Category Archives: social justice

Celebrating differences, finding common ground

There is a lot of conversation and concern in Toronto’s Queer community surrounding the news that Pride Toronto is drafting a “freedom of expression policy” that will govern what signs will be allowed in this year’s parade. Pride’s Executive Director Tracey Sandilands has said only language that incites “violence or hatred” will be disallowed, but concerns remain that those words are not defined and could be broadly interpreted. It’s hard to not see this unprecedented development as a direct response to last year’s parade participation of a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) which caused controversy.

The situation is a challenge for those like myself who would represent the Church/Wellesley Village at city hall. While the conflict in the Middle East is obviously not and should not be a civic issue, nor is the definition or prohibition of hate speech, the councillor of Ward 27 must be a clear and unapologetic advocate for the LGBT community. They must also represent those members of our community who find some of the language that was used by participants in last year’s Pride highly objectionable. How does one person walk that line?

Marching in a Toronto Pride parade, and at a Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee event recently in Ward 27.

I think we begin by working to find common ground. Something straight people like myself need to understand about the Queer community in general—and the history of Pride in specific—is that censorship, perceived or real, is anathema. The Pride celebrations we know today owe their very existence to the rejection of pressures that would try to control, silence or sideline unpopular or disruptive voices. Many in the queer community I’ve talked to in the past few days view any attempt to filter or sanitize the Pride parade in anyway not only as a huge step backwards, but a dangerous one that summons memories of the days not long ago where so many people were not able to openly acknowledge their own sexual or gender identity. (Not that that stigma has been completely defeated, but we’ve come a long way and we don’t want to go back.)

Similarly, something non-Jewish people—again, like myself—need to understand about the Jewish community is that they have an extremely high sensitivity towards any language that even flirts with the thin edge of the slippery slope towards anti-Jewish or anti-Israel (in the “Israel should not exist” sense) sentiment, and for good reason. Like with the Queer community, this sensitivity comes from a memory of a time not so long ago when mere words helped to set off one of the most horrific series of actions in the history of humankind. Today, we hopefully don’t need to be reminded, antisemitism is still a present and persistent threat that must be vigilantly identified and condemned.

There, simultaneously, is the source of tension and also the opportunity for common ground. Members of these two groups find themselves in conflict over where to draw the line when it comes to freedom of expression. Not only that, but their definitions of what kind of uncomfortable speech should be tolerated are, in some ways, at the core of their communal histories. And yet, they are united by an oppressive past and an understanding of prejudice and hatred that all too often persists. They share a desire to fight ignorance, to defend their rights and to proudly celebrate their identities.

The question therefore becomes, what is the best way to accomplish those shared objectives? In the struggle between defending freedom of expression and preventing groups from being targeted, what wins out?

In this specific case, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Instead of allowing intolerance to breed in dark corners, let’s bring it out in the open so we can name it and repudiate it in public. Or, as Xtra’s Marcus McCann put it, Pride Toronto should go so far as to “[endorse] free expression for those who are anti-gay; it is better that they are laughed out of the commons than their opinions be allowed to fester in private.”

Using the words “apartheid state” to describe Israel, as one group did in last year’s Pride parade, is hurtful, dangerous, and displays a titanic misunderstanding of the complexity of the situation. But it’s not the job of Pride organizers to serve as arbiters of what amounts to allowable protest. If it comes down to it we already have laws against inciting violence or hatred. Keep Pride free, as it should be, and let individuals be judged for how they choose to use that freedom.

Government abruptly kills funding to NGO after 36-year relationship

KAIROS members at a climate rally at Queen's Park in Toronto on October 24, 2009
KAIROS members at a climate rally at Queen's Park in Toronto on October 24, 2009

KAIROS is a Canadian NGO which, among other things, provides international assistance and does human rights work in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central America. It is internationally recognized and respected and, either directly or through its predecessors, has been receiving federal funding since 1973. On Monday, KAIROS found out via a brief phone call from CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) that their long-standing and effective partnership with the federal government had come to a sudden end. No specific reason was given.

The lack of official explanation from the government has forced others to speculate. News reports point out that some recent activities of church-based KAIROS aren’t exactly great ways to get onto Stephen Harper’s Christmas list:

Later this week, a KAIROS delegation is to travel to the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen to help lobby for an agreement that would include substantial cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

Last May, a KAIROS delegation toured Alberta’s oil sands region to see how massive projects are affecting aboriginal people and to determine if the operations are environmentally sustainable.

The group met separately with officials from the four main federal parties in Ottawa last week and called for greater action on climate change and for a halt to new oil sands projects.

“We basically told our concerns about climate change and we thought it would be important for Canada to be represented [in Copenhagen],” Ms. Corkery said.

“In terms of the oil sands, we asked for a halt for new approvals – not to stop anything that is happening, but that there would be a halt to new approvals.”

Last year, KAIROS published a position paper that questioned the amount of taxes Ottawa allows the oil sands industry to defer on the capital cost of projects.

Is there a connection? It seems clear that the decision was made at the political level:

The KAIROS contract that just expired received a positive audit and excellent CIDA evaluation this year. KAIROS submitted its new program proposal for 2009-2013 to CIDA in March 2009. It went through a lengthy approval process within CIDA up until the Minister’s level and has been waiting for approval from the Minister since July 2009.

Maude Barlow, who points out that KAIROS has a long history of promoting human rights and sustainable environmental policies in developing countries, saysI believe that Kairos is being punished for taking a position on the eve of Copenhagen and on the tar sands. I think this is a declaration that they are not welcoming any criticism. They offended the agenda of the Harper government.”

In other words, this could be a shot across the bow for other NGOs as well: Canada only has one party line now, and it must be toed.

Similarly, others speculate that the funding may have been cut to make way for another international project that Le Devoir calls Harper’s “héritage politique.”

Whatever the reason, it’s a tragically damaging decision. “KAIROS has a long and rich history of advocacy and has been doing incredible work on behalf of those in need for decades,” says NDP MP John Rafferty. “There is simply no justification for bankrupting such a respected organization whose work should be supported and promoted by our government.”

In my opinion it would be a good use of your time to contact Bev Oda (full contact info, or send her an email) to ask her why this decision was made with such little ceremony (KAIROS Executive Director Mary Corkery writes, “I know of no precedent for the Canadian International Development Agency ending a decades-long funding relationship with a major Canadian organization without notice in writing, with no reason and no transition plan“) and, if you oppose the decision, tell her so. It wouldn’t hurt to write or email your MP as well. The folks at KAIROS would appreciate it if you would CC your correspondence to them as well. Thanks so much.

GROW Housing Toronto

GROW Housing TorontoLast Tuesday at the St. Lawrence debate I was very excited to announce a major policy initiative called GROW Housing Toronto. The plan would see the Moss Park Armoury replaced with an inspiring development that provides not only new affordable housing (based on proven mixed-income, rent-to-own and co-operative models), but also generates power, grows food and creates jobs. Even though the proposal is in a “conceptual” stage, many experts have contributed to GROW Housing’s design and, while not all of the details have been finalized, many have. Here’s the video of the announcement.

Details and images can be found at, and there’s also a Facebook group. Here’s Eyeweekly’s take on the proposal, as well as the debate in general:

“It’s tempting to let cynicism sink in,” says Green candidate Chris Tindal. “Because these are just words.” Recently noting that the number of news stories regarding his hair (one) exceeded the number of news stories regarding his platform (zero), Tindal shows off something practical: GROW Housing Toronto, a design to replace Moss Park Armoury at Jarvis and Queen with affordable residences that fulfill urban environmental fantasies — including a Vertical Farm.

The conversation keeps veering away from the local, though, but Rae manages to reel it back by expressing how more people across Canada migrating to cities will be even more of a challenge than the immigration of a previous era. Tindal is pleased to hear Liberal talk of an environmental tax shift, noting there was no such discussion by Bill Graham when Tindal last did this election schtick in 2006.

But there’s a bit less Rae worship from Tindal this time around, pointing out that he’s the only candidate on the St. Lawrence Centre stage that was there for the previous federal election.

“We are hearing that people should vote Liberal to stop the scary spectre of Stephen Harper when you know this is a by-election,” snipes Tindal. “The fact is, the Conservatives have no chance of winning — the best Don Meredith can say is that he believes in miracles. You’re slipping into the politics of fear, and I think there are more options than that.

“Vote for me, and if you don’t like me, you can vote me out — in a month … or a year … or a week … or a day … or however long this current government lasts.”

Tindal also used his personal blog to refute Rae’s assertion that there aren’t Canadian military officers serving in Iraq as part of the American command, and even served up the evidence.

International Women’s Day

Green Party calls for renewed focus on equality on International Women’s Day

OTTAWA – The Green Party is celebrating International Women’s Day and calling for a renewed focus on achieving equality for women in Canada.

“The situation for women has improved immensely over the past century, but there is much work to be done. Women still earn only about 70 percent of what men take home,” said Green Party leader Elizabeth May. “Unfortunately, the situation has been made worse by the regressive actions of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has done more damage to issues important to women in two years than many of us thought possible. Last year, Canada slipped from 14th to 18th place in terms of women’s equality.”

Ms. May noted that the Harper government has eroded progress towards women’s rights in Canada by eliminating the word “equality” from the mandate of Status of Women Canada, prohibited advocacy activities of women’s organization funded by Status of Women and canceled the Court Challenges program, which was accessible to promote Charter rights. The Harper government has also killed federal-provincial child care agreements and failed to create new child care spaces.

“The Green Party considers it crucial to implement the recommendations of the Federal Pay Equity Task force, something the Conservative government has failed to do,” she said. “We also recognize that women’s access to education and participation in the workforce is necessary to achieve equality. But equity will never become reality unless we can ensure adequate maternity benefits and full access to affordable childcare, among other measures.”

Ms. May also said Canada must work toward increasing the representation of women in Parliament.

“Women represent over half of the population of Canada, yet less than 21 percent of Parliamentarians are women,” she said. “We rank a dismal 50th in the world in terms of women’s representation in Parliament. In countries with fair voting systems, more women are elected and the Green Party will continue to support electoral reform as a way to better represent women in Parliament.”

“The Green Party is proud to have a woman, Elizabeth May, as leader,” noted deputy leader Adriane Carr. “We are currently the only federal party with a female leader. On behalf of all Canadian women, we urge legislators of all stripes to renew efforts to attain equality.”