A Political Perspective with Councillor Ana Bailão

By: Julia Chew

Part of an ongoing series profiling women in Toronto politics, community-building, activism, and other aspects of municipal or political life.

 

Ana Bailão is the City Councillor for Ward 18, Davenport- an area rich with cultural diversity. She currently serves as Toronto’s Housing Advocate, overseeing the city’s affordable housing strategy. We spoke to her to discuss political life, accessibility, and community engagement.

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Q: How has political life shaped your advocacy work and activist roots?

A: My activist roots truly started when a city councillor asked me to do some grassroots work with him. I loved the impact that I was able to have through the office by increasing advocacy in the files that were important to me. I usually say that it was the early advocacy work that I was passionate about that still affects my political work and what sorts of files I work on.

Q: What kinds of early issues were you interested in?

A: I came to Canada at the age of 15. Being an immigrant myself, I am interested in any files that to do with settlement. This is why I do a lot of work on housing, job opportunities in terms of social procurement and making sure that there are good jobs in the city and there is access to these jobs. Economic opportunity is always around and it’s important to give the opportunity for people to succeed. I see government as having a huge role in looking out for the most vulnerable but we also should think about how we can create the conditions for people to succeed. Whether it is good housing or transit, it’s our job in the government to ensure that people have the foundation to succeed.

Q: How do you communicate and engage with the community?


A: There are many ways we can contribute to the community. Politics isn’t the only way to affect change but it is one of the ways to affect change. There are tons of people and organizations in the city that work to positively affect the community. In government, we work within direct impacts from council’s decisions. It’s challenging because there is a lot of responsibility, but it’s extremely rewarding to walk down a street and be able to point out a community centre that you’ve pushed for and see children being able to have a place to play.

I’m out in the community at least three times a week. We have town hall meetings, a local community office open three days a week, and I’m at the local office myself on Fridays to be open to anybody who would like to drop in. I use social media (Facebook, Twitter) and we distribute newsletters and e-newsletters. As we have a very large Portuguese community, every month after council, I talk about the most important items that were discussed and debated. In this way, I am not only informing my constituents but the whole Portuguese community. I’m consistently trying to engage and listen to feedback as well. This is an important part about being a community leader.

Q: What are your proudest accomplishments in office?

A: Locally, my proudest accomplishment was being able get a new library for the community. We have one of smallest libraries in the system (Dupont Library) and the new space will be approximately 10 times larger. I’m proud that we were also able to secure a new 7500 square feet community space and we are working on expanding the west Toronto rail path.

City-wide, I feel proud that when Rob Ford wanted to sell all the scattered homes in the Toronto Community Housing portfolio, I led the fight to stop it because I didn’t believe he had a plan. With 90 000 families on the waiting list, we could not start selling off stock without a solid plan. At the end of the day, we ended up selling a number of homes that were worth too much, and needed so many repairs that it didn’t make sense to repair it with the same amount of money that could be used to house two or three families. We wanted to ensure there was a thoughtful approach to the process and a focus on creating a true capital plan.

I also feel very proud of a new program recently launched with John Tory called Open Door Program where we are making land available for the construction of affordable housing. We’re partnering with the private and non-profit to create more affordable housing.

Finally, I’m proud to have led the twinning of cities with Toronto and Rio. We didn’t have any prior relationship with a Brazilian city. As one of the BRIC countries and a powerful economy, our national and provincial government were starting to have relationships with Brazil. Brazil is the sixth largest investor in Canada, and now our city also has a relationship with them.

Q: What are some of your goals right now?

A: I’m very passionate about housing and economic development. While building a strong workforce, I want to ensure that there is social procurement in the city at the same time. While spending billions of dollars on roads, why aren’t we creating more apprenticeships at the same times? I’m interested in making sure we have a good workforce strategy and a living wage through social procurement.

Q: How can we make city hall more accessible to constituents?

A: Initiatives such as open data can make constitutes feel like if they need to look into something, that option is available to them. Making sure that public meetings are held outside of city hall, think about issues outside of the bubble of City Hall, and making sure we are targeting other languages are all ways to make City Hall more accessible. There’s a strong multicultural media community we can engage with, and we need to utilize that and update citizens as to what’s happening in their city and how they can be engaged.

Q: From your point-of-view, how do we build a more equitable Toronto? What do the women of Toronto need?

A: We need to address a number of issues such as housing, childcare, and equity in the workforce. We need to continue the conversation about values in our society. Support also needs to be given by the government and the workforce to ensure we have a truly equitable city.  

As we’re developing policy and legislation, we need to put on a gender lens. How do we make it more equitable for women, for people with disabilities?

Q: What are your political priorities during your time in office and when it comes time, how do you want to leave your legacy in municipal politics?

A: Locally, I want to leave the area as a space that people can live in while maintaining its rich diversity. How do we make sure we’re not pushing people out- that we still have the artists in our community, good services and affordability to live in the area? As the neighbourhood is slowly gentrified; community spaces, libraries, and daycare are important spaces to maintain and pay attention to. I’m going to be leaving an area that is very well-known when people come to visit Toronto, but I also want to ensure it’s a space that people can continue to live in.

As a city, I want to put a dent in the housing situation particularly with Toronto Community Housing. With 2.6 billion dollars of repairs, it’s very important to me that we are able to tackle this issue in a responsible way.

Beyond political office, I do see myself staying in politics. Even through non-profit work, these are issues I can see myself continually working within and these are files that will always have issues arising. There are city-building issues that will need to be continually addressed.

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Fighting for Our Library Workers with Maureen O’Reilly

Part of an ongoing series profiling women in Toronto politics, community-building, activism, and other aspects of municipal or political life.

By Juliann Garisto

As precarious work in Toronto affects an increasing number of residents, public awareness of the issue has grown substantially. Despite the Toronto Public Library system being the most widely used public service, half of their workforce struggles with an unstable employment situation, and a majority of them are women.

In 2011, the TPL worker’s union launched an impactful campaign which shed light upon the issue of precarious work within their labour force. Around this time, Rob Ford had plans to cut funding to TPL, which would have inevitably led to multiple branch closures. These plans contradicted promises made during the 2010 election to find savings at City Hall without making cuts to public services.

In October, the TPL worker’s union released a video to highlight the challenge of precarious work in the Toronto Public Library system. The video includes interviews with library workers, union members, Councillor Joe Cressy, and labour economist Dr. Wayne Lewchuck.

We spoke to union president Maureen O’Reilly about precarious work at TPL, Toronto’s love of reading, and how libraries serve as a safe setting for Toronto’s diverse residents.

Q: What inspired you and the TPL worker’s union to create the video campaign?

A: We have been trying to address the issue of precarious working conditions in our workplace since 2002. In 2011 we launched a campaign fighting back against the Ford Administration cutbacks and were successful.  That campaign provided information about staff cuts as well.  In 2012, we went out on strike. Few understood what that strike was about.  We went on strike to prevent further encroachment of precarious working conditions onto our part-timers. What little we had gained for them over the years would have been lost. We have steadily built our supporter database of regular Torontonians. It was time now to speak more directly about the staffing issues in TPL. They are a key part of the service delivery which we have been talking about all along.  There has been a lot of talk recently in the media about precarious work.  CUPE National just recently undertook a membership survey that showed library workers were the largest occupational group in CUPE that was precarious.  So the timing was right.  The public had a better understanding of what precarious work is about.  We needed to educate them that library workers are precarious workers too.

Q: Why do you think TPL is one of the most used library systems in the world?

A: Torontonians love books and reading. They have contributed to TPL’s success.  I read a few years back that next to the Danes, Canada was the largest reading community in the world.  Through events like the author’s festival down at Harbourfront, Toronto prides itself in being a reading city. It is a large system and very accessible to all Torontonians.  We have 100 branches which means we are situated in 100 communities across Toronto.  All loved by Toronto.  During the 2011 campaign, we ran a contest called “why my library matters to me”.  The library was for many people their first introduction to life in Canada. Libraries are truly community hubs.  Perhaps because we have such a diverse culture here in Toronto, and the public library is seen as a great treasure for so many new Canadians, they take advantage of it all the time.  It is the last public institution to be so accessible.  We open our doors to everyone and we make everyone feel welcome.

Q: I know you played a large role in ensuring that the TPL survived funding cuts under Rob Ford. What contributed to the success of this particular campaign and what tactics did you use to mobilize the community in fighting against his plans to shut down TPL?

A: The success of the campaign was that it was very grassroots.  It affected people on a very personal basis; i.e. their library was under threat of closing.  We created a database of our supporters.  The database sorted the supporters by postal code. We had a series of “action alters.” So we emailed folks from time to time and asked them to send a letter to their councillor on a specific event.  The software automatically generated an email to the local councillor, the mayor, and the chair of the library board.  We also had a contest which proved to be very popular.  We allied with the Writers Union of Canada and some of the cities well known authors including Margaret Atwood.  We allied with other community groups like Social Planning Toronto.

The emails sent out by the network have proven to be very effective. I am constantly amazed when I meet Torontonians at places like Word on the Street where we get a booth every year, that they feel they know me and are very connected to the campaign.  People constantly tell me “oh I get your emails”.  So it’s been a very personal experience all around.

Q: How many people work full time at the TPL, out of all the employees?

A: We have 2,200 members. Half of which are part-time so about 1,100.  There are about 150 managers and exempt staff.  There are no part-timers at that level.

Q: Why is it so hard for people to get full time work? Are there not enough shifts to go around? (Is it a financial issue? Government related?)

A: People cannot find work because there are so few opportunities. The libraries were preparing for amalgamation in the 1990s and therefore shed a lot of staff.  Since 1992, we have experienced a 25% cut in staff, 17% since amalgamation [came] along.  Technologies have also been introduced to the library and staff positions have been lost to that.  For instance, TPL introduced self serve check out.  Their goal is to have 90% of all items checked out by the self serve service so cuts to staff have been implemented. We believe the library is understaffed.

The library does not have a staffing plan. Therefore cuts are made year after year without a true understanding of what the impact of those staff cuts are. There are fewer and fewer opportunities. Yet the library is busier than ever.  The library administration has consistently always wanted to please city administrators so any cuts that are asked for are always implemented.  After years of this kind of cutting, we are facing a shortage of staff.  An analysis of our supporter database illustrated that our supporters believe that library staff are an integral part of the library service.  It’s also a sad reality to talk about this in 2015, but we are a female dominated workplace and it seems that government continually puts their focus on us for cuts.  

Historically when Melvil Dewey founded the profession he said he could recruit a workforce with high morals for little pay and that has been our legacy.  With part-time work comes no benefits and no pensions and other less than optimum working conditions which all adds to a less expensive workplace.  

Q: How come workers feel unable to “give back to the community” in a satisfying way? What is impeding their ability to do that; what aspect(s) of working part-time inhibits workers from doing their job the way they would like to?

A: We are not against part-time work. It has a role to play in a female dominated workplace where childcare is such an important issue. The unstable working conditions are an impediment to our part-timers being the best they can be despite their best efforts.  Our part-timers are constantly looking for more hours so they are working in multiple locations.  When you are doing a job part-time, it often means you may still be carrying a full workload so you are struggling to complete that in fewer hours.  You are not in one place long enough to get to know the public as well.  You always just seem to be arriving or leaving.  Because you are working on getting as many hours as you can, you tend not to take vacation time.  You do not get sick days so you come in when you are ill.  It becomes more and more just a job with a paycheque instead of a professional calling.

Q: Would you consider this issue of precarious work within TPL to be particular to women especially?

A: It’s definitely a women’s issue. Yes we have more women in our workplaces. I believe for the most part we are not comfortable in the political arena and therefore do not advocate for our interests the best that we can.  We just become more accepting. At one time, women entered the profession and left it when they married.  It was viewed as a genteel profession.

Of course, the workforce has changed entirely, but this still seems to be the dominant attitude amongst administrators. Our young people, and our workers from different ethnocultural backgrounds are suffering the most.  There simply are not opportunities.  We get paid decently in TPL and that was a struggle for the first many years since amalgamation. But now the struggle is towards our working conditions. It is no longer acceptable to have workers side by side who do not have the same access to benefits, to pensions, to vacation, to training, etc.  If there is need for a part-time worker because we have analyzed the workplace and [it] is what we need, that is fine.  But we shouldn’t be looking at part-time workers as a cheaper labour force.

In the City of Toronto most of the workers are full time. The rate of part-time in the city is 34%.  If you remove the recreation workers who make up 25% and suffer many of the same working conditions as us, the rate is only 9%.  How can we justify this dichotomy?  In the Poverty Reduction Strategy that has just been adopted by the City of Toronto there is a whole section on employment and mention of precarious work.  But the city isn’t doing anything to change things for its own employees.  Why should it be acceptable for the ladies in the library to have no benefits and no access to pensions, and the men in the engineering department to be full time with benefits, pensions, etc?  The City of Boston is doing some interesting work in this area. They have a women’s bureau headed by the mayor.  It looks at the many different factors related to women’s work.  We need that in Toronto.  We are not going to turn things around overnight but we must have a long term plan that looks at these issues.  

The library service has been underfunded in respect to its budget as well as its staff.  This has come at a great expense of the library service. Yet the library service is so well used in Toronto.  Busiest urban public library in the world.  We need the leadership to change this around.  It is no longer acceptable.

A Political Perspective with Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam

Part of an ongoing series profiling women in Toronto politics, community-building, activism, and other aspects of municipal or political life.

By Julia Chew

When Kristyn Wong-Tam chose to run for office in 2009, she surprised herself. As a tireless community advocate, Councillor Wong-Tam was alerted early on to societal injustices as a child of immigrant parents and as a racial minority. Five years after her first election, Councillor Wong-Tam can now look back and see political life as a natural evolution for her lifelong advocacy work and passions. We spoke to her to discuss political life, community engagement, and what the women of Toronto need.

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Q: From your point-of-view, how do we build a truly equitable Toronto? What do the women of Toronto need?

A: Women in this city need policies and decision-making that is women-centered. If you start to build communities for women, you build communities for everyone. Women aren’t just 52% of the population, there’s an intersection to womanhood that brings together women with disabilities, immigrants, young/old, vulnerable, racialized populations and many more.

In order to have gender-informed decision-making, we need to build a gender equity lens over all of policy-making. When you create budgets in the city that are women-focused, you start to re-evaluate your spending. For example, women are the majority users of public transit. Women also work in areas that aren’t in the financial district. So would we build transit lines that primarily facilitate travel to the financial district? If we were building transit with women in mind, we would build transportation that allow for greater connectivity, flexibility, and affordability.

To build a more compassionate, more inclusive Toronto, we need to start by recognizing that misogyny and sexism exists, and that decision –making has not traditionally reflected the real life experience of women. We need to acknowledge that the political and policy tools we have right now don’t address the needs of women, simply because they were developed by men for their own needs within a framework of patriarchy.

Q: How has political life shaped your advocacy work and activist roots?

A: It makes perfect sense now that what I wanted to do as a private citizen, I am just now doing in a position of power at City Hall. I am the same person, informed by the same principles, objectives, and values, but am now more aware of the political processes of policy-making.

Not every activist needs to run for office, but the activist within me was -limited to a certain extent and could not reach the next level of engagement and execution. We need to respect people for where they are. Often times, especially for progressive work, there is a level of impatience as the injustice affecting the many is so great But the struggle for equality and inclusion is not necessarily stagnant. We must build political support and awareness at every opportunity and never stop.
Q: How do you communicate and engage with the community?

A: I developed a simple process that involves the acronym C-E-P. “C” stands for communication. It is important to be clear in communications and not to insult people with heavy academic language because we are competing with other interests for people’s time and attention. It is crucial that a message have easy access points to communicate in a way that people will accept.

Communications leads to “E” for Engagement. By providing the community with greater opportunities to engage whether it is through a film, art, etc., there has to be an opportunity to respond through engagement or two way dialogue or interaction. This flow of information or a transfer of knowledge and creativity sparks “P” which stands for Participation. Now that you are keenly engaged, what is the physical action we will take? Shall we call our elected officials? Create a pop-up urban design project? How do we execute? What does participation look like for each unique individual? And how do we leverage and respect that participation will mean different things to different people.