Canadians, shocked into the realization that poverty's address is in their own backyards, are reaching out to make a difference

MARCI McDONALD July 1 1996


Canadians, shocked into the realization that poverty's address is in their own backyards, are reaching out to make a difference

MARCI McDONALD July 1 1996



Canadians, shocked into the realization that poverty's address is in their own backyards, are reaching out to make a difference


Beneath the lofty Victorian moldings, the tables had been laid as usual with white damask. Fine Villeroy & Boch china gleamed in the sunlight streaming through the ancient casements of Biagio, one of Toronto’s most elegant restaurants. But amid banquettes routinely graced by John Turner and Ontario Lt.-Gov. Hal Jackman, a cadre of black-tied waiters laid the silver for a decidedly different crowd. At 59, Biagio Vinci, a man who had spent four decades catering to royalty and the rich, was throwing his doors open to 100 of the city’s homeless. For years, he had watched their numbers grow—bedding down in layered castoffs on the park benches across the street or stopping to stare in at the forbidden opulence, their faces pressed against the glass. Often, his patrons had to step around the human flotsam on the pavement on the way to their limousines. Uptown, in his former location, Vinci had never imagined such misery. But now, he confronted it daily; at night, it haunted his dreams. “A simple man like me—what can I do to help society?”

he says. “I can’t create 100 jobs. But you can’t close your eyes.” On a winter Sunday with a homicidal chill factor, his wife and three grown children joined him as their guests parked shopping carts at the doorway to venture warily inside. Some had spruced up for the occasion; others nursed black eyes. A guitarist played as the chef ladled out bowls of steaming leek and potato soup, artful plates of turkey and, for dessert, silken tiramisu, all served with the same courtly gravity accorded the pillars of the Establishment. ‘You should have seen the looks on their faces,” Ymci marvels.

He had wanted to dispense “a day of joy,” as he puts it. But later, he realized that he had found that joy within himself. Over the months that followed, he became a man obsessed. Each Friday, he brought dinner to the Out of the Cold program in the parish hall of St. Michael’s Cathedral, one of 30 churches that rallied through the worst winter months to shelter 600 of the city’s dispossessed. But three men still froze to death on the street. Once, a newspaper photographer had snapped Vinci in an apron at the church steam tables, but he declined to identify himself. “I don’t do it to get my name in the paper,” he says. “I owe these people something because I’ve been blessed.”

Now, on a breezy summer’s afternoon, only the weather has improved. As the destitute still gather among the gardens across King Street, he is already planning some genteel arm-twisting of

his patrons to underwrite an expanded meal service next winter.

His gesture, he knows, is but a Band-Aid on the gaping wounds of society as the chasm yawns ever wider between the country’s rich and poor. But at a time when all the news often seems to be bad news—when the nation’s centre no longer seems to be holding and government and corporate cutbacks are retailoring the civil fabric—Vinci and thousands of other Canadians are stepping j forward to act out, in various ways, the age-old admonition: better to light a candle than curse the darkness. ■;

For some, it is an act of defiance—a protest against the ideology that they see as sacrificing human dignity on the altar of íederp al and provincial balance sheets. For others, it is a return to the way they believe things used to be when communities looked after their own without any meddlesome government bureaucracies. But whatever the motivation, whether by design or default, citizens across the country are rolling up their sleeves and stepping into the breach. In unprecedented numbers, they are donating their time and money, reaching out to those abandoned by slashed charity and social service budgets or finding innovative ways to rebuild their neighborhoods from the grassroots.

No one has bothered to measure their strength since a 1987 | Statistics Canada survey estimated the country’s volunteer force L at 13 million. At the time, the Canadian Council on Social gP

k Development costed out their efforts as worth $16 billion. Nine years ¿ later, experts confirm their ranks are swelling, galvanized in part by the g increasingly palpable need. “There’s no question about it,” says Paddy s Bowen, executive director of Volunteer Canada, an Ottawa-based clearÏ ing house. “We’re at the beginning of a wave of enthusiasm for volun£ teerism—that’s the upside of all this. People want to make a difference and they’re reaching into their pocketbooks and timetables.”

Singly and in classrooms or corporate teams, they are coming together to give the lie to the mounting fear that Canada has ceased to be a generous nation. But where once the nickels and dimes in the school jar used to be designated for distant continents, now Canadians have been shocked into the realization that poverty’s address is right in their own backyards. ‘We looked abroad because we assumed the problems here were relatively minor,” says Tim Brodhead, former executive director of InterPares, an international development agency, who now heads The J. W. McConnell Family Foundation in Montreal. “These days, we’re conscious that our problems are pretty intractable.”

Last year, the United Way registered a modest 3.8-per-cent increase in donations across Canada. But Rob Brown of Toronto’s Artsmarketing, the continent’s leading telemarketer for nonprofit institutions, reports that more than three-quarters of his fund-raising campaigns were up by 15 per cent The newest donors are baby boomers or those in low-income neighborhoods. “The heart is there—I would say it’s better than

ever,” he notes. “But it’s scary: people are responding with little notes saying they’re unemployed and almost apologizing for not giving more. There’s a sense of ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’ ”

The face of volunteerism, too, is changing. A pastime once thought to be the monopoly of middle-class housewives is increasingly populated by the young and the unemployed—both often desperate for job skills. “You see a lot of young people using volunteerism to build their résumés,” says Penelope Rowe, executive director of Newfoundland’s Community Services Council. New Canadians are joining in as well. In Alberta, the province with the highest volunteer rate,

Joyce MacAlpine, a 52-year-old mother of five from Trinidad, retired after 18 years as a supply supervisor at a Calgary hospital and promptly opened a thrift shop whose proceeds are devoted to sending students to college. In only one year, selling donated clothing and housewares, MacAlpine has already sponsored $7,000 in scholarships and bursaries at the University of Calgary and two community colleges. Years ago, she explains, a stranger’s gift allowed her own daughter to graduate from McGill. “People helped my kids,” she says. “Sometimes, all a child needs is a bursary to get out of the rat race.”

In academic circles, altruism has suddenly become a trendy topic. After years of neglect, economists and social scientists are spewing out books and buzzwords, finally giving the voluntary sector its due with titles like “social capital,” the “Third Sector” and the “civil society.” In mid-June, Jeremy Rifkin, head of Washington’s Foundation on Economic Trends, fired up the annual meeting of Winnipeg’s Social Planning Council with his thesis that do-gooders represent a potent new political force around the world. In his grim vision of a future when Rifkin estimates only an elite 12 per cent of the population may have jobs, he predicts that the sole hope for a meaningful existence—and for restoring the continent’s decaying cities—may lie in mobilizing that can-do community spirit. But he acknowledges the irony of the subject’s newfound cachet. “This sector has always been led by women, and, frankly, that’s why we didn’t pay enough attention to it,” he says. “Then, when men started going to work in the community, we started studying it and using fancy words like ‘social capital.’ ”

But the fanciest words come from politicians—often those engaged in the most drastic assaults on the social safety net. Never has the voluntary community found itself so lavishly praised—or asked to do so much with so little. ‘We all of us feel a collective despair,” says Bowen. “Volunteers don’t have the capacity to pick up everything that the government used to do.” Worse, they lack many of the professional skills. Across the country, community activists foresee a crisis looming. “There’s a real fear in the voluntary sector that we’re finding ourselves left to pick up the pieces,” says Newfoundland’s Rowe. ‘We’ve got to be careful we’re not just a dumping ground.”

In Ontario, Premier Mike Harris has announced an initiative to promote volunteerism under MPP Julia Munro. But he failed to note that his budget had shuttered seven provincial volunteer

A prevailing sense of ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I’

centres and may force up to 40 Toronto charities to close. Like others, Anne Golden, president of the United Way of Greater § Toronto, sees the country caught in two conflicting currents. “On the one hand, the balance is shifting to self-interest. And there’s a real risk it’s leading to a harsher society,” she says. “But on the ft other, there is just a huge reservoir of compassion. Wherever I go, people are saying, ‘I’d like to help.’ ”

In that schizophrenia lies a fundamental question—one that, even more than the issue of national unity, may shape the country’s future. ‘We’re faced with a crisis in Canada right now,” says Bowen, “about what kind of society we’re going to be.”

From the outside, it might be another abandoned warehouse along Toronto’s lakefront. Only a number, hand-scrawled on the brick, betrays the fact that inside the former mail truck depot lurks a unique experimental village for the chronically homeless called StreetCity. Beneath its rooftop skylight, a central alley studded with potted palms and park benches has been christened Main Street. On either side, colored panels create six townhouses, each with a dozen furnished rooms—home to 71 single men and women who pay $325-a-month rent to call that modest turf their own, complete with a key for the door.

With common kitchens and living rooms, StreetCity is an attempt to replicate the rooming houses that vanished when yuppies gentrified once-seedy downtown neighborhoods. “I’ve been in and out of every one of the hostels in Toronto, and this is the most blessed place,” says Johnny Ylioga, 32, who has spent most of his life on the street. “This is my little home.” Ylioga was one of the originals when the Fred Victor Mission and assorted social agencies set out to give a group of long-term street people a chance to build and manage their own housing. When aspiring residents looked at the initial architect’s plan, one denounced it as

a “f-g penitentiary.” Together, they came up with the current

design. Many like Ylioga were hired to help in the construction

and are now renovating a second warehouse. Tenants are hired as maintenance workers and a mediation council ponders residents’ complaints—occasionally evicting the incorrigible.

For Bill Grant, StreetCity offered a haven from which to piece back together a shattered life. A onetime contractor, Grant lost his job, and his home, when the discs in his back began to disintegrate. Now, after graduating to a bachelor apartment in another affiliated project, he runs StreetCity’s tuckshop and Grassroots Catering service, teaching other tenants basic business skills. “I fell in love with this place,” he says. “People look out for each other here.” From around the world, low-cost housing experts have hailed StreetCity as one of the most imaginative solutions on the map. But the warehouse took $2 million in government funds to refurbish. “I got a letter from a concerned citizen asking why we didn’t just acquire all the old warehouses and fill them with homeless people,” says Paul Dowling, executive director of Homes First Society, the nonprofit agency that oversees the project. “Well, it takes a lot of money to make these things happen.”

Dowling argues that every citizen’s fundamental right to a roof has long been part of the unwritten postwar pact Canadians forged with their governments. But as governments pull out of the public housing business, StreetCity may become a casualty. Scrambling for replacement funding, Dowling launched the pro-

ject’s first direct mail campaign in May, but he knows it will be a hard sell. Pitching in at soup kitchens is more likely to tug at public heart—and purse—strings. “It’s the kind of thing you can point to that proves people do care,” he says. “But it doesn’t deal with the root problems.”

Like the country’s 74,000 other registered charities, StreetCity is now increasingly dependent upon the whims of private foundations and corporations—a cash pool that Patrick Johnston, president of the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, refers to as a jungle “watering hole.” In 1993, out of $86 billion in charitable revenues, only 12 per cent came from that pool; nearly 57 per cent came from government. “As governments cut back, that money is not going to be replaced,” Johnston points out. “The watering hole has shrunk, and as the animals come down, they’re all eyeing each other suspiciously.” Agrees Judith Maxwell, president of Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc., in Ottawa: “The competition for funds is just desperate out there.”

Already, some charities have been forced to follow the corpo-

rate fashion, downsizing and pooling resources. In Alberta, three organizations merged to become the Big Sisters and Big Brothers of Calgary. A year later, its officers reported a budget surplus—and a saving of $25,000 on rent alone. But contrary to conventional wisdom, most have little fat to pare: nearly half of all charities claim not a single paid employee. Instead, programs are being trimmed or thrown out. “Every organization is cutting back,” says Maxwell. “And some are retreating into what I call silos—defining their own interests very narrowly. A lot of preventative work is not getting done.”

Ironically, many of those least enthusiastic about the results once called loudest for governments to whittle social spending. Suddenly, corporate Canada finds itself blithely being told by politicians to make up the shortfall. According to the Centre for Philanthropy’s projections, private benefactors would have to come up with $6 for every lost government $1. “It’s simply unrealistic,” says Johnston. “Anyone in government who says the private sector should pick up the slack is either incredibly naïve or they’re misleading and devious.”

Still, to the discomfiture of some in the country’s boardrooms, the public appears unlikely to buy those arguments. As a 1993 survey revealed, Canadians are under the mistaken impression that corporations ante up 10 per cent of charitable donations— not their actual one per cent—and expect them to shoulder 20 per cent in the future. Says Martin Connell, a Toronto millionaire who is one of the country’s leading philanthropists: “Some corporations are receiving 1,000 applications a month for support. They’re saying, ‘We’re being deluged!’ ”

With business donations already at the $900-million mark, Connell predicts that the country is fast approaching corporate donor fatigue. Instead, more companies are choosing to hand over goods and underwrite their employees’ volunteer efforts. Nissan Canada Inc. is doing both: in the past three years, its dealerships have donated 45 vans to Meals on Wheels programs from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. The Centre for Philanthropy has encouraged corporate citizenship by lauding businesses that donate one per cent of their profits to charity. And this spring in a gala Toronto ceremony, it handed out its first Imagine 5 awards to five “caring companies” I that had devised a creative solution “■ to a pressing community need.

But much corporate largess now comes with strings attached. “It’s not a philanthropic endeavor any more,” says fundraiser Rob Brown. “It’s a marketing effort—what companies are calling social marketing.” Those calculations of how to get the most bang for charitable bucks may leave some causes out in the cold. “Corporations will pick and choose the sexy issues—teddy bears and children’s hospitals,” says Paddy Bowen, “but not battered women.”

Still, Connell sees no need for despair. ‘We’re in the first wave of a 10-year cycle,” he says. “It’s going to take time before we can sort it all out. But I see a lot of people rising to the occasion.”

How are they rising? And what new prescriptions are they brandishing to cure the very ills that have defied decades of public doctoring? What, in short, works? That last question lies at the heart of the current charged debate. And, on a summer night last year, it hovered over Winnipeg’s Aboriginal Centre, where John McKnight, one of the most controversial gurus of neighborhood

activism, was denouncing the cornerstones of modern social work.

A 63-year-old self-styled “urban philosopher” and director of Community Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, 111.,

McKnight was damning what he called the “caring professions” for nurturing the very helplessness they were meant to wipe out. He called for toppling existing institutions and letting neighborhoods solve their own problems based on their strengths, not their neediness. In his audience, Josie Hill, the co-ordinator of the city’s Andrews Street Family Centre, chuckled to herself:

“He stole our idea!”

Hiring eight local residents to survey the area’s assets, they discovered 125 guitar players—and an unsuspected wellspring of civic spirit: 420 of the 700 respondents volunteered to help out. The result is a family centre that celebrated its first anniversary with a street fair in mid-June. Grafted onto an existing dropin centre, Andrews Street targets the area’s overwhelmed teenage mothers and children under six. In its community kitchen, women can stretch their food dollars by whipping up huge dinners together. And a neighborhood patrol escorts kids past cars cruising for prostitutes nearby. “When a kid is lost,” says Hill, “we find him before the police does.”

A year earlier, the citizenry of Winnipeg’s poorest neighborhood—a benighted North End stretch—had assembled with a plan. Despite social agencies constantly taking the communal pulse, the largely aboriginal population still had no jobs or hope, nor a laundromat. “People around here are always told they can’t do anything,” says Hill, a 41-year-old former Manitoba bureaucrat, who grew up in the area. ‘We wanted to look more at the positive stuff.”

Like other community projects springing to life across the country, Andrews Street is being touted as proof of the latest fashion in social planning—letting neighborhoods hammer out their own solutions. But that shift is hardly new: Canadian foreign aid workers learned the same lesson working in the Third World. ‘This is the debate we had 10 years ago in international development circles,” says Tim Brodhead.

“Now, it’s happening here.”

Suddenly, grassroots activism is catching fire across the country.

Community foundations, first created in 1914 to keep bequests in the towns that helped make their donors rich, are back in style—the fastest growing philanthropies on the continent.

Thirteen of the country’s 72 founda£ tions—with assets of $670 million—

Canadians are pitching in to reweave the national fabric

emerged over the past year and are now bailing out many local symphonies and museums.

Revolving community loan funds—informal neighborhood banks that dole out a few thousand dollars to high-risk would-be entrepreneurs—have also mushroomed since the first one set up shop in a second-floor Montreal apartment six years ago. Borrowed from a notion pioneered among peasants in Pakistan, 200 have blossomed

in Quebec alone. “All of a sudden,” says Marguerite Mendell, head of the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University, “the issue is hot”

Hot too are community economic development corporations—nonprofit initiatives designed to meet a local need and yet earn enough back to stay self-sufficient. Blurring the line between business and charity, they were born in the United States during the Sixties. A decade later, a Catholic priest named Greg MacLeod imported the concept to Canada, founding New Dawn Enterprises in Sydney, N.S. Today, it runs 10 Cape Breton enterprises, including groundbreaking services for the region’s rapidly greying population. “When New Dawn started, no one could figure out what the hell we were,” says president Rankin MacSween. “Some people thought we were a bunch of bleeding-heart communists. But we seem to spend less and less time explaining ourselves.”

In a sprawling southwestern Ontario municipality, Paul Born, executive director of Cambridge’s Community Opportunities Development Association (CODA), has given the concept a different spin. In an area devastated by plant and textile mill closures, he has helped transform a former coalition of churches and unions into a thriving web of job-finding services and smallbusiness training. So adept did one enterprise become at dealing with laid-off workers that it has won outplacement counselling contracts for most of the major factory shutdowns in the region.

But another CODA job-creation scheme has turned into a political minefield. In September, Born collaborated with the Kitchener Public Library to turn an unused corner of its basement into the stylish As You Like It Café, complete with an espresso machine. There, under the tutelage of former restaurant manager Anne Lukin, a half-dozen welfare recipients like Dana Burkhart, a 27-year-old single mother, glean restaurant skills and work experience designed to give them a boost to find full-time jobs. At the same time, the library—already reeling from $250,000 in provincial and municipal funding cuts—collects eight per cent of the take. “We saw it as a service,” says the library’s enthusiastic CEO, Peggy Walshe, “but we also saw it as a way to make money.”

Now, the realization that the café’s training program may qualify for Ontario’s contentious workfare policy, aimed at making social assistance recipients toil for their cheques, has cast a cloud over its success. Last December, when Born organized a conference on workfare at the library—inviting Community and Social Services Minister David Tsubouchi—two of the three union members on his board resigned. In a bitter paradox, a community that came together to tackle its unemployment woes is now divided over one of the solutions. Says a rueful Born: “All the lines are blurred these days.” Since then, workfare has turned the once-placid universe of volunteerism upside down. The Ontario chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees has threatened to boycott any United Way agency that co-operates with the policy—a move that could cost charities millions in donations. Volunteer organizers lament that the controversy could sabotage community spirit at a time when it has never been more needed. ‘Workfare is the opposite of volunteerism,” fumes Paddy Bowen. “It’s not by choice; it’s coerced.”

That explosive debate raises questions about the values Canadians will choose in crafting the country’s course. On the threshold of its 130th year, many feel themselves torn between a seemingly bleak fiscal reality and a proud postwar tradition of public compassion. Economist Judith Maxwell sees it as a choice between an increasingly polarized country, scarred by economic inequities and fear, and what she has dubbed “a resilient society”—one capable of coming up with yet unimagined answers to assure the continued commonweal.

In his ballyhooed study of Italy, called Making Democracy Work, Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor of government, argues that only civic participation guarantees a vibrant—and prosperous—society. By that measure, those who fret over the uncertain fate of the nation may find themselves reassured. Already, at a time when Canadians have never seemed more cynical about political solutions, they are pitching in to reweave the national fabric, neighborhood by neighborhood and city by city, in a design limited only by the impulses of the heart. □