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These 10 people have 10 solutions for poverty — because they’ve lived it

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When Joe Mihevc’s mother fled Slovenia as a refugee after the Second World War, one of her most precious belongings was her bicycle.

It was so important, she even brought it on the boat with her to Canada, recalls Mihevc, city councillor for the new Ward 12 — Toronto-St. Paul’s. “As kids, we got paper routes and the first thing we did was buy a bike. It gave us mobility.”

Mihevc, who helped spark Toronto’s 20-year poverty reduction strategy before the city’s last municipal election, believes cycling — including safe routes and more bike-sharing stations — should be part of the new city council’s commitment to the poverty-busting plan.

“And what about offering every kid on social assistance a bicycle for $5 or a Bike Share account for $5?” he asks. “It’s just a small thing, but it promotes active living and could make a big difference in the life of a low-income family.”

About one in five city residents are living in poverty, a figure that jumps to more than 26 per cent for children under age 18, giving Toronto the shameful title of child poverty capital of Canada.

A household is considered to be living in poverty if their annual income is below Statistics Canada’s low-income measure, after taxes, which in Toronto in 2015 was $18,213 for a single person, $31,301 for a single parent with one child and $44,266 for a couple with two children.

TO Prosperity, unanimously approved by city council in 2015, committed the city to a 20-year strategy to ensure residents have access to quality jobs and livable incomes, nutritious food, high-quality, co-ordinated services, equitable transit and stable, affordable housing.

But Mihevc, who officially assumed the role of council’s poverty reduction advocate after Councillor Pam McConnell’s death in 2017, believes Toronto can — and must — do more.

After a series of public forums earlier this year, and consultations with a city advisory group of people living in poverty, Mihevc drafted a list of doable projects for council’s next four-year term. In an open letter released last week, he is urging all municipal candidates and city staff to get on board.

“We can’t do everything, but we can do something,” he says in an interview. “And this call goes out to all sectors — faith communities, philanthropic organizations, businesses, the private sector. Everyone needs to be part of the solution.”

Along with low-cost cycling options, Mihevc’s letter urges the city to step-up efforts to get community benefits agreements with all of its contractors, to ensure city spending supports good jobs and local businesses in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

“Encouraging our contractors to exercise employment equity and pay livable incomes is getting your money to work for you twice,” he says.

Other suggestions include free internet in the city’s shelter system, online applications for Toronto Community Housing buildings to limit vacancies, expanding free learn-to-swim programs to every Grade 4 student, a community investment fund to seed nutritious food initiatives and a city directory of services for low-income residents to improve access and awareness.

“Poverty is not inevitable. It is a result of political, social and economic processes,” Mihevc says. “We have to make our poverty reduction strategy a living document for the whole city and not just for those whose business it is to care about poverty.”


Toronto’s Lived Experience Advisory Committee is helping to shape the city’s anti-poverty efforts. Ten committee members spoke to the Star about their experiences, their hardest day, the one small thing the city could do that would make a huge difference to them and the one big problem the city should fix.

Kelly Lawless, 46, says overdose prevention sites should be open 24-7.
Kelly Lawless, 46, says overdose prevention sites should be open 24-7.  (Carlos Osorio)

Kelly Lawless, 46, grew up in poverty in England in the 1970s and ’80s, the youngest of her single mother’s five children. The family came to Canada in 1984 for a new start, but eventually it was just Lawless and her mother living in single rooms and struggling to make ends meet. It was the beginning of a downward spiral that saw Lawless spend 28 years as a homeless, crack addict. Now in her fifth year of recovery, Lawless is a powerful advocate for mental health and addiction treatment who brings an authentic voice and empathetic ear to Toronto’s marginalized communities.

Hardest day:

My hardest day came not in active use, but in recovery — the day my brother overdosed on Fentanyl and died. I was in recovery about five months and I was going to see my therapist. It was early and my cellphone rang. It was my mom, and she told me. She was worried that I was going to use, but thankfully it was the last thing on my mind. Crack stops feeling, but I knew that I had the skills to stay clean, and deal with life. My brother’s name was Dominic. I love him, think of him and sometimes when I have a bad day I stay clean for him. I miss him.

Small thing the city could do:

Make all overdose prevention sites available 24-7.

Big thing the city could do:

Make developers include low-rent or subsidized units in every rental building.


Kaarina Wilson, 40, says banks should not be allowed to charge people on social assistance such high fees.
Kaarina Wilson, 40, says banks should not be allowed to charge people on social assistance such high fees.  (Carlos Osorio)

Kaarina Wilson, 40, grew up in Kirkland Lake where she earned a college scholarship to study accounting. But at age 25, she lost her job as a junior accountant due to an auto-immune disease and has struggled to survive on Ontario Disability Support Program payments ever since. She pays $745 a month to rent a bachelor apartment in an East York house with six other units and feels lucky. But after paying rent, she is left with less than $600 a month to pay for everything else.

Hardest day:

In July, when an NSF charge on my bank account meant I lost $145. Luckily it was my birthday and I received money from my parents and friends. It was enough to keep me afloat. But it was a very lean month.

Small thing the city could do:

The NSF charge was because I was 16 cents short on my Uber Eats order bill (which she paid with her bank debit card.) And for that, the bank charged me $145. Banks should not be allowed to charge people on social assistance such large fees for such small infractions.

Big thing the city could do:

Build more affordable housing so I have an option should I have to move, which is a very terrifying prospect in a city where two-bedroom apartments cost $2,300 a month.


Cassandra Chambers, 40, would like to see the city embrace the Tiny Homes concept.
Cassandra Chambers, 40, would like to see the city embrace the Tiny Homes concept.  (Carlos Osorio)

Cassandra Chambers, 40, is a single mother of three living in a market-rent apartment in East York. She has been underemployed or unemployed since 2012 when she lost her job and was forced to live on Ontario Works. Since January, she has had a part-time contract position with Toronto’s Streets to Homes program, which helps homeless people find affordable housing.

Hardest day:

When my employer told me I had to choose between taking care of my mother — who was in palliative care — or staying after the end of my shift to work overtime. I chose my mother and lost my job.

Small thing the city could do:

Hire social assistance workers with empathy. Or better yet, hire staff who have been on assistance themselves, so they really understand the system from experience. And so that people on the system can see there is a way out.

Big thing the city could do:

Embrace the Tiny Home concept (which advocates living simply in small homes.) A lot of people in poverty don’t have an opportunity to build their own equity. Allowing people to build their own Tiny Home would help families and also the economy.


Bee Lee Soh, 57, wants to see more affordable housing in the city.
Bee Lee Soh, 57, wants to see more affordable housing in the city.  (Carlos Osorio)

Bee Lee Soh, 57, came to Canada from Malaysia to study when she was 19, became a citizen in 1993, and worked for years in low-wage jobs, unaware of any social safety net. In 2004, when she could no longer afford to pay $700 a month for a room on her minimum-wage job, Soh gave her landlord one-month’s notice and began looking for something cheaper. But by the time she realized she couldn’t find anything, her room was rented to someone else and she became homeless. Unemployment followed, as she was unable to hold down her full-time job while trying to sleep in all-night coffee shops. Soh spent eight months “couch surfing” and eating in soup kitchens before someone told her about welfare and she was able to rent another room. Although still haunted by homelessness, Soh has turned her experience into activism including as a member of the federal government’s advisory panel on poverty which wrapped up last month.

Hardest day:

Everyday when mosquitoes keep me awake from scratching till bleeding even in the winter in my damp, cold and mouldy rooming house.

Small thing the city could do:

More housing allowances for people on the verge of homelessness like me, not just to the already homeless.

Big thing the city could do:

Make public transit free for the very poor.


Kevin Jackson, 48, hopes to use his personal struggles with poverty, learning and mental health to help others.
Kevin Jackson, 48, hopes to use his personal struggles with poverty, learning and mental health to help others.  (Carlos Osorio)

Kevin Jackson, 48, is a PhD candidate in the Critical Disability Studies program, at York University. He relies on the Ontario Disability Support Program and funding through his work as a teaching assistant at York. Jackson hopes to use his personal struggles with poverty, learning and mental health to help people. Jackson said being a student with a limited income means everything is a struggle. “You are just trying to improve yourself to help other people. You get pushed down.”

Hardest day:

Last week. I broke down in Walmart because I couldn’t get a gym bag. I knew what I needed weeks before I started school but I didn’t have the money to get any of it. So when I went to get a gym bag there was nothing there but children’s bags because all of them had been taken.

Small thing the city could do:

What would really help, if I had a two-week Metropass. That’s it. That’s all I want. I just need the resources to get where I need to go. It’s not even food. I just need to get there, to do the work for you.

Big thing the city could do:

To stop the adversarial nature of accessing resources. It is a fight to get everything. That is not fair. That’s not really democratic.


Veronica Snooks, 55, says the TTC should provide a pass for those with disabilities.
Veronica Snooks, 55, says the TTC should provide a pass for those with disabilities.  (Carlos Osorio)

Veronica Snooks, 55, has called Toronto Community Housing her home for 12 years. Snooks resents that housing security can come with unfair stigma, something she wants to change. “Why should it be called low-income housing? Why not just a neighbourhood like anywhere else?”

She’s helping with a city-supported study around housing unit takeovers, when people take over the apartments of vulnerable people to use the space for drug dealing, prostitution, or other criminal activity. The widespread problem “needs to be addressed with solid action,” she said.

Hardest day:

When I cannot afford TTC fare to go to something and when I am unable to afford to go meet my daughter to come visit and have not enough food either … that really sucks and hurts.

Small thing the city could do:

The city could include a TTC pass with my ODSP … that’d be great! Being mobile makes a huge difference.

Big thing the city could do:

Complete overhaul of existing housing to protect people from those coming in to take over for profit. Lower rents. More affordable and supportive (housing). People are stretched to the max over housing.


Carla Navida, 19, says having shelter is one way people can begin making a life for themselves.
Carla Navida, 19, says having shelter is one way people can begin making a life for themselves.  (Carlos Osorio)

Carla Navida, 19, enjoyed a comfortable childhood in the Middle East. Moving to Canada meant starting over almost from scratch, with her parents both taking on low-paying jobs to make ends meet. “I saw my father switch from being in a high-paying position in the largest electrical company in Saudi Arabia to working as a bathroom cleaner as his first job here in Toronto,” says Navida. “Poverty comes in many forms and I experienced it coming to Canada as part of an immigrant family who knew no one, had no relatives and no references whatsoever.”

Hardest day:

I remember a very specific day having to walk from my high school home during a harsh winter sometime in March 2014. Bus fare of $2 was alot. It may not be as hard as other people’s, but a two-kilometre walk during a freezing day stuck onto the memory of a 14-year-old.

Small thing the city could do:

A housing subsidy would definitely make a huge difference not only to me but also to many other low-income families. Having shelter is one of the ways people can begin making a life for themselves as people have one less thing to worry about.

Big thing the city could do:

If Toronto can find resourceful ways to provide food supplies for people in need, I think that will go a long way.


Lindsay Jennings, 36, would like to see more support for people who have been incarcerated.
Lindsay Jennings, 36, would like to see more support for people who have been incarcerated.  (Carlos Osorio)

Lindsay Jennings, 36, is using her experiences with homelessness and involvement with the criminal justice system, to support people who are incarcerated. Jennings wants more employment, education and housing opportunities for people who are working to rebuild their lives after they are released from jail. “The stigma that I still carry makes things very difficult now. My ‘degree’ in being incarcerated is not a recognized or validated or respected form of education.”

Hardest day:

It is not one hard day. Yes, the hard day is when you get out of jail and you have nothing and you have to make a choice whether to go to a shelter, or go back to a community you don’t want to go to. Community is not welcoming. To be honest, every single day for the past 10 years since I’ve been out of jail has been difficult.

Small thing the city could do:

I would like to see more employment programs for people with records or apprenticeship programs to help people rebuild.

Big thing the city could do:

More transitional housing, or supportive housing, for people coming out of provincial jails.


Gerry Banks, 70, would like to see better services for seniors.
Gerry Banks, 70, would like to see better services for seniors.  (Carlos Osorio)

Gerry Banks, 70, brings more than three decades of experience living on a fixed and supported income in Canada’s largest and increasingly unaffordable city. He’s lived for close to 30 years in Toronto Community Housing, is an extremely active community member and volunteer who pushes for easier access to food banks and better services for seniors.

Hardest day:

In 2013. Owed $4,000 in rent and ‘drug debt’ and was about to lose my housing. Dealers were threatening me, (I suffered a) mental health crisis (and was) hospitalized.

Small thing the city could do:

Decrease transportation costs.

Big thing the city could do:

The city needs to support a plan to provide a seamless transition for seniors who were using Ontario Disability Support Payments and Ontario Works to Canada Pension Plan and are moving over to Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement. Examples that would make things easier would be direct rent payments, (continued) dental coverage and increased drug benefit coverage.


Libertad Vega, 36, says graduating from a college program has made her more independant.
Libertad Vega, 36, says graduating from a college program has made her more independant.  (Carlos Osorio)

Libertad Vega, 36, is using her past experience living within the city’s emergency shelter system with her two small children to push for more affordable housing and better educational opportunities for women and children. Vega is a graduate of the administrative services program at Humber College and spent time working in an administrative position in the shelter her family relied on, before moving on to a new job. “Everything has changed. I am more independent.”

Hardest day:

Moving to a shelter and having no place to call home. That was really tough.

Small thing the city could do:

I think it is difficult to say one thing, but I think the most important thing would be housing. Rents are too expensive. Even people with medium income cannot afford to buy a house.

Big thing the city could do:

Education. It is not the teacher, it is really the system. If they have a better education they can go forward and apply for college and university and have the expectation of better work and better living in general.

Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb

Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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