Regent Park residents say they can’t access their neighbourhood pool. City data backs them up

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“Where is our pool?” read one of the signs held aloft by children who had waded into the reflecting pool in Nathan Phillips Square on a summer day in July 1969.

Their protest was over the lack of recreation space in their Regent Park neighbourhood and their demand was for a wading pool for those hot days.

Mary Ann Scott, left, typically lines up overnight to register her children for programs at the recreation centres in Regent Park, and often still can’t get them in. She is pictured here with her children Tessa, 13, Selam, 12, and Abyssina, 7, outside the Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre.
Mary Ann Scott, left, typically lines up overnight to register her children for programs at the recreation centres in Regent Park, and often still can’t get them in. She is pictured here with her children Tessa, 13, Selam, 12, and Abyssina, 7, outside the Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre.  (Rick Madonik / Toronto Star)

It would take several more decades for their request to be exceeded by the state-of-the art Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre, which opened its glass doors in 2012 with a 25-metre lap pool, hot tub, water slides and more in the heart of a neighbourhood in the midst of revitalization.

But now that there is plenty of pool right in their backyard, Regent Park and nearby residents say they are consistently struggling to access the new space and that most of the people signed up for the popular swim programs are coming from other parts of the city, a claim backed up by City of Toronto data.

The data provided to the Star shows that only about a quarter of the registrations at the aquatic centre for the most recent fall/winter session of city-run programs were for registrants whose home address was in Regent Park or the area immediately surrounding it.

And while there continues to be a waiting list tens of thousands of people long for recreation programs across the city, the Star has learned that the most recent budget recommendations would significantly delay the council-approved goal of creating 70,000 new spaces in three years. Instead of 25,000 new spaces council had approved for 2019, the latest budget includes just 7,500 spaces and stretches the plan over five years instead of three.

Read more:

Regent Park community reflects and regroups as final chapter of rebuild begins

In response to questions about proposed delay, Mayor John Tory’s spokesperson, Don Peat, noted Tory’s earlier push to increase the number of recreation spaces funded in 2018.

“This is just the beginning of the 2019 budget process,” he said in a statement. “The budget committee will be reviewing the staff recommendations in the coming weeks and will make further recommendations.”

In the case of Regent Park, nobody is abusing the system. The city has a policy that allows anyone to access any centre regardless of where they live or their income level. Someone who lives in a suburb but works downtown might prefer to use a centre en route. Across the city, there are just not enough recreation spaces for those who want them, creating a competitive environment during registration and the long waiting list.

Mary Ann Scott, a mom of three in the Church and Dundas Sts. area and member of the group Access to Recreation, which was created by Regent Park parents over these types of concerns, knows how it feels to be missing out.

Scott said she typically lines up overnight outside a local community centre at 8 p.m. ahead of registration that begins 7 a.m. the next morning in hopes of getting her children into the programs they helped pick out — swimming at the aquatic centre as well as gymnastics and other programs at the nearby Regent Park Community Centre.

That’s because she’s competing with other parents, some who are using multiple devices and high-speed internet to get through the city’s often cumbersome online system in hopes of getting the spaces they want.

Hani Afrah, also mother of three who grew up and still lives in Regent Park, met Scott waiting in line to register. As a member of the Access to Recreation group since its inception, she said they have no issue with the aquatic centre attracting people from across the city. They just want priority to ensure local residents can use the space.

“We know that if youth know to swim, how to skate they’d rather be doing those things than getting into trouble,” she said, adding she feels sad to see that her children’s friends miss out on programs.

“They feel disadvantaged and the community centre is right there.”

The gleaming aquatic centre, with windows overlooking the park under a cedar-panelled roof, has been celebrated for its sleek and welcoming design. On a recent weekday, moms pushing strollers traded recipes in the warm, chlorine-scented lobby. A meeting was being held in a nearby multi-purpose room that’s sometimes used for kid’s birthday parties.

The Regent Park Community Centre was also rebuilt as part of the revitalization, featuring a gym, indoor track, dance studio, weights room and more.

Both centres in Regent Park — which the city still officially designates as a priority neighbourhood based on low income and other factors — offer free programs for children and adults, and they are both “at or near capacity with extensive wait lists,” according to recently-posted city budget documents.

Scott said their community has also been squeezed every time there are local emergencies. Recent cold-weather alerts and a fire at the 650 Parliament St. apartment building have seen the community centre taken over for shelter, cancelling programs for residents.

On one such day in September of last year, Mackai Bishop Jackson, who had just turned 15, was shot and killed up the street from the centre while outside an apartment building with his friends. He often attended the after-school programs at the community centre, which was closed at the time because of the 650 Parliament fire. His death has left friends and neighbours wondering if his fate would have been different had the centre been open that day.

“What’s the logic in closing down a recreation centre in a community that needs places for children to be?” Scott asked. “It should have never been closed in the first place.”

The aquatic centre replaced an existing recreation centre and outdoor pool in what was once an insular Toronto Community Housing complex of interlocking lowrise apartments and highrise towers. The long-term revitalization of Regent Park, still underway, has seen TCH units demolished and rebuilt alongside market condos and townhomes surrounding a park and the new aquatic centre.

The site is one of 38 city-designated free centres, which are selected based on their proximity — within 1.5 kilometres — of census areas where at least 30 per cent of families are classified as low-income.

However, the city has a policy that allows anyone to access any centre regardless of where they live or their income. City staff say participants “typically travel within 3.5 (kilometres) of a recreation centre” for registered programs.

The city also has what is called a “welcome” policy that provides a limited amount of funding to low-income families to access programs at paid-for centres.

The city provided data for all fall/winter registrations in Regent Park by “forward sortation area” — the first three digits of a postal code. The area for Regent Park also includes neighbourhoods including Cabbagetown and St. Lawrence.

That means it is likely that of the 326 sign-ups in that immediate area captured in the data provided to the Star, not all were made by Regent Park residents, meaning even fewer than 25 per cent of all registrations came from Regent Park.

The data shows residents living as far away as the Kingsway and Malvern are accessing the centre for programs. And there are more sign-ups from East York, The Danforth, Riverdale, Leslieville and the Beach combined than from the Regent Park area.

At the Regent Park Community Centre, which is also a free centre, registrations from the immediate area made up 40 per cent of all sign-ups.

Both recreation facilities also offer free drop-in hours.

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents the Regent Park area, said the data confirms what those in the community already knew — that the majority of those signed up for swimming programs live outside the community.

After advocates recently organized to demand Regent Park residents be given priority access, Wong-Tam moved a motion at committee earlier this month to have staff explore a pilot project to increase recreation availability at local schools. Staff say a pilot could be launched in the fall of 2019 but the $160,000 cost is currently unfunded.

“They had already said quite eloquently and with a lot of urgency that we needed to reform the system so that people who had championed these facilities, who had borne the brunt of construction impacts, who had waited patiently, could have access to their own swimming pool,” Wong-Tam said. “It reconfirms what communities are feeling, is that they’re struggling to get their children and themselves and families into recreation programs.”

The city has 123 community recreation centres, 119 splash pads, 61 indoor pools, 59 outdoor pools, 68 outdoor artificial ice rinks from Etobicoke to Scarborough, serving 10.7 million programmed visits each year, according to the most recent budget documents.

But not all neighbourhoods are treated equally. While there are a number of recreation centres, not all have the same amenities. For example, there are large areas that are not served by an indoor pool, such as most of Etobicoke North and large pockets of Scarborough. There are only four indoor pools in all of northern Scarborough, where staff have had to scramble to find temporary program spaces after one centre in Agincourt caught fire Thursday.

There is a concentration of free centres in or near the eastern part of downtown, including the aquatic centre, Regent Park Community Centre, Wellesley Community Centre, John Innes Community Recreation Centre and the Jimmie Simpson Recreation Centre. Another free centre, Secord Community Centre, is near Danforth Ave. and Main St.

Of those, three have pools. The Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre provides more than twice the number of time slots for swim programs than both the Jimmie Simpson and John Innes pools, offering a total 208 options for swim classes during the fall and winter registration.

Across the entire city there are 11 free centres that have pools, two in the Etobicoke and York district, two in North York, one in Scarborough and six in the Toronto and East York district.

The Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre has features including a lap pool, hot tub and water slides.
The Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre has features including a lap pool, hot tub and water slides.  (Tom Arban)

According to a staff briefing note provided to council during the 2018 budget process, there were more than 600,000 recreation spaces across the city and more than 198,000 wait-listed spaces representing more than 62,000 people on the waiting list. Those are 2016 numbers, but said to be the most recent, verified data.

To try to address the waiting list, city staff proposed a growth plan in 2017 to add 60,000 new spaces over three years. During the 2018 budget process, council increased the number added in that first year, bringing the total new spaces planned to 70,000 at a net cost of $2.4 million.

City staff say both Regent Park recreation centres directly benefited from that growth plan, with the total number of registered recreation spaces increasing 22 per cent in 2018, creating more than 1,500 new openings.

But after staff were asked to bring forward budgets this year that froze spending at last year’s levels, the 2019 recommended budget from staff only plans for 7,500 new spaces to be added in the second year of the growth plan — 17,500 fewer than the 25,000 council approved. It will now take five years, staff say, to reach the goal of 70,000 new spaces. The budget process continues for the next month and will be finalized by council in March.

Responding to the Star late Friday evening, city staff said they “misrepresented” council direction in their budget notes, saying council had decided to “fast-track” the plan and that council never intended to actually expand the plan from 60,000 to 70,000 spaces.

“There is nothing we can find in council’s decisions and direction that indicates council’s intention to expand the plan from 60,000 to 70,000, but rather that they wanted staff to implement more spaces in the first year,” a city spokesperson said, adding they would be correcting a budget note.

A 2018 budget briefing note from staff outlined how adding an additional 10,000 spaces in the first year of the plan would increase the total number of spaces to 70,000. Council later voted to “further increase” the number of spaces funded in 2018 to 20,000.

The original three-year plan would have seen 35,000 spaces approved by the end of 2019. The current budget plan would see just 27,500 approved even with the increased number of spaces council added in 2018 — still 7,500 short on the original growth plan.

Asked about stretching the original plan over five years, the city spokesperson said: “Given our experience in the accelerated implementation of the first 20,000 new spaces in the first phase of the program, we have recommended a more gradual implementation of the remaining 40,000 spaces.”

Wong-Tam said the city should be able to set a target and then allocate the resources needed to make it happen.

“Clearly there’s a disconnect there,” she said.

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags

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Caroline Mulroney says Tories want to improve access to justice for francophones

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Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney said Tuesday her government wants to improve access to justice for Franco-Ontarians, while it continues to face backlash for cuts to French services in other sectors.

Mulroney, who is also minister of francophone affairs, was speaking at Osgoode Hall at the launch of “Justice pas-à-pas” (Justice step-by-step), a French-language website spearheaded by the group Community Legal Education Ontario and designed to help Franco-Ontarians navigate the justice system. The Ministry of the Attorney General is listed as partner with the project. (A version of the website already existed in English.)

“Our government is determined to improve access to justice in French in Ontario,” Mulroney said in French.

She mentioned having spoken about it to francophone Court of Appeal Justice Paul Rouleau, who was in attendance Tuesday. Mulroney also voiced support for a pilot project launched by the previous Liberal government at the Ottawa courthouse to assist Franco-Ontarians, which includes signage informing them of their language rights in various court proceedings and having staff actively offer services in French.

“We are exploring the possibility of building on the success of this project elsewhere in the province, and I hope we will be able to announce good news soon,” she said.

The Progressive Conservatives continue to face criticism for their decision to cut some French-language services, announced earlier this month, which Mulroney herself has defended as necessary to reduce the deficit.

Meanwhile, Mulroney’s own parliamentary secretary for francophone affairs, eastern Ontario MPP Amanda Simard, has publicly rebuked the government over the cuts and has urged Franco-Ontarians to pressure her government to reverse them.

The government will not be proceeding with plans announced by the Liberals to build a French-language university. It had also announced it would transfer the responsibilities of the French language services commissioner, an independent watchdog who reports to the legislature, to the office of the ombudsman.

But following outcry from the francophone community, the Ford government announced last week it would maintain the position of commissioner, but within the ombudsman’s office, and said the office of francophone affairs would become a ministry, with Mulroney as minister. The premier’s office said it would also be hiring a senior adviser on francophone affairs.

Nonetheless, the government is still being called on to reduce all the cuts, with rallies planned for this weekend. Simard, Mulroney’s parliamentary secretary, also tweeted in French “Resist” to her followers.

The attorney general received an otherwise warm reception at Tuesday’s event, which included many francophone legal advocates as well as Ontario Court Chief Justice Lise Maisonneuve, the first francophone appointed to the position.

Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering legal affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant

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Medical Council of Canada under fire for banning access to menstrual products for exam takers

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The Medical Council of Canada says it’s reviewing its practices after being criticized online for prohibiting women from bringing tampons or menstrual pads into exam rooms while writing multi-hour tests.

Dr. Michelle Cohen, advocacy chairperson with Canadian Women in Medicine, said it’s « sexist and unfair » to confiscate feminine hygiene products from exam takers, or to require them to ask exam supervisors for access to them in the middle of a test.

« It’s just a completely disgusting overreach and outrageously invasive, » Cohen said in an interview from Brighton, Ont., where she works as a family doctor.

Cohen launched a petition calling for change, saying that making menstrual products available in washrooms doesn’t adequately solve the problem because exam writers are entitled to use the product of their choice.

While women now outnumber men in medical schools, she said gender parity has not worked its way up to leadership positions.

« When we look at medical leadership it hasn’t really changed the same way that movement in the profession has really changed, has really feminized. So a lot of those rules are still quite antiquated and reflect a sexist bias, » she said.

No specific ban

In a statement on Wednesday, the council said it does not have a policy on the use and access to menstrual products during exams, but personal items such as purses, bags and backpacks are not permitted in the exam area.

It says bags stored away on site can be accessed by staff on request, and test takers can also request to use the washroom and to have access to necessary personal items but it must be under supervision by exam administrators.

« We sincerely regret any frustration that this has caused, » the statement said.    

Yes, we have to balance exam integrity, but at the end of the day they’re going to have to draw the line somewhere and we’re going to have to respect personal autonomy in women making their own health decisions. – Dr. Alana Fleet, Resident Doctors of Canada

« A group is being established to review current practices and we look forward to collaborating with learners to identify opportunities for improvement in these practices moving forward. »

Dr. Alana Fleet, who is on the executive of the Resident Doctors of Canada (RDC), said she took an exam with the medical council last weekend in Vancouver. Rules about what you can bring into the exam room are outlined on the medical council’s website.

« Essentially you are to have a lab coat, reflex hammer, stethoscope and identification. Any other valuables that you bring, those are deemed unacceptable and placed in itemized bags and stored at the side, » Fleet said.

RDC, which represents about 10,000 physicians, has been working with the medical council to change its policy, she said.

In the past, she said the council required test-takers to pre-register and declare health accommodations. That was problematic for unpredictable things like menstruation, she said, and the policy was eliminated for this year’s exams.

It’s a step in the right direction but it would be better if women could just bring the products of their choice without asking permission to access them, she said.

« Yes, we have to balance exam integrity, but at the end of the day they’re going to have to draw the line somewhere and we’re going to have to respect personal autonomy in women making their own health decisions. That’s ultimately what I’d like to see, » she said.

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Vulnerable children don’t have access to Canada Child Benefit, says advocacy group

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Thousands of Canada’s most vulnerable children don’t have access to hundreds of dollars a month in federal aid because of red tape, according to a non-profit organization.

The Elizabeth Fry Society, a charity that supports at-risk women, girls and children, recently launched a petition to ensure that children who need it most get the Canada Child Benefit. 

The Trudeau government introduced the program two years ago. Amounts are based on family income, but can reach up to $541 per child, per month. 

« [The Canada Child Benefit] is one of the best leaps forward we’ve made in this country in years in terms of supporting poor children, » said Shawn Bayes, executive director of Greater Vancouver’s Elizabeth Fry.

« But some of the bureaucracy around it does not enable families to be able to claim a benefit that they would be entitled to. »

Bayes says tens of thousands of low-income children across Canada don’t get the funding.

Driving the problem is at-risk children in informal relationships with a caregiver like a grandmother or other family member who is not the legal guardian.

Many of these informal caregivers are pensioners, on social assistance or on a low income, Bayes says.

The paperwork to sign up for the Canada Child Benefit is onerous for caregivers with limited education, she says, and the lack of legal status keeps them from having access to required documents like birth certificates. 

‘It’s all out of pocket’

Such is the case for Metro Vancouver resident Lola (whose last name has been withheld to protect the child in her care).

Two years ago Lola got a call from a social worker asking her if she could take in her niece. There was physical abuse and drug abuse at the niece’s home, the social worker told her.

It was only meant to be a temporary solution — but two years later Lola’s niece is still living with her, her partner and their two children. 

Lola says she has no additional support or funding for her niece to help with basic costs like food, school supplies, transportation, medication or clothes. 

Children with a precarious home life are often cared for informally by other family members, according to the Elizabeth Fry Society. (iStock)

« [The Canada Child Benefit] would make a huge difference. It would pay for all of the extras. Raising my own kids and another child, it’s not cheap, » she said.

« Forget about any sort of recreation or social activities because it’s all out of pocket. »

Lola said she could probably get legal caregiver status, but she can’t afford a lawyer or the time off work to deal with the matter in court. 

Now that she’s caring for her niece, Lola says she has heard of many families and children in situations far worse than hers. 

« There’s a lot of family members out there that are committed to caring for little ones, but finances can be a barrier for them, » she said. « And that might mean the difference between them being able to care for their relatives or not. »

‘There is always more work to do’

To help solve the problem, the Elizabeth Fry Society wants vulnerable children and their caregivers to have other means to provide proof of guardianship.

For example, a social service organization could confirm the relationship and the child’s circumstances to trigger the benefits, Bayes said, simplifying the application process. 

The organization’s petition has gathered 5,000 signatures so far, which NDP MP Peter Julian, who represents New Westminster-Burnaby, presented in the House of Commons last month. It’s now available online.

In a written statement, the Ministry of Families, Children and Social Development said the Canada Child Benefit has helped lift 300,000 children out of poverty.

« As per usual process, our government will be tabling our response to this petition, » the ministry secretary said.

« We have made important investments that represent a positive step forward, but we know there is always more work to do. »

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