The case for a human rights response to homeless encampments

Haseena Manek and Leilani Farha

A pattern is emerging. For two years running, the month of January has triggered the forced eviction of homeless people living in encampments in Toronto. 

This was the fate of those living in the Rosedale ravine a few weeks ago. They were evacuated ostensibly to preserve the ecology of the area, though it’s just as likely that their removal had to do with pressure from neighbours. 

Similarly, almost exactly a year ago, homeless folks living under the Gardiner Expressway had their encampment torn down for fire safety reasons. A few weeks later, a cluster of transparent domes – infrastructure for a luxury pop-up dining concept dubbed Dinner With A View – appeared nearby in a twisted metaphor for gentrification, with a heavy dose of irony.  

What’s happening in Toronto is mirrored across the country, with tent cities dotting the Canadian landscape in Edmonton, Winnipeg, London, Peterborough, North Bay and Fredericton. Regardless of where they spring up, the experience is disturbingly similar – deplorable conditions and, eventually, eviction.

Read the full story in NOW Magazine.

Workers at Newcomer Women’s Services Toronto are fighting for decent pay

“The best thing about this whole process has been an awakening among the workers,” said Local 518 President Elizabeth Wickwire in an email to Rank and File. “It is from small moments like this that I think the broader movement for workers’ rights is built. So, when people talk about fighting ‘Doug Ford’ or other larger foes, I always think it begins here, in supporting the workers, even at an agency as small (but fierce) as ours.”

Read the full story at Rank and File.

When Hate Goes Public

Stand Up and Speak Out

“On the one hand, I am a librarian and, as such, I am professionally committed to freedom of speech and bringing forward a broad range of viewpoints in the library,” says Maureen O’Reilly, president of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union (Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 4948). “However, we are living in a time where the inclusion of that group in the library was, to me, problematic.”

She is speaking of the July 12 room-booking at Etobicoke’s Richview Branch by a neo-nazi group to hold a memorial for lawyer Barbara Kulaszka. Kulaszka, in her day, enthusiastically defended known white supremacists and self-described white nationalists and holocaust-deniers.

Read the full article on the Times Magazine website.

Rise up! ‘Drawn to Change’ illustrates Canadian labour’s stories and struggles

Drawn to Change’ is both a moving historical account and an unabashed call to arms.

“Indeed, much of what we learn about history in school, at the movies or on the History channel revolved around the lives of individuals with the most money and power in society, such as monarchs, capitalists, and politicians. But workers’ lives matter too; without our labour, society would cease to function. We are important agents of social transformation, and our power is magnified when we work together.”

So begins the Graphic History Collective’s new collection Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working Class Struggle.

Drawn to Change has over 20 contributors with nine comics portraying different moments in Canadian labour. From 19th-century Knights of Labour to the contemporary Live-in Caregiver Program, this collection of chronological graphic histories is a feat of visual expression and storytelling and an incredible resource for Canadian labour history.

Read the full review on

Women of Labour and the Arts: Talking With the 2014 Min Sook Lee Award Winners

Winter 2015

People don’t understand,” says musician, singer/songwriter and community activist Faith Nolan. “They think labour is two old white guys hammering a nail who want more money and to work less. They don’t see that those two old white guys, along with white women and brown and black and yellow women and men, are doing this labour to have the right to a life. People have a disconnect in this sense.”

Read the full feature on the Our Times Magazine website.

Do The Right Thing: Talking with Labour Educator Jojo Geronimo About a New Equity Guide

December 2014

On Saturday, September 6, the Toronto & York Region Labour Council hosted the 2014 Aboriginal Workers/Workers of Colour Conference (AWOC) in Scarborough, Ontario.

I attended the one-day conference, which included a keynote address by Hassan Yussuff, the first person of colour to be elected as president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Six workshops were held, including “Decent Jobs/Living Wages” and “Electing Champions to City Hall,” and a guide to equity was launched.

Called Moving Beyond Diversity, Towards Inclusion and Equity: A Leader’s Guide to Strengthen Unions, the 30-page guide, published by the labour council and written by labour activist and educator Jojo Geronimo, is meant to be a tool that any union can use to create a strong equity agenda as part of its organizational culture. I spoke with Geronimo about the origins, goals and future of the project.

Read the full feature on the Our Times Magazine website.

Toronto activists intensify campaign against SodaStream

On Sunday, August 31st, the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) gathered to share information with members of the Toronto community about the current campaign to boycott SodaStream, a carbonated beverage company whose main production facility is in Ma’ale Adumim, an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied Palestinian West Bank.

As part of the international campaign to Boycott SodaStream, CAIA launched a its own campaign in October of 2013 asking homewares company Bed Bath and Beyond to stop carrying SodaStream products.

Read the full article on Mondoweiss.

Organizing to End Poverty: The Struggle for Economic Justice

January 2014

The fight for workers’ rights has a long and celebrated history in Toronto, as does the Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts, now in its 29th year. This year, Toronto’s festival included a panel discussion, “The Struggle For Economic Justice,” about the campaign to raise Ontario’s minimum wage, as well as Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program rates.

The panel was about issues of poverty, as a whole, and how they affect racialized immigrants and working people in general. The speakers were Leticia Ama Boahen and Suzanne Narain of Toronto’s Jane-Finch community; Kaydeen Bankasingh, from the Lawrence Heights and Neptune communities; and Sonia Singh from the Workers’ Action Centre (WAC), a grassroots organization committed to improving the lives and working conditions of people in low-wage and unstable employment. Acsana Fernando, also from the Workers’ Action Centre, couldn’t take part in the panel but agreed to speak with Our Times.

Read the full feature on the Our Times Magazine website.

Apocalypse now? There is plenty of evidence the world is coming to an end

June 2011

If you don’t think the world is ending, just flip through the average mainstream newspaper.

During the May long weekend, the front page of the Toronto edition of Metro shouted warnings of an impending apocalypse—apparently scheduled for May 21. The coverage focused on the California-based broadcaster Family Radio—the group predicting the end of days—and responses to its prediction by the wider public, including local environmentalists. Tom Evans, a spokesperson for Family Radio, suggested that, if the world didn’t come to an end on May 21, “God is a liar.”

If the predictions of Family Radio aren’t enough to convince you about the end of the world, there is plenty of other evidence. As you move past the usual Bible-thumping rhetoric, you will find countless signs that the world is going to the dogs.

It may not be the kind of fire and brimstone you’ve come to expect, or even flooding, earthquakes or mudslides (although there seems to be lots of that, too). But unless the world soon changes dramatically, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more frequent predictions of the coming apocalypse.

For instance, page ten of the Metro reports that former leader of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominique Strauss-Khan, is currently in jail for allegedly raping a hotel worker in New York City. Strauss-Khan, the man in charge of organizing monetary support for the developing world where IMF aid packages often exacerbate the exploitation and oppression of women, now stands accused of sexual assault. As a result of his million-dollar bail, Strauss-Khan is now being held under “elaborate house arrest” in a private Manhattan apartment with armed guards.

Then there is our favourite body-builder-turned-actor-turned-California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger—also known as “Conan the Republican” or the “Governator.” Schwarzenegger is now getting divorced following revelations about his 10-year-old love child that no one had ever heard of. Not surprisingly, his soon-to-be ex-wife Maria Shriver is now considering writing another book.

Speaking of books, one Hilary Winston has recently published her life story, originally titled My Boyfriend Wrote A Book About Me, a revenge novel about her various boyfriends, in response to a novel one of these guys wrote about her. According to the article, Winston’s work is no skin off his back: “He’s really egocentric. He likes the fact that I wrote a book about him.”

Finally, there is the ongoing release of video messages by Osama Bin Laden. It makes me wonder: is there a special branch of al Qaeda that gets paid to release and promote Bin Laden’s ante mortem video blogs? Honestly I would not be surprised if Osama was chilling on a Cali beach right now.

But don’t ask anyone in the CIA, because any employees sharing actual truths about bin Laden’s death face prosecution, according to a memo issued by CIA head Leon Panetta. You can read all about it in a tiny five-line blurb at the bottom of page 15, next to an ad for Crocs.

Bin Laden was the “justification” for the decade-long War on Terror, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. His death has been exploited by Obama to counter Republican accusations that he is soft on terror and to give US imperialism a reason to intervene in Pakistan, which is likely the next target on the US hit list.

You can read more of Bin Laden’s message on page 15 of the Metro: he “praised the mass protests that have toppled and shaken long-time rulers across the Arab world while trying to cast a role for Al Qaeda.” As far as I can see, this is an attempt to co-opt the brilliant and inspiring resistance in North African and Middle Eastern countries, connecting Bin Laden to a movement that has rejected his politics.

There was real-life twenty-first-century revolution in Egypt, and somebody decided it was a good opportunity to reinforce the supposed distinction between so-called “Islamic terror” and U.S.-backed terror.

“Though both Bin Laden and the West have generally supported protest movements in the Middle East,” reads the article, “their goals differ.”

No, I’m sorry, don’t even try it. Don’t take the removal of Hosni Mubarak and make it your own. That victory belongs to the Egyptian people, not to Bin Laden or any supposed terrorist support, and definitely not to Western support.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? We live in a world where newspapers print information that pleases the corporations that own them, where government “leaders” adjust policies to benefit destructive capitalism.

Finding the truth is tough: it’s hidden like gold. Only it’s not like gold because gold is something people kill for, and the truth is something people die for. Silently, people die, every day, every hour, every minute, all over the world, for war, for money, for sex slaves, for drugs and for worse. People are dying in Mexico, Sierra Leone, Palestine and here in Canada as well. But the majority of us continue along, fed simulated truths and simulated food, told to think less and shop more.

Is this any way to live? So unaware of our rights or the rights of our neighbours that we don’t even realize when they’re taken away?

It’s like living empty and soulless. This is why so many people are depressed nowadays—and why people keep predicting the end of the world!

Even sheep can sense the slaughter approaching, but we still don’t realize that the way we live is destroying the Earth. It is destroying our bodies and our minds. With every can of Coke, new pair of shoes, F-16 fighter jet and reality TV star, we are little by little robbing ourselves of our own humanity.

Something needs to change.

(Otherwise, I won’t be at all surprised if and when lightning bolts start falling from the sky.)

as published in the Ryerson Free Press, June 2011