Debate digs into criminal justice system, senior care, Pride funding, strategic voting

On May 26, over 50 organizations collaborated to host a provincial debate on issues facing the 2SLGBTQI+ community and other marginalized groups of Ontarians. Four parties thought the event was worthy of acknowledgement and participation. The Ontario Party, the New Blue Party and the Progressive Conservative Party chose not to participate in a discussion of the needs of equity-seeking communities.

This is the second of two articles covering the debate. The election is on June 2, and Woodstein Media intends to help people make informed choices at the polls.

ONTARIO – Marketing Coordinator for Queer Vote Ontario AJ Adams said it is a non-partisan coalition of 2SLGBTQI+ organizations across the province.

“We are working together to get Queer issues on the agenda for the Ontario election this year and every future Federal or Provincial or Territorial election, so we are no longer forgotten when it comes to policies from every political party,” he said.

Drag Person Geri Atrick and Comedian Martha Chaves moderated the debate.

Atrick stated that the first question of the second half of the debate was a tough one and because the person who submitted it feared repercussions from management at work, they needed to remain anonymous.

“Ontario Corrections has been in crisis for over 40 years,” she said. “Every government has made cuts and privatized training and services within the prisons in Ontario. They have made so many cuts that there are no rehabilitation programs, staff assaults are daily, understaffed and recruitment is at an all-time low. People are quitting at enormous rates … Every time someone speaks up, they are hit with repercussions by their management team. They want to know what you will do when elected to end the crisis in corrections in Ontario?”

Toronto-Centre candidate for the Green Party of Ontario (GPO), Nicki Ward, said she has friends who have lived and sometimes died while incarcerated.

“The warehousing of people on an institutional basis is a profound abuse. Our correctional facilities are filled with people whose principal crime is being different, addicted, having mental health issues, or being part of a minority,” she said. “It has come to the stage now where correctional facilities are considered an alternative way of warehousing people.

Ward said this speaks to the housing crisis because people are homeless, are under-housed, end up outside the law, and are placed in increasingly overcrowded prisons or jails.

“I have sympathy for the employees who try their best to be as compassionate as we can be for those in correctional institutions,” she said. You can judge a society based on how it treats its prisoners, and you can judge a society based on how it treats those who are most oppressed.”

Ward pointed out the debate was hosted in a church.

“The notion of Jesus as a social activist speaks to exactly those points,” she said.

According to Ward, the government must stop thinking about costs and start thinking about it as an investment in human beings.

“Not just the human beings who are incarcerated but the human beings who deserve our support, including this person I feel for because they cannot identify themselves for fear of repercussions,” she said. The problem we have here is that the province is breaking the law regarding how it is treating its prisoners and those in correctional facilities … making the government uncomfortable is the job of the opposition. We, the GPO, take that role very seriously.”

Ontario Liberal Party candidate for Willowdale, Paul Saguil, said he agreed with much of what Ward had to say about diverting a lot of the problems with the criminal justice system into other avenues of support.

“We have committed in our platform funds to enhance diversion programs, mental health and other ways to get people out of the criminal justice system,” he said.

He said that one of the worst things the Progressive Conservative government did was put the antiracism directorate the Liberal government established in the same Ministry that handles jails and prisons.

“That’s what this government’s idea of an equitable society or their idea of law and order is. It’s that crime equates to people of colour,” said Saguil. “So, that must stop. We need to have a government that recognizes social determinates of health and community safety.”

He pointed out that the question was about labour relations protection. Prisons are a workplace for people who the government employs.

“They are entitled to a safe workplace just like all Ontarians are. Again, as soon as they came to power, this government reversed everything that the previous Liberal government did in terms of protecting workers,” said Saguil. “We have committed to reintroducing a lot of those worker safety protections. I hope that we can continue working with public sector unions to enhance those protections for workers like this anonymous person. Unfortunately, I understand their concern about repercussions, and we’ll make sure we protect whistleblowers in the private and public sectors who bring forward these complaints and concerns.”

Brian Crombie, None of the Above (NOTA) Party candidate for Mississauga-Lakeshore, thinks the criminal justice system is broken. He called the statistics worrisome that show the high percentage of incarcerated people in small minorities of the population, specifically Indigenous and Black communities.

“I just can’t believe that those statistics reflect the percentage of people that are criminals,” he said. “I think mental health issues, psychological issues, housing issues, addiction are being treated by putting people in prison.”

Crombie said he thinks that Ontario has a problem with racism in the criminal justice system.

“If we had Indigenous people and African-Canadian people in our prison system at the population they deserve to be equal to the whites in the prison system, our prison population would go down dramatically,” he said.

Crombie said better support for mental health, addiction and housing are needed.

“I do think what often happens is people who have got addiction problems, and they are living on the street, and we can’t deal with the problem, they go to prison,” he said. “Too often prison is the solution for dealing with problems rather than being the last resort, and the criminal justice system is often the opposite of colour blind.”

NDP candidate for Toronto-Centre Kristyn Wong-Tam said she was sorry that it felt unsafe for the person asking the question to speak out.

“No one should feel unsafe, and you should certainly not be left unprotected concerning the physical violence you are being subjected to,” they said. “We need to fall back on the workplace safety environment to look at how your employer, in this case by way of extension, that the Ontario government has failed to protect you, and that requires conversation.”

Wong-Tam said they wanted a conversation to understand what is needed to centre the worker’s experience into the solution.

“We can design that to work with you, and that’s important,” they said. “The other thing I would offer you is that when it comes to diverting people away from the criminal justice system, that will be critical. Right now, we have a court system that is backlogged. We have the overrepresentation of people of colour, especially Black and Indigenous people, in the prison system, especially when it comes to Indigenous women. We have more Indigenous women living in the prison system than we have outside the prison system. There is something very wrong with the effects of colonization.”

Wong-Tam said the NDP is committed to creating a 2SLGBTQI+ directorate to implement an inclusion action plan.

“it’s about making sure we have the structural change necessary so that we can address the problems systematically as opposed to individually,” they said.

Ward took exception to some of Wong-Tam’s remarks.

“Diversion also happens at the municipal level, and during COVID, we’ve seen the City of Toronto become defunded around support mechanisms like park ambassadors and the Toronto Police Force. The diversion should happen at the provincial level. Still, it must also happen at the municipal level and to suggest that there is nothing you can do about this beforehand is simply untrue.”

Wong-Tam was asked if they would like to respond, and Ward took the opportunity to speak further.

“I think it is irrefutable that diversion is a duty of the provincial government and the municipal police force that have the institutions in place to divert people to adequate mental healthcare, drug treatment, and other means of dealing with people who have antisocial behaviours,” she said.

Atrick brought the focus back to protecting the correctional officers so they could protect prisoners and society.

“I am not talking about the inappropriate representation within it,” she said. “That’s a whole other issue.”

Ward said Saguil was correct that it is a workplace health and safety issue under the provincial mandate.

“I hate to harp on these things, but we are talking about something that is not just morally correct but economically the right thing to do. Having someone go through this revolving door where they get clean and sober in prison and then come out with no job, no house, no future – is the definition of insanity; doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result,” said Ward.

Wong-Tam said they think it is essential to have conversations with people directly impacted, so they are involved in solutions. When it comes to systemic solutions to systemic problems, they said solutions need to be permanent and not just one-off because that does not necessarily get to the structural issue.

Ward compared the more comprehensive approach Wong-Tam described to looking at a building on fire and asking how hot the flames are.

“The building is on fire,” she said. “You need to put the fire out … We have too many people incarcerated for the wrong reasons, and we have employees who don’t feel safe.”

Ward said she was sorry, but she wondered if Wong-Tam had been in politics too long.

She said there was no more need for consultation, feedback or reviews.

“We know what the problem is,” said Ward. “There are too many people in jail for the wrong reasons, and employees need our help and support. The cure for that is not more reviews, not more expensive consultants but money to support the systems, so people don’t come back into the system and cause society more money. It is not a case of letting us study the flames to see how high they go. Let’s put the bloody fire out.”

Crombie said fewer people in the system is the solution.

“I’m not sure if it’s the right analogy about the fire or not,” he said. “If there is a fire, you have to put it out, but sometimes we only think about the immediate problem rather than the flow of oil going to that furnace, and maybe you should stop the systematic problem.”

Crombie said the solution is not more funding which he feels would lead Canada down the path of the United States, which has got tonnes more prisons and a lot more people in jail.

“The solution is a complete reform of our criminal justice system that doesn’t warehouse many people in prisons that don’t deserve to be in prison,” he said. “Too often we go with the quick solution, which is putting more money into the problem and what you end up doing is never addressing the long-term systemic solution. The solution to prisons is getting the Indigenous populations in the prisons down, the African Canadian population down, and the only people who deserve to be in prison should be in prison … It should be a last resort. Too often, we go for the quick hit gimmicky solution, short-term solution rather than going through the long-term systemic solution to the problem.”

Ward said she was in the weird position of agreeing with Crombie on a lot of things which she called “strange but pleasant.”

“I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” she said. “If you can accept that the house is on fire, we should shut off the fuel for the fire. They are not mutually exclusive, but we must recognize that people are dying in prison, that correctional officers are having breakdowns and eventually leaving the system because the working conditions are too poor. So, it’s not gimmicky to want to fix this right now, immediately solve the symptoms of the problem, nor does it exclude the idea of fixing the systemic issues.”

She said people with mental health issues or who are simply different don’t need to be dealt with by the criminal justice system.

“Like being Trans,” said Ward. “You could be put in prison for being Trans not too long ago, not too far away from where we are right now, and God forbid that happens. I mean, we are in Toronto Centre, Toronto the good. God forbid it should happen to you in a slightly different area because the level of treatment you will get is vastly different.”

She spoke of a time when she was pulled over for what she called DWT.

“Driving while Trans in other parts of Ontario and it is a terrifying experience to be put in a locked room by people who have absolute control over whether you go into a men’s prison or a women’s prison,” said Ward. “I can tell you that I consider myself very courageous, but I have rarely been more frightened in my life than when I was held temporarily in custody for DWT, so the two are not mutually exclusive. It is not gimmicky to want to make sure the people who maybe shouldn’t be in prison right now should get out, that the employees should be dealt with fairly right now.”

Sherwin Modeste, Executive Director for Pride Toronto, asked what plans the parties had for helping seniors, specifically to address the lack of training and support for our Queer seniors as they look towards retirement homes.

Saguil said the Liberals have committed to ending for-profit long-term care.

“Profiting off our seniors has to stop,” he said.

He also said there needed to be other options for long-term care, such as supportive housing and communities of care.

“Some people want to stay in the home they have built, the home they have raised their families in, and we need to build a parallel homecare system,” said Saguil. “To the point about Queer seniors and seniors from marginalized communities, we need to ensure the people delivering that care are receiving the appropriate training. That is a condition of them being licensed to deliver that care.”

He said the Liberal platform ensures long-term care and homecare will be delivered gender-affirming and culturally affirming in ways that respect the dignity of the seniors.

“We have committed to topping up the old age security top-ups that the province pays for so that, on average, seniors in Ontario will get $1,000 more,” said Saguil. “That’s part of our commitment to the senior community and those within our 2SLGBTQI+ communities that will benefit from those overall commitments.”

Crombie feels seniors care has been a tragic issue that can be laid at the feet of the Ford government. And Queer seniors have undoubtedly been included in that.

“We have been warehousing people in institutions they don’t want to be in, and the solution is not more long-term care,” he said. “We have a baby boom entering senior years if not already in them, and we cannot build enough seniors homes to house them. It is impossible, and then half of them will be empty in ten years, so it’s stupid.”

He said the only solution is for Personal Support Workers (PSWs) to offer more homecare for Bill-124 to be repealed.

“You saw Doug Ford gave them a couple of hundred million just before the election as a potential way to keep them quiet from complaining during the election,” said Crombie.

Wong-Tam said the NDP has committed to building 50,000 new long-term care beds.

“As much as we don’t necessarily want more institutions and more facilities, we will need them,” they said. “One of the fastest-growing segments of our population are the seniors, and for many families, they just can’t take care of their aging relatives despite how much they love them.”

The NDP is also committed to taking the profit out of long-term care.

“Unfortunately, Doug Ford and previous governments have opened that door for for-profit privatized long-term care facilities, which led to a decline in the quality of care,” said Wong-Tam. “We can all see that, especially during COVID. They were the greatest casualties. Over 4,000 deaths among seniors. We road out the COVID pandemic on the backs of seniors.”

They also said the NDP is committed to hiring 10,000 PSWs and 30,000 registered nurses.

“We’re talking about revolutionizing the entire sector to take care of our seniors properly and plan for the changes in the future,” said Won-Tam.

“Talking about 2SLGBTQI+ folks, let me first say that I am very well preserved, but I am now technically a senior,” said Ward. “I’m also a past executive in the insurance industry.”

In that work, she dealt with the cost of providing insurance products and the actuarial science behind this.

“I am also honoured to build the Canadian association of retired persons’ health insurance program,” she said. “Not just designed the brochure but designed the maths. That’s not bragging. It’s to say that when I talk about economic sustainability, I do know what I’m talking about.”

Ward is also a former director of the Senior Pride Network.

“Here we get down to the brass tacks,” she said. “Six years ago, while I was doing that, we went to the former government, and we said this is a system that several governments have broken, of all stripes, and the issue is not just whether it’s public or private. The issue is that long-term care causes members of our community to go back into the closet and hide their authenticity for fear of not being treated correctly.”

According to Ward, lousy education is only part of the problem.

“The problem is an almost complete lack of regulation and enforcement,” she said. “In my work with the Senior Pride Network, we identified public and private facilities that consistently broke the rules, mistreated 2SLGBTQI+ folk and weren’t punished for it.”

Ward asserted that the lack of regulation and enforcement didn’t just make life terrible for people who were members of the 2SLGBTQI+ community but directly contributed to the deaths over the past two years.

“That which is predictable is preventable, and the deaths that we saw, not all of them, but many of them were preventable,” she said. “They have come about as a direct result of not just this government’s inaction, let’s face it, (Ford) has got some blood on his hands, but the truth is this is a legacy from other governments flip-flopping backwards and forwards, trading blows and money between their most favourite providers.”

Modeste noted that Pride Toronto is an economic driver for Ontario. Neighbouring provinces and states such as Quebec and New York invest more in their Pride events even though Toronto’s event generates more tourist revenue.

“How do you plan to fund not just Pride Toronto but all the other Prides? There are over 30 Prides in the Province of Ontario?” He asked.

Wong-Tam said they were excited that Pride was back this year.

“it’s going to be spectacular,” they said. “It’s woefully shameful that the provincial government hasn’t been more supportive, not just of Toronto Pride but all Prides. If we are going to pull ourselves out of the pandemic, it’s going to be led by arts and culture, a sector that has been hit particularly hard.”

They acknowledged that Pride events and organizations save lives.

“For every dollar spent, we get multiple dollars returned,” said Wong-Tam. “It is a very solid investment in the Pride community. Interestingly enough, I worked with Doug Ford at city council many years ago, and I saw what a Ford government can do, especially when it comes to the 2SLGBTQI+ community. Not raising the flag was symbolic, and not marching in the Pride parade was symbolic, but there was a deliberate attempt to defund and reduce the funding of Pride, specifically Pride Toronto.”

They said they successfully fought for Pride at city council four years in a row.

“We will be fighting to ensure the funding will be flowing,” said Wong-Tam. “We will do it through two strategies, and one is the new Ontario Culture Strategy we are trying to create.”

Through that, Prides will be seen as economic drivers of tourism jobs and retail and incubators of Canadian music and artistic talent.

The other strategy is an inclusion action plan that will include a 2SLGBTQI+ inclusion lens over everything, education, healthcare, long-term care, and culture.

Crombie said the NDP, and the Liberals are fighting for second place rather than getting together to destroy Ford.

“Wong-Tam is excellent,” he said. “She has been a fantastic city councillor. I would love it if the Green and other candidates in that riding said the best way to beat (Ford) is to vote for Wong-Tam and similarly Saguil.”

“That is an objectionable statement,” said Ward. “We’re both running in the same riding here, and that’s an objectionable statement. You must stop right now and retract those remarks.”

Crombie ignored Ward and continued talking about strategic voting in favour of Saguil.

“I would love it if the NDP in that riding would say the best way … is for everyone to vote for the Liberal,” continued Crombie. “As long as these three people fight, you will end up with a Ford Government. When these three parties start figuring out strategic voting … my solution of proportional representation regrettably is not going to be here on June 2.”

Crombie said the only way to get the Pride funding from the provincial government is if the opposition parties on the left cooperate.

“Your words would carry a lot more weight if you knew what the hell you were talking about,” said Ward to Crombie. “In Toronto Centre, we do not have a strategic situation. In others, we do, and we also generally have a collegial way of doing things. We also understand Pride Toronto, perhaps a little better than somebody not of that community.”

She said she might disagree strongly with Wong-Tam on many things, but she respects them as a politician.

“I disagree with Saguil on one or two things, not too many, I must admit, but I respect him,” she said. “I dislike your remarks because you are talking here about proportional representation, making sure that all voices are heard equally and that everybody gets a chance to speak. Hopefully, we are also talking about proportional representation at a later stage, which I agree with you about.”

Ward pointed out that this was way off base from the original question.

“In 2010, Pride Toronto was nearly defunded in its entirety by the City of Toronto,” she said.

The community got together and wrote a several hundred-page report, consulted with thousands of people in the community to see what Pride meant, why it was so essential and identified the economic benefits.

“It is talking specifically to the issues we’re describing, and the lack of funding provided from all three levels of government,” said Ward.

She believes there are good things ahead for Pride Toronto, partly because it’s an economic engine, and Doug Ford understands economics.

“He might not understand the 2SLGBTQI+ community, but he understands money, and whether we are talking about a minority government with folks like myself ensuring that you receive funding or the four-letter word government, you can be sure that on the provincial side, I think there are good times ahead,” said Ward.

Federally there will likely be funding from Heritage Canada and the tourism industry.

Saguil said the Ontario Liberal Party has committed $20 million to social and community services, including Pride festivals.

“In addition to that, because we know Pride festivals are not just put on by Pride organizations. Communities and small businesses put them on, so other pockets of funding will be accessible like tourism, arts and culture funding,” he said.

Saguil said that because of his history of serving on the boards like Pride, he would be a champion for 2SLGBTQI+ community organizations.

“I know how important they are, not just to the economic health, but to the health, period, of this Province,” he said.

Atrick pointed out that even a smaller Pride like North Bay, during COVID, sold out five hotels.

“If that tells you anything about the economic impact on small communities, I think it’s vital to stress that,” he said.

Crombie took a minute to do something he said politicians rarely do.

“I’m going to backtrack my comments somewhat,” he said. “I didn’t realize (Ward and Wong-Tam) were in the same riding, so I want to apologize for my comment, and in reality, I think I know your riding and probably even if you split the vote, the conservative is not going to win.”

Ward accepted the apology.

“It is my fault,” said Chaves. “I asked them to be at each other’s throats. I wanted to see some fire here. Central American kind of Picante discussion.”

Saguil pointed out that the Liberals have a diverse caucus committed to advancing these issues of marginalized communities.

“I am taking on being one of those champions because I know how important this is,” he said. “I have spent my entire career fighting for inclusion, fighting for spaces for our community to succeed … I hope you will choose this election to send more Queer people, in my case, Queer person of colour, the first Queer Filipino to Queen’s Park.”

“I commit to advancing the three key priorities (requested by Queer Vote Ontario) within the legislature and the government of Ontario,” said Ward. “Creating a provincial secretariat and action plan. Expanding coverage of and access to gender-affirming healthcare and creating a $25 million annual funding program for 2SLGBTQI+ services.”

She reiterated that for the Green Party of Ontario, it isn’t tokenism to have 2SLGBTQI+ candidates.

“This isn’t trotting somebody out once in a while for the funding,” said Ward. “This is the real deal. What you see with Mike Schreiner is what you get, a committed authentic person and an authentic party that believes that proportional representation means a proportion of folks like me on this stage. If you want to make a point about inclusion, there has never been a Trans MPP, there has never been a Trans MP, and if you want to make Ford sit up and pay attention, I’m going to put in a plug and say you can guarantee I’ve already done it with him and his brother when they were at city hall, I welcome the opportunity to do it in Queen’s Park.”

“Please, if you can, vote your conscience, vote your choice. Vote for the government you want. Yes, strategic voting comes in somewhere but not in our riding. Vote for the government you want. It’s the only way you will get the government you deserve,” said Ward.

Wong-Tam said the Queer Vote Ontario debate was what they anticipated most because it encouraged 2SLGBTQI+ community dialogue.

“Our party has led the way in the legislature of Ontario when it comes to 2SLGBTQI+ rights,” they said. “We have passed more legislation through private member’s bills when it comes to Queer equality than any other party in the history of Ontario.”

Wong-Tam listed the NDP’s work by adding Transgender and Gender Diverse Rights to the Human Rights Code in 2012, banning conversion therapy in 2015, equal parenting rights in 2016, creating opportunities for Gender Sexuality Alliances in schools creating the Gender-Affirming Healthcare Advocacy Committee Act.

“All of those things came about because of a strong NDP caucus,” they said. “Right now, we have 40 seats in Ontario. Suppose you want to send Mr. Doug Ford packing from the Premier’s office. In that case, the NDP needs ten more seats. We happen to have 15 extraordinary 2SLGBTQI+ advocates running for our party … We will work with everyone across the political spectrum to make sure we can build the Ontario we deserve. One that is inclusive. One that is equitable. One that is fair and protects Queer teens, Trans teens, Queer seniors, Transgender seniors, so they never have to go back into the closet.”

“We will not tell you who to vote for as Pride,” said Atrick. “We want you to go out and vote and do what you think is right. That’s all we’re asking.”

“We called in the ancestors when we began to help us do this work in a good way,” said Indigenous Elder Blu Waters. “To come and be here with us to see what we are doing and what we will do to make this a safer space for those that are yet to come and those that are still here. So we give thanks to them tonight for being here to help us do this work.”

“As we move forward and continue along our journey for the next days, the next months, the next years, hopefully for a long time, remember we can only be as strong when we come together. When we think we are so different, we stay apart. When we take the time to sit with each other to find out what’s important and to care for one another, we come closer. So it’s going to take all of us to ignite what the people of this territory, the Anishinaabeg believe is the eight fire prophecies. A time when all nations- like our medicine wheel, the red, the white, the black and the yellow – must all come together to create a great path forward to treat each other with kindness, respect, and love. We’re not so different, and we’re told we are. If we take the time to sit with each other, we will find we are much alike,” said Waters.


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