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Toronto sets a strategy to reduce poverty with the participation of people who experienced exclusion: Interview with Toronto’s late Councillor Pam McConnell

Councillor McConnell passed away on 7 July. The Committee is deeply saddened and expresses its condolences to her relatives and colleagues. We had the chance to visit Toronto on 13-14 June, to learn more about Toronto’s strategy to reduce poverty and the work done by Toronto as a Sanctuary City to protect migrants’ rights, as well as to visit the urban renewal project of Regent Park. We were warmly welcomed by the Councillor. In the deeply sorrowful moment of publishing this article, we would like to pay tribute to Councillor McConnell and thank her for her commitment to social justice and for the legacy that she leaves behind.

The poverty reduction strategy carried out by the city council of Toronto aims at ensuring, by 2035, that Toronto becomes a city with opportunities for all, pioneer in the collective pursuit of justice, fairness and equity. The Strategy sets out three overarching objectives focused on the effects, trajectories and causes of poverty. In this regard, several issue-areas are delimited in order to properly tackle poverty, such as housing stability, service access or quality jobs and liveable wages.

Interview with Toronto’s later Councillor Pam McConnell, in charge of Social Equity

CISDPDH: Toronto decided to adopt a strategy to reduce poverty in a quite innovative approach; can you give a context for this poverty reduction strategy?

Pam McConnell: We realized that believing that we were all moving towards prosperity was not quite an accurate idea. Prosperity was very different for everyone. We have within our city two sets of people: people who are doing quite well and people who are having a terrible time. That is why we needed to look at our city and our services and think about how to make them available to people who are struggling. To make sure that they are not going through generational poverty. To make sure that we can get them out, that we have strong lifelines if they fall into poverty and that we have a strong safety net to stop them from getting in there.

CISDPDH: What are the main features of poverty in Toronto?

Pam McConnell: A 20 % of our youth are unemployed, but if you are indigenous, it rises to 25%, and if you are black to 30 %. Almost half of our single mothers or our newcomers are living in poverty. We have over 25% of our children living in poverty. These are hugely big numbers in a city that talks about diversity. We want diversity to be about prosperity, not about poverty.

CISDPDH: What are the main axes of this Strategy?

Pam McConnell: We wanted it to be simple and to engage in dialogue with people who live in poverty. So I put it like my fingers: first of all, we need access to affordable housing. Also to have accessible transportation. And we need to have services that serve the needs of people, whether it is childcare, healthcare or recreation. And finally, in that line of things, we have to think about food security. If people don’t have fresh and cheap fruits and vegetables, their bodies are not well. This leads to employment. People take back their lives when they are employed. But in some cases people will never be employed. In which case, they need to have a stable income. For me these are the five fingers: housing, transportation, services, food security and employment and income security.

That comes together in a city like ours in a diversity lens, so I think of that as the palm, the thing that holds the fingers together: are you old, young, indigenous, black… who are you? The most important thing that a city can do is to look at where it spends its money and make systemic change. That is the fist that pushes us through and this is the way in which we will be able to address this issue.

CISDPDH: How did you create participation and through what channels?

Pam McConnell: We held several roundtables with advisory group from community agencies. We realized that they have their own agendas and that they often haven’t lived experiences such as having mental illnesses, being homeless, having addictions or having their children taken away. These are the sorts of things that happen to people who lived in poverty.

We therefore began by establishing a dialogue between them and people in poverty, seeing such a rich dialogue and experience coming back. We realized that we had to tap it so that people could tell what they real experiences were. We started to have dialogues with people from 6 peripheries, sub-urban areas and also downtown and use this 5 fingers to set a table and talk.

This became so successful and it was so important what they had to say that we convened two all-day meetings. We asked people in, we cooked lunches, and we paid them as experts on the subject. We got interviewed around 100 people. I was at the inaugural meeting and they were remarkable. They had a wide variety of experiences, but all of them had one thing in common: they had a real, positive attitude to be able to conquer this, because what they had learnt in their own live were things that could help us to think how to define our strategies each year.

This is a 20 years plan; it is not a quick plan. Each year we set different actions, usually 80 or 90, to accomplish in all of these different areas. We wanted to make sure that this group acknowledged this was the right set and that they advised during the allocation of money inside the budget.

CISDPDH: What challenges did you face and what recommendations can you give?

Pam McConnell: First of all, we have a terrific staff, and that is always a challenge when you don’t have one. Embedding that into a bureaucracy as big as our city is not very easy. So we don’t want them to get lost, we want them to be seen as leaders of the organisation. And that is happening.

The second challenge is related to where you get the money from, since getting the money outside the budget and adding more is quite difficult. I looked at this budget and thought how to make it much better through mechanisms such as social procurement.  There are a lot of things that either don’t cost money or are a different way of using an 11 billion dollars budget.

The last and most important one is to keep the dialogue and the conversation in our communities and affected people. We must not abandon them or allow them to be feeling like it is just one more conversation and nothing happens. We have to keep the hope going on and see that what is being done is making a difference in the life of the communities. It is difficult nonetheless: too many conversations, times, not enough action… Keeping the experience with them is very important; as those are the people that go back to the neighbourhoods and keep the momentum and the dialogue.

Link to Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy