of our public housing, the substandard recreation facilities, the much higher school dropout rate or the lack of access to economic opportunity?
I would respectfully advise your committee, and indeed all members of Council, to dispense with the name review and, if there is to be any review of the Priority Neighbourhood initiatives, to do it clearly and unequivocally with a view to maintain and make more effective the current programs, and to continue to treat this as a high priority of the Toronto city government.
We at CivicAction stand ready to offer any assistance we can in addressing this most important of challenges.