Toronto granting more construction noise exemptions, with 177 approved in 2018

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The buzz of a chainsaw, the beeping of a truck in reverse, the thud of a jackhammer. All sounds that have become part of the backdrop of a growing city.

But between certain hours, the residents of Toronto are supposed to get a bylaw-mandated break, unless the city grants an exemption.

The city’s noise bylaw review is looking at construction as well as noise from power equipment (such as leaf-blowers), vehicles, bars and restaurants, and general noise, such as from neighbours. But construction noise is the biggest source of noise complaints to the city, with 3,845 noise complaints in 2018.
The city’s noise bylaw review is looking at construction as well as noise from power equipment (such as leaf-blowers), vehicles, bars and restaurants, and general noise, such as from neighbours. But construction noise is the biggest source of noise complaints to the city, with 3,845 noise complaints in 2018.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star File)

And they grant many, many exemptions.

The city is receiving — and approving — more construction noise exemptions, one of the most contested parts of the noise bylaw up for review in the spring.

In 2015, there were 132 construction noise exemption applications received and 102 granted. By 2018, that number had grown to 248 exemption applications received and 177 granted, according to numbers the city provided to the Star.

The exemptions were a hot topic at a bylaw review public consultation this week, which saw about 50 people squeezed into a meeting room at the Centre for Social Innovation Regent Park Lounge to make a little noise of their own.

At the Tuesday meeting, city staff, joined by facilitators from the private firm hired by the city to run the consultations, told the crowd that construction companies send exemption requests to city councillors, who have 14 days to deny them. If they don’t respond, the application is automatically approved.

That’s something condo manager Helen Da-Ponte thinks “should be removed.”

She’s fed up with noise from construction around her building near Queen St. and University Ave. and told a facilitator in a small group breakout session that residents “complain and complain” to the city and “nobody responds.”

“It’s never being followed up. The enforcement is not there.”

Resident Nick Yak, who lives in a different part of the city, suggested flipping it so applications are denied if the councillor doesn’t respond.

“I think that makes more sense,” he said in the same small group session, adding he’s submitted many noise complaints to little effect.

The noise bylaw is clear. Construction noise can only be made between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays, and not at all on Sundays and statutory holidays. But companies can apply for exemptions to do work outside those hours.

There’s also an automatic exemption for continuous pouring of concrete, large crane work, necessary municipal work and emergency work that cannot be performed during regular business hours.

Read more:

Is this the noisiest neighbourhood in Toronto?

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Editorial: Turn down the volume!

Yak finds that “ridiculous,” and said the blanket exemption should be removed.

Paul De Berardis, director of building science and innovation at the Residential Construction Council of Ontario, said in an interview after the meeting the concrete exemption is “vital to keeping production schedule,” as companies might start pouring in the morning and just not be done by 7 p.m.

“Construction ultimately makes noise, there’s no way to undergo silent construction,” he said.

Getting rid of the concrete exemption and forcing companies to apply for permits would just add “another layer of bureaucracy” in an already complicated process, especially at a time when the city so direly needs more housing supply, he added.

He said other construction noise exemptions are about “logistics and safety” when companies need to do work overnight.

But De Berardis agreed leaving it up to councillors is maybe not the best approach and “could be adversarial” if they don’t want a specific project. A process where Municipal Licensing and Standards decided would be preferable for everyone, he added.

The noise bylaw review began in 2015, with the goal of making it easier to understand and striking a balance between the needs of residents and the growing city.

Two public consultations were held that year, and more in 2016. Tuesday’s meeting was one of five consultations held over the last two weeks.

It was clear residents are weary, with many expressing bewilderment, irritation and even anger over the issue.

Carlo Drudi told the room he’s “living through” a project near his downtown residence right now, and is inundated with “constant loud voices,” “blaring radios,” and “trucks coming at four in the morning.”

He suggested the onus be put on the noise generator by requiring “noise bonds” on projects, which could be lost if workers made too much noise after hours.

Another resident suggested inviting politicians or members of the construction industry to spend a night in the house of someone living near a noisy project; another said the city should set the example and make sure its own workers respect the bylaw.

The suggestions drew oohs, ahs, laughs and cheers from the crowd.

City staff will incorporate the outcomes of this round of consultations into a staff report it will submit along with proposed bylaw changes to the city’s Economic and Community Development Committee in April.

The other consultations looked at noise from power equipment (such as leaf-blowers), vehicles, bars and restaurants, and general noise such as a neighbour playing an instrument.

But construction noise is the biggest source of noise complaints to the city, and they’re also rising. There were 3,845 noise complaints in 2018, compared to 3,468 in 2015, according to numbers presented by city staff Tuesday.

Staff told the crowd that noise mitigation plans for the construction industry are also on the table. This is something that’s already being done in New York City, where contractors are required to make and post them at construction sites to let neighbours know how they will reduce noise.

There were also concerns raised by members of the Toronto Noise Coalition, a residents’ group that has been trying to get a stricter noise bylaw for years, about enforcement, and staffing of bylaw inspectors.

Some laughed while others shook their heads when staff flashed a slide that said the city employs 285 bylaw officers to enforce all bylaws, including noise.

The standard is that bylaw officers respond within five days for construction noise, but between two and 48 hours for animal noise, depending on the risk to animal welfare.

“Ha, more concerned about animals than people,” scoffed Mary Helen Spence of the Toronto Noise Coalition.

“What’s the point of having a bylaw if you don’t enforce it?” she asked the crowd.

May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11

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Tory says subway relief line construction could be sped up by two years, open by 2029

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Mayor John Tory says city and TTC staff have found a way to speed up construction of the relief line subway by at least two years, meaning it would open by 2029.

But the expedited work would require adding an additional $162 million in this year’s TTC capital budget. According to transit agency staff, the total cost to speed up the work would be $325 million spread out over two years.

Mayor John Tory says city and TTC staff have found a way to speed up construction of the relief line subway by at least two years, meaning it would open by 2029.
Mayor John Tory says city and TTC staff have found a way to speed up construction of the relief line subway by at least two years, meaning it would open by 2029.  (David Rider / Toronto Star file photo)

“I know while the date that we’re talking about here in the late 2020s still sounds far away, the bottom line is that the faster you get on with these projects and everything you can do to speed them up, the sooner people are going to be able to ride on that transit, the sooner we’re going to have real relief that people have talked about for decades,” said Tory at an announcement Thursday at Pape subway station.

The relief line would connect the eastern end of Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth) at Pape to Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina) at Queen St. downtown, and is considered critical to relieving crowding pressure on the existing network. Early estimates indicate it would cost at least $6.8 billion. It is currently not funded.

Read more:

Editorial | Relief line must be the top priority for Toronto’s subway system

Opening relief line before Yonge subway extension ‘makes sense,’ Ontario transportation minister says

TTC Chair Jaye Robinson, who joined Tory at the event, said the completion of the subway could be sped up by accelerating design work, property acquisition, and utility relocation, and advancing the purchase of the machines and technology required to construct the line. TTC staff said construction could begin as early as 2020.

The mayor’s announcement came as the provincial Conservative government is moving ahead with plans to take over all future TTC subway construction, a development that could take the relief line out of the city and transit agency’s hands.

Tory, who backed a council decision to enter into talks with the province about the subway takeover, said it was “grossly premature” to assume any outcome of those talks and in the meantime the city has a responsibility to move ahead with building transit.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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Senneville residents block condo development but could lose trees to house construction – Montreal

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It’s back to the drawing board for a residential real estate developer in Senneville, Que.

Residents in the small, rustic municipality on the western tip of the Island of Montreal recently stopped a proposed housing project from being approved.

More than 160 signatures were registered to oppose a developer who planned to build condominiums off of des Anciens-Combattants Boulevard.

The developer then withdrew the plan, which would have allowed more than 60 condominiums to be built in a village that is solely made up of single-family homes on large plots of land.


READ MORE:
Senneville council votes to rezone area slated for controversial condo project

“Senneville is not a condominium community. It really isn’t,” Bill O’Brien, a longtime resident of the area, told Global News.

O’Brien lives on Elmwood Avenue, and his house backs onto the wooded area where the housing project was proposed.

“In the event that the condos had gone through, it could have set a precedent for the rest of Senneville so in the future, if a big piece of property had come up for sale, somebody might be able to say, ‘Hey, look, it’s been done before. Why can’t we do it again?’” he said.

WATCH: New Senneville Residential development proposal has residents voicing their disproval






The land is now zoned for eight single-family houses.

But the construction of single-family houses would risk cutting down even more trees than the proposed condominium project.

“This forest behind us acts as a climatic regulator for this town. It also shields this town from noise pollution (and) light pollution,” Senneville resident Martin Gauthier told Global News.

Though it’s a smaller town now, there used to be 1,400 people living in Senneville in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and the mayor argues the town could have handled an influx of people had residents supported the condo project.


READ MORE:
‘I want nothing at all’: Senneville residents unhappy with potential housing project

“The town could absorb more citizens and still keep with the small-town feel,” Senneville Mayor Julie Brisebois told Global News.

Brisebois says the original project would have saved a majority of the trees, while the single-family home proposal puts a lot more of them at risk.

“I think it’s too bad,” she said.

“I think we were saving 80 per cent of that wooded area without having to spend a dollar.”

It’s now up to the real estate developer to decide whether to go ahead with the single-family home project, which would maintain the look of the village but potentially come at a huge environmental cost.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Street closure designed to speed up Eglinton Crosstown construction postponed

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A lengthy closure of a midtown intersection intended to accelerate work on the Eglinton Crosstown LRT has been postponed due to local opposition, a decision that comes on the heels of questions about whether the massive transit project will be done on time.

Earlier this month Metrolinx, the provincial agency that oversees transit planning in the GTHA, announced Bathurst St. between Eglinton Ave. West and Wembley Rd. would be closed between December and June to allow the construction of Forest Hill station, one of 25 planned stops on the 19-kilometre line.

This April 27, 2018 photo shows the underground cavern where Laird station for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT will be built.
This April 27, 2018 photo shows the underground cavern where Laird station for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT will be built.  (Randy Risling / Toronto Star)

According to a notice posted to the project website, the seven-month closure would cut the duration of construction on the street by nearly half, eliminate the need to reconfigure the intersection several times over the course of the work, and improve safety conditions at the site.

Councillor Josh Matlow, whose ward is bordered by Eglinton, said he objected to the plan when he learned about it soon after winning re-election in October.

He said neither Metrolinx nor Crosslinx, the private consortium building the $5.8-billion LRT, had consulted the public about the plan, and announced it despite not yet having a construction permit from the city.

“The overwhelming response is of tremendous concern, principally because of the incursion of traffic that will result from this,” he said.

Timeline of the Eglinton Crosstown construction

Matlow said he and his constituents accept the fact that the construction of a major transit line will cause disruption, but he argued residents deserve to provide input about how to mitigate the impacts and suggest alternatives. He said many feel a partial closure of the street would be preferable, even it means it takes longer to complete the work.

In response to Matlow’s objections, Crosslinx has agreed to postpone the closure and hold a public meeting next month.

Crosslinx spokesperson Kristin Jenkins said while the construction group remains on track to meet the September 2021 deadline, accelerating work at Forest Hill would “(give) us some cushion.” The full closure of Bathurst would allow crews to operate in four work zones simultaneously instead of one at a time.

“It helps manage risk in case something unexpected comes up,” Jenkins said. “Plus it’s good for the community. By getting the work done faster, the road would be restored to normal faster.”

According to a source familiar with the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk publicly about the process, prior to the closure being announced city transportation staff told Crosslinx their permit would be approved.

In July Crosslinx, a partnership of Aecon, Dragados Canada, EllisDon, and SNC-Lavalin, cast doubt on whether it would finish the Crosstown on time when it sued Metrolinx for allegedly causing delays and cost overruns.

In a notice of action filed in court, Crosslinx asked for an extension of the 2021 deadline as well as reimbursement from Metrolinx for additional costs the group said it had incurred as a result of the agency’s actions.

The two sides reached a settlement in September under which Metrolinx agreed to pay the consortium $237 million. Both parties agreed to seek ways to speed up construction to ensure the project stayed on schedule, including extending work hours and performing multiple jobs concurrently.

Jamie Robinson, Metrolinx’s chief communications and public affairs officer, said Monday the Crosstown is still on track to be completed by 2021, “and will bring huge benefits to the city.”

“We’re building one of the largest transit projects in North American through highly congested, urbanized neighbourhoods. We know that construction can be disruptive and work very hard with Crosslinx to minimize the impacts on residents,” he said.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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Construction on Union Station pushed back until 2019

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The revitalization of Union Station has been pushed back yet again to 2019 — the latest delay in the three years since it was originally meant to be finished.

The City of Toronto has been “disappointed and frustrated” with these delays, said city spokesperson Erin McGuey.

The revitalization of Union Station will not be completed until 2019, the city says, after months of delays. This makes the construction project four years overdue — it was originally meant to be completed in 2015.
The revitalization of Union Station will not be completed until 2019, the city says, after months of delays. This makes the construction project four years overdue — it was originally meant to be completed in 2015.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

“The Union Station Revitalization Project, seemingly along with a number of other Bondfield construction projects across the province, has experienced significant delays in recent months,” she said.

When the construction was originally approved in 2009, with a timeline for completion in 2015, construction company Carillion Canada Inc. was hired to carry out the work. Carillion had only completed the first phase of the project before Bondfield Construction Inc. replaced them. Bondfield has missed deadlines on several projects in the past, including renovations on GO transit stations in the GTA.

McGuey said that “significant progress” has been made since the beginning of the revitalization process, “including completion of the York Concourse, the VIA Panorama lounge, two new bike parking stations, and the dig down under to create a new retail level under the station, and food court under the York concourse.”

What remains to be finished is the restoration of the Great Hall, the VIA Concourse, the new Bay Concourse and retail level, as well as “glass moat covers,” to protect commuters entering the station at street level from the elements.

The project has experienced numerous delays over the years. The last delay — from an early 2018 finish date to a late 2018 one — added $22.8 million to the budget. McGuey said the current approved budget has not changed from $823 million.

McGuey was unable to say just when in 2019 the work on the station will be completed.

“The city has taken action, including involving Bondfield’s surety company Zurich Insurance Company Ltd., under its performance bond to help ensure the project is completed as quickly and cost-efficiently as possible,” McGuey said.

The city is currently in discussions with both Zurich and Bondfield and hope to form a schedule and timeline in the next few weeks, she added.

“The city is actively managing this project, and will assess all future options to ensure its completion,” McGuey said.

Once completed, Union Station — which sees more than 300,000 visitors passing through daily according to McGuey, making it the country’s busiest transportation hub — will be able to support twice as many pedestrians. It will be a community hub for dining, shopping and gathering, she said.

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U.S. judge halts Keystone XL pipeline construction

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A federal judge in Montana has filed an injunction to stop construction on the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline on Thursday. 

Brian Morris, the district judge in Montana, filed a 54-page order addressing allegations from Indigenous and environmental groups, alleging the U.S. Department of State made several violations when it approved the Keystone project. 

Dennis McConaghy, a former executive at the Calgary-based TransCanada Corporation, said the ruling is bad news for Canada. 

« This would be very, very problematic and put even more pressure on a Trudeau government to get the Trans Mountain pipeline built, » he said. « Canadians should hope that this thing is vigorously litigated and reversed. » 

And he guesses the ruling will be looked at and reversed in a higher court. 

In August, Morris ruled that the State Department was obligated to « analyze new information relevant to the environmental impacts of its decision » to issue a permit for the pipeline last year.

Order can be appealed, lawyer says

Stephan Volker, who represented the Indigenous Environmental Network called the order a win.

« When the Trump administration reversed course it failed to address those factual findings, » Volker said. « Under a number of different laws in the states administration has to explain the reasons why it feels it can change a decision when it was made contrary to actual findings in the past. »

Volker said the Keystone XL project violated several environmental laws and emphasised that the Trump administration failed to address a key flip flop from a previous ruling by former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, Kerry ruled that the project wasn’t in the public interest, citing climate change issues and alleging the project wouldn’t be the economic driver it promised to be.

Volker said the judge’s ruling means the project has been set aside and can’t proceed — but the order can be appealed.


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Construction ‘boot camp’ led to coveted trades jobs. But according to city documents, some say it came at the cost of racial taunts and humiliation

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Annemarie Shrouder looked out over the sea of white, middle-aged male faces gathered at the convention of Ontario’s building and construction trade unions, and stated the obvious.

“I don’t see a lot of visible minorities or women,” the Toronto-based diversity and inclusion expert told almost 300 delegates and guests at the meeting in Niagara Falls this month.

About 70 past and current Hammer Heads participants who rallied outside the Star last week say they did not experience abusive behaviour or racist language in the program as alleged by other past participants in complaints to the city.
About 70 past and current Hammer Heads participants who rallied outside the Star last week say they did not experience abusive behaviour or racist language in the program as alleged by other past participants in complaints to the city.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

With more than 100,000 skilled trades people in Ontario set to retire over the next decade, “getting people into the trades is only part of the equation,” she noted. “The more important part is making sure the people you have, and those who will arrive, feel safe, are seen and stay.”

Shrouder’s keynote address comes at a time when a union-sponsored pre-apprenticeship program has come under scrutiny from both the City of Toronto and the province for allegations of abusive behaviour and racist language.

Hammer Heads, which helps disadvantaged young people gain access to jobs in the construction trades, lost its contract with the city in July 2017 following complaints from participants about program director James St. John, according to internal city documents obtained through freedom of information legislation.

That same month, the provincial Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities put its funding renewal of the program “on hold” when, according to ministry documents obtained through a separate freedom of information request, it “became aware of allegations … Hammer Heads staff had subjected participants to comments of a harassing nature, racial slurs and intimidation.”

After a ministry review, the province signed a new contract with the program this May, subject to Hammer Heads’ board of directors obtaining an independent review of its operations to be submitted to the government this week, according to an internal ministry memo.

St. John declined an opportunity to speak to the Star, but through a spokesman denied he is abusive or uses racist language and said the city has refused to produce “concrete evidence of any allegations” or a “report of an investigation.”

James St. John has defended his Hammer Heads pre-apprenticeship program, saying no other city-funded program achieves its success rate for helping young people get jobs in the construction trades. He is shown at the Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario convention in Niagara Falls earlier this month.
James St. John has defended his Hammer Heads pre-apprenticeship program, saying no other city-funded program achieves its success rate for helping young people get jobs in the construction trades. He is shown at the Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario convention in Niagara Falls earlier this month.  (Andrew Lahodynskyj for Toronto Star)

St. John is the head of the Central Ontario Building Trades Council, which represents more than 50,000 skilled trades people in the GTA from 21 unions, including electricians, plumbers and iron workers.

His supporters praise him as a mentor who champions the underdog and uses harsh language and tough love to make sure young people living in poverty or in trouble with the law are equipped to survive the demands of the construction site. They note more than 420 young men and women have gained access to lucrative careers in the building trades since the program started almost a decade ago.

But critics paint St. John as a bully whose racial slurs and verbally abusive behaviour demeans and humiliates young people in his training program, many of whom are Black.

Those who complained to the city said St. John yelled and swore at them and used racial epithets, internal city documents show. They said St. John told them human rights don’t exist on construction job sites and “they had better get used to it.”

Among the specific comments cited in city documents that participants claim St. John made:

“You are black as night so you need to smile so people can see you.”

“You need to shave because you look like a terrorist.”

“You are going to be called n—–, you are going to take it, and not say anything.”

In addition to reviewing more than 100 pages of internal city documents about the complaints by Hammer Heads participants, two former program staff told the Star they were so upset by St. John’s behaviour towards the students that they quit to preserve their own mental health.

“Everybody gets completely humiliated. It’s all about scare tactics, breaking them down so they are too afraid to move, to cough. It’s unbelievable,” said one former employee.

“Even after they have graduated, they think he has the power to rip up their union cards if they don’t do what he says,” said another. Neither wanted their names published because they still work in the trades and fear reprisals.

But some graduates praise the program.

Justin Wedderburn, 29, a licensed tower crane operator who graduated in 2013 and attended a rally outside the Star last week in support of the program, was brought to tears when a reporter told him the city is no longer funding Hammer Heads.

“It’s not right ,” he said. “I’ve got two kids. I can afford to buy a house right now … I was not thinking about any of that stuff before … But now I have conversations about finances and equity. That’s thanks to James.

“It doesn’t matter how much you say he’s racist, the job site isn’t going to change. And they don’t like us,” Wedderburn said, pointing to his black skin.

Hammer Heads graduates Haider Zahid, centre, left, and Justin Wedderburn, centre, right, defend the program, saying it has helped them land good jobs in the construction trades. They were among about 70 current and past participants who took part in a rally outside the Star last week.
Hammer Heads graduates Haider Zahid, centre, left, and Justin Wedderburn, centre, right, defend the program, saying it has helped them land good jobs in the construction trades. They were among about 70 current and past participants who took part in a rally outside the Star last week.  (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

“If someone gets in my face and tries to say something about my race, do you really think I’m going to sit there and let them tell me that?” Wedderburn asked. “James is trying to help me understand … Either you can look past it and look towards your career. Or you can let that get to you and you can react. He makes you think.”

The allegations of mistreatment come at a time when the city, in partnership with the provincial and federal governments, is embarking on numerous “community benefit agreements” to ensure jobs that result from public infrastructure spending go to people in underemployed and economically disadvantaged communities.

“These (pre-apprenticeship) programs are very important because we have to level the playing field,” said Patricia Wolcott, the city’s general manager of employment and social services.

“The proven method to success is connections to trade unions and employers,” she said in an interview. “It does not include abusive behaviour.”

The building trades council started Hammer Heads in 2009 as a 12-week “boot camp” to help young men and women between the ages of 18 and 26 gain the social and professional skills to obtain a union apprenticeship in the construction trades. In addition to safety training and academic upgrading, classes of 15 to 20 students rotate through as many as 16 union training centres so participants can try out different trades. Students are not paid to participate, but the program covers all costs including safety gear and equipment.

About 95 per cent of graduates find work in construction and receive at least a year of on-the-job support, according to Hammer Heads.

St. John, who draws a salary from the council, assumed oversight of Hammer Heads in 2011. It achieved charitable status in 2013 and reported $1.13 million in revenue in 2016, with 67 per cent of funds coming from government and 33 per cent from other sources, according to the Canada Revenue Agency’s website. Expenses that year, the latest available, totalled almost $554,000.

Through his spokesperson, St. John said he receives no extra financial compensation for the time he spends overseeing Hammer Heads.

The program’s board of directors has three members who belong to unions represented by the GTA council. Board member Terry Snooks, international representative of the Canadian plumbers and steamfitters union, nominated St. John to head the provincial building trades council at the organization’s Niagara Falls convention. St. John lost the election to Patrick Dillon, who has led the Ontario council since 1997.

Although Hammer Heads is one of the more successful pre-apprenticeship programs in the Toronto area, the carpenters and labourers unions offer pre-employment training of their own, as do other organizations, said Wolcott. Construction Connections, created a year ago by the city, province and United Way, also provides links to the trades and offers support for disadvantaged youth hoping to find work on local transit expansion projects and community housing repairs, she added.


Toronto social services staff began sending young men and women to Hammer Heads in 2009 and started funding program spaces in 2015 through a purchase-of-service agreement. The city paid about $12,000 per student and over three years spent more than $600,000 for 64 spots.

Hammer Heads Facebook page boasts the program has saved taxpayers $3.8 million in social assistance payments and that about 85 per cent of graduates come from “non-traditional” populations.

“Others talk diversity, we achieve it,” the August 2018 Facebook post says.

Hammer Heads has strict performance expectations of all participants with a “zero tolerance” policy regarding attendance, punctuality and other requirements. For example, participants are kicked out if they do not arrive one hour before the program bus leaves for a training centre. Students are also removed if they haven’t completed their homework or other assignments, according to program materials.

Matthew Lewis, centre, flanked by Anil Hiddar, left, and Abdul Yousufi, right, were among Hammer Heads current and past participants who ralled in support of the program outside the Star last week. Lewis said he is now "making more money than I have ever made in my life."
Matthew Lewis, centre, flanked by Anil Hiddar, left, and Abdul Yousufi, right, were among Hammer Heads current and past participants who ralled in support of the program outside the Star last week. Lewis said he is now « making more money than I have ever made in my life. »  (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

In the noisy rally outside the Star building on Yonge St. last week, about 70 graduates and current students came to the program’s defence after they were reportedly told by Hammer Heads staff the newspaper would be publishing a story that could “shut down the program.”

“If there was no Hammer Heads, we would be in the streets right now selling drugs,” said Matthew Lewis, 24, a sheet metal apprentice who graduated in 2017.

“I am making more money than I have ever made in my life. They taught me the way,” added Lewis as fellow trades people chanted in the background. “It would be hurtful to me if this program was lost.” First year apprentices earn between $18 and $25 an hour, depending on the trade. Fully licensed trades people make about $60 an hour, including pension and benefits.

After the rally, the program emailed a petition to the Star signed by 77 current and past Hammer Heads participants that said they experienced no abusive behaviour or racist language while in the program.

“I will have James’s back until the day that I die because he changed my life,” said Nicholas Paris of the Hammer Heads director.

“They teach you what you are doing wrong. They show you. They discipline you. You need the tough discipline,” added Paris, 26, who graduated in 2016 and is apprenticing to be an electrician. “It’s rough out there. The way he taught us to cope with this, I don’t even care. It’s worse on the construction site.”

Haider Zaid, 27, an electrician apprentice who sports a three-inch beard, said he has never heard St. John tell students they look like terrorists or tell them they must shave their beards.

“I’ve been told at certain job sites I might be required to remove my beard to have a mask fitted,” said Zaid, a 2016 grad who credits the program for giving him the financial means to get married and start a family. “I’ve seen everyone in my group treated fairly — Black, white, brown, any skin colour.”

Dillon, head of the Provincial Building and Constructions Trades Council of Ontario, which is separate from St. John’s council, said Hammer Heads enjoys a good reputation with his members.

Although he said he was aware the city no longer funds the program due to St. John’s alleged “inappropriate behaviour,” Dillon said he did not know the details.

He said he could not make any further comment until the provincially ordered review of the program is complete.

A graduate from the early days who has almost completed his apprenticeship as a steamfitter told the Star he is “shocked” St. John is still running Hammer Heads.

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“It’s a great program and a great opportunity. And the people who run the day-to-day stuff are great. It is just him. He was such a negative influence,” said the apprentice who didn’t want his name published for fear of being punished by his union.


St. John’s alleged behaviour was brought to the attention of senior managers in Toronto’s Employment and Social Services division in September 2016 by a welfare caseworker who said participants reported they are “constantly yelled at,” according to internal city documents.

“They are asked to lift their shirts up on the first day to make sure their pants are not sagging and are then singled out and yelled at if they are.”

According to internal city emails, both the caseworker and program participants wanted to remain anonymous.

“Clients often express frustration with the program in confidence,” the unnamed caseworker wrote in the note, one of over 100 pages of internal city documents about Hammer Heads obtained by the Star.

“However, when advised that they can bring this matter forward, they are concerned that their placements will be taken away from them and do not wish to put in a complaint,” the caseworker added.

Jessica Foster, manager of community and labour market for the city’s York Humber office, met with St. John on Oct. 25, 2016 to discuss the anonymous allegations.

According to an Oct. 27 briefing document and Foster’s own notes from the meeting, St. John acknowledged using the phrase about youth needing to smile but said it “was not discriminatory, as it was not just one youth he said it to, but that he says it to all the Black youth.”

St. John also acknowledged the phrase about participants needing to shave because they look like a terrorist “sounded like something he might have said,” Foster reported in the documents.

When Foster reportedly questioned St. John about Hammer Heads’ own “Program Participant Contract” and “Discrimination/Harassment Policy” that states the program will “maintain an environment that is free from harassment, intimidation, etc.,” he said he “chooses his words carefully and that the phrases he uses are intended to push their buttons,” Foster said in her notes obtained by the Star.

“Youth need to be able to work through what they will be exposed to,” St. John reportedly told Foster. He said the program is giving youth “the tools they need to succeed on the job,” Foster added in her notes.

St. John told Foster “yelling is a component of the program” and that he pushes their buttons “so youth can work through their challenges,” the documents say.

Subsequent briefing notes later that fall suggest St. John didn’t seem to understand the city’s concern about his behaviour towards participants. According to Foster’s Nov. 8, 2016 briefing note, St. John said he would take the city’s perspective “under advisement” and “try to be more diplomatic,” but remained resolute that his tactics are the reason his program is so successful. He wasn’t sure what this would mean to the program’s future with the city, but suggested the city, and not the program, need to change, according to the briefing notes.

As a result, Foster and Irwin Stanley, director of the city’s west district employment and social services office, met with St. John again on Nov. 15, 2016 to ensure he understood city anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

In an email to Stanley the next day, St. John said he “takes the conversation very seriously” and will “ensure my program complies with all City of Toronto policies.”

But the behaviour didn’t appear to stop, according to notes from city staff who spoke to a different set of Hammer Heads participants in April 2017.

“One very vocal student said that James used the word “n—–” many times,” city caseworker Irene Osterreicher wrote in an April 18, 2017 email to Jessica Foster.

St. John reportedly advised the students: “ ‘You are going to be called n—–, you are going to take it and not say anything,’ ” Osterreicher said in the email.

“The student also said that James told the group not to even consider going to ‘human resources’ …because they wouldn’t do anything,” Osterreicher added.

“It does sound like a bunch of complaining — and perhaps some youth who just can’t take the strictness of it all,” Osterreicher continued.

“But when all of the candidates express these concerns, it causes me some concern. I’ve heard these same complaints from other Hammer Heads leads, as you know,” she said in the email, referring to other municipal staff who have overseen the city’s involvement in the program.

The City of Toronto ended its contract with Hammer Heads in July 2017 and no long refers candidates to the program that it says "does not meet city standards."
The City of Toronto ended its contract with Hammer Heads in July 2017 and no long refers candidates to the program that it says « does not meet city standards. »  (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

An April 11, 2017 client satisfaction survey of 13 participants who began Hammer Heads in January of that year, showed the program successfully placed participants in coveted trades apprenticeships. But seven of the responses also reflected concerns about the methods used to achieve those results, suggesting the ends may not justify the means.

“The program can be improved by having an instructor that treats/speaks to us with more respect and doesn’t tell us that we are nothing, the industry doesn’t want us there, and without this we will never amount to anything,” one participant wrote in the survey obtained by the Star. “There are certain lines you don’t cross.”

“We were sworn at every day, even on our last one,” wrote another participant. Using the washroom or taking a second bottle of water on a hot day were enough to trigger verbal abuse from St. John, the participant added.

“With these people in charge, I would never recommend this program to any of my friends … I hope you can make a change in this area and keep the program running with better suited people,” the participant wrote in the survey.

As a result of the second set of complaints, internal documents show city staff had heard enough.

On May 16, 2017, city staff notified Hammer Heads it would not be sending any more clients to the program, according to another internal briefing note.

“Clients were to be advised of alternative training options in the apprenticeship and trades sectors,” the briefing note said.

Internal documents show city staff notified St. John and Hammer Heads’ board of directors about the nature of client feedback in a letter July 7, 2017, confirming the city’s reasons for ending its funding.

“We are deeply concerned and disappointed by these issues and regret that we cannot continue to refer our clients to a program that does not meet city standards,” said the letter signed by Stanley, director of the city’s employment and social services west district.

In a July 11, 2017 email reply to Stanley that was copied to employment and social services general manager Wolcott, St. John said he was “shocked and offended” by the letter and said the information the city received from Hammer Heads participants was “100 per cent false.”

“I take great offence to being accused of something that we haven’t done and will have to take action to defend the honour and the integrity of our program,” he said, adding he graduated 86 participants since his November 2016 meeting with Stanley — and all of them would defend the program, according to the documents.

Two weeks later, on July 24, 2017, St. John sent Wolcott another email in which he continued to express outrage at the city’s action.

“My concern is with the disparaging remarks that have been made from the city staff about our program,” he wrote. “We are seeking a full retraction and apology before this matter gets worse and we need to seek damages … I am confident in my information; I hope you are equally as confident in yours,” he added.

When the Star asked about St. John’s alleged use of racial slurs, his spokesman said the Hammer Heads director “does not use those words.”

St. John, whose wife is African Canadian, “uses his background to educate about stereotypes that prevail,” Raj Rasalingam wrote in an email to the Star last week.

Allegations that St. John yells at students “to push buttons” and to “break” them so they will learn to stay silent on construction sites are also “not true,” Rasalingam said.

“Real life examples are used to train students,” he said. “The fact is, the city had not developed specific guidelines that surround their training programs with respect to real life situations.

“No other similar city-funded program achieves the success rates of employment for graduates in the same sector,” he added. “We are confident that our training methods are at the heart of this success.”

In an interview with the Star last week, Wolcott said the city stands by its decision and that her department’s investigation was “very diligent and deliberate and thorough.”

“I am a Black person myself. I don’t believe I have to undergo abuse in order to be successful,” Wolcott said. “It was very obvious why we took our actions … We spoke with him a number of times. If he believes this is the secret to success, we do not share his values.”

The internal provincial documents obtained by the Star say ministry staff met with “individuals” and exchanged correspondence with Hammer Heads’ management and board of directors between December 2017 and May 2018 “to review the allegations and determine if the organization has sufficient capacity to deliver the pre-apprenticeship program in an environment for participants that is free from harassment and racism.”

The ministry completed its review on May 3 and “concluded the organization and its board had taken sufficient steps to address the allegations raised,” the documents say. They noted Hammer Heads has set up anti-racism and workplace harassment policies and the board has committed to appoint an independent third party “to review, assess and report on program activities and experience of past recipients.”

On May 8, the ministry signed a $187,712 transfer payment agreement with Hammer Heads to provide pre-apprenticeship training for 2018-19. Under the deal, the Hammer Heads board is “required” to submit its third-party report to the ministry by Oct. 24, according to the internal documents.

Meantime, Dillon, the newly re-elected head of the provincial buildings trades council, says the trades are taking Shrouder’s message of diversity and inclusion to heart.

“Building trade unions in this province and in this country are working with our contractors … because we believe diversity and inclusion strengthens cities, strengthens the province and strengthens the country,” he said. “We think it strengthens our unions and our industry.”

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

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