Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Remember the Rupert Hotel Fire

(This blog piece has been slightly revised from the original which appeared at www.hamiltonjustice.ca on the anniversary of the Rupert Hotel Fire.)

The 26th anniversary of the Rupert Hotel fire that killed one woman and nine men in Toronto just passed (December 23rd.)

The Rupert was located at 182 Parliament Street close to Queen Street East. Once an upscale hotel, the Rupert, while licensed, was overcrowded and badly maintained. (A story by Chris Bateman from Spacing Toronto provides the gruesome details http://spacing.ca/toronto/2014/12/24/25-years-horror-rupert-hotel-fire/)

A plaque erected at the site notes that the fire "sparked action by municipal and provincial governments and community organizations to improve conditions in rooming houses."

It did, for a time. In the years following the tragedy, about 500 units of Toronto housing were created or upgraded to meet or exceed the already existing standards. Not long after the plaque was installed, though, the funding that supported the upgrades and advocacy ended.
Photo from Toronto Star Archives

What has happened since then?

Not enough.

The City of Toronto has been struggling for many, many years to put in place one comprehensive by-law and set of regulations to cover all rooming houses.  To say they are bogged down would be an understatement.

You’ll remember that Toronto amalgamated in 1998.  Yet, the zoning by-laws with respect to rooming houses have yet to be harmonized.
Each of the former Toronto municipalities has different things to say on rooming houses.  Toronto and Etobicoke (in some areas) allow them but they must be licensed.  They’re OK in the old Borough of York in some areas too.  But in North York, East York and Scarborough rooming houses are not permitted.  That means that those that exist in these areas are illegal and unregulated.

A consultation process took place in Toronto this year.  A report will be coming back to Council.  The report will, among other things, look at “opportunities to improve conditions in rooming houses:” History suggests that Council will have a tough time making decisions.

What about other initiatives?  Toronto’s poverty reductions strategy, for example, makes mention of rooming houses. It recommends that the city “continue efforts to consult and develop an effective policy framework and enforcement strategy with respect to rooming house.”  That action word “continue” does not offer encouragement that something concrete will be achieved in the near future.
Conditions remain unsafe.  Recently, a Toronto landlord was convicted of multiple fire code violations in the death of a woman in a rooming house fire from 2013.  A fire in an unlicensed house in the Spadina/Dundas area killed two and injured many others in March 2014.  Other Canadian cities face similar problems.

Health Issues

Safety is a certainly huge concern but there are long term health issues for those who live in rooming houses and other vulnerable housing situations as well.  Two years a study called Housing Vulnerability and Health: Canada’s Hidden Emergency was published. The study looked at the deaths of 15,000 people living in such housing.  The authors found that the average life span of these 15,000 people was “7-10 years shorter than the life span of the general Canadian population.” Women had about the same chance of living to the age of 75 as an average women in Guatemala, a country where many lack access to basic health care.

Action is needed. Municipalities don’t have the resources or the resolve to get results.  Senior levels of government must step to the plate.



Hamilton Community Legal Clinic Blog Pieces: 


Saturday, December 12, 2015

What to do about Predatory Lending?

(Payday loans are the Lay’s Potato chips of finance.  You can’t have just one and they are terrible for you… John Oliver https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDylgzybWAw)

I was asked on Thursday how I felt about the Ontario’s new legislation that deals with alternative financial services.

My answer was that I'm quite disappointed.

It is hard to believe it has taken 2 years of consultation and this is all we get.

Consumer advocate Mel Fruitman put it better.

“I hate it when government does that. It says 'we're going to do something but it's going to be a year before we do something and we can't tell you anything until we do it,'" he told the CBC. http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/ontario-subprime-lenders-1.3359460

I was involved in some consultation by the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services this past July.  This was part of lengthy process that included a 2014 “panel of volunteers with expertise in matters related to payday lending.”  That panel had concluded, not surprisingly since there were lenders involved, that everything was pretty much OK.  Some tightening of regulations and a little more education for consumers was all that was needed.

To the government’s credit, they realized more had to be done.  It seemed to me that the staff leading that 2015 consultation that I had attended knew how badly people were being exploited by the payday loan predators and other private sector operations that “help” people with money problems.  I believed that they were going to do something significant about it given the political realities that they had to work with.

What happened, then?  

To be fair, there are good things in Bill 156 – An Act to amend various Acts with respect to financial services.

ACORN Canada has done a lot of advocacy in this area.  Their spokesperson, Donna Borden, had this to say:

This announcement is a great first step.  There are still countless ways the banking system could be made fair for low-to-middle income Canadians.” 

I read the Bill yesterday.  Bill 156 amends various other pieces of legislation. Specifically:

The Collection and Debt Settlement Services Act
The Courts of justice Act
Budget Measures Act 2009
The Consumer Protection Act
and more, I think.

So, to do a thorough analysis of it one would have to look at all those acts and see how each amendment changed it.  That is a lot of work. I’ll reference Mel Fruitman again:  

It is very difficult to comment on an announcement about an announcement about an announcement." 


Provincial governments have largely remained on the sidelines or brought in regulations that were as weak as the ninth batter in a National League lineup. Some municipal governments have stepped up. But it appears that no new powers will be given to municipalities to deal with the problem as Howard Elliott noted in the Hamilton Spectator. http://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/6168980-the-spectator-s-view-payday-loan-changes-don-t-go-far-enough/

This “industry” hurts communities. Peter Kucherepa, an Ottawa lawyer, has researched the payday loans and argues that  enabling cash transactions (the mainstay of how this industry functions) can contribute to the proliferation of the drug industry and other criminal activity in neighbourhoods.

There are health issue too. Kucherepa cites research from St. Michael’s Hospital in 2014. That study “clearly shows that the proliferation of cash based money lenders lowers community life expectancy and increases pre-mature deaths.” 

You can read Kucherepa’s paper at https://www.dropbox.com/s/y5tq9frrd18g6at/Pay%20day%20Loan%20Paper%20V7(CONSULTATION)%20(4).pdf?dl=0

Kucherepa also compares interest rates for the two week loans that are legally permitted in each province. For example, if you borrow $300 in Nova Scotia, the payday loan company could legally recover $2,106 from you.  In Quebec that $300 loan could result in a maximum repayment of $405.

If provinces won’t act and municipalities can’t,  perhaps the solution lies with making a change to the Criminal Code of Canada.  About ten years ago an exemption from criminal prosecution was made for Payday Loans so that they could exceed a 60% interest per annum. (Criminal code of Canada 347.1)
Recent example of advertising  used by the "Industry"
That should change. 

My Oxford English Dictionary  says “a crime is something disgraceful or very unfair.”

That ought to make these lending practices criminal.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thoughts on the South Coast Shuttle

(Following is a sequence of numbered tweets that was posted on twitter.  I've posted it here as the twitter feed may not have worked for everyone/anyone.) 

1. Some thoughts on the South Coast Shuttle.  The shuttle operated this summer in #NorfolkCounty.  Follow our numbered tweets

2. Operating on Erie’s north shore @10woodbb was involved in a small way as a sponsor. $250 got R name on some ads & 10 free tickets
3. The Shuttle was actually 2 buses running weekends and holiday Mondays on a longish 55 kilometre route- Port Dover to Long Point

4. The idea was to provide a safe and reliable transportation option to destinations and amenities from Port Dover to Long Point…

Normandale Inn
5. …with stops at many locations along the way: as well as 2 promote many tourism options 4 visitors & residents of Norfolk County

6.  Sorry for that bureaucratise.  It is in the staff report.  You can look it up at www.norfolkcounty.ca/ on the agenda page-Nov. 17

7. Let’s put it another way. The Shuttle was an option to the car. People could go 2 bars &; restaurants, have a drink or 2 &  not worry…

8.  ...about how to get home.  Good idea, eh?

9.  Also you could take your bike on the bus, go for a ride then take the bus home. We enjoyed the Lynn Valley Trail that way.
Lynn Valley Trail

10. OK.  You want to know, did it work?   And what did it cost hard working, abused and under loved taxpayers of #NorfolkCounty 

11. First, did it work?

12. 20 riders per day. Ridership varied dramatically but it was better than the regular Ride Norfolk ridership

13. 1/2 of the riders were from away.  1/2 were from Norfolk. Riders said drivers Bob and Linda were ‘prompt and obliging”

14. Businesses were happy: E.g. Great promotion. More customers. Locals checked out their county.  Believe it will only get better

15.  Now, what did it cost?  Nothing to local taxpayer.  Sponsors, grants, fares and Gas Tax footed the bill.

Burning Kiln Winery

16. For next year we like the idea of scheduled wait times at certain stops so riders can look around.

17. Shorter loops may be an idea to look at too.

18. Thanks to staff @NorfolkCounty particularly Brad Smith for a job well done.

Here is a video on the South Coast Shuttle. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=n2RKoTrGTMY

Friday, November 06, 2015

Ontario Disability Support Program, Community Legal Clinics and Appeals

(This story appeared earlier this month in North End Breezes.  http://www.northendbreezes.com/ While the province is gradually uploading the costs of Ontario Works, municipalities continue to be impacted when those who are eligible for ODSP, but have been declined assistance, remain on Ontario Works.)

It is becoming increasingly difficult for people with disabilities who are eligible for social assistance to receive that assistance. 

“People who meet the criteria for ODSP, can’t get on it. As well, there are way too many hoops to jump through,” says Mary Marrone, Director of Advocacy and Legal Services for the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC).

ODSP is the Ontario Disability Support Program. This program is designed to help people with disabilities who are in financial need pay for living expenses, like food and housing.

An important part of community legal clinic practice is ODSP casework.

While the clinics have always done this kind of work, the proportion of caseloads made up of ODSP work has changed considerably over the years.

A little history is in order.

The Old Family Benefits program was changed to ODSP by the government of Mike Harris nearly twenty years ago. 

At that point qualifying for the program became a big issue.

Let’s go back to 1997-98.  When ODSP was set up, the total ODSP caseload for Ontario clinics was 185,479.  That sounds like a lot of people, you say.  Well, not really.  By 2013 that number had escalated to 314,033.

People who apply for ODSP and are denied have an option of requesting an Internal Review.  If that request for an Internal Review is denied, the next step can be to file an appeal to the Social Benefits Tribunal (SBT).   The Social Benefits Tribunal is an administrative body that deals specifically with appeals regarding social assistance. 

In 1997 ODSP appeals represented 14% of the total clinic practice.  These days 67% of all new cases opened in the southwest region of Ontario that our Clinic is a part of are for ODSP appeals.

This shift in clinic practice means that people who want services in other areas of law we are mandated to provide may not be able to get these services.

We’re pleased that those appeals to the SBT are twice as likely to be granted as denied.  However, these successes are an indication that reform is required.

“Too many resources are needed to get to the right decision,” says Ms. Marrone.

As a result clinics are being forced to reduce their ODSP work. 

Recently the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic developed a new resource called Getting Ready for Your SBT Hearing.  A youtube video and a handout can be found on the clinic’s website at http://www.hamiltonjustice.ca/ontario-disability-support-program.php and in French at http://www.hamiltonjustice.ca/fr/posph.php

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Vote to End Poverty

This story originally appeared in North End Breezes http://www.northendbreezes.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/October-2015-NEB-publisher-file-small-FINAL.pdf)

Last month community groups across Canada set out to make poverty an election issue in the October 19th federal election.

Their campaign aims to help Canadians better understand what poverty costs us.  It will encourage voters to ask local candidates and political parties about their plans to end poverty in Canada.

The Windsor-Essex local poverty reduction strategy developed the campaign concept.
Canada has been called to take immediate action to address poverty by the United Nations, the Canadian Senate, and Committees of the House of Commons. In spite of this, there is still no national plan to eradicate or reduce poverty.

“Over four and a half million Canadians have been left behind. National action to end poverty must be a priority for all political parties," says Tom Cooper, Director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.

It is hard to believe that in a country as rich as Canada 4.8 million people are fighting to make ends meet.  That is one in seven of our citizens living in poverty.

Three Quick Facts about Poverty in Canada

1.  Poverty hurts our health care system.

It costs our health care system $7.6 billion a year to not address the symptoms of poverty.  That figure comes from a study done in 2008 by the Metcalf Foundation. More recently,  a University of Toronto study of more than 67,000 Ontario adults found that food insecure households spend 121% more in health care costs than other households.
We’re treating symptoms of an issue that we could address directly.

2.  Poverty is bad for the economy.

Jobs that are part-time, precarious or low-paying are increasing. In July, for example, Statistics Canada reported that our economy lost 17,300 full-time jobs.  More part time ones were added (23,900). However, with decreasing earnings from employment, how can people put money back into the economy?  Many barely have enough to pay for rent, childcare or food.

3.  Child Poverty Rates in Canada are shameful.

Over 1.3 million children live in poverty in Canada. That's 1 in 5 children who don't get a fair start. Moreover, new research by American neuroscientists published in Nature Magazine showed that the stress of poverty can have significant effects on a child's brain development.
What You can Do?

• Learn more about the campaign by visiting VotetoEndPoverty.ca

• Put a Will Vote to End Poverty sign on your lawn or in your window.  See http://hamiltonpoverty.ca/vote-to-end-poverty-lawn-signs-now-available/ to get one.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Regulating the Predatory Lenders

Ward Three Councillor Matthew Councillor Green (pictured to the right) has a motion coming to Hamilton City Council on Wednesday September 9th.  The motion is requesting authority from the Province for the City of Hamilton to limit the number and regulate the locations of payday loan cheque cashing outlets.

Many other municipalities in Canada and the United States have implemented tighter restrictions on payday loan companies. In Winnipeg, for example, payday lenders must be a minimum of 1,000 feet apart. Another municipality, the town of Esquimalt, has increased its business license fee from $100 to $2,000. (http://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/task-force-recommended-to-improve-citys-payday-loan-regulations). About 200 U.S municipalities are regulating these predators.

Last month, Global reported that cities in Alberta were banding together to fight against the 600% interest rates allowed by law in that province. (http://globalnews.ca/news/2185642/alberta-cities-organizations-band-together-to-fight-600-payday-loan-interest-rate/)

They'll put payday loan companies out of business, argues lobbyist Stan Keyes.

While many would like these guys put out of business altogether, alternatives are needed because the major banks have abandoned low-income communities and earners.  In Sheffield England, Council has come up with an alternative by offering municipal loans to residents. http://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/aug/08/sheffield-money-payday-loans-rates-poverty

I've argued that postal banking could be an alternative that would provide access to financial services for all Canadians.  HTTP://WWW.HAMILTONJUSTICE.CA/BLOG/?POST=PAYDAY+LENDERS+CONTINUE+TO+OUTRAGE+US&ID=303)

In the meantime, I commend Hamilton's Councillor Green for his initiative.

Here is his motion:

WHEREAS the Province of Ontario’s Ministry of Consumer Services is responsible for the Consumer Protection Act and the Payday Loans Act which regulates and licenses money lending businesses;

WHEREAS the Province of Ontario regulates the interest rates of money lending businesses while Municipalities have the authority to regulate and license businesses to protect consumers if this is not already done by the Province;

WHEREAS the use and expansion of payday loan and cheque cashing outlets in Hamilton neighbourhoods is a significant consumer protection issue identified by the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction and neighbourhood and community groups; and

WHEREAS it is important that customers of payday loan and cheque outlets have a complete understanding of the financial services being offered.


(a) That the Mayor be authorized to forward correspondence to the Province of Ontario, to the attention of the Minister of Consumer Services, requesting that the protections afforded by the Payday Loans Act be strengthened and that Municipalities be authorized to limit the number and regulate the locations of payday loan and cheque cashing outlets;

(b) That Staff be directed to research the feasibility of licensing payday loan and cheque cashing outlets to assist in consumer protection by requiring the businesses to post their rates, show comparative and annualized rates and information regarding debt counselling.

(c) That staff analyze and map pay day loan and cheque cashing outlets in Hamilton and report back to Council on recommendations for alternative accessible financial services for Hamilton residents.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Gentrification Becoming a Problem for Hamilton Tenants

(An earlier version of this story appeared on www.hamiltonjustice.ca)

More than 200 central Hamilton residents rallied in McLaren Park last Wednesday..

Amidst chants and drum beats, tenants and housing advocates were putting out a message to all three levels of government the signs captured the feelings of those in attendance.

“Housing is a Right”

“Canada Needs a National Housing Strategy”

“We are the Faces of Affordable Housing”

The mainstream media was present.  Dan Nolan from the Hamilton Spectator reported on the evening event in the July 30th edition of his paper.

Speakers called on all three levels of government to take action. Demands included

• That the City of Hamilton immediately take measures to mitigate the negative impacts of gentrification. The city’s current planning and policy documents have failed to take into account the very real impacts of gentrification on low cost rental housing.

•  That Ontario’s Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy (LTAHS), which is currently under review, include measures to protect affordable housing so that units like ours will not be lost.

•  That the federal government develop a national housing strategy. The emphasis should be on maintaining and creating and affordable rental housing that is safe, accessible and in a state of good repair.

Gentrification is a growing concern in the City the Clinic’s Maria Antelo told CBC Hamilton.
“Right now, what tenants want is whatever is available to keep (rent) the way it is and prices shouldn't going up because our city is becoming a bit trendy.  At the same time there has to be a balance. Tenants understand that we do want beautification in our city, we do want investment in our city but we want politicians, developers to understand housing is a basic need, it's not a luxury." http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/hamilton-tenants-rally-against-gentrification-1.3171560             

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Harry Leslie Smith in London (ON) Next Week

Recently I wrote a bit of a story about Harry Leslie Smith and specifically about his book Harry’s Last Stand.


A major theme of the book and Harry Smith’s advocacy efforts is to save the National Health Service (NHS).

On Twitter (@Harryslaststand) and in his book Harry characterized the big political battle in the U.K. as being fought to save the NHS. I must say I knew little of the National Health Service when I read the book.

Certainly those with closer ties to the U.K. will have views and knowledge on it.  I’m going to come back to lessons from the U. K. election another day.  Today I’ll like to talk about Harry’s Canadian tour.

He is in the midst of it now.  The last stop is next Tuesday (July 21) in London. It is at the

Museum London, Lecture Theatre
421 Ridout St N

Smith will be addressing what is a stake in our upcoming federal election.

A discussion will follow with a panel of progressive activists including Abe Oudshoorn (housing activist and nursing professor at Western University), Jonathan Sas (Director of Research at the Broadbent Institute),  and Kaylie Tiessen (economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Ontario).

The Broadbent Institute is running the tour.  You can find out more at

Monday, July 06, 2015

Street Soccer Championships in Hamilton This Month

This story orignally appeared in North End Breezes, the community newsletter of Hamilton's North End. http://www.northendbreezes.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/July-Summer-2015-NEB-publisher-smaller-file.pdf-final.pdf)

A unique event is coming to Hamilton this month.
Street Soccer Canada will be running the National Homeless Championship. The games will be played in Gore Park on Saturday July 18th and Sunday the 19th.  Teams from Comox, Kelowna, Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton and other cities are expected.
Players from this competition will be selected for the Homeless World Cup. 

That event will be held in Amsterdam this September.

In 2003, Mel Young, a Scotsman, and Harald Schmied, an Austrian, were attending a conference dealing with the future of street newspapers.  They came up with the idea of a Homeless World Cup. 

It is a different game than the traditional soccer (football) you’ll see at the Pan Am Games.

It is played four players a side on 16 metre x 22 metre court.  The game lasts 14 minutes (two seven minute halves.) A three-on-two rule, intended to promote scoring, has evolved so that only two players are allowed in their own defensive end.

To be eligible, players must have been homeless in the past year (in accordance with the national definition of homelessness,) make their living as street paper vendor, be Asylum seekers or in drug or alcohol rehabilitation (and also have been homeless.)

Changing Attitudes

The Homeless World Cup is more than a competition. It is designed to challenge societal attitudes towards homeless people.

In that context it is worth reflecting on the situation in Hamilton.

Here, over 3,100 individuals experienced homelessness – staying at some point in the past year in one of the City’s emergency shelters.

Hamilton is part of a national movement of communities led by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. The movement is mobilizing people to house 20,000 of Canada’s most vulnerable people by July 1, 2018.  As part of that program, individual and families were interviewed this April. Four hundred and fifty four (454) individuals were canvassed by volunteers in Hamilton’s downtown streets, shelters and agencies.

Here are just a few facts from the survey that may surprise you.

• Two thirds of those interviewed had experienced homelessness for six months or longer.

• Seven percent of those surveyed had served in the Canadian Armed Forces.

• 266 of the individuals surveyed had visited hospital emergency rooms a total of 994 times in the previous 6 months.

Much work has to be done to solve our housing crisis.  Unlike other nations, Canada doesn’t have a national housing strategy.  Perhaps, we will hear about housing and homelessness during this fall’s federal election campaign.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Reports on the Transit Users Forum

I made it out to the Burlington Transit Users Forum on the last Saturday in March.

It was a great morning with an excellent turnout.

Although the City’s commitment to public transit has not improved over the years Burlington for Accessible and Sustainable Transit (BFAST) has made a lot of progress in organizing people so they can articulate their concerns and their positive feedback as well.

The Burlington Post published a story that I wrote on the Forum that you can find here. 

The Burlington Gazette provided great coverage as well.

Denis Gibbons from the Bay Are Observer was in attendance too.   I’d expect to see something in his paper in the next while.

Hopefully, this interest from media will help prod decision makers into putting appropriate resources into public transit in Burlington and all the GTA and Hamilton for that matter.
Paul Benson and Doug Brown facilitate a group at the Transit Users Forum.