How-To With Fiona Crean: Creating Equity from the Ground Up

This is part of a new series on the WiTOPoli blog: a series of How-To posts with women who have made change in their communities by working with (and sometimes fighting against) the institutions that make our city work. These women inspire us and remind us that though the challenges to having our voices heard are many, they are most certainly not insurmountable.

By: Lauren Atmore

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“What inspires me is the idea of having everyone included in the city. That’s the aspiration, what keeps me up at night, what drives me.”

As Toronto’s Ombudsman (the title is actually gender neutral), Fiona Crean is tasked with ensuring equality and equal access to information, services and opportunity in the city. Though her role is abhorred by some and lauded by many, her office is undeniably in demand: Ms. Crean says that requests for assistance are up 128 per cent since the office was created in 2009.

The Ombudman’s office is happy to review any municipal issue pertaining to fairness of services or the delay of them, though the majority of Fiona’s time is spent focusing on Toronto Community Housing (TCH) and how City Hall operates.

The Problem

When asked what task she has found the most difficult since taking on her role, Fiona says that “probably the most challenging was the one around seniors being evicted from Toronto Community Housing. That was certainly the most difficult, the most painful.” In 2013, the Ombudsman’s office completed an investigation into the eviction procedures concerning seniors relying on TCH services. This came after the death of Al Gosling shortly before his 82nd birthday, five months after being evicted from his home of 21 years. The Ombud’s office looked at seventy-nine cases and concluded that the “[Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s] application of its eviction prevention policies was either inconsistent or inappropriately used”.

The Goal

In undertaking this review, and in all her work as Ombudsman, Fiona explains that “it’s about making the systems better, more comprehensible, more transparent, more communication, in order for more citizens and residents to be included. I’m trying to bring equity and fairness to a greater number of people.” Her intentions echo not only the values set out by the Ombud’s office values but the results they are able to achieve through their work.

The Steps Taken

The Obudsman’s office looked at 79 cases of eviction of seniors in Toronto Community Housing. While the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) had already identified a severe issue with the inconsistent or inappropriate application of eviction prevention policies, Fiona’s investigation conclusions were “more unsettling in this case than previous investigations and inquiries, because the TCHC’s prior undertakings and promises remain unfulfilled.” Her team took the time to understand the systemic cause for abrupt eviction and provided the TCHC with several realistic steps to apply reasonable policy more fairly.

The End Result

After realizing where many of the cracks were forming during her investigation, the Ombuds’s office established a report called A Duty to Care. “What we established at a systemic level was that there was no capacity for the City to deal with residents with diminished capacity,” notes Fiona in regards to special social support some residents require. While this report was inspired by a situation unrelated to TCH, it still strives to put “a system in place so that everybody working for this government understands where they can go for help and how they need to treat and interact with citizens.” Fiona points out that the very nature of government doesn’t allow it the flexibility to change as demographics do.

The Advice

Fiona’s advice for those looking to make a change goes back to the basics. “Do your research. Talk to your councillor if that’s appropriate. Be tenacious, persevere, be persistent, keep records. I cannot overemphasize. Even as simple as the resident calls 311 with a problem and they don’t take down the tracking number. If you’ve got the tracking number then you’ve got your evidence as you work your way through the system.” If going it on your own doesn’t work, Fiona does suggest calling the Ombud’s office. “You’ll be given a straight answer and advice on how to navigate the system, and it is a complicated system.”

Having confidence and determination in your position is paramount to being heard and seeing results. But our Ombudsman is optimistic for women looking to make a difference in Toronto. “In terms of policy work for women, in terms of access and inclusion, the City probably superior to most governments,” Fiona notes before acknowledging the reality of the systemic disadvantages women face more generally, not to mention the other intersecting oppressions many women face. She urges women to consider their intuitiveness, relationship building skills and capacity to include as strengths in an atmosphere where “bossy” and “aggressive” are words used to describe only women.

And for those who shy away from rocking the boat? Take it from Fiona: “so long as somebody is angry with you, you’re doing okay.”

You can hear more from Fiona Crean and hang out with her, as well as other folks who share your interests, at our WiTOPoli Winter Warm-Up mixer, being held next Tuesday, March 3, at HiLo Bar in Leslieville. You can find details here.

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