Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Escaping An Abusive Marriage – An interview with Samra Zafar

As the Coronavirus (COVID 19) pandemic continues to plague almost every single country in the world, the issue of domestic violence is becoming a cause for concern among nations’ leaders including Canada’s. According to reports,  domestic  abuse cases are on the rise as women’s shelters and hotlines grapple with the influx of calls being received by individuals in precarious situations. Many believe that this increase is the result of pandemic associated factors such as financial insecurity,   stress   and   uncertainty   leading   to   increased   aggression   in   the   home. Domestic violence also increases whenever families spend large amount of time together often because abuses are able to control large amounts of their victim’s daily life and families are socially isolated in their homes.

Among immigrant and refugee communities in Canada, such as like Regent Park, the problem of
domestic violence is compounded by additional vulnerabilities, including a women’s lack of
proficiency in English or French, challenges understanding and navigating available resources
and   supports,   problems   of   poverty,   unemployment   and   underemployment,   and   issues   of
sponsorship preventing women from leaving an abuser.

We reached out to domestic abuse survivor turned advocate Samra Zafar, who is an author of,     
Good Wife: Escaping the Life I never chose    
According to Samra Zafar, each year there are over 12 million girls under the age of 18 who are
forced into child marriages.  Many regions and countries practice child marriages but it is most
common in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and many parts of Africa. Even in United States and
Canada, child marriages are legal. In Canada the federal Civic Marriage Act was amended in
2015 to permit marriage as young as 16, if they have their parent consent.  Samra believes that
cultural practices and traditions should not trump human rights, and child marriages under the
age of 18 years should stop.  Samra shared her ordeal as a child bride and an abuse survivor.
Born in Pakistan, Samra Zafar was a teen bride who was, at her parent’s insistence, married off at
the tender age of 17 years of age, to a man much older than her, that she knew nothing about.
Shortly   after   getting   married,   Zafar   migrated   to   Canada   with   her   new   husband.   Samra   was terrified. She had no friends or family in Canada and it was a very different environment from
the country she grew up in and had no idea how things are done in Canada.  Her only dream was
being able to go to school but she was forced to stay home. Within a matter of months Samra
went from being a confident and ambitious teenage girl to living in a strange country as a wife, a
daughter in law and soon to be mother. Samra lost all independence and agency of her life.
The emotional abuse, Samra says, began almost at day one.  The physical abuse began with one
slap. Then it began increasing incrementally and escalating over the years. Samra didn’t even
know this was abuse. It was just something she accepted as part of their marriage.
Initially, Samra had contact with her family back in Pakistan and began reaching out to for
support.  Soon after she was restricted from doing so and told that she shouldn’t be talking to her
family anymore because her husband’s family is her family!  

Although   Samra   considered   leaving   her   husband   in   those   early   years.   Samra   had   no   work experience or education, had a young daughter and was completely dependant on her husband
financially. Samra also did not have any friends or any where to go to. Other barriers like social
stigma and the and feelings of dishonouring her family in Pakistan was also present. According
to Samra, there was a lot of pressure to stay and conform and “be a good wife.” – someone that
tolerates abuse, is quiet, is submissive and protects the family’s honour. 

With little or no contact with the outside world, Samra Zafar suffered in silence. However, after
enduring twelve years of an abusive marriage, Samra began taking a weekly university course
and   assessing   the   campus   personal   counseling   services.   There   she   learned,   that   what   was
happening to her was abuse and that there were resources and support available to her. She also
learned that the underlying threat of losing her children was not real. With that knowledge came
power. Soon after going to counselling, Samra left her marriage. At the time her daughters were
nine and four years old.  Samra regrets not leaving sooner.  By the time her older daughter, was a
teenager she started showing a lot of signs of distress and trauma. Samra tells us that sometimes
women stay in abusive relationships for the “sake” of the children. Instead women should leave
abusive marriage for the sake of their children, says Samra.  Children, Samra argues, “don’t need
a two parent family; they need a family where there is love, support and respect. And if that is
not happening, it is very damaging to them.”  

Samra Zafar today, is now the author of her memoir,      
A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I never chose, which will be turned into a movie in the near future. Samra is also a speaker and founder of Brave Beginnings a non-profit organisation that lends support, mentorship and empowerment to women who have been victims of abuse.

By Loretta Bailey with contributions from Adonis Huggins
(Loretta Bailey is a volunteer journalist with the FOCUS Media Arts Centre).
According   to   a   statement   provided   to   FOCUS   Media   Arts   Centre   from   Honourable
Maryam Monsef, who is Canada’s Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural
Economic Development.

“As part of the COVID-19 Economic Response Plan, Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE)
received $40 million to address the immediate needs of women’s shelters, sexual assault centres and
other front-line organizations providing gender-based violence (GBV) services and supports across the
country. Of this funding, $30 million has already helped address the immediate needs of shelters and
sexual assault centres as follows:

• $20.54 million to Women’s Shelters Canada (WSC) to distribute to 432 violence against women shelters across the country (excluding Quebec).

• $3 million to the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF) to distribute the funding to 93
sexual assault centres across the country (excluding Quebec).

$6.46 million to 110 women’s shelters and 44 sexual assault centres in Québec, through an agreement between Canada and Québec.

The remaining $10 million in funding is being distributed to other front-line organizations that provide
critical GBV supports and services.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The impact of Covid-19 on the Dundas Beauty Hair Salon

Dundas Beauty is a hair salon that is located in the Regent Park area, at 442 Dundas Street East, close to Parliament and Dundas. Their area of service focuses on the versatility of hair including braiding, weaving, wigs, hair dyeing and more. The shop is co-owned by black business owner, Theresa Betou.

Theresa was forced to close her shop shortly after Premiere Doug Ford announcement on Tuesday March 23, 2020, that all non-essential store and services would be ordered to close as of Tuesday March 24th, in an attempt to slow down the spread of Covid-19.

Hair salons and barbershops have everything to do with neck up and prior to Covid-19, few people would ever think that they would see a time when you would not be allowed to get a hair cut because it is unsafe. Unfortunately, hair cutting requires close client contact and touching the heads of clients and as a result is considered an easy way for the coronavirus to spread.

The closure that was only supposed to last 14 days ended up being about 3 months. This has caused a lot of hardships for small shop owners. Shops like Theresa’s relies on the income she receives from customers to not only pay the rent of the business but also to pay for her personal rent and expenses. Not having clients means no money for the rent of her shop, for her employees or for her own personal expenses. Yet she still has to fulfill payments to the landlords even though the space is not being used.

At one point, Theresa and her partner, were considering selling the business and was receiving offers to do so. Instead they decided to wait and see what would happen. Luckily their landlord was understanding so Theresa was able to work out an agreement to pay what they could as well as to pay increments.

For some of the shop employees who relied on the shop’s income, Theresa allowed them to make their own decision to open up their homes to cut the hair of loyal customers, but she didn’t feel that was safe especially if they had families, and she chose not to do that.

When the news came that non-essential businesses including hair salons were finally able to reopen, Theresa was caught off guard. Despite people calling for hair appointments, Theresa needed two weeks to top up on products and sanitize the store. Safety is important to Theresa and not only is mask wearing was required she only takes clients by appointment only which enables her to put limits on how many people are in the shop at any one time. This is still difficult because the shop also sells shampoos and other hair products in which people normally can walk in from the street to purchase. As Theresa says, “it is a little tough right now but we will just need to take some time to readjust to the new normal then we can figure out a way how business can be improved while staying safe”.

For Theresa, one big take away from this pandemic is making sure that she puts her and her employees health first and business second.

“We used to be open to all hours of the night, right up to 1 am to meet the needs of our customers. Staff also often had to limit their lunch breaks. Now we only take certain amount of appointments per day and stress the importance of taking care of our selves first,” says Theresa.

This led me to the opinion that perhaps the new normal, at least for shops like Dundas Beauty, won’t be so bad after all.

Click to watch the interview

By Gaelle Kosi with contribution by Adonis Huggins

(Gaelle Kosi is a summer journalist with the Focus Media Arts Centre).

Friday, July 31, 2020

The City’s Forced Removal of Homeless Encampments

As of Monday July 28th, 2020, the city of Toronto has entered stage 2 of phase 3 of the Covid-19 pandemic recovery. Despite the ease of restrictions, encampments continue to be a concern. 

Encampments are outdoor tent dwellings and makeshift shelters that are present in various parks and green spaces across the city, including in and around the Regent Park and Moss Park area. Many of the inhabitants are homeless. 

Acknowledging the lack of shelters to safely house the homeless during the Covid-19 pandemic, in an effort to prevent and deter encampments, the City of Toronto has acquired hotels and buildings, in order to provide temporal housing to encamping individuals.

As claimed on the city of Toronto’s website (Toronto, July 14th, 2020):

“Clearing encampments is a multidisciplinary effort with staff from Parks, Forestry & Recreation, Transportation Services, Solid Waste Management Services, and Shelter, Support & Housing Administration, and where appropriate, there is support from the Toronto Police Service to ensure the safety of all.”

Furthermore, the city claims that:

“As of today [July 14th, 2020] over 300 individuals have been moved from encampments to appropriate indoor spaces, including shelter, respite, hotels and interim housing.  Subsequent to the individuals being moved, the encampments are cleared of waste and debris. Our priority is getting people safely inside.”

Many argue however, that the reality on the streets is quite different and the City, with enforcement by police services, has been clearing encampments prior to individual(s) being moved to safe housing.

Sanctuary Toronto is a church that serves marginalized people in Toronto’s downtown core. Sanctuary operates out of 25 Charles Street (in the Bloor and Church area). Greg Cook, a staff member of Sanctuary expressed his concerns with removal of the encampments and challenged the City’s motivations behind removing them. 

According to Greg, people live in encampments because they feel safer then living in the City’s crowded shelter system. Furthermore, the inhabitants of encampments far exceed the City’s capacity to provide safe homeless shelters or temporary hotels. If this is the case, why are they removing the encampments?

According to Greg, the clearing of these encampments has less to do with the safety of the inhabitants and more to do with the implementation of the Broken Window Theory. 
“The broken windows theory,” says Greg, “is a criminological theory that states that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes. The theory suggests that policing methods that target minor crimes such as vandalism, loitering, public drinking, jaywalking and fare evasion help to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes”.

The theory was introduced in a 1982 article by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. It was further popularized in the 1990s by New York City police commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose policing policies were influenced by the theory.” (Wikipedia, July 14th, 2020)

Cook argues that the Broken Windows theory is really what is behind the removal of the encampments.

Backing up his claim, Greg states that, “Within the homeless shelter system, over 600 people have tested positive for Covid- 19.” Greg compares this with testing of encampments where there has been almost no outbreak of Covid that he has been aware of. Although the city does not do widespread testing among encampments, covid-19 testing of encampments at Moss Park and at the Sanctuary are evidence that encampments are far safer to live in then City is willing to admit. 

Sanctuary, Greg informs us, is one of many advocate groups that are currently pursuing ligation against the City over safety in the homeless shelter system.

To hear more about the removal of Encampments from Greg Cook please see this video.


By Ruichen Geng

(Ruichen Geng is a volunteer journalist with the FOCUS Media Arts Centre)

The impact of Covid-19 on Supreme Cut Barbershop

Supreme cut is a barbershop located in the Regent Park area on 432 Dundas Street east, near parliament and Dundas. Their area of focus is hair cutting, lineups, shape ups & men’s care. The shop is owned by black business owner Flory Wembolwa.

Flory Wembolwa was forced to close his shop after Premiere Doug Ford announcement on Tuesday March 23, 2020, that all non-essential store and services would be ordered to close as of Tuesday March 24th, to slow down the spread of Covid-19. 

Flory took the time off that he had to plan ahead until the shop opened up again. He learned at an incredibly young age to always prepare and save for “rainy days.” Flory tell us that it is part of the Congolese culture to always have something aside like an emergency insurance. As a result of this attitude, Flory has no sympathy for businesses that had to close down due to the COVID 19 closure.  In Flory’ words, “if you don’t have enough money to pay three months rent, you shouldn’t be in business.”
When Flory received the news that non-essential businesses including barbershops were finally able to reopen, Flory was ready to get back to work. He took all the safety precautions he needed to take to ensure that his shop was clean and safe. Not only for clients but also for employees. He made sure to enforce social distancing between barbers. Supreme is already an appointment-based shop. 

He also questioned why his business was not considered a non-essential business because people need these services. Maintaining a decent hair cut is important in your work and how you present yourself. “Would you leave your house to go to work without clean and decent clothes?  Why would you do so without a well maintain hair cut?” argues Flory.  He also added, “we do more than what you think,” and argues there should be a union for barbers. When a pandemic like this happens there is no one to advocate for our needs and there is nothing for us.”

Flory has also reduced his own hours to take care of himself and works by appointment so as not to stay in the shop for too many hours at a time.

To watch the interview with Supreme Cuts barber shop, click here.

By Gaelle Kosi
(Gaelle Kosi is a summer journalist with the Focus Media Arts Centre).

Thursday, July 30, 2020

To Work or Not to Work? The Question of Youth Summer Employment in a Pandemic

Regent Park is home to approximately 12,000 people. According to Statistic Canada’s 2016 Census of Population, youth between the ages of 15 to 24 years account for 17% of Regent Park’s population (compared to a Toronto-wide average of 12%). Unfortunately, many of these youth will not have a job this summer due to Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, those that do need to ask themselves whether they are putting themselves at risk for Covid-19.

The summer job is considered a rite of passage for youth. It is a symbol of independence, and marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. As the province slowly reopens, and businesses start to accommodate requests for social spaces, more and more employment opportunities reappear within our communities. However, those burdened with health are hesitant to take on this responsibility. Even with the warm weather and larger gatherings being permitted, COVID-19 remains a threat. However, in a time where costs for education and housing remain at an all time high, students are becoming forced to choose between financial stability and their wellbeing. Still, why should they have to sacrifice one in order to obtain the other?

Even with the constant demand for summer employment, many businesses still remain “understaffed”. As it limits traffic within stores, it is deemed responsible. However, this approach forces individual employees to bear the workload meant for a whole team. Many employees are always on their feet, routinely cleaning surfaces and common touch points. This creates constant stress, which is only worsened when customers are introduced. Youth employees report retail customers acting callous when it comes to safety protocols. An example of this is disregarding the request to have a mask on at all times, and arguing when the request is enforced. Though this may just be an additional frustration, when anxieties are heightened, customer confrontations can escalate into violence. Physical altercations are not uncommon. Essential Worker Brianne Harvie recounts the time that two customers started a fistfight due to one not following traffic lines as marked on the floor. In times like these, youth workers are left wondering if they had been tasked with more than what they had bargained for, with Harvie stating “I don’t get paid enough to babysit you”.

Outside of work, there are still sources of stress for students. Though many have gone back to living with their parents, many are still living independently. The worry of affording rent, groceries, and transport expenses pressures students to overlook the health risks that come with employment. There have also been questions as to why the CESB provides $750 less funding than the CERB, even though many of those utilizing the service share similar expenses.

Many also anticipate the financial strain of the upcoming school year. Tuition has largely remained around the same price, with some institutions even raising tuition for local and/or international students. Additional expenses such as textbooks, as well as a tech upgrade for the virtual workload are also on the list. With the promise of further educational and financial support uncertain, many students report feeling betrayed by their post secondary institutions. However, Regent Park students from low income households are hit the hardest. Should savings run dry, they are unable to rely on family for support. In these times, more and more students consider deferring an extra year. They can avoid a year’s worth of expenses, while raising money on the side. However, should this pandemic drag on, and next fall’s expenses are still a necessity year after year, how long will students have to delay their education due to financial obstacles?

Today, students call for transparency from their post secondary institutions. Why pay the same amount of money when they are no longer receiving the same education and experiences from past years? They are also asking for additional financial support, whether that be through new bursaries and scholarships, or a means to loan equipment and textbooks at a cheaper rate. These same students also ask for patience in the workplace - whether that be from their employers or from their customers. The uncertainties they carry are already heavy. However, acts of compassion, such as simply wearing a mask, greatly alleviates many of the day to day stresses that these students face.

Visit here to see the video: Question of Youth Summer Employment in a Pandemic.

By Minerva Navasca
(Minerva is a summer journalist with the FOCUS Media Arts Centre )

Ethno-racial Data Matters!

Over 70% of the Regent Park population are people of colour; South Asian, Black, Chinese and
South-East Asian residents make up the majority. Why is this important to point out? Well, health
experts in Toronto, especially those associated to the Community Health Centre movement, say
that race is often one of the most telling facts about a person that determines their health outcomes. These ‘facts’ that determine someone’s health are called social determinants of health.

It is no surprise then that community health centres have been collecting Ethno-racial data on clients for quite some time, and are urging the province, and even the country, to follow suit. This is because community health centres were established on the principles of the social determinants of health which includes factors like safe and secure housing, social inclusion, income and education, and increasingly race. These factors matter when assessing the health needs of their clients because they are the real drivers in determining how healthy somebody is.

Community health centres are not alone, as the movement to collect ethno-racial stats is growing. This has been, in part, due to numerous studies of data collection in the United States indicating significant disparities among different racial and ethnic groups and the kinds of barriers they encounter. These studies have also been used to show which racial and ethnic population groups are most a risk for certain diseases, the knowledge of which can lead to more effectively targeted public health efforts.  In the midst of COVID-19, indicating that racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected and are at increased risk of getting sick and dying, ethno-racial data in United States is increasingly being linked to evidence of widespread systemic racism. 

In Canada, there is no systematic collection of ethno-racial data at the federal or provincial level but community health experts in Toronto say that this information is crucial to their work as health care providers and that they’ve been pushing for this for years.  

Experts like Paulos Gebreyesus, who is the Executive Director of the Regent Park Community Health Centre, located in Regent Park, Toronto. Paulos Gebreyesus argues, “if we did not have information that is collected on any range of health outcomes, we would not understand what it is that we should be improving, what it is we should be prioritizing or even if there's a problem. So the collection of relevant information in order to better understand the impact of the work that we do is long-standing. It’s part of the whole scientific logical sort of approach to organizing work and services. We do so very diligently with some notable exceptions. This is where it's helpful to gather that information in order to compare, and better understand, patterns that may not be as visible to an individual anecdotally. Or perhaps they are visible anecdotally but there's no proof as it were that this is a larger systemic issue. So the whole idea of collecting all of the information is to be able to actually study that information to discern those patterns.”

When anti-racist activist say that anti-black and anti-indigenous racism is a health crisis in this county, its important to show how these realities are “reflected in a statistical or in a data form [reinforcing] the narrative that communities have been asserting,” says Gebreyesus. He argues that without verifiable information, our institutions are resistant to change, often because those who operate and manage resources don’t understand what is actually happening.

Paulos Gebreyesus illustrates how ethno-racial data and looking at the social determinants of health, can tell us who is at increased risk for getting Covid-19. “If you happen to live in a dwelling where there is sufficient living space and amenities for everybody in that household to remain distant from each other, then you have a far higher likelihood of not getting Covid or surviving Covid. If you have sufficient income to where, you don't need to take public transit or, you don't need to be in your job, then again, you have these protective factors. So in the same way we have learned over generations that there are systemic patterns to how we have organized ourselves as Torontonians, as Ontarions.”  Paulos suggests that when you look at all these factors, people of colour are at far higher risk for getting Covid -19.

On the issue of incarceration, Gebreyesus states, “if we see that the rates of incarceration among indigenous peoples, or people who identify as black, or who are racialized, and compare that to the size of that subpopulation within our community, we would expect (if things were all equal) that a population that is only 3% of the general community would only have somewhere very close to 3% within the population that's currently incarcerated. So when we see that there's data that says 20% of all incarcerated people are indigenous, then we know that we have a systemic issue, and that we need to work at dismantling that, and addressing that, and responding to that. So I think the data really points us to where things are not equitable. This is the rationale to why we want to go out and collect as much information about the various facets of who we are as individuals.”, says Gebreyesus.

Considering how controversial Black Lives Matter protests are, it seems that the correlation between race and health is lost on many people. Some do not understand how anti-black and anti-indigenous racism as it is reflected in our institutions (ex. government, housing, workplaces, education,  health   care   and   policing)   is   a   health   crisis   which   threatens   the   well-being, mental/physical health, and the very lives of black and indigenous people. Ethno-racial data collection then is a way to collect   undeniable   data   and   convince   individuals,   and   more importantly institutions, to use this data to make change. Just as importantly, ethno-racial data collection is a tool for community health centres and other health data stewards to better cater their services to their particular communities.

Our conversation with Paulos Gebreyesus is the first of a three- part series on ethno-racial data collection and race as a social determinant of health.  

To watch Paulos Gebreyesus full interview on race and data collection, please visit our youtube channel @ Regent Park tv.

By Fabio Herediac
(Fabio Heredia is a media journalist with Radio Regent and the Focus Media Arts Centre)

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Debunking Islamophobia

Regent Park is home to approximately 12,000 people. Many of the residents are of the Islamic faith and have reported encountering Islamophophia in Toronto and even in their home community of Regent Park.

As of 2020, Islam has 1.9 billion followers making up about 24% of the world population. There are almost as many Muslims as there are Christians in the world who make up about 29% of the world population. With such a large following, you would expect there would be little to no misconceptions among the Western public about the Islamic community. Unfortunately, this is not the case and Islamophobia in North America is widespread. I invited Imam Said Rageah of the Sakinah Community Center to have a conversation about the public misconceptions of Islam and how we can better educate the people about Islam.

Islamophobia is described as the illogical fear, hatred, and prejudice towards Islam and its followers (Muslims). These prejudice and fears are often caused by misconceptions about the Islamic community. According to Iman Said Rageah, there are three common misconceptions of Islam.

The first misconception that Imam Said Rageah helps us break down is the belief that all Muslims are the same. Iman Said explains that this is completely false because Muslims come from all over the world and their cultures and customs vary from region to region. Similar to Christianity where there is differences between the different denominations (Catholic, Protestants, Baptists, etc), there will be differences between how Islam is practiced not only in different countries but also among different sects or branches.

The second misconception, often promoted by the Western media, is that Muslims are terrorists. This is completely false. Iman Said points out that there are 1.9 billion Muslims in the world and if they were all terrorists, we would not have this Earth to call our home. Also, whenever people talk about Muslims they often mix them up with extremists. Iman Said explains that extremists are present in small parts of the middle east and Africa, and they terrorize everyone’s lives including Muslims! Unfortunately, according to Said, this perception has led to racial profiling, discrimination and even terrorism against Muslims here in North America. He points to the banning of the US travel ban on Muslims entering United States, the Quebec City mosque shooting and the recent Quebec law banning religious symbols which was really targeted at Muslims.

The third misconception about the Islamic community is that Muslims are intolerant towards women and that women are forced to wear Hijabs. Iman Said explains that this is a common misconception about the Islamic community which is completely false, and informs us that there is a significant population of Muslim women who do not wear a Hijab (headscarf). Said argues that for a great majority of women, wearing a Hijab is a choice and it is a way of expressing their faith. For those that argue that Islam is a religious that oppresses women, Said points to whole chapters in the Quran that are expressively dedicated to women and how they are to be treated – which is with respect, equal rights and equal access to education. Said argues, “If Islam was such an oppressive religion, why would so many women remain followers? Would you stay in a religion that oppressive you?”.

After we debunked these misconceptions, we talked about how people can be better informed about Islam. Imam Said agreed with me that more efforts are needed to create places where people of different faiths could come together. This is important because meeting different people breaks down stereotypes and fosters discussions. He also advocated for the need to teach Islam in public schools as part of religious or social studies. We also need to continue debunking and clarifying things that we hear from the media and others around us that are not true. One way that media can combat misinformation is by hiring journalists who are Muslims.

In conclusion, this talk was very informative and insightful. If you are interested in learning more about these issues watch the video interview with Imam Said Rageah, I highly recommend it. You could also share it with a friend or family member who might need some debunking of their own misconceptions. Remember misconceptions form the basis of Islamophobia, and it hurts people on the receiving end.

By Jameila Parnell with contributions from Adonis Huggins

(Jameila is a student journalist with the FOCUS Media Arts Centre).

Monday, July 20, 2020

June 2, 2020, Meeting of the Regent Park Social Development Stakeholders Table

Regent Park TV reports on the June 2, 2020 meeting of the Regent Park Social Development Stakeholders Table.

Currently Regent Park is undergoing a massive redevelopment from a social housing neighbourhood to a mixed-income and mixed-use community.

One of the two plans governing the Regent Park redevelopment is the Regent Park Social Development Plan. The group charged with working with the City of Toronto to implement the plan is the Regent Park Social Development Stakeholder’s Table (also known as the SDP Stakeholder’s Table). The Stakeholder’s Table comprises of residents, agencies and grassroots groups in the Regent Park area and their mandate is to make decisions related to the development of social infrastructure that the community deems necessary to ensure that Regent Park is a cohesive and socially well functioning neighbourhood.

The following is RPTV’s report of the June 2, 2020, meeting of the Social Development Stakeholder’s Table held through the on-line application of Zoom. Approximately 25 people were in attendance.

After ensuring that quorum was met, resident Ismail Afrah, presented a review of the SDP planning group’s activities. Among the activities mentioned was discussions with the City on the release of SDP fund, and the Safety Committee’s Virtual Town Hall’s meeting held on May 28, 2020, aimed at supporting residents through this Covid -19 period. For those who had missed it, the town hall is available for viewing on Regent Park TV.

Community committee reps Joel Klassen and Murshiba followed up on this presentation by reported on the work of connecting residents through the building of neighbourhood pods and upcoming community games been organized on-line by Regent Park Social, a website about Regent Park.

Following this report, the table once again heard from Ismail Afrah, about a proposal to have the RPNA Regent Park Community Benefits Coalition restructured as a new committee of the SDP Stakeholder’s Table. The Community Benefits Coalition is comprised of residents who are dedicated to ensuring that the selected developer for the final phrases of Regent Park will contribute long lasting benefits to the community in return for been granted the contract for developing Regent Park. As part of the proposal to restructure the coalition under the SDP table, Ismail recommended that terms of reference for this new committee be drafted by a sub-committee of residents from the coalition in partnership with TCHC, and be presented to the SDP table for approval. The terms of reference would also include a new name for the committee.

The proposal was unanimously adopted.

The next issue that was discussed was a proposal made by Abrahim Afrah to have the community adopt a song by Taylor Swift as the official song for Regent Park. The song in question was made with the involvement of local youth from the Regent Park School of Music. Abrahim showed media clips and lyrics of the song and explained that Taylor Swift donated the proceeds of royalties of the song to the Regent Park School of Music. Abrahim felt that the song emphasized the friendship and spirit of a community helping each other and indicated that there would be no cost associated with adopting the song.

In support of the proposal, a resident at the meeting, had her daughter explain their involvement in making the song.

An opposing view was put forth by another long standing resident, who argued that although he has great respect for the Regent Park School of Music and for the youth contribution, he did not feel that the song was inclusive enough to be the song of Regent Park. This resident felt that the lyrics of song could also be misinterpreted. Due to lack of time, no more discussion was held and the chair facilitated a vote on the issue.

Although the proposal to have the song be adopted by Regent Park, marginally had more votes then those opposing, it failed to gain enough votes to have it passed. The chair recommended that a future vote could be held on the issue when more time was available for discussion and debate.

The final agenda item that was discussed was presented by a community member related to a process for identifying priorities for the SDP funds. Known as a “deep dive” session, each committee would select representatives to attend a special session to present their committee’s priorities for funding and discuss all the proposals. The aim of the special session is to pared down the 1.5 million dollars of SDP requests into $500,000 budget. It was announced that this session would be held on June 11, 2020, but it has since moved to a different date.

With that issue settled the meeting ended.

To see the RPTV report of the June 2, 2020, Regent Park Social Development Stakeholders Table meeting please visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bA26oMZMuAc

By Adonis Huggins

(Adonis is a staff member of the Focus Media Arts Centre)

The Connection between Section 37 & Regent Park’s New Amenities

The Regent Park neighbourhood is undergoing a massive transformation from social housing community to a mixed-income and mixed-use community. As a result of this revitalization, the Regent Park community is the beneficiary of a beautiful new park, a gloriously designed aquatic centre, a new community centre, a new track and soccer field, a new arts centre (Daniels Spectrum), two new child care facilities and a newly built youth centre (Dixon Hall).  What many people don’t realize, is that the building of these new amenities had a lot to do with a little known and understood City policy, called Section 37.

Section 37 is a part of the Ontario Planning Act that deals with zoning issues and community benefits. This complex but crucial legislature is applied when developers exceed limits on building height or density. In return, they must provide benefits for the community. This may include: recreation centres and child care, public art, heritage sites, access to greenspace like parks and ravines, or creating public community spaces in private buildings. If the developers aren’t directly involved in the construction or development of community spaces, they can contribute by “cash-in-lieu”--giving money to the city that can be used for development.Since city budgets are insufficient and unable to support key neighbourhood resources, councillors use Section 37 as a way to fundraise for their wards. Instead of raising taxes on their citizens, developers pay towards improving their communities. To ensure Section 37 rules apply, councillors often set building height and density limits “artificially low”, much lower than what would realistically be built on that land. By encouraging new developments to break by-laws

Section 37 brings in an almost-guaranteed community resource budget for the city. Unfortunately, this motivates councillors to approve buildings they may not want to, as they’re desperate to improve community resources at whatever cost.

One of the most contentious issues around Section 37 is that there’s no set calculation to determine how much developers should pay. It’s up to councillors to request whatever amount they think is fair. Some municipalities have a similar mandate known as impact fees that apply when developers exceed by-law limits. Impact fees, however, are pre-determined and not left up to judgement in individual cases. Bill 108 would calculate payments based on a fixed percentage of the property’s market value as opposed to height or density. Proponents of the bill say it will regulate Section 37 fees from ward to ward and not motivate developers to break by-law limits.
But the bill was heavily influenced by the Ontario Home Builders Association, and critics think that will actually harm the community. Basing fees on market value will encourage councillors to approve high-value developments like condos over low-value hubs like libraries, community centres, and schools.

Another problem is the lack of transparency around how the funds are being used. Funds from Section 37 are redirected to a central budget in Parks and Recreation, making it difficult to discern how the money is actually being put to use. Centralising money brings up an important issue about which neighbourhoods are benefitting from Section 37 and which ones are suffering. In-demand areas like Yorkdale and the Beaches, as well as rapidly-gentrifying areas, are hot spots for construction, meaning increased community benefits. But lower-income, less-popular boroughs who desperately need more community spaces don’t have the same level of interest from developers. Central budgets benefit neighbourhoods who don’t have prospects for new ​developments, though popular areas argue that since the construction is in their ward, the money should stay within their community.

Section 37 is a controversial piece of legislature, pitting neighbourhoods against each other to fight for already-limited resources. It was introduced as a way to increase funding for communities, but it’s often viewed as a loophole for developers to exceed by-law limits. Section 37 forces councillors to choose between sacrificing land to high-value projects or giving up community benefits for their citizens.

However problematic Section 37 has been and continues to be, it has served the Regent Park community well.    

To see an interview with Urban Planner, Ken Greenberg about Section 37 click here.

By Chloe    
Chloe is a summer journalist with the FOCUS Media Arts Centre

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Impact of Coronavirus on Small Business – Parliament Optical

There used to be a time when small business owner’s principal worries were about securing investments, attracting customers, advertising, and most importantly the survival of their business. According to a report titled Canadian New Firms: Birth and Survival Rates over the Period 2002-2014, May 2018 by the Canadian Government, the survival rate for small businesses within the first five years is 63% and after ten years that number drops down to 43% so it is no wonder that creating and operating a small business is a risky venture. However, when a small business does manage to be successful it can be a great accomplishment.

Sadly, the emergence of Covid-19 in 2020 has created a new and even bigger challenge for small business owners. Take for instance the Parliament Street Optical.  The Parliament Street Optical is located on the east side of Parliament Street, between Carlton and Gerrard Street. The business is owned by Munaverali Gulamhusein.

Unlike big businesses who regularly generate high profit margins, for small businesses like the Parliament Street Optical, it can be a struggle to stay afloat even in the best of times. Still the small businesses that were enjoying steady profits before Covid-19 are now seeing a steady decline in customers, and in some cases have even had to shut down under government public safety orders. On March 17th the Ontario Government announced a state of emergency and later required non-essential businesses such as, clothing stores, bars, and restaurants to shut down. This has led to much uncertainty for business owners who are left wondering when they will be able to open again, and when they do if they be able to expect the same profit they were generating pre-Covid-19. 

As Canada enters its fourth month of dealing with the pandemic, we are slowly able to see the effect closures have had on, not just small businesses, but big ones as well. According to Statistics Canada 32% big businesses, with 500 or more employees, have reported a decline in profits of around 20% when comparing the same 2019 and 2020 business quarter. Comparatively 60% of small businesses with 1-4 employees and 56% of small business with 5-19 employees report a similar 20% drop in revenue.

So why is it that a higher rate of small businesses are being impacted by the pandemic then their bigger business counterparts? Well for one thing the majority of small businesses, 79% according to a report titled Key Small Business Statistics by the Canadian Government, are in the service industry. Unfortunately, this industry has been particularly hard hit as many of these businesses have been categorized as non-essential by the Ontario Provincial Government and have thus been required to shut their doors during phase 1 of the lockdown measures. Another reason many point to is the ability of businesses to conduct business online so they could keep customers during the lockdown. For many small business owners, like the Parliament Optical, whether because of the type of industry they are in or because of a lack of financial and human resources, they are unable to transfer their operations online through delivery or even curb side pick-up, both of which have become new methods of service during the pandemic. In contrast most big businesses are normally run both online and in person, making it easy for them to carry on business as usual.

Parliament Optical is an owner run business that provides walk-in services to customers looking to conduct eye examinations and purchase prescription optical glasses and frames. Since closing its doors on March 22 due to the Covid pandemic, owner Munaverali Gulamhusein has had no revenues to support his business. Gulamhusein did receive a $40,000 interest free business loan from the Canadian government - $10,000 of which he is not required to pay back, and which he is thank for. However, he is reluctant to use the bulk of loan due to the hardship and uncertainty of his ability to pay it back. For Gulamhusein, he is taking it one day at a time and operating as if it was 2018 and he was just starting the business.  This was a time when he had no funds and taken a line of credit. Instead of paying himself from his business he is living on the support provided by CERB (Canadian Emergency Response Benefit) which most out-of-work individuals get. Gulamhusein has been able to obtain 3 months of rebates on his phone and internet which has helped keep expenses down but was unable to obtain rebates from his business insurance or alarm company.  Finally, Gulamhusein is relying on his landlord’s acceptance of the government’s upcoming emergency rent subsidies to sustain his business through the closure. He is also counting on the loyalty and trust of his customers when he re-opens.

The negative impact of Covid-19 on small businesses can be seen in and around Toronto, including on local businesses in the Regent Park community. However, as Toronto enters stage 2 of the recovery effort\ts small business can begin to slowly open. Hopefully they will find their loyal customers ready to greet them albeit from a two meter distance and wearing a mask. Nevertheless, any optimism must be tempered with caution as Toronto and the rest of Canada is not out of the wood works of this ghastly pandemic yet.

To see the interview with Munaverali Gulamhusein of Parliament Optical click here.

By Adaku Huggins-Warner
Adaku is a volunteer with the FOCUS Media Arts Centre.