Ask the Experts: Is human trafficking happening in the GTA?

This article originally appeared on—a digital magazine powered by United Way—on September 25, 2018. It has been edited and condensed for length.

All around the world, human trafficking interrupts—and, in many cases, destroys—the lives of women and girls. And despite what you might think, Canadians aren’t immune. While many people assume that victims are trafficked into Canada, more than 90 percent of cases that occur here are, in fact, domestic in origin: Canadians are trafficking Canadians. And trafficking across the country is on the rise, including in the GTA.

Trafficking victims are lured and exploited, often through fear, violence, intimidation or coercion. The crime is often confused with human smuggling (the illegal entry of a person into a country), but trafficking has to do specifically with controlling a person for the purpose of exploiting them, usually sexually. It encompasses anyone who is forced to perform sexual acts, including prostitution, exotic dancing, massage parlour work and pornography production.

One of the regions with the highest rates of trafficking in Canada? Peel. According to Statistics Canada, Peel has a higher rate of trafficking incidents per 100,000 people than any other region in the country—and in 2017, Peel Regional Police saw the most human-trafficking charges in the region in a decade. Most victims in Canada are first trafficked when they’re 13 or 14 years old and the average age of rescue, if they’re rescued at all, is 17. Often, trafficking victims end up addicted to drugs and trapped in the sex trade for life.

Targeted populations include those who tend to be socially or economically disadvantaged and excluded, such as Indigenous women and new Canadians, and those who move—or are lured—to large urban centres. High-school students are also frequent targets, particularly through social media, but also sometimes by peers. Because awareness is so low and public apathy so high, many women and girls don’t even realize they’re being trapped—until it’s too late.

But there’s reason to hope the situation could improve. On February 22, 2018, Ontario marked its first Human Trafficking Awareness Day, with the goal to make the province a place “where everyone can live freely and in control of their own bodies and lives.” A little over a year earlier, in November 2016, the provincial government launched a Provincial Anti-Human Trafficking Coordination Office, naming Jennifer Richardson, a survivor, as its director. Her office is now responsible for implementing the government’s four-year, $72-million anti-trafficking strategy. Part of the plan is to dedicate services such as support and housing to Indigenous partner organizations, as well as to create a survivor-led round table, the first of its kind in Canada, to prioritize the perspectives of those with lived trafficking experiences.

Meanwhile, on the ground, women from all backgrounds are coming together to fight this crime, raising awareness, supporting survivors and prioritizing the well-being of all women and girls to help prevent trafficking before it starts. Here are four inspiring women from the GTA who are making a difference in Canada’s human-trafficking crisis.

Shae Invidiata, Free Them

Shae Invidiata founded Free Them in 2010 to raise awareness—and funds—to abolish human trafficking in Canada. Like many other activists in this sphere, she believes one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is lack of public education—and motivation. “If you’re not aware there’s a problem, you can’t fight it,” she says.

Invidiata first became aware of human trafficking while studying in Hawaii, living on a street known as “Candy Lane” because of its child prostitutes. When she spoke with girls and women being trafficked in her neighbourhood, she pictured herself in their shoes and realized that if it were happening to her, she’d be praying that somebody would speak on her behalf, without judgement. When she returned to Canada, she started looking into the human trafficking problem within our own borders, and at how many people think it’s an issue endemic to other countries—not ours. “It happens in India, it happens in Thailand—yes,” she says. “But Canadians need to be aware that this is happening here.”

It may seem hard to believe—and there are those who prefer to pretend it isn’t an issue here, Invidiata says—but many women and girls in Canada are vulnerable. One of the many things she does to raise awareness is to speak at schools across Ontario. Almost every time, a student approaches to tell her they now realize human trafficking could be what’s happening to a friend, or even to themselves. In many ways, they just needed someone to speak out so they could be encouraged to speak up, Invidiata says. “All of the girls being trafficked have a voice, but they’ve been silenced by fear.” Education, she adds, is key. Just knowing what human trafficking is, that there’s a name for it and that there is support out there can make a huge difference.

Katarina MacLeod, Rising Angels

When Katarina MacLeod entered the sex industry at 21, she thought she was making a choice. Like so many women and girls in the industry, she had a background of abuse, exploitation and objectification that had become so ingrained that she didn’t actually see it as abuse, but as part of her identity. “It becomes you,” she says. “It’s normal.”

MacLeod’s path out of trafficking 15 years later wasn’t easy or clear-cut. At first, she says, she couldn’t function on her own at all. She didn’t know how to pay bills, budget, cook—or even how to dress appropriately for a job interview. Hurdles like these are why it’s so important for those working in anti-trafficking to understand a survivor’s mindset, MacLeod says. These girls and women have been degraded every day. Eventually, that abuse can start to feel normal; a lack of self-worth becomes ingrained. The more they’re exploited, the harder it can be to believe they even deserve to get away, or to have a better, kinder life, MacLeod adds. She stresses that it’s important to put survivors’ voices at the forefront—otherwise, solutions won’t work.

In 2015, she founded Rising Angels, a registered non-profit headquartered in Peel that helps women and girls exit the sex trade. It wasn’t just that MacLeod felt she was the right person to help other survivors. She also saw a dearth of survivor-led organizations in her region. “I wanted to help women,” she says. “I wanted somebody to understand them. I wanted them to know I had been through it.”

Today, MacLeod says she knows that entering the sex industry wasn’t intentional on her part. “It was a lack of choice,” she says—a long pattern of forced sexualization and exploited vulnerabilities. In October 2018, she’ll mark her tenth year out of the industry. She’s still in therapy, though, and she’s still healing. She might always be. And that’s what she tells the girls and women she helps: she’s not an expert—she’s still one of them. The only difference is that she’s further along in her healing. But as someone who understands, she hopes she can help them make it there, too.

Const. Joy Brown, Peel Regional Police

Peel Regional Police officer Const. Joy Brown is not the type of person to take all the credit. She stresses that it was the combined work of multiple Peel region organizations that made a big, collective step forward in the fight against human trafficking back in 2016 when more than 22 groups, including community, law enforcement, and medical service providers, joined to create the Human Trafficking Protocol. Essentially, the protocol, which Brown helped develop, provides a streamlined support process for trafficking survivors, linking support groups under one umbrella.

Brown, a 28-year veteran officer, won the Brampton Board of Trade’s annual Police Services Award in 2017 for her work with homeless and at-risk youth and human trafficking victims. In 2015, she organized a three-day human trafficking conference for 150 police officers and community partners, and she has chaired three committees focused on prevention and making victim resources more accessible.

Two years on, the protocol—and the cooperation it brings—has been transformational. Today, police are focusing on community rehabilitation instead of working in an enforcement role. Brown says that part of providing such “wraparound” support means that people from other regions also sit on the advisory committee, largely because trafficking is, by its nature, transient. This way, the groups can further prevent women and girls from falling through the cracks. “We continue to work as a collective,” says Brown. “It has been great having a coordinated approach to providing support.”

Together, the groups launched an awareness campaign with posters that ask, “Are you the one?” The brief scenarios that follow invite women and girls to consider behaviours that may have been normalized for them. For instance, many traffickers pose as affectionate boyfriends or friends at first, bestowing proclamations of love, expensive gifts and often drugs. That so-called grooming eventually turns to control and isolation. Victims are shut off from friends and family and made to keep in constant, supervised contact with their traffickers.

Trafficking victims also tend to be destabilized in terms of geography and community. In southern Ontario, women and girls are commonly shuttled along the Highway 401 corridor, from hotel to hotel—or, increasingly, to Airbnb rentals, which are more difficult for police to trace—all with the aim of ensuring they’re far away from home and have nobody to turn to for help. “Anybody can be a victim,” says Brown. “You can be recruited anytime.” But she, Peel Regional Police and their partner organizations are working hard to show victims that, despite what their traffickers might say, somebody really does care.

Bonnie Harkness, 360°kids, Hope Program

Victims of human trafficking were never on Bonnie Harkness’s radar. As director of operations at 360°kids, a United Way agency that provides safe housing to at-risk youth, her focus was elsewhere. But four years ago, York Regional Police called with a concern. The police were rescuing trafficked girls and women from hotels, but had no safe place to take them. Some survivors were subsequently lured back into trafficking, while others found themselves homeless.

Until then, 360°kids had no specific programming for victims of trafficking—it didn’t realize it needed one, says Harkness. But that call made the organization see that there was a need for expansion of their services. “Of course these girls are in a housing crisis,” says Harkness—and it’s one that requires unique, tailored solutions. She jumped into action.

Today, the Hope program offers survivors housing and support for up to five years, depending on their needs. In December 2017, Hope debuted a new three-stage model geared toward healing, independence and building a better life. The first stage includes services like 24-hour staffing, survivor-focused trauma and drug counselling and programs on how to do taxes, cook and shop for groceries. Survivors can move on to become semi-independent, with staff support, then graduate to living in a subsidized apartment, transitioning more fully to a new life.

Two girls have already told Harkness that Hope is the only place they’ve ever felt cared for. That feeling of home, she says, is critical. “They could have been treated very nice by these pimps at times, but with a string attached,” she says. “We want to be clear that there are people who care and want to help them move on and be independent—with no strings attached.”

Ask the Expert: What role do Indigenous youth play in reconciliation?

This article originally appeared on—a digital magazine powered by United Way—on June 19, 2019. It has been edited and condensed for length.

Max FineDay is the executive director of Canadian Roots Exchange, a youth-led charity, with offices in Toronto, Saskatoon and Montreal, that engages Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth in reconciliation dialogues, leadership development and education initiatives at local and national levels. He has also been recognized as one of the Future 40 changemakers by CBC Saskatchewan. In this role, he draws on his personal experience of growing up straddling both Cree and Norwegian cultures to empower Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth, and help them find a meaningful path toward reconciliation. Here Max shares his experience of the barriers Indigenous youth must overcome, his thoughts on the possibility of reconciliation and his hopes for the future.

What inspires you to do the kind of work you do?
Growing up in Saskatchewan, what I continually saw as a young boy was my people in pain, and that pain manifesting itself in so many different ways. It all culminated in me having this sense, at a young age, that for some reason my people were not good enough. And that sticks with you. You begin to notice people making comments and telling you you’re not enough of this, or you’re not enough of that, or you’re too much of this. Eventually I came to realize this was fundamentally about Canadians not understanding my people—not understanding Indigenous people; not being given the opportunity to see how great we are, how funny we are, how smart we are, how good looking we are!

Why do you think it’s important to work with youth on reconciliation?
I’ve seen the power of education—I’ve seen hearts changed.

Do you think the current justice system is failing Indigenous youth?
It’s an injustice system. All it’s teaching kids is how to be better criminals. We have young people who have been failed by Canada, and we need to help them understand that there’s nothing in Native people’s DNA that makes them better at breaking into somebody’s house or stealing a bike or committing crimes. It’s not a genetic predisposition. When I take a look at my own family members who have been incarcerated—who are still incarcerated—I don’t see them coming back ready to interact and contribute to community, to their nation and to our people.

Why do you think that is?
I think that we have this notion, in Canada, that we cannot take into consideration Indigenous ways of knowing, Indigenous culture and Indigenous methodologies that encourage restorative justice. It’s so punitive in jail; it’s based on making sure that people feel bad and are adequately punished. I wouldn’t say people don’t deserve to be held accountable for their actions. (We know that the majority of the victims of crimes committed by Indigenous people are other Indigenous people.) What I’m saying is that our system isn’t working to make them less susceptible to committing crime again.

These kids don’t know who they are, and that’s why they lash out. That’s why they’re committing these crimes. That is why our communities are in pain and that’s why my people fill the jails. Our young people have not been allowed to dream, to think about all that they can achieve, and that is because they have been born into a system where they are handicapped from the start. A lot of the kids I went to elementary school with—my best friends—are now in jail. Or dead. It is a mix of good parenting and sheer luck that I didn’t end up in there with them.

What do you wish for?
I dream of the rates of Indigenous youth being incarcerated tumbling to the ground. What if we built institutions that taught these kids who they are, where they come from, what a blessing it is to have skin that is stained of earth? What if they learned all they can contribute to their families, their communities, their nations and to this country?

How does the Canadian Roots Exchange empower youth to begin their reconciliation journey?
It brings together youth—this year it was almost 80 young people—half of them Indigenous, half non-Indigenous. We have newcomers involved; we have youth involved who come from families who have been here for four generations. And we provide Indigenous youth with training on how to plan an event, how to talk to the media. You know, give them these hard skills that are going to be so valuable to them in their community organizing, but also in their employment journey. Things that they can use in the workforce.

People across Canada approach it uniquely: Folks in Thunder Bay sit down with a residential school survivor and host a “Let’s Talk About Reconciliation” night. Folks in Saskatoon partner with newcomer communities to ensure that newcomer Canadians understand that they are treaty partners, too. Toronto youth did a summer exchange program with youth from Manitoulin Island. This is what our young people are doing. Right across the country. This is the vision they have for reconciliation. What a beautiful vision!

Is reconciliation really achievable in Canada?
In any public opinion survey that has been taken around reconciliation, it’s our grandparents’ and parents’ generations that are least likely to believe they will see meaningful reconciliation. But there was an Environics Institute survey done three years ago that stated that 80 percent of young people thought that reconciliation would be achieved in our lifetime. And that’s what I hear when I talk to young people: They’re hopeful about repairing that relationship and setting right the past that we messed up. What an opportunity that gives us!

6 tips for teaching your kids about diversity

This article originally appeared on—a digital magazine powered by United Way—on June 27, 2018.

Illustration of a line of people holding hands

For Monica Gunaratnam, superhero flicks and movies set in space are more than just escapist entertainment. They’ve also influenced this Markham mother’s take on the world, and how she hopes her two daughters see it. “We want [them] to see that we’re all human, but we all have different characteristics that make us special,” says Gunaratnam, whose daughters are six and three.

But while she and her husband try to teach their girls what they have in common with their peers, that doesn’t mean they ignore differences. The couple are both of South Asian descent, though their cultural backgrounds and faiths differ, and their community includes people of diverse ethnicities, religious practices, sexual orientations and gender identities. Gunaratnam says she welcomes the questions that her kids, particularly her free-spirited firstborn, ask about those differences—even if it means delving into complex issues. “You don’t want them to ever feel like, ‘Oh, Mom doesn’t want to answer that,’” she says.

That’s exactly the right approach, says Joanne Lomanno-Aprile, a principal in the York Region District School Board and former Toronto elementary-school teacher who holds a master’s degree in Equity Studies and Sociology. One of her top priorities, she says, is to ensure teachers create an environment where students can be vulnerable and open enough to challenge their thinking and deconstruct inherent biases. Of course, opportunities to do that don’t disappear when school’s out. We asked Lomanno-Aprile to break down ways that parents can teach their children to understand and appreciate diversity at home.

Illustration of two girls holding hands

Talk it out

“The most important piece is to talk about diversity,” says Lomanno-Aprile. “We’re supposed to see differences and appreciate, respect and understand that.” She and Gunaratnam agree that they want their children to keep asking questions. Lomanno-Aprile says the key is to answer in a way that’s digestible for the child’s age and stage. If one parent is more adept than the other at doing that, then they should try responding in front of their partner, so that they’ll know where to begin next time.

Be factual

Questions related to diversity are bound to come up when you’re out in public. When they do, Lomanno-Aprile says the key is not to scold your children or urge them to be quiet. Instead, stick to the facts. This approach will reinforce to them that whatever they’ve noticed is not a big deal. If a child asks why two men are holding hands, she’d respond simply by saying: “Because they love each other, like Daddy and I do.”

Lead by example

At the end of the day, be the hero your kids see swooping in to call out injustice. If a family member makes a derogatory remark, speak up—even if they’re from another generation, don’t mean to offend, don’t know any better or aren’t aware that your kids are within earshot. “I’ll say in front of [the kids], ‘You can’t say something like that,’” says Lomanno-Aprile. “Then later they’ll ask why, and we’ll have a talk about it.”

illustration of two people holding hands

Turn the tables

Jokes or phrases a child picks up at recess might be in stark contrast with the way you speak at home. If a child puts down or pokes fun at another group, explain why those comments can be hurtful. Lomanno-Aprile suggests that asking how they would feel if they were on the receiving end of such comments can help you illustrate your point.

Tell a story

Choose storybooks that feature families that don’t resemble yours. Lomanno-Aprile says it’s important to make a conscious effort to expose children to different cultures, families or religious backgrounds. Reading about them can lead to opportunities to learn more.

One recommendation from both Lomanno-Aprile and Gunaratnam? Wonder, the 2012 children’s novel by R.J. Palacio that inspired the 2017 movie starring Julia Roberts. Gunaratnam’s daughter immediately connected to the protagonist, a boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome. “[She] related because [she thought], ‘He wants to be an astronaut. I like space.’ She found a similarity, that they both like space—that’s what I want to encourage, that your differences are not that big of a deal.”

Encourage empathy

Most important, remember that the goal is to teach your children to understand other people’s feelings. “It’s about having empathy, not [about] feeling sorry for somebody,” says Lomanno-Aprile. “That’s not what we need to teach our kids. We need to appreciate what people bring to our world and that people are different. We’re not lesser because we are different. We are all the same, and we are different. It’s not an either-or kind of thing.”

Ultimately, Gunaratnam wants her girls to know that people are more alike than different, a theme that comes up repeatedly in the sci-fi stories her family loves. “At the end of the day, if there was ever a threat that came to Earth, we would all stand together. It’s a very positive way of looking at it.”

How to be a respectful volunteer

This article originally appeared on—a digital magazine powered by United Way—on January 16, 2019. It has been edited for length.

Volunteers, and the time and talent they give so generously, are integral to tackling #UNIGNORABLE issues that impact our community. Whether you choose to volunteer with a United Way-funded agency, or to give your time to another cause or organization that you care about, it’s best to approach your volunteer opportunity with thoughtfulness. Here’s how to be as respectful as possible when you decide it’s time to give back.

Have a clear understanding of why you want to volunteer

“It’s the first of the three R’s that I suggest to prospective volunteers, says Kelly Harbour, senior community engagement coordinator with Volunteer Toronto. “Reflect. Think about what you want from the experience: Is it to raise money or awareness for a cause that’s important to you? Are you looking for something to round out your resumé? Do you want to network or make new friends?” All of these are great and valid reasons to volunteer, but the answers will help guide you in finding the right fit when it comes to picking an organization to support. 

Be realistic about what you’re able to offer

We’re not just talking skills and abilities here—we’re talking time. Committing to a role and not following through means the organization will be left in the lurch, blazing through their own resources and spending time looking for, and training, someone new if you flake. It’s detrimental for the clients, too, if you’re working directly with them. “If you’re visiting with isolated seniors, or working with kids, maintaining that consistency and building a relationship over time is really important,” Harbour says. If you can’t commit to an ongoing role, look instead to events like street fairs, movie festivals, or fundraisers—all of which require volunteers to run, but come with a much smaller time commitment.

Start investigating organizations

“Research” is Harbour’s second R—and an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. “You really want to find an organization that matches up with your values and where you want to contribute your time,” says Harbour. And here comes Harbour’s third R: Reach out. Then, once you’ve applied for a role, be patient. Remember that all organizations have processes in place, which means it may take weeks before you’re actually volunteering. You may be asked to send in a resumé and cover letter. There may even be interviews, reference checks and even a police check if you’ll be working with a vulnerable population (including kids and seniors). And that’s all before training! Don’t get frustrated and take it out on the staff—these checks and balances are there to protect you, as well as the people you plan to help.

Respect the staff

Yes, it’s great that you want to share your time and skills for a good cause. But it’s key to remember that you will be working in concert with other volunteers and staff members, too. “It’s not you coming in to save the world,” says Harbour. “Instead, think of it as joining a community to try and create a bit of change.” And while you might go into it full of ideas, it’s important to share them appropriately (i.e. don’t go busting in, guns a-blazing on Day One to tell staff how you would do it better). 

Be mindful of oversharing

All organizations will have policies when it comes to protecting their clients’ privacy. Make sure you are well aware of them before you start snapping selfies or sharing your experiences with clients on social media. 

Think about your motives

Harbour has seen a huge up-tick in recent months of families looking for experiences together, generally to teach their kids a quick lesson about gratitude. It’s great to get kids involved, as long as you take a respectful, and informed, approach. Urge your kids to check out their favourite charities online. For example, many organizations have a wishlist of items they need, which you could start collecting as a family. Or organize a clothing or toy drive! Just be sure to check that you’re gathering items that are truly needed, not what you think would be helpful.

If it doesn’t feel like a good fit, it’s okay to walk away

Respectfully, of course. Which means, don’t bail at 6:45 a.m. for a 7 a.m. event and leave people in the lurch. Always properly give your notice. And just because this opportunity didn’t work out, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again to make a difference.

Ways you can help:

  • Subscribe to Imagine a City to learn more about #UNIGNORABLE issues affecting our community
  • Head over to—powered by United Way—for smart and simple ways to give back in your community

Ask The Expert: What happens when kids don’t get the best start in life?


Anita Khanna
Director, Social Action & Community Building
Family Service Toronto

Anita Khanna is the Director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto, a United Way-supported agency that helps promote the health and well-being of children and families. She’s also the national coordinator of Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition that works to build awareness and support for ending child poverty. Imagine a City spoke with Anita for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn what happens when kids don’t get the best start in life.

1. What sort of supports do children require in order to get the best start in life?

Prenatal programs, access to nutritious food, a stable home environment and opportunities to develop language, cognitive and social skills are just some of the supports that help children start life on a high note. Community connections are also important. From a very young age, children pick up on whether their families are reflected and respected in their community. Whether a family is racialized, Indigenous, are newcomers, LGBTQ+ or led by single parents, they need to be appreciated and accepted.


2. How important are the early years (ages 0-6) when it comes to childhood development?

The early years are the most important time in our life for brain development, learning, behaviour and health. These years are crucial to a child’s future wellbeing, self-esteem and physical and mental health. Spending quality time with family, one-on-one interaction with caregivers and educators in childcare settings, stimulating learning opportunities and affirmation of one’s value are vital in laying a solid foundation.

3. Across Canada, nearly 1 in 5 children—and their families—lives below the poverty line. How does poverty create gaps, or inequities, when it comes to the early years?

Side effects of poverty related to inadequate or unsafe housing, stress within a household and a lack of proper nutrition have a major impact on a child’s health, as well as their performance in school. If a child moves from school to school because of an unstable housing situation or because their parents are precariously employed, it puts a lot of stress on the child.


4. What are some of the lasting effects across a child’s life-span when they don’t get the best start in life?

Limited access to stimulating learning opportunities can delay literacy and vocabulary development. Disruptions in school may occur because a child is unable to focus because of poor nutrition. Both of these scenarios can lead to lower levels of education and can be precursors to having difficulty securing work as an adult. Constant stress can also lead to long-term physical and mental health conditions. Not only can these issues persist into adulthood, but sometimes they can never be undone.

5. What role can the non-profit sector play in ensuring children (including those living in poverty) get the best start in life?

The non-profit sector plays a vital role in helping children get a strong start in life. Creative play and literacy programs, as well as after school supports are often the first things that come to mind, however, wide-ranging supports for families are also important. Employment programs, parent groups and newcomer settlement supports can help families find more solid footing, helping to address core issues they face as a result of living on a low income. Non-profits are nimble and close to the ground and we should ensure community members have a voice in shaping programming. We should also keep track of emerging trends and requests from the community to help shape our services and inform our advocacy for social justice. It is important that we raise our voices to talk about policy and program changes that can improve the lives of the families we work with every day.


6. How can investing in children make an important, lasting impact on the social, economic and physical wellbeing of our community?

Children are sponges that reflect the environment they’re in, and as the next generation of thinkers, workers and creators a lot is riding on their well-being. Activities that boost confidence and encourage problem solving help kids develop important skills and confidence. When we foster those skills, and adequately support their families through smart public policies, we help build children up for success. Ultimately, healthier children grow into healthier adults. Investing in children’s well-being and reducing poverty is a foundational investment in strengthening our communities and our country.

Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?


Daniyal Zuberi
RBC Chair & Associate Professor of Social Policy, 
University of Toronto

Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Associate Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto. In 2015, he was elected to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. He was previously the William Lyon Mackenzie King Research Fellow at Harvard University. His innovative social policy research has made important contributions to the study of urban poverty, inequality, health, education, employment and social welfare. He has authored three books and other publications that examine the impact of public policy on vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in Canada and the United States. Imagine a City spoke with Daniyal for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to provide a big-picture lens on poverty across North America. 

1. What are some of the common drivers that contribute to poverty across North America, whether in Winnipeg or Washington?

adsc_5343Poverty in North America is multi-faceted, affecting many individuals, families, and communities. The real cause of poverty is the lack of income. Many people are working longer and harder simply to tread water, living only one or two missed paycheques away from major financial hardship. With the explosion of precarious employment, too many households struggle to balance work and family life requirements as individuals take on multiple jobs to make ends meet and deal with the stress and anxiety of supporting their families. A job is no longer enough and they struggle as the “working poor” trying to find affordable housing and childcare for their families.  For those unable to find work, they receive very limited support. Most of these individuals can’t access employment insurance benefits due to program restrictions. They join tens of thousands of others on wait lists for housing assistance and subsidized childcare as well as heavily-subscribed charitable programs such as food banks. Instead of helping and enabling these individuals and families, we trap them in poverty, failing to provide the training, support and education they need to upgrade their skills and find secure living-wage employment.

2. Discuss the recent U.S. election and how it has put a spotlight on the growing issue of rising income inequality.

The failure to adequately address the growing insecurity experienced by all too many North American households is one cause of the unexpected election outcome in the United States. Most of the economic gains over the past several decades have flowed exclusively to those at the top, especially in the U.S. Growing economic insecurity threatens social cohesion and people react to fears that their fortunes have stagnated, or that they’re falling behind. Countries that are more equal, or those with narrower income gaps, have much higher social development outcomes. Life expectancy is longer, infant mortality is lower, there is greater social trust, lower crime and incarceration rates, less mental illness and better health and educational outcomes. Importantly, there is also more equality of opportunity. One of the best ways to address growing inequalities is to support those struggling at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy.


3. How have changing labour market conditions, including precarious employment, impacted poverty?

The changing labour market is a major contributor to growing poverty in North America. With a shift away from manufacturing to the service sector in a globalized economy, we’ve seen a rapid expansion of precarious employment including poverty wage, part-time, and insecure jobs that fail to lift individuals and families above the poverty line. Our employment protections and social welfare policies have failed to evolve to protect people from poverty in this new economy. When hours are cut or workers are laid off, many can’t receive support from employment insurance because they haven’t worked enough hours to qualify. It’s important to note that these changes do not affect all workers equally. Women and racialized minorities, especially new immigrants, are the most likely to work in these precarious jobs. They’re forced to make impossible tradeoffs between working extra hours, but spending more on childcare, paying for rent or food. This is true in both Canada and the United States.


4. Discuss the changing nature of poverty in North America and how it differs in urban, suburban and rural contexts.

Poverty exists in cities, rural areas, and suburban areas. Many of the causes and consequences of poverty in these three contexts are similar, but important differences also exist. For example, poor individuals and families in the suburbs are less visible. In Vaughan, a wealthy area in York Region, we see “hidden homelessness” where people are doubled or even tripled up living in other people’s basements. In suburban and rural areas, there are also problems with social isolation that also include greater challenges in terms of accessing transportation for services and employment opportunities. But the urban poor face some unique challenges too. Especially if high housing costs force them to live in stigmatized areas with high concentrations of poverty, where transit is less accessible, less frequent, and of poor quality. While it may be easier to access services for individuals living in urban neighbourhoods, living in a high poverty urban neighbourhood can also it make more difficult for a person to successfully obtain employment as a result of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and postal code. It can also require coping with more challenges including violence and schools that lack resources to address the major challenges facing their student populations. Fundamentally, in urban, suburban and rural contexts, poverty comes down to a lack of resources.


5. Is there a single, best way to tackle poverty? If not, what are some common solutions we should be working towards?

No, I don’t think there’s a single solution. We need to continue to promote proactive policies and programs to prevent poverty and support struggling individuals and families. For example, we can raise social assistance rates to bring those households up above the poverty line. Expanding access to high-quality early childhood education will increase maternal employment and incomes by sending more mothers into the workplace, generating greater tax revenue and also reducing poverty. The research is clear that “housing first” and harm reduction approaches are far more effective than punitive measures to address problems such as homelessness and addiction. The latter results in an extremely expensive, reactive system where we end up spending more than required for policing, incarceration, hospitalization, and shelter services. We also need to focus on issues like raising the minimum wage, addressing a growing mental health crisis and providing individuals, including youth, with the training and support they need to find good jobs. Solutions at the local level are also important and include investments in high quality transit and community infrastructure. These include things like community hubs and health centres, parks, and community gardens that can really improve the quality of life for people in low-income neighbourhoods. These programs, along with significant policy reforms, could work together to reduce poverty quite dramatically.


6. What is the role of the non-profits like United Way in mitigating the effects of poverty?

We have a healthy and vibrant social services sector. We need to continue to build on that and expand it. United Way and other organizations do great work in providing services and supports for vulnerable and at-risk populations. United Way does a particularly great job of raising awareness of important issues like precarious employment through its research. It also brings together coalitions to mobilize, to advocate for policy reforms and new programs and to fundamentally address some of the root causes of poverty with the goal of eradicating it.

7. Can we end poverty?

Absolutely, yes. Fundamentally we have to understand that we can end poverty if we have the political will. There are many places in the world—including Scandinavian countries—that have largely eliminated poverty. But it’s still extremely rare. Canada has done a lot more in terms of supporting those living on a low income and reducing poverty compared to the United States where we’ve seen a lot of cutbacks and a really rapid increase in deep poverty. Although there is a long way to go, I don’t think we should ever lose hope. I think, in fact, this is an important reminder why this work is so tremendously important. We can’t stop fighting to improve the quality of life for people living in poverty.  One of my friends is a congressman in the United States and he recently sent out an email with Dr. Martin Luther King’s message: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Ask the Expert: What’s the best way to equip youth for the future?


Christine Walsh
Associate Dean & Professor, Faculty of Social Work
University of Calgary

Christine Walsh is Associate Dean and professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary. She is considered a leading expert on vulnerable youth, including young people living in poverty. Her research interests include child and family health, Aboriginal health and individuals affected by social exclusion, poverty and homelessness. Prior to academia, she also worked as a clinical social worker at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont. Imagine a City spoke with Christine for our “Ask the Expert” series to understand the best way to equip youth for the future.

1. United Way is committed to ensuring the success of young people, particularly those youth who face ‘barriers.’ Describe some of these barriers.  

Vulnerable youth are those who face barriers that prevent them from achieving or maintaining well-being. They’re vulnerable because of personal, social and structural factors, such as a lack of family support, stable housing or access to education. These factors not only affect their physical and mental health, but greatly influence their ability to contribute to society.dsc_5334

2. What are some of the contributing factors to vulnerability?

Things like family breakdown, poverty, racism, violence, childhood trauma and physical and mental health issues are significant contributing factors to youth vulnerability. Newcomers or LGBTQ+ youth also experience many challenges including social isolation. These types of barriers make it extremely difficult for young people to excel in school, find stable employment or connect with their communities, making it much harder for them to succeed.


3. Why is the transition from adolescence to adulthood often so difficult for young people who face barriers?

Transitioning from youth to adulthood is challenging for all young people, but it’s especially tough for those who face barriers such as poverty and different forms of violence. Attaining an education, entering the workforce and establishing financial independence are key components of becoming an adult. Unfortunately, many youth simply don’t have access to the supports they need to successfully transition into this life stage. To cope with these challenges, youth are vulnerable to high-risk behaviours like alcohol and drug use, which can lead to longer-term consequences such as becoming street-involved or even homeless. These long-term health issues can also have implications on our justice system and health and social services sectors.

4. Why is it so important to invest in youth during this critical transition period into independent adulthood?

Many of the decisions made, and the opportunities that are available or lacking during the transition into adulthood, have long-term impacts on a person’s future. That’s why it’s so important to address vulnerability during this time. If a young person lacks the supports they need to finish school, adequately prepare for the workforce or find affordable, stable housing, then that’s going to impact the rest of their life.dsc_6965

5. What are some of the best ways to support youth facing barriers to build brighter futures?

Community supports are one critical piece of helping young people thrive. These supports include things like mental health counseling, career workshops and mentorship programs that can enable young people to change trajectories, even helping them acquire the tools necessary to break the cycle of poverty. It’s these type of what we call ‘wraparound’ supports  that are so crucial to ensuring youth have access to the opportunities they need to build stable, secure futures. United Way plays an important role in this because it’s embedded in the community in a really profound way. Social supports offered by community-based organizations enable youth to make good decisions throughout the developmental process. Engagement is also extremely important when it comes to young people. When we engage youth in meaningful ways, they become active participants on a personal and community level.


6. Why does youth success matter to communities at large?

Youth, including those who face barriers, have tremendous skills and potential. When we support them, we capitalize on their talent. These young people play a vital role in society because they’re the future of our communities. They are the ones who are going to be working and raising their families here. If we want safe, healthy, livable communities where every young person feels supported to build a better life, then we need to ensure we create the conditions that allow all youth to benefit and contribute in a multitude of ways.


Ask the Expert: Why keeping seniors social matters


Karen Kobayashi
Research Affiliate & Associate Professor,
University of Victoria’s Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health

Karen Kobayashi is a Research Affiliate at the University of Victoria’s Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health, a multidisciplinary research centre that focuses on the needs of our country’s aging population. Also an Associate Professor in the University of Victoria’s Department of Sociology, she’s a leading expert on the relationship between social isolation and health among older adults. Imagine a City spoke with Karen for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn about the importance of keeping seniors social.

1. Seniors are one of the fastest-growing populations across the country. What are some of the challenges that this dramatic growth brings?

When people reach their later years, we tend to see more significant changes in their physical and cognitive health, including problems with memory, language and judgment. An increase in the older population brings with it a greater need for supports for seniors. This doesn’t just mean improved access to health care. Programs and services to help seniors live independently and socialize—many of which are funded by United Way—are also extremely important.


2. Research tells us that nearly 20% of seniors feel isolated. What are some of the risk factors that may influence, or exacerbate, isolation?

There are quite a few risk factors that often lead to isolation. A newcomer might lack the language or cultural knowledge to develop social networks in their community. On the other hand, someone living in poverty might not have access to the transportation they need to get to important programs and services. A person’s physical health can also greatly limit their mobility, making it difficult to leave their home, while cognitive issues might make it next to impossible for others to communicate. Lastly, it might be surprising, but your gender is another important factor. In my research, we’ve discovered that men tend to have smaller social networks than women and as a result are more likely to experience isolation.


3. What happens if we don’t address the growing issue of seniors’ isolation?

Social isolation is linked to poorer cognitive and physical health outcomes. This could mean an increase in mental health issues like depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality or accelerated cognitive decline. This is very much a public health issue—especially considering these outcomes are more likely to contribute to seniors getting sick more often and dying sooner.


4. What are some of the best ways to address this important issue and what are the benefits?

Maintaining strong social networks is essential for keeping seniors healthy. This is often achieved through community-based programs that put social interaction and physical activities at the forefront. This ultimately allows people that have small social networks to create their own sense of community. Programs like exercise classes, home visits and art workshops are an excellent way to maintain social well-being, which leads to better cognitive, mental and physical health. For many seniors, this means an increase in happiness, less anxiety and less depression. United Way does a really great job of ensuring these important programs are accessible in communities that really need them—whether it’s a low-income neighbourhood, a rural or remote area or an ethnic enclave, a community with a high density of one ethnocultural group.


5. Why is seniors isolation an important social and health issue that affects everyone?

Healthy seniors contribute to healthy communities by bringing a sense of energy to a community and lending a hand in a variety of meaningful ways. One way is through volunteering. Not only can they donate their talents to helping the community at large, but they also play an important role in helping other seniors break free from isolation, too.


Ask the Expert: How are health and poverty related?


Kwame McKenzie
CEO, Wellesley Institute
Psychiatrist, CAMH

Kwame McKenzie is the CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based non-profit research and policy institute that focuses on advancing population health. Also a CAMH psychiatrist, he’s a leading expert on the social causes of mental illness and making our health system more equitable. Imagine a City spoke with Kwame for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn how health and poverty are related.

1. Is there a connection between income and our health?

There’s a strong link between income and health. But, it’s not just about the amount of money you make and what you can buy, it’s what your whole life is like as a result, including where you live, work and the food that you eat. These factors—the social determinants of health—influence the health of individuals and even entire populations, putting vulnerable people at a higher risk of having poor physical and mental health and decreasing their life expectancy.

2. What are some examples of the social determinants of health?

On top of income, other factors that greatly affect our quality of life include gender, disability and race. Health is also determined by our ability to access quality education, nutritious food, adequate housing and social and health services. Another big factor is job security and working conditions.

3. How does poverty influence a person’s physical and mental health?

Living in poverty greatly impacts a person’s physical and mental health. For example, living on a low income means you’re going to be living in less adequate housing where air pollutants or mould could cause asthma. What we eat is a major indicator of our health status as well, and for many people living in poverty, accessing good, nutritious food is financially and physically not feasible. This could lead to very serious conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Precarious work is another major factor that brings with it a host of health concerns. Workers without job security often lack holidays, benefits or sick days and spend long hours commuting to work. This causes high levels of stress and anxiety as a result.

Unfortunately, all of these factors produce a vicious cycle, which both psychologically and physically makes a person more vulnerable to illness, even down to something like the flu. Once you’ve got one illness, you’re more likely to get another.

4. What are some of the best ways to address these issues to improve the well-being of Canadians?

Studies show that the healthiest people are in economies where they’ve decreased poverty, the gap between rich and poor and started really investing in people. That means ensuring access to good jobs, increasing food security and giving kids the best start in life. This last piece is especially important. Studies show a child’s resilience to both physical and mental problems is linked to the amount of face-to-face time with their parents. You can imagine how poverty has a generational impact. It produces a trajectory, which means increased risk of illness through childhood into adult life. That’s why the early years are so important. We have to make sure that children get proper nutrition and have access to child development programs and high-quality daycare to ensure kids get a good start in life.

United Way has a big hand in addressing these issues. They glue society together and make sure that people living in poverty or who are marginalized don’t fall between the cracks. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the biggest improvement we’re going to get in-house. Without United Way, all of the problems that we have with the social determinants of health and poverty would be magnified significantly.

5. Why is this an issue that affects all of us?

Healthy people can mean healthy communities, but healthy communities also breed healthy people. It’s a two-way street. Income inequality is important, because without a healthy economy and a healthy society, then people will not thrive. Ultimately, we need to focus on creating a society that’s inclusive and supportive of everyone in our community.