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Province shouldn’t shortchange Toronto

Posted on 03 May 2017 by admin

There was a lot to like in this week’s Ontario budget: free prescription drugs for young people; more money for the healthcare system; thousands more affordable childcare places.

But the Wynne government has fallen short in one vital area – meeting the needs of the province’s largest city.

The budget contains no significant new money for Toronto’s biggest priority: transit. And, most strikingly, it failed to come through with the province’s expected share of funding to fix the city’s dilapidated stock of social housing.

Mayor John Tory has been pressing Queen’s Park for months to do more for the city, especially after Premier Kathleen Wynne vetoed his plan to raise money for transit by tolling two major expressways.

This budget certainly won’t ease tensions between the city and the province. On Friday the mayor accused the government of “turning their backs” on Toronto, and even allowing for the usual hyperbole he had a strong case to make.

The most obvious omission in the budget involves public housing. The province failed to live up to a commitment it made three years ago to fund one-third of the $2.6 billion repair bill faced by Toronto Community Housing.

The province’s share amounts to $864 million over 10 years – but it was nowhere in Finance Minister Charles Sousa’s budget. Without it, TCH will be forced to close 1,000 housing units by the end of next year because they are unfit for habitation. It predicts that number will reach 7,500 over the next eight years.

That’s unconscionable while 181,000 Torontonians languish on the waiting list for subsidized housing. While they wait, some are forced to pay rents so high they can’t afford to buy enough food or take transit. Others are homeless.

The provincial and federal governments must step up and provide much-needed money for the repairs if this debacle is to be prevented.

On transit, there was also disappointment for Toronto. Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca argues the province is already investing billions of dollars in Toronto transit, including money to build the Eglinton Crosstown and Finch West LRT lines, and to expand GO Transit service.

All that is true, but as Tory pointed out Queen’s Park must continue to add funding to make up for “decades of inaction.”

Not getting additional money from the province threatens the planned downtown relief line, Waterfront transit, and the Eglinton East LRT projects.

The case for funding Toronto’s key priorities is overwhelming. The city is the economic engine of the province. Yet its growth and attractiveness for investors is being undercut by traffic congestion made even worse by the failure of governments to fund and build transit alternatives.

The cost of gridlock in the region, for example, was estimated way back in 2006 to amount to $6 billion a year in lost worker productivity, slower commutes, higher accident rates and insurance costs, as well as air pollution.

All this is well-known, so it’s all the more disappointing to see the province come up short on funding. Tory admits that without provincial money the city won’t be able to complete its priority projects.

The budget doesn’t have to be the last word from the province on funding for Toronto. On housing and transit, in particular, the government still has a way to go.

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Ottawa’s ‘name-blind’ hiring a modest experiment with real promise

Posted on 27 April 2017 by admin

A new attempt by Ottawa to root out bias in the hiring of federal civil servants is a modest initiative, but with real promise. If it succeeds, the pilot project will help government hire the best talent, while at the same time allowing it to better reflect the diverse people it serves. The initiative could act as a model for other employers, both public and private.

The idea behind the “name-blind” hiring project announced this week is simple; the names, emails and countries of birth of job-seekers will be removed from their applications, with the aim of preventing the bias – unconscious or otherwise – that too often leads employers not to bring in applicants of diverse backgrounds for interviews.

The body of evidence that ethnic and racial bias plays a troubling role in hiring is growing. A recent study out of U of T and Ryerson University, for instance, found that job seekers with Asian names and Canadian qualifications were considerably less likely to get calls for interviews than were applicants with English-sounding names — even when the person with the Asian name had a better education.

Similar findings have been made in other western countries. A 2003 study from the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that job applicants with white-sounding names got called 50 per cent more than those with African-American-sounding names. In Germany, one investigation found that applicants with names that sounded German were called 14 per cent more often than people with Turkish names.

Ottawa’s new initiative, which will initially affect six departments, is modeled on a similar project in the United Kingdom. In 2015, the government there announced that 10 large employers, including the British civil service, KPMG and Deloitte would start recruiting on a name-blind basis.

Early evidence suggests that these programs help, though they are not enough in themselves to fully defeat bias in hiring. One study of name-blind experiments in a number of countries, determined that while anonymous applications prevent bias and discrimination in the first stages of recruitment, these problems can occur later in the hiring process, such as when the applicants show up for a face-to-face interview.

Name-blind hiring is no substitute for the hard work of culture change, but it is no doubt an important step in the right direction. Bias in hiring is not simply unjust; it’s also perverse. People of colour, indigenous people and immigrants are persistently underrepresented in the Canadian workforce. As these groups continue to grow relative to the general population, so does the lost opportunity. Much of the country’s talent is being overlooked.

Compared to other employers, the federal civil service has a relatively diverse workforce. But Ottawa is right to look to be a model, not least because a government that reflects its constituents is better placed to understand their needs.

Clearly everyone, regardless of their colour, creed, sexual orientation, gender or disability should have an equal opportunity when it comes to applying for and landing a job. But in Canada, that’s not the reality. Ottawa is right to fight to change that.

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Children in daycares must be protected

Posted on 13 April 2017 by admin

Early in the morning of a hot July day in 2013, 2-year-old Eva Ravikovich was left in a parked car by her unlicensed daycare provider. At the end of the day Olena Panfilova realized she had left the toddler behind. But it was too late. Eva was already dead from heat stroke.

Panfilova finally admitted what she had done in court this week as she pleaded guilty to criminal negligence causing Eva’s death.

But it’s not just Panfilova’s actions that should be under scrutiny. Ontario also failed Eva by not strictly enforcing rules for unlicensed day cares.

At the time of Eva’s death, for example, Panfilova was legally allowed to care for five children in her home. But on that day she was watching 35, as well as 14 dogs. There had been reports of overcrowding in her daycare but investigators hadn’t followed up. And when they did follow up in 2012 they simply sent her a letter telling her to reduce the number of children in her care. A letter.

Indeed, a report by former Ontario Ombudsman André Marin would later find a “bureaucracy that shied away from inspections and investigations and preferred to use soft tools of encouragement.”

Two years ago Ontario tightened the rules governing unlicensed daycares to make them safer and increased penalties for infractions. That should help — if the rules are enforced.

But it doesn’t address the issue of why parents must turn to unregulated daycares in the first place. While three-quarters of mothers of young children are in the workforce, there are licensed spots available for less than a quarter of children under 5.

In its recent budget the Trudeau government announced $7 billion over the next decade to ease the shortage by creating up to 40,000 new spaces. But that isn’t enough to meet the demand.

As Marin asked in his report, “What could be more pressing, more urgent, than protecting children?” The answer is nothing. While Ontario must be sure to enforce its new rules for unregulated daycares, Ottawa and the provinces must tackle the national child care crisis by building a national, affordable licensed system.

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A ‘vacant homes’ tax won’t have much effect

Posted on 06 April 2017 by admin

Here’s a scoop: sometimes politicians do things just so they can say they did something. Whether what they do has much effect in the real world is an entirely secondary matter.

If Toronto does go ahead with a tax on vacant homes in an effort to slow the vertiginous rise in property prices, it will be an example of this unfortunate habit. It will allow the city and province to claim they are doing something, while almost certainly having next to no effect on the housing market.

Mayor John Tory set off speculation by saying he is “open to exploring” whether a tax on vacant homes would be right for Toronto. He wants to discuss whether the city should follow the example of Vancouver, which is also grappling with sky-high property prices and has just imposed what it calls an “empty homes tax.”

At first glance, the idea has a lot of appeal. The idea that thousands of speculators are hoarding empty houses and condos while both property prices and rents shoot up is galling. If those empty dwellings became available, surely there would be more affordable places to live?

The trouble is that the closer you look at the idea, the less persuasive is the argument. There are a lot fewer truly “vacant” homes than it appears, and it’s likely even fewer would end up being captured by any realistic tax.

Vancouver estimated last year that 10,800 units there were vacant. Its tax will come into effect next year and will be set at 1 per cent of value – so the owner of a million-dollar vacant home would have to pay $10,000.

Among the thorny issues: what exactly is an “empty” home? Vancouver’s law, for example, excludes a person’s principal residence, so anyone who wants to leave her house vacant while wintering in Arizona wouldn’t be affected. There are other big exemptions, such as one for those awaiting permits to renovate their homes. Taking them out of the equation quickly cuts the number of empty homes liable for tax.

Others who more closely fit the stereotype of the absentee owner will quickly find ways to skirt the law. Family members might spend a few weeks occupying a house, just enough time to meet the legal requirement that a unit not be left empty for more than six months.

In Toronto, Mayor Tory cited a census figure suggesting that as many as 65,000 houses and condos are empty. Once all the exemptions that can be expected in any law are applied, it’s likely that number would be far lower.

The good news is that while an empty homes tax almost certainly wouldn’t have much effect on slowing house prices, it probably wouldn’t do much harm either. Some true speculators would likely see it as just another cost of doing business, which would bring additional tax revenue to the city.

Vancouver plans to channel any new tax money into affordable housing, but its expectations aren’t high. It forecasts revenues of $2 million a year from its empty homes tax, while it will cost $4.7 million to set up the collection system and $1.5 million a year to operate it. The net gains will be small, indeed.

There’s no doubt Toronto faces a housing crisis. Royal Bank of Canada reported late last week that affordability hasn’t been so low since 1990. Politicians are just waking up to the issue and are considering a range of measures, from a tax on foreign buyers to revisiting policies on sprawl and density.

But if they decide to enact a levy on empty homes, it will be more for show than for true effect. Such a tax might be popular but it would be one of the least effective steps they could take.

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It’s time we weaned ourselves off bottled water

Posted on 01 April 2017 by admin

We Canadians love our water, or so we say. In national polls we’ve declared it our most valuable natural resource.

We’re perfectly happy to celebrate the abundance of fresh, drinkable water in lakes and rivers across the country.

Yet somehow, when we’re looking to quench our thirst, an awful lot of us reflexively reach for bottled water, not that same fresh, drinkable water available at a tiny fraction of the price simply by turning on the tap.

Our overreliance on bottled water is a waste of money and a detriment to the environment. It’s time we resolved to end it.

Bottled water has become an enormous industry. Astonishingly Canadians now spend about $2.5 billion on it every year. We guzzle 2.5 billion litres, or more than 71 litres a year for every man, woman and child – three and half times the amount we drank 20 years ago. This, despite having some of the cleanest drinking water in the world.

Here in Toronto, water from Lake Ontario is painstakingly treated before it reaches our homes. The city samples our drinking water every six hours to check for bacteria.

Canada’s bottled water industry has argued that customers actually drink tap water at home and buy bottles when they’re out as an alternative to other packaged drinks, like pop or juice.

But that suggests a troubling degree of lazy consumerism and a willingness to succumb to corporate marketing.

You can likely get free tap water at almost any establishment that will sell you bottled water, though they won’t necessarily advertise that fact.

The menu at McDonald’s, for instance, features bottles of Dasani, though if you want water instead of Coke with your Big Mac, servers can fill up a cup from the tap, at little or no charge.

Likewise, Tim Hortons will serve you a cup of water for free if you ask, but the chain specifically recommends bottled water in its online list of “better-for-you menu offerings.”

Of course, the worst slight against bottled water is that it’s a needless burden on the environment.

So what’s to be done? Promising efforts are already being made to wean Canadians off the bottle. Toronto is one of more than 80 Canadian towns and cities that restrict the sale of bottled water on municipal property.

But making the move back to tap water will also require making it more easily available in public. That means bringing back the old drinking fountain, which has largely gone the way of the phone booth. Once a staple of the public space, fountains are increasingly rare. Those that remain are often broken or poorly maintained.

To get Canadians back on the tap, we need city staff to ensure our parks and other public spaces have working fountains. Our schools should have more fountains and fewer bottle-dispensing vending machines. Private buildings like malls and offices should also make drinking water readily available.

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Precarious jobs scar employees’ mental health

Posted on 23 March 2017 by admin

It’s a well known trope that millenials are permanently attached to their phones.

Stress, unhappiness and an unhealthy home life are the biggest consequences of unstable employment, according to a new survey of more than 4,000 workers by the Ontario Federation of Labour.

While financial insecurity was flagged as a cause for concern, respondents identified anxiety as the single most important repercussion of precarious jobs.

“I’m not surprised because it’s been happening for so long here in this province,” said OFL president Chris Buckley.

“My heart aches for people who are in this situation, because you can’t plan your day-to-day life. You can’t plan your future. You can’t plan anything.”

Some 31 per cent of survey respondents singled out their emotional health as the most significant casualty of precarious work.

An unreliable income made up the next biggest share of answers at 28 per cent.

A further 22 per cent said precarious work compromised their inability to plan ahead.

Respondents said other negative side-effects included lack of benefits, low wages and debt.

Some 52 per cent of workers in the GTA now experience some form of insecurity in their jobs.

Half of the respondents to the OFL’s survey of its members said they had been precariously employed in the past, and more than a quarter said they defined their current job as precarious.

Existing research conducted by United Way and McMaster University shows precarious workers are twice as likely as those in stable employment to report having mental health problems.

Indeed, low-income workers in stable jobs were found to report better mental health than higher-earning individuals in precarious jobs.

A 2012 University of Michigan study showed precarious workers in that state were five times more likely than those in secure jobs to be at risk of major or minor depression and three times more likely to report having an anxiety attack in the past month. Research from Sweden suggests precarious work has a “scarring effect” on young people’s long-term mental health.

The Ontario government is currently reviewing its employment and labour laws with an eye to providing better protection for vulnerable workers.

“Right off the hop, workers should have their schedule at least two weeks in advance. They should be able to plan their lives at least two weeks out instead of sitting by the phone. The number of temporary jobs in Ontario has grown by 45 per cent since the year 2000,” Buckley said.

“I think the government has a real opportunity to make changes here, and I just hope that they’re listening to people.”

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Stop assaults against nurses and other health-care workers

Posted on 16 March 2017 by admin

Attacks as severe as these ones are, thankfully, rare. But the incidence of assaults on nurses and other health-care workers – everything from spitting to hitting – are far too common. In fact, according to new research from the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, violence against health-care workers is a “daily” occurrence.

And, apparently, few are immune from the threat of it. The unions found that all but one of 54 workers interviewed for the study had directly experienced violence at work.

These numbers are disturbing, but not surprising. They are backed up by years of research into violence directed at health-care workers. What is surprising is that the unions say the attacks are “unacknowledged, dismissed, or tolerated by administrators and regulators.”

Such an attitude is unacceptable. For too long managers of health-care facilities have known about the threats against their employees, but little has been done to protect them. Precautions must be taken immediately, or sooner or later someone is going to get killed on the job by a patient or visitor.

Indeed, health-care workers already have the second highest number of reported injuries in the province, according to statistics from the province’s workers’ compensation board.

Other studies underscore the increasing risk of a violent attack on workers at Toronto’s health-care facilities. For example, violent incidents in the University Health Network doubled to 331 from 166 between 2012 and 2014. Reports of abuse against staff by patients and visitors jumped to 320 in 2013 from 140 in 2012 at Sunnybrook Hospital. And there were 453 physical assaults or abuse of health care workers at CAMH in one recent year.

“In no other occupation or walk of life would such abuse be tolerated,” notes union leader Michael Hurley.

Why are things getting worse? Workers surveyed for the new research said underfunding and understaffing are “significant contributors” to workplace violence.

As a result, the unions recommend that the ministry of labour audit all of Ontario’s health-care facilities to make sure effective protections are in place; ensure that workplaces have safeguards such as personal monitors, alarms and identification of violent patients; and ensure adequate staffing levels and the presence of trained security personnel where needed.

Labour Minister Kevin Flynn should act quickly on these recommendations. Then he should work on changing attitudes among managers so that violence against health-care workers is never considered acceptable.

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Ottawa wants tougher national standard for distracted drivers using cellphones

Posted on 09 March 2017 by admin

Transport Minister Marc Garneau is calling for the creation of a tough national standard to penalize distracted drivers using their cellphones on the road.

Garneau believes that having consistent national rules with stiffer fines and demerit points could address the growing number of incidents.

While dangerous driving is covered under the Criminal Code, cases involving distraction are a provincial responsibility with fines and demerit points that vary widely across regions.

Provincial penalties for distracted driving range from $80 to $100 plus three demerit points in Quebec to a maximum fine of $1,200 and five demerit points in Prince Edward Island, according to the Canadian Automobile Club.

Cellphones and hand-held electronic devices are banned while driving in all provinces, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, but there is no prohibition on driving while using hands-free devices.

“I would like it to be treated very, very seriously because to put it in simple terms, I consider that driving requires 100 per cent of your attention,” Garneau told reporters before heading to Washington for a meeting with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

The minister recently sent a letter to his provincial counterparts urging them to agree to tougher and uniform penalties for texting and talking on cellphones while driving.

“Having robust and nationally consistent enforcement measures and penalties will help mitigate the negative impact of this increasingly pervasive problem on Canada’s roads,” he said in the three-page letter dated Feb. 21.

Garneau said the growing prevalence of cellphones with many apps make distracted driving an evolving issue.

He told provincial transport ministers that 2014 National Collision Database findings showed that 19 per cent of fatal collisions and 29 per cent of incidents causing major injuries involved some form of distracted driving.

A 2005 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that nearly 80 per cent of collisions and 65 per cent of near-collisions involved some form of driver inattention up to three seconds prior to the event.

The minister declined Wednesday to say if he would like to see cars taken away from drivers found guilty of distracted driving, but said stricter penalties are required.

“I personally feel it should be at the higher end rather than at the lower end.”

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The province must deliver long-term funding support to Toronto

Posted on 25 February 2017 by admin

The City of Toronto can’t afford any longer to limp along with budgets held together with duct tape and string.

After a marathon 15-hour debate last week, the city adopted a $10.5-billion operating budget after the usual battles over where to trim, which fees to increase, and how much of its rainy day reserve fund it will have to raid to patch over the gaps. Oh, and a voter-friendly increase in property taxes of just 2 per cent.

But it’s dawning on more and more councillors that none of this is enough to set a proper path forward for a city with the size and ambition of this one.

Toronto’s infrastructure and social housing stock is crumbling and it has $33 billion in unfunded capital projects. The city badly needs substantive and stable financial support from the provincial and federal governments if it is to be able to do any kind of long-term planning and fulfill its tremendous potential.

Happily, Mayor John Tory seems to have reached the same conclusion. Last week he went on a multi-day road show to push for long-term funding support for the city and urge a “vigorous” debate on how cities are financed. The mayor should get the full support of council and all those who share his view that Toronto has outgrown what he labeled the “prehistoric handcuffs” that are threatening to hold it back.

As he told a TV interviewer: “The days of being told that we have to limit ourselves to regressive property taxes that don’t grow with the economy, those days should be over .”

Tory signalled he does not intend to give up on implementing new revenue tools, such as road tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway, despite Premier Kathleen Wynne’s refusal to give the city permission to do so.

More importantly, he served notice that he expects the province not to just approve new revenue tools for long-term financial planning, but to pony up its share of infrastructure costs.

It’s about time. For decades the federal and provincial governments have downloaded costs in areas like social housing and infrastructure to cities.

Consider the cost to the city of social housing, alone. Three years ago Toronto approved a 10-year, $2.6-billion plan to address the backlog of repairs for Toronto Community Housing that was supposed to be financed jointly by the city, province and federal government. But neither Queen’s Park nor Ottawa has stepped up to pay its share.

As a result, TCH expects to close 425 units this year because they are uninhabitable. In 2018, if it doesn’t get more funding it will have to shut another several hundred units. And this is happening when almost 200,000 people are on the wait list for affordable housing in Toronto.

Starving Toronto of ways to pay for its needs doesn’t make financial sense for the city, the rest of the province, or indeed the country.

As Tory told the Empire Club last Tuesday, the city is home to fully 20 per cent of all Canadians and generates more than 18 per cent of the national GDP . “And yet we make up just 1.3 per cent of general government expenditures in Canada.”

“A city that generates so much economic prosperity for our country, especially if denied the opportunity to address its own finances, cannot continue to receive so little investment in return,” he argued.

Tory has made five new demands of the provincial government. He wants it to share costs on large transit projects such as the Eglinton East light rail line, waterfront transit, and downtown relief line. He wants it to match costs for new investments in social housing and for tackling the massive repair backlog. He wants it to provide land for new affordable housing projects. He wants it to contribute significant funds to development of the Port Lands.

And he wants it to help the city pay for operation and maintenance of the Gardiner and DVP now that Queen’s Park has nixed his plan for tolls. These are the kind of big measures the city needs to get on a sustainable path to the future. When the Wynne government vetoed the city’s plan for tolls, it opened the door to demands like this. Its promise of an extra share in the provincial gas tax amounting to $170 million in a few years doesn’t cut it.

Tory has strong arguments to make in favour of much more significant funding for the city and this is the time to make them. A stronger Toronto will be good for all of Ontario, and all of Canada.

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Don’t abandon tax break to encourage jobs for young people

Posted on 15 February 2017 by admin

Justin Trudeau came to power with the enthusiastic backing of young people. They turned out to vote in huge numbers in 2015 and embraced his call for change in Ottawa.

It wasn’t just about style. Trudeau promised to create a lot of jobs for young people – specifically “40,000 good youth jobs” every year from 2016 to 2018. He even named himself Minister of Youth for good measure.

Now, though, one of the central promises that Trudeau’s Liberal party made to young people seems to have evaporated.

During the 2015 campaign the Liberals pledged to encourage employers to hire young people. The government would offer them a 12-month holiday on employment insurance premiums if they hired people aged 18 to 24 for permanent jobs.

The idea, similar to one a previous Liberal government tried with some success in the 1990s, was to counter the chronically high unemployment rate among young workers. It’s now running at 12.6 per cent, almost double the overall jobless rate of 6.9 per cent.

The promise of an EI premium break was included in the mandate letter that Trudeau gave his first employment minister, MaryAnn Mihychuk. And there were high hopes it would be included in Finance Bill Morneau’s first budget last March. But it was nowhere to be found.

Now the promise has disappeared entirely from the mandate letter given to the new employment minister, Patty Hajdu, who got the job in January’s cabinet shuffle.

Instead, the new minister was instructed to work with the government’s “Expert Panel on Youth Employment” to come up with ways of lowering the jobless rate among young people.

That sounds very much like a recipe for delay, delay and more delay. The promise of a temporary break on EI premiums was a focused measure that could be implemented quickly and give employers a concrete incentive to hire young people. In 2015 the Liberals estimated it would have saved employers who took advantage of it between $60 million and $80 million a year.

It’s still not too late for Morneau to include such a measure in this spring’s budget, though the fact that it is not to be found in Hajdu’s official job description doesn’t make that very likely.

The EI break was a relatively small-bore promise. But letting it fall by the wayside is problematic, especially since the prime minister is having trouble meeting the hopes that were raised when he named himself youth minister in addition to his day job of running the federal government.

It was great symbolism. But as the Star’s Alex Ballingall reported this past week, advocates for young people and students are starting to feel let down by Trudeau the youth minister.

So far his government has a mixed record in this area. It has increased student grants substantially for people from low- to middle-income families, raised the income threshold for repaying student loans, and created more summer jobs. At the same time, student debt continues to mount, tuition costs are rising, and youth unemployment remains at stubbornly high levels.

It’s asking a lot for a prime minister to also be an active, engaged youth minister, perhaps too much. One concrete gesture would be to revive his old promise and put the break on EI premiums to encourage jobs for young people back on the government’s agenda.

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