What is social capital and why does it matter

When you ask Nelly Gong why she’s so involved in her community, her answer is simple: Because she knows first-hand how important it is to have a support network. 

  “As a Chinese person, you have people in your life you call ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt,’ and when you have a problem you don’t go to your mom. You call your favourite ‘aunt’  first,” says Gong, who moved to Mississauga from China (via Maryland) over twenty years ago. “But when you’re a newcomer to Canada, you have nobody. Even with friends, everyone is so busy. That’s why it’s important to build up a network.” 

That’s why when people who are new to the area come to Gong’s insurance practice, she tells them: “For policy transactions, talk to my staff. But if you need help with anything else, call me on my cell phone and I will help you.” It’s also why she regularly visits the west end’s Chinese churches, ensuring that they are places she can recommend people go to get connected. If you’re looking for a job, she’ll find you a resume workshop, or point you to your nearest newcomers centre. “Years ago, I used to call myself the Chinese embassy’s Mississauga satellite office,” she jokes. 

When the pandemic hit, Gong was heavily involved in coordinating volunteer-led airport pick-ups and grocery deliveries for people returning home who needed to quarantine. “I have so many people who know me but I don’t know them,” she says with a laugh. “They say, ‘Nelly, can you help me?’” And, of course, she always does.  

Gong is the living, breathing embodiment of someone with high “social capital.” “Social capital describes the vibrancy of social networks, the sense of belonging, how much neighbours can rely on one another, and how much one trusts other people as well as their institutions,” explains Isabel Cascante, Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation with United Way Greater Toronto. Cascante and her team recently released two research reports on the subject of social capital in Peel and York Region

The good news? “Social capital in the regions is high,” says  Cascante. The bad – if not entirely unexpected – news? “It’s inequitably distributed,” she adds. “People with lower incomes and less financial security face greater barriers to social capital.” 

Building that social capital is something United Way has been doing for decades. “We know that it’s the connective tissue that often holds communities together,” says Daniele Zanotti, President and CEO of United Way Greater Toronto. “And we know that connected communities do better.” In fact, he points to research that shows that communities with high social capital have higher GDP, lower crime rates, higher educational achievement, fewer visits to emergency, and lower need for social services. He also points out that poverty isn’t always just an absence of financial capital, but social capital as well. “People who feel connected have this ability to move up the social ladder,” he says, noting that most of us lean on our immediate circle—parents, friends, neighbours—for our first job. “If you’re a kid growing up in a neighbourhood with deep poverty and a lack of social capital, who exactly are you reaching out to? And what circle of jobs are you being connected to?”  

And while COVID has presented many challenges, it has also been a valuable, tangible demonstration of what social capital can look like in action, Zanotti says. “We saw communities respond with an outpouring of generosity and an uprising of care we could only have imagined.” 

He describes how a senior called into a national radio show at the beginning of the pandemic, and told the host that he was down to his last half can of lentils and had run out of medication. The host had the presence of mind to ask the man where he lived, and reached out to the United Way-funded 211 community and social services helpline, who called the man and kept him on the line while, in the background, a food bank was contacting a volunteer before loading their car up with groceries to take to this senior. At the same time, a United Way-funded community health centre was mobilising a nurse practitioner.

Together, the volunteer and the nurse knocked on the home’s backdoor – the man was living in a basement – and he greeted them. They were able to connect the man with some neighbours, and arrange for a community health ambassador, funded by United Way, to stop by every day to check in on him. They even made sure that he received both of his COVID-19 vaccines.

For Zanotti, this is just one of thousands of examples of how a community with high social capital can respond when called upon. “A senior who was otherwise lonely benefitted from the circles of social capital that get built,” he explains. “There are neighbours, there are agencies, and there are institutions – they all have a role to play.” 

“My hope is that we take the lessons and the momentum of social capital that we’ve experienced,” he says, “and we now intentionally embed them into our personal, agency and institutional work.” 

This is just one example of why social capital is not just a nice to have, but a must have. It is the critical connective tissue that makes individuals and communities productive, healthier and safer for us all.

#HelpStartsHere, for all Canadians

This Thursday, February 11th, we hope you’ll join us in celebrating 211 Day!  

This year, for the first time, anyone living anywhere in Canada can pick up the phone and dial 2-1-1 to reach a Service Navigator for information on community-based health, social and government services in or near their community. The service is free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in most of Canada. It is even available in more than 150 languages. 

It’s no coincidence that this major, Canada-wide initiative was launched amidst the challenges Canadians are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. On October 15, 2020 the Government of Canada, in partnership with United Way Centraide Canada, announced funding to activate the nationwide expansion of 211. The government also announced funding to support existing 211 services experiencing surging demand.  

The needs people expressed in calls with 211 revealed some of the acute symptoms of the COVID-19 lockdown measures on the lives of Canadians. In April of 2020, 211 received more than nine times as many requests for food-related needs, and more than three times as many requests related to financial assistance relative to baseline call volumes in January and February of 2020.

As Canadians grappled with the effects of COVID-19 on their lives, the national 211 network experienced a 30 per cent increase in total call volume over the previous year (March – December), and as the pandemic wore on, the needs expressed by callers shifted. In the second half of 2020, calls related to housing support and mental health and addictions rose sharply. By December, the number of requests related to housing had risen by one third relative to December 2019 call volumes, and requests for information and referrals for mental health and addiction services had doubled. Throughout the pandemic, 211 has and will continue to provide Canadians with help navigating the support services available during this challenging time.  

“…We are proud to support programs and services, like the 211 telephone line and online directory. With the ongoing pandemic, the 211 service is more important than ever, helping get information about community services to the Canadians who need it.” Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, Ahmed Hussen. 

For decades, United Way Centraide Canada has championed the creation and expansion of 211 services. Knowing where to turn when you are faced with challenges in your life is not often simple. 211 helps people to navigate the system and find support quickly and easily, which takes the strain off agencies and other services like 911 who would otherwise be handling these calls.  

With a national 211 system and growing awareness of the service, we can also begin to analyze data about the types of services people are looking for by region, or even neighbourhood, which will help us, community service agencies, government, and others to better serve the specific needs of people in those communities and across the country. 

Prior to the expansion, 211 was only available in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and most of Quebec. And the service holds a special place in the hearts of all of us at United Way Greater Toronto since the first 211 was opened right here in Toronto in 2002. It has since expanded steadily to other provinces through funding support from local United Way Centraides and provincial and municipal governments.  

Join us in celebrating 211 Day 

Help us celebrate 211 Day by sharing information about 211 and the potential it has to help so many people. This is as easy as sharing the 211 Day posts we’ve put up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin. Someone in your network might need help, and #211DayCanada is the perfect time to help them find it! 

What is the difference between 211, 311, 411, 811, and 911? 

These special numbers are assigned by the CRTC to make it easier for Canadian residents to find help when they need it, but it can be confusing if you aren’t sure which one to call. 

By now, most of us are aware that 911 is the number to call for life-threatening emergencies; however, many Canadians are calling 911 for other reasons that are better handled by 211 Navigators. Chief Bryan Larkin, President of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, says he and his members know first-hand the importance of ensuring more people know about 211 as a front door to support. 

“Our frontline officers respond to calls for service from the community every day, not related to crime. The stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic, an inability to feed or house yourself or your family, substance abuse, those are examples of real emergencies for people, and when they don’t know where to turn, they often go to the number they know best. But, we’re hoping increased access to 211, and a better understanding of the service will divert more of those calls to the helpline that can connect people to the support they need” says Larkin. 

211 is the number to call for information on community-based health, social and government services.  It is the number to call when you need help but aren’t sure where to turn.  

Other special numbers 

In large cities, 311 is the number established to access information about municipal services (such as by-law enforcement, road repairs, garbage collection, municipal recreation programs, property taxes, etc). 

411 is the number that residents call for business or residential listings (phone book/yellow pages). 

In some provinces, 811 is the number that residents call for help finding health information and services. 

A neighbourhood lens on food security

Maybe you’ve heard the term ‘food desert,’ but what about ‘food swamp’? Here’s what that means—and why you might be living in one without even knowing it.

Food insecurity doesn’t always look like you think. Many of us have heard the term food desert, which refers to communities that don’t have grocery stores, farmer’s markets or other healthy food providers. They’re usually located in low-income areas, and unsurprisingly, they often have high rates of food insecurity.  

That doesn’t sound anything like Peel Region, where there are ample grocery stores, restaurants and specialty food stores. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hunger here. Keisa Campbell, Manager, Neighbourhoods and Community Investment at United Way of Greater Toronto says food insecurity looks different depending on the neighbourhood, and in Peel, there’s plenty of food. But not everyone can access it.  

“Peel is actually a food ‘swamp’,” says Campbell, which according to Region of Peel experts means that sources of less healthy food greatly outnumber sources containing more healthy food by a factor of at least five to one. “There’s tons of food here, and it reflects all kinds of cultures. But it’s expensive. It’s cheaper to get chips than some nice fresh vegetables, or even some culturally appropriate food. So, what people end up doing is, they eat the chips.”  

There’s another problem in this region, Campbell says. In new subdivisions, there may be grocery stores or even food banks relatively close by—but you need a car to get there, so people living on a low-income may not be able to access them.  

When food security looks different depending on where you live, that requires a locally based solution that takes into account the unique needs of the people who live in the community. A unique pilot project between United Way and the General Mills Foundation in Peel Region is hoping to do exactly that by moving beyond the typical model of food distribution to a more collaborative, community-led approach.  

A generous $1-million gift from General Mills is being invested in a number of community food systems grants that will connect residents living in poverty in Mississauga, Ont., with nutritious, culturally appropriate and affordable food. The programs will focus on community education as well as increasing access to food for community agencies, residents and partners across the food system. 

One example? The Nourishing Communities project at United Way-supported MIAG Centre for Diverse Women & Families, one of six community food systems grants funded by the General Mills Foundation. It’s a nine-session program that combines seminars on food safety, reducing waste, reading food labels and working within a budget with food demonstrations, and gives participants a chance to connect with other members of the community through food. During the pandemic, the program has gone virtual—just as it became more necessary than ever

Many people are experiencing major changes to their financial stability, either because they’ve lost their jobs or because their hours have been reduced. “That means they have less money coming into the home, which automatically puts them in a situation where they’re going to have food insecurity because they just don’t to have the funds to buy food,” Campbell says. “What we’re also seeing is, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of people accessing food banks.” According to the federal government, one in seven people report they’re experiencing food insecurity, which puts people in the position of having to choose between paying for food or shelter and can lead to a whole host of physical and mental health concerns.  

That’s something Kerri-Anne Lambie, the coordinator of the Nourishing Communities project, has seen first-hand. “Now we have the anxieties that come with traveling in public,” she says. “If you don’t have a vehicle and you are a single mom, you aren’t necessarily going to feel comfortable bringing your children out into public. Living in an apartment building also means that you’re traveling throughout common areas. So, it’s not just the shortage of food itself, it’s also anxieties about getting sick, or getting the elders or children who live with you sick.” 

“We have moved to an online model, but it’s the same basic principle. We have a local nutritionist, so participants are still learning about the recipes and all of the nutrition,” Lambie says. “I find that being on Zoom also breaks that isolation for those who are fearful or unsure about moving out into the community itself. And people who have mobility issues and may not have been able to physically attend can now participate. So, we are hopefully encouraging interaction and community and avoiding social isolation.”

But Campbell, Lambie and Dale Storey, President and Managing Director, General Mills Canada Corporation, agree that while food banks and programs like the Nourishing Communities project are important, big-picture solutions are also necessary, especially right now. 

As Storey points out, the people who were already at risk for food insecurity—single-parent families led by women, as well as Indigenous populations, racialized populations and newcomers to Canada—are the ones who have been hardest hit by COVID-19, and who are at the highest risk of experiencing food insecurity. “The pandemic will have a devastating impact on so many in our community,” he says. “But the most vulnerable populations will likely be most impacted.” 

General Mills’ $1-million gift is a start, he says, but there’s still much more work to be done—including advocating for systemic changes that tackle the complicated tangle of factors that cause food insecurity, including system racism, income inequality, underemployment, insufficient childcare options and poverty.  

“We would love to see various levels of government address things childcare benefits, guaranteed income, income supplements for seniors, and affordable housing so people can have the adequate funds to be able to buy the food they need and do all the other things that they need the money to do,” Campbell says.

5 steps to building a more inclusive workplace

Nikki Gershbain, Chief Inclusion Officer at McCarthy Tétrault, and Nation Cheong, Vice President, Community Opportunities & Mobilization at United Way Greater Toronto, highlight the work McCarthy Tétrault has done to build a more inclusive law firm—and how its partnership with United Way is extending this commitment beyond the office. 

During a summer of hard conversations about structural and anti-Black racism at all levels of society, businesses in every sector started having conversations about building more inclusive and diverse workplaces—but at McCarthy Tétrault, one of the country’s top law firms, these conversations aren’t new.

The firm launched its Inclusion Now initiative in October 2018, committing $5 million to five local United Way Centraides across the country to promote inclusion among five different groups, including women, members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, newcomers, Indigenous peoples and people with disabilities. This donation, the first of its kind for a Canadian law firm, is aligned with its ongoing inclusion initiatives, including a commitment to gender diversity (women make up 47 per cent of the leadership team), mental health (they’ve spoken publicly about the need to reduce mental health stigma in the legal profession) and racial diversity (the firm is the founding sponsor of an Indigenous human rights clinic, and is a signatory of the BlackNorth Initiative Pledge).

McCarthy Tétrault believes in doing the right thing, but there are also business reasons for focusing on diversity and inclusion. “We have decades of credible, rigorous academic research showing that inclusive organizations are better positioned to solve complex business problems. They are more profitable. Diverse teams have a higher collective intelligence. And employees who work in inclusive environments tend to be more engaged, productive and loyal,” says Nikki Gershbain, McCarthy Tétrault’s Chief Inclusion Officer.

Here’s what the firm has learned so far.

1. Come up with evidence-based goals—and follow up on them 

The first step to building a more inclusive workplace is figuring out what your current workforce looks like. At McCarthy Tétrault, the firm conducts a regular demographic data census. They invite all employees to confidentially share the demographic categories they belong to and to answer a series of inclusion questions. “We ask people about their experiences of the organization, along many facets. Then we cross-reference those inclusion results with the demographic data, which gives us a sense of who feels included in the organization, and importantly, who does not. We look at what functional group and role those people are in, and whether there are any patterns along the lines of gender, race, sexual identity, and so on. Slicing and dicing that data in this way tells us a lot about where our opportunities are and what we need to do to move forward,” Gershbain says.

“Disaggregated data is an important part of this work,” says Nation Cheong, Vice President, Community Opportunities & Mobilization, United Way Greater Toronto. Demographic information that has been split up into categories like race, gender or location can reveal trends (especially around inequality) that are otherwise hidden. But since this information is also so sensitive, “data collection has to be done ethically and with the protection of people’s safety and privacy in mind. The potential for abusing information can’t be an excuse not to collect disaggregated data. There are ways to collect and use it responsibly.”

2. Stop conducting “fit” interviews 

McCarthy Tétrault uses a “behavioural-based recruitment approach.” Instead of judging candidates based on the subjective—and potentially discriminatory—concept of “fit”, interviews are focused on the qualities, competencies and skills required to do the job.

“Hiring for fit can hide unconscious bias and all sorts of assumptions and stereotypes about who people are,” Gershbain says. “Often, you end up just hiring people who remind you of you. It’s the concept of ‘like likes like’. By contrast, our process digs deeper into specific skills, competencies, and values, and our interview questions and process are designed to overcome appearance, presentation and stereotypes.”

The firm also does something quite unique: they’re upfront about their commitment to diversity. “This is something we started doing last year, and I’m so proud of it,” she says. “Many firms will prepare in advance for the diversity question, but they’ll wait for a law student to raise it: ‘so tell me about your diversity and inclusion program.’ We believe that putting the onus on students, generally diverse students, communicates that diversity isn’t one of our core values. Because in fact it is, as part of the interview process we now ask every single student who walks through our door, regardless of background, to share some thoughts on diversity and inclusion, and we make a point to proactively share what we’re doing in this space with all students. As an organisation, we deliberately wear our inclusion values on our sleeve.”

3. Go beyond talent management

True inclusion isn’t just about hiring diversely; it’s about shifting company culture, and that requires holistic change, Cheong says. “Policies and frameworks within organizations are the necessary structure to move intention to action and to help support leadership,” he says. “And in issues as complex as systemic discrimination, anti-racism, anti-oppression and misogyny, which are so embedded in our culture, our mindsets and our language—to the point of normalcy—you absolutely need structure and policy to support transformation.”

That has been the case at McCarthy Tétrault. Gershbain is a member of the firm’s leadership team and has a “small but mighty” department devoted to promoting inclusion across all facets of the firm and its business. She says this structure helps legitimize her work, allowing her to touch different groups within the organization—and that’s critical. “In many organizations, diversity and inclusion is often housed within HR departments. Of course, a huge part of the work is definitely about talent management. But if you only focus on talent management, you leave a lot on the table. You marginalize the issues, and fail to treat diversity as a business driver, a leadership issue, and a cultural issue,” she says.

4. Don’t place the burden of promoting inclusion on BIPOC employees

Gershbain is wary of allowing any McCarthy Tétrault employee to pay the “diversity tax,” the idea that people from marginalized groups are disproportionally expected to take on the work of diversity and inclusion, whether that’s speaking on behalf of their ethnic or cultural group or brainstorming solutions for the organization. “Our view is that the task of dismantling structural barriers should not fall solely on the shoulders of the people who experience those barriers,” she says. “This needs to be work that everyone is committed to.”

That’s why the firm has created “Action Groups” focussing on race, gender, sexual identity and ability, and invites all employees to participate, regardless of whether they belong to a marginalized group. And many people do—of the firm’s 1,500 employees, over 500 lawyers, students and staff members have volunteered. “It’s really remarkable. A lot of people you may not expect to be interested in this work are actually really invested in these issues. The take-up we’ve seen for our Action Groups also reflects the importance that we place on inclusion, the profile this work enjoys in our organization, and quite frankly, the authentic commitment of our leaders—right up to the top of the house,” she says.

And that’s critical. Gershbain points to another adage (“what interests my boss, fascinates me”) as an argument for a top-down focus on inclusion. And according to Cheong, that means looking above even the CEO.

“I think it starts with boards of directors and your various committees,” he says. “They have to have a fundamental understanding and appreciation of equity as a critical success factor for your business. Because the CEO answers to the board; the board sets the tone for most major companies.”

5. Think beyond your own organization

McCarthy Tétrault’s trailblazing $5-million Inclusion Now investment in local communities across Canada through United Way Centraide is a natural complement to its in-house work to build a more inclusive company—and according to Cheong, that’s what makes it so powerful. “The United Way/McCarthy Tétrault partnership is a good example of how community organizations and corporate organizations can work together to share expertise, which goes a long way toward building more inclusive workplaces and communities,” he says. “And that reflects what’s going on in the world. There’s a huge social transformation afoot, including a shift in demographics of racialized folks from different parts of the world who are coming in with the education, the skills and the buying power that are important to your company. So, you have to be relevant to them, you have to understand the things that matter to your customer or client, and you have to understand that these are the folks you are going to employ.”

In fact, Gershbain says, working with United Way shows McCarthy Tétrault’s own people that its commitment to diversity and inclusion is real. “Aligning our United Way Centraide investment with our diversity values has created greater engagement among our people, because they can see that the communities we are able to support reflect, in many cases, their own communities, as well as our values as an organization. It’s made the entire program so much more impactful,” she says.

As a law firm, that is also why McCarthy Tétrault has supplemented its charitable giving with a robust pro bono program. As Gershbain explains, “lawyers are a member of a self-regulated profession, and as such we have an obligation to our very specialized skill set to give back to the community. When we say inclusion and corporate social responsibility are core values, that doesn’t mean much unless that’s a commitment we activate and make meaningful on the ground.”

Celebrating the frontline workers supporting community in Peel and York

With our community’s most vulnerable disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, frontline workers at United Way agencies are redoubling their efforts to ensure that no one gets left behind during this crisis.  

United Way Greater Toronto is proud to join the Region of Peel and the Regional Municipality of York to celebrate the inspiring community workers stepping up to meet emergency needs in Peel and York – and keeping vital programs going so everyone has the social supports they need, close to home.  

Community workers have been on the frontlines of responding to emergency needs during the pandemic, from delivering food and essentials to local families, to finding safe shelter for those who need, it to finding innovative ways to engage youth when in-person programming was put on hold. 

This week, UWGT, Region of Peel, and the Regional Municipality of York are recognizing the invaluable work being done across both regions to support all our neighbours in Peel and York, sharing the stories of some of the many frontline heroes going above and beyond during this unprecedented community crisis, including: 

Peel Region

Gerald Adad, neighbourhood services manager, and youth services manager Lauren Kinne are meeting COVID-19 challenges head-on at Safe City Mississauga, building an online crime prevention management system and mobile app to deliver programs virtually. We want our communities to be able to rely on each other as neighbours,” Gerald notes. “A united community is a safe community.” 

Deborah Kühnen was such a dedicated volunteer with Eden Food for Change for over a decade that the organization asked her to manage the EFFC food bank, where she’s now overseeing its transition from a grocery-shopping model to a hamper-based program. “Our goal is to provide good food to our members in a dignified manner,” Deborah says. 

Shari Harris, project facilitator at Newcomer Centre of Peel’s Bridging Generations program, usually holds culturally relevant workshops for parents and kids in person, but during the pandemic, she’s helping to address urgent needs through videos and webinars, and also ensuring families are informed about the latest COVID-19 health protocols. “Healthy families are what healthy communities are made of,” she says, “and incremental changes have the potential to make a monumental difference.” 

Melodie Telfer, youth mentor and volunteer coordinator at The DAM (Develop Assist Mentor) in Mississauga, is ensuring her young mentees feel supported amid the COVID-19 pandemic, developing engaging videos and online art classes during lockdown, and now also organizing some outdoor visits – complete with their favourite snacks.  

Kaylia Watkis, lead instructor at March of Dimes’ LIFE Mississauga program, develops programming for participants with disabilities who are transitioning to independent adulthood. During the pandemic, she’s been engaging them online via fun activities – like a virtual dance party. “They were so happy to see one another and dance, sing and express themselves,” Kaylia explains. “If they felt better, then that was all that mattered.” 

York Region

(Left to right – Rhona Mackay, Amanda Freer, & Sabrina Green)

At Blue Door shelter Porter Place (the only emergency shelter for men in York Region), residential counsellors Sabrina Green and Rhona Mackay and client services supervisor Amanda Freer are on the frontlines of ensuring safe shelter during COVID-19 for men experiencing or at risk of homelessness. “Having a home to safely ride out this storm is something everyone deserves,” Amanda says. (Left to right – Rhona Mackay, Amanda Freer, & Sabrina Green) 

Ryan Ebuna and Karen Webster, infection prevention and control nurses who work as client care supervisors at Community Home Assistance to Seniors (CHATS), are on the frontlines of ensuring the health of vulnerable seniors is protected during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing education and support to CHATS staff and clients. During the first two months of the pandemic, the pair worked a combined 46 additional workdays above their usual schedule in order to make themselves available around the clock. As their colleagues say: “Calm, caring, knowledgeable, patient and always accessible, Ryan and Karen have been our COVID-19 ‘dynamic duo.’” 

(Left to right: Priscilla Joshi, Varenya Kuhathaas & Deepshikha Swaroop)

Family Services York Region’s Families and Schools Together (FAST) team found themselves shifting gears from running an evening drop-in program to coordinating and delivering food and care packages to newcomer families since lockdown began in March. FAST program manager Varenya Kuhathaas, administrative assistant Deepshikha Swaroop, recreation partner Priscilla Joshi, along with parent partners and translators Poopeh Aravandi and Nishtiman Mokri, have been the driving force behind FSYR’s initiative to ensure families from the Yazidi, Persian, and Syrian communities served by FSYR had the groceries, cleaning products, and kids’ games, craft items and school supplies they needed to get through the pandemic. (Left to right: Priscilla Joshi, Varenya Kuhathaas & Deepshikha Swaroop) 

Anna Foglia, frontline services worker at Women’s Centre of York Region, and her colleagues are working “creatively and tirelessly” to continue offering programs and counselling to help women facing barriers reach their true potential. Their mandate has become even more important amid COVID-19, which has had a disproportionate impact on women in many ways – including an increase in domestic violence cases in York Region since the start of the pandemic. “The need for the programs, services and counselling that WCYR provides has always been great – but even more during this time,” Anna points out. 

Nikki Hanson, reintegration worker at John Howard Society of York Region, ensures those impacted by the criminal justice system can access the housing, food and financial supports they need to get through the COVID-19 crisis. “During the pandemic, I worked hard to help individuals gain access to basic needs, while also lending an ear – letting people know that there is someone out there who cares,” Nikki says. “Building relationships with my community is something that will always be important to me.” 

Steve O’Hearn, former team lead with 360 Kids’ emergency housing program, worked with at-risk and homeless youth aged 16 to 26, supporting them through challenging times to meet their goals – “regardless of how big or small they might be,” he says. During the pandemic, Steve collaborated with other York Region agencies to find solutions to shared challenges and also coordinated COVID-19 testing for youth. 

To celebrate the vital work being done to support people during the pandemic, United Way Greater Toronto, Region of Peel, and the Regional Municipality of York are profiling these remarkable frontline workers making a difference in their communities on all three organizations’ social media channels all this week. Follow UWGT on all our channels @UWGreaterTO. 

As the largest investor in social services next to government, United Way supports a vital network of 270 agencies across Peel, Toronto, and York Region – and the frontline community workers at those agencies helped United Way provide 2.3 million services last year. 

Donate now to help sustain the social safety net that provides hundreds of thousands of people across the GTA with much-needed support. Your support helps us ensure that everyone has the support they need to thrive – now, and long after the current crisis has passed. 

Access to food during COVID-19

The current crisis magnifies a reality: times like this push our most vulnerable to their limits, and beyond. It’s also impacting their ability to meet their basic needs, like accessing nutritious food. To help unpack the impact of COVID-19 on individuals and families across the GTA, and the underlying systemic issues that contribute to food inaccessibility, United Way Greater Toronto President and CEO Daniele Zanotti engaged experts in a virtual conversation. Panellists Paul Taylor, Executive Director of  FoodShare, Kate Greavette, Executive Director of York Region Food Network, and  Adaoma Patterson, Manager, Poverty Reduction Initiatives & Community Engagement at Region of Peel, discussed how access to food is impacted during the current crisis.

Working with frontline agencies to address food insecurity 

Lack of access to food is a pressing emerging need reported by United Way Greater Toronto’s frontline agencies, and by the groups the organization co-chairs with the City of Toronto and our co-ordinated partnerships in the 905, including Peel and York. It is also the reason behind the majority of calls to United Way-funded 211. “Between April 1 and April 8, 211 referred 2,700 callers to local food banks,” said Daniele Zanotti, President and CEO of United Way Greater Toronto. To address the need, United Way provided flexible funding to our agencies so that they can respond to emerging needs caused by COVID-19, including access to food.  

Providing meals to food insecure individuals and families in York Region 

To address increased food demand in York, York Region Food Network (YRFN) has shifted all of its resources towards food access. The organization takes a systemic approach to addressing food insecurity by raising public awareness around issues that impact people’s access to food, like affordable housing, adequate employment and accessible childcare. YRFN has a variety of interventions, from supporting access to food right now to offering a weekly breakfast every Tuesday. “The requests are coming from people from all backgrounds, from Vaughan to Markham to Georgina,” says Kate  Greavette, Executive Director of YRFN. YRFN is also working on providing food to seniors who are experiencing various illnesses and aren’t able to leave their homes.  

Improving economic opportunities to increase access to food 

Adaoma Patterson—Manager of Poverty Initiatives with United Way co-chaired Peel Poverty Reduction Committee (PPRC)—reported witnessing a sense of urgency as a result of COVID-19. “Our priorities were always around economic opportunities and the types of jobs people have access to,” she said. According to Patterson, what the current crisis has magnified for the Committee is that people in entry-level and precarious jobs are particularly vulnerable. “We’re seeing the safety net in our system being tested significantly. We’re seeing who is falling through the cracks.” Patterson stressed the need to think about what else food insecure individuals might need. “When people need food, it’s often that they need a meal plus other things.”

Addressing barriers to food security 

Paul Taylor, Executive Director of  FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, also stressed the need to address systemic issues that lead to food insecurity. “The biggest challenge is that we’ve got a recipe for hunger and poverty. We have low minimum wages that lead to poverty and we have high housing costs. All of those factors contribute to 4 million people being food insecure,” he said. To address food insecurity, FoodShare recognizes the need for interventions like affordable child care, affordable housing and income that supports the right to food. “We’ve got people who are food insecure and we really want to help them,” he added. 

You can watch the full webinar below. Look out for invitations to future webinars that will help unpack the impact of your support on the most vulnerable in our community.


Your gift to United Way Greater Toronto’s Local Love Fund will help friends and neighbours access life’s essentials during this challenging time. Donate now.

Working collaboratively during COVID-19

COVID-19 is pushing our social safety net to its limits. Now, more than ever, we are being asked to address community needs in new and different ways in a situation that is changing day to day, sometimes even hour to hour. We’re only just beginning to understand the long-term impact this crisis will have on the social infrastructure so many of our most vulnerable rely on. To help unpack the impact of COVID-19, Daniele Zanotti, United Way Greater Toronto’s president and CEO, joined Denise Campbell from City of Toronto, Ruth Crammond from United Way Greater Toronto and Maureen Fair from West Neighbourhood House in a virtual conversation. Here’s what the panellists shared about what they are seeing on the ground and how working collaboratively is ensuring a fast response: 

Thinking differently through flexible funding and collaborations 

These unprecedented times require a different way of thinking. And that includes how we support our agencies. “We were the first ones out of the gate to provide flexible funding to front-line agencies in Peel, Toronto and York, so they can do what they do best—meet emerging needs as they see fit,” said Daniele Zanotti. Collaboration is also key to meeting urgent needs quickly. Examples? Partnering with the City of Toronto to connect United Way’s network of community agencies to the city’s emergency response plan through community clusters, working with York region on COVID-19 community coordination and working with the region of Peel on action tables on food, domestic violence and seniors. The recent announcement of partnering with the federal government on emergency funding for seniors across the country will also ensure our most vulnerable seniors are cared for.  

Acting fast by thinking locally  

Denise Campbell, the executive director, social development, of the City of Toronto, believes it’s important to think local. “Together in our discussions with United Way and the City of Toronto, we’ve certainly recognized that many of the issues that are facing Torontonians right now require a local response, even if it requires a systemic thinking,” she said. Creating clusters within the city’s coordination plan has allowed staff from United Way and the city to better connect to local front-line agencies, flag any issues they’re seeing and build quick solutions by bringing resources to the table. “It’s this on-the-ground local solutioning that is allowing us to move much faster to respond to local needs,” said Denise.  

Prioritizing the well-being of front-line workers and the most vulnerable 

“In times of crisis, we have to think about a phased response,” said Ruth Crammond, vice president of community investment and development at United Way Greater Toronto. That means prioritizing the safety of front-line workers. Working with public health and United Way’s network of agencies, efforts are being made to keep staff who are delivering services safe, especially those who are working with the homeless population. Ruth also cites the unlikely collaborations that are happening as a result of working through community clusters. For example, a food bank in Scarborough that people can’t access has partnered with a Meals on Wheels delivery service that is dropping food hampers to seniors and families who might be isolated.  

Ensuring the safety of staff and their families 

“Our staff are frightened about what COVID could mean to their personal health,” said Maureen Fair, executive director of West Neighbourhood House. “More importantly, they’re worried about transmitting to their household members.” Maureen shares that because front-line workers are as exposed to risk as healthcare workers, their team is working with healthcare workers to try to understand each others’ needs. “Our staff are scared but I think one of the definitions of bravery and courage is that even when you are scared, you continue to do it.”

You can watch the full webinar below. Look out for invitations to future webinars that will help unpack the impact of your support on the most vulnerable in our community.


Your gift to United Way Greater Toronto’s Local Love Fund will help friends and neighbours access life’s essentials during this challenging time. Donate now.

A recipe for local change in Peel

What if we could re-imagine the way we address hunger in local communities?

A unique pilot project between United Way and the General Mills Foundation in Peel Region is hoping to do exactly that by moving beyond the typical model of food distribution to a more collaborative, community-led approach.

It’s an initiative that comes as the number of people visiting food banks is increasing, rather than decreasing in Peel Region. For example, The Mississauga Food Bank reported an 18 per cent increase in the number of residents accessing their network of food banks and meal programs in 2018.

Access to food is a human right

Where you live shouldn’t determine your access to healthy, nourishing and culturally-appropriate food. But in Peel Region (and across the GTA) financial constraints can prevent our friend and neighbours from accessing the food they need. This has potential immediate and long-term impacts to their physical and mental health and well-being, as well as having a host of other interrelated effects.

Without nourishing food, kids can’t concentrate in school. Adults go to work hungry. And families have to make agonizing choices about keeping the lights on or putting food on the table.

“Access to appropriate, healthy, life-giving food is a universal right,” says Ruth Crammond, United Way Greater Toronto’s Vice President, Community Investment and Development. “But in Peel Region, thousands of people still go without food. It’s a shocking reality in a region as prosperous as the GTA.”

Taking a local approach to food insecurity

While food banks and meal programs have an important role to play when it comes to addressing food insecurity, there’s a lot more to “feeding the hungry” than meeting immediate need.

“Food security is both an immediate and a systemic issue,” explains Crammond. “It’s inextricably linked to poverty and, like poverty, it looks very different from one community to the next.” 

Effectively tackling hunger at a local level means understanding what it looks like and where it exists. In Peel Region, for example, hunger can be hard to see.

“You might see a family of four at the grocery store and they’re buying groceries, ” says Dale Storey, President and Managing Director, General Mills Canada Corporation, “but when they get back to their apartment they can’t take their winter jackets off because they needed to make a trade off between heat and food.”

When you can’t afford a car, or the neighbourhood you live in isn’t well connected to public transit, it can be difficult to even get to a grocery store. For newcomers with limited income or language barriers, it can be hard to ask for help. Newcomers often find themselves in a very different food environment than they are accustomed to and may struggle to make healthy choices because they are unfamiliar with staples supplied by food banks or don’t know how to cook with them.

Following on the footsteps of a similar, and promising, initiative in Greater Twin Cities, United Way Greater Toronto is partnering with the General Mills Foundation to re-imagine local solutions to hunger.

“At General Mills, we believe in the power of food as a force for good in our communities. We are proud to work together with our long-time partners at United Way Greater Toronto to ensure everyone in our hometown community of Mississauga has affordable and reliable access to the food they need and prefer in order to thrive,” says Mary Jane Melendez, President of the General Mills Foundation and Chief Sustainability & Social Impact Officer.

A generous $1-million gift from General Mills is being invested in a number of community food systems grants that will connect residents living in poverty in Mississauga, Ont., with nutritious, culturally appropriate and affordable food. The programs will focus on community education as well as increasing access to food for community agencies, residents and partners across the food system.

Reflecting local demographics and needs

By working together at a “community systems” level, and taking into account local demographics and needs, the following United Way-supported projects are hoping to transform the way we treat hunger.

  • Ecosource’s Deep Roots program connects residents who experience barriers to food access with a network of ten community gardens across Mississauga, which are tailored to local needs.
  • WellFort Community Health Services, on behalf of the Peel Food Action Council, is co-ordinating action to identify local food issues, learn about the local food environment and map out actions to improve and address food access and security.

Not just a pipe dream

Taking a community-led approach is essential to both immediate and long-term, sustainable solutions to hunger.

“We believe achieving food security in Mississauga is possible through enhanced co-operation and innovation across all players in the food system,” says Britt McKee, Executive Director at Ecosource, one of the United Way Greater Toronto agencies that is funded by the General Mills investment.

“It is our collective responsibility to work together to address the complex barriers to food access residents face” explains McKee. “Our goal is to implement creative and culturally-appropriate solutions that are specific to Mississauga.”

While solutions won’t happen overnight, it’s this kind of micro, local change that will help meet immediate need and will provide the blueprint for tackling hunger across a wider geographical footprint. 

How to get involved:

  • Subscribe to Imagine A City where we’ll bring you updates on this project, including successes, challenges and learnings along the way.

Ask the Expert: How financial empowerment helps women escaping domestic abuse

This article originally appeared on LocalLove.ca—a digital magazine powered by United Way—on October 23, 2019. It has been edited and condensed for length.

Domestic violence is an #UNIGNORABLE issue faced by too many women in our community. Women trying to escape abuse can often become vulnerable to poverty and homelessness, which can make it harder for them to leave an abusive partner. One of the ways United Way agencies support women fleeing violence is by helping them to regain their financial well-being. We asked economist Samra Zafar, who wrote about her own experience leaving an abusive marriage in her bestselling memoir A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose, why supporting women to become economically independent is so important. Here the founder of Brave Beginnings ­explains how financial empowerment can help women experiencing and fleeing abuse.

What are some of the key things survivors need to achieve financial autonomy?

Number one is education. I know I could have left my marriage a lot sooner with a post-secondary education. I didn’t even have a high school certificate when I got married.

And having your own stream of income, where you can make decisions on how to spend it is extra important. It’s OK to be working together in a marriage and contributing to household expenses, but you need your own nest egg or source of income to maintain some independence.

It’s also good to have a financial planner or advisor who will help you think about future goals for yourself and your family. A planner can help women get a will and investments in place, for long-term security on a solo income.

Your organization, Brave Beginnings, supports survivors of abuse and oppression. What day-to-day money skills do you teach there?

Budgeting, because sometimes, in an abusive marriage, women have not had the experience of running a household budget. Financial control is one of the main types of control abusers use to keep them trapped.

I budget like crazy. Knowing what your income is and operating within that is so important, if you want to thrive. It’s so easy, when you’re a parent and your kids are pulling on your heartstrings, to feel pressure to spend more than you have, but you have to have your priorities and your goals.

How else might an abusive partner exert financial control and how do you advise women to protect themselves?

My husband was maxing out our credit card and making me sign joint loans with him. I actually had to sign a consumer proposal the year before leaving him. When I left him, I was in such dire circumstances: I was on OSAP [Ontario Student Assistance Program] and welfare, and I couldn’t even rent a place because of my poor credit. I’m still rebuilding my credit to this day.

Having lived that personally, I always suggest to women that they talk to their banker or advisor privately, if they’re facing these types of abuses, because it isn’t always easy to do with your spouse present. And you absolutely need to read what you’re signing and insist on independent legal advice. My husband signed over our matrimonial home to his mother and he had me sign for partner consent at the lawyer’s office. After we divorced, I had no recourse to what was in the home I’d lived in for 10 years.

If you’re mentoring a woman with little work experience and education, how do you advise her to generate an independent income?

There is always a way. I tell women, ‘Pick up a job on the side.’ One of my mentees right now is a student and I told her to pick up something on campus because she’s going there anyway to study. And there are jobs you can do from home, online, like tutoring kids.

I also recommend having multiple sources of income. When I was at University of Toronto, I was doing night shifts at the student centre—I could study there, because it was quiet at night. I was also working as a student mentor, a teaching assistant and a research assistant. I love cooking so I was cooking food and selling it to students on campus, too. These five jobs at the same time added up to my independence money. I’m a big believer in multiple sources of income because that provides a safety net.

The onus still seems to be on the survivor to create her own escape plan. How can employers better support women seeking financial security to flee abuse?

Companies need to create inclusive environments where women feel safe to speak up about what’s happening at home and don’t feel like it’s a career-limiting move, or that they’ll lose their job or be judged. There can be signs about domestic abuse and resources around the workplace; that shows female employees it’s OK to talk about these things here.

They can also train leaders to know what kind of language to use and what resources to point a woman to, if she comes forward. There can be people trained to help her build financial autonomy, for example to open a separate bank account and invest in an employees’ savings plan, so some of her earnings are set aside before they even show up on her pay cheque.

Employers can also make paid leave available to a woman who is trying to leave domestic abuse. It’s not only the right thing to do, because it could potentially save lives, it’s the smart thing to do. Companies would save hundreds of millions of dollars every year on rehiring, retraining and absences. And if you support someone on that journey, imagine the employee loyalty and productivity after that?

How can we be more supportive as a society?

When women come to Canada, they should be put into a mandatory course where they learn about their basic rights under family law and under violence law—what is abuse and what is not. They should learn how to access a lawyer and know there are shelters, food banks and resources in their community, so they will not have to worry about being destitute and on the streets if they leave.

And our school curriculums need to include topics like healthy relationships and abusive behavior, so our children and our youth can be more proactive, rather than doing damage control after abuse has happened. We need to teach our girls more life skills, with financial literacy being a big part of that.

When my eldest daughter turned 14, which is the minimum age you can work in Canada, I told her, ‘You’ve got to get a job.’ She got her first job at 15, in a bubble tea place. Now she has all kinds of money management skills. She knows what to do if she gets laid off and needs to find something else. And she knows how to deal with a difficult boss. She has skills that I maybe learned at the age of 35. My ex-husband was flabbergasted that she was working and asked if we needed money. But it was never about the money. I wanted to make sure she had those skills.

If you are experiencing domestic abuse, you can call Assaulted Women’s Helpline toll-free, 24 hours a day, at: 1-866-863-0511.

Ways you can help:

Breaking barriers for systemic change

Can wraparound community supports save lives? The answer, say experts, is ‘yes.’ Especially when multiple community organizations come together to meet the needs of vulnerable individuals. Systemic change is possible.

Malika Favre art of piggy banks seen from above with one broken on UNIGNORABLE colour

Empowering through collective expertise

One example? FOCUS Toronto (Furthering Our Community by Uniting Services), an equal partnership between United Way Greater Toronto, the City of Toronto and the Toronto Police Service, in collaboration with more than 100 other community agencies.

Through four weekly ‘situation tables’ across Toronto, non-criminal crises—from homelessness to gang-related violence—are assessed to help high-risk, vulnerable youth and families connect with nearby wraparound supports. The idea is to reduce the risks in incidences of imminent crime, victimization and harm.

For example, FOCUS provided immediate wraparound supports to a family whose home had been shot at three times in two weeks, and were at continued risk because gang members were targeting a youth in the home. The mother had to navigate a housing transfer and get social assistance, while supporting her children through trauma. “Intervention for that requires multiple agencies,” said
Evon Smith, manager of FOCUS Toronto .

Since the program began in 2013, FOCUS has handled more than 1,600 situations; In 2018, more than 700 situations were handled—with 78 per cent of those successfully connected to agency help. “They may still need housing or food support or counselling, but the services are now in place to meet those needs,” said Smith.

Any agency can present a case at the weekly situation tables, held in four regions of the GTA (Rexdale, North Scarborough, Downtown East and Downtown West). “Agencies are expected to respond in two days,” said Smith. “We’re able to offer immediate supports where, because of the silos that exist between organizations, it would [have taken] a really long time to get the support.”

In one case, an elderly woman was found wandering the streets, suffering dementia; she lived alone, had no food in the fridge and was feeding a dead cat. Through immediate and multidisciplinary support, “being able to connect her to those services can save her life,” said Smith.

Setting the foundation for success

Another program that’s connecting community agencies with a goal of providing wraparound supports is York Region’s Youth Homelessness Prevention and Housing Stabilization Strategy.

Poverty is growing in the 905, yet there’s a lack of social infrastructure.Led by United Way-supported agency 360⁰ Kids, in partnership with A Way Home Canada, York Region Collaborative, Social Planning Council York Region and YouthRex, the program is bringing together partners from different sectors to ensure youth receive timely supports to reduce the likelihood or re-occurrence of homelessness.

“Our intent really is for this to not just be a 360⁰ project. We may be taking the lead on it … [but] we want this to be a community initiative and effort,” said Clovis Grant, executive director of 360⁰ Kids.

While the program is in its infancy, he said at-risk youth need wraparound supports, from education (which ties closely to future employment) to housing and, oftentimes, counselling for trauma or mental health supports.

“If we’re all driving toward a stronger community of young people who have their various needs met, then we’re all working toward that same goal,” said Grant. That may seem obvious, but if an at-risk youth needs support for housing, employment, mental health and addiction, typically they’d have to go to four different agencies, with four different intakes and four different case managers.

Providing coordinated wraparound supports to young people can “absolutely” help to save lives, he said.

“One of the things we’ve learned in this work is, the longer a person remains homeless, the poorer their prognosis,” said Grant. “The longer they’re on the streets, the greater likelihood their mental health will deteriorate, the greater likelihood of being victimized, whether that’s physical or sexual, the harder it is for them to get employment. They’re entrenched, they’re always in survival mode.” And that, he said, leads to a greater risk of self-harm or suicide.

“As we do all these interventions [at FOCUS], we’re collecting data and identifying systemic barriers,” said Smith. But even away from the weekly situation tables, developing inter-agency relationships helps to create a culture of collaboration among those agencies.

When community organizations come together, those most at risk can get coordinated interventions — but it also helps to break down barriers and bring about systemic change.

“Because we’re in the same room talking, we have a better understanding of systemic barriers,” he said. “That allows us to be better service providers, period.”

Addressing the side effects of poverty

Engaging and collaborating with various partners to achieve its goal of eliminating poverty in Peel and collectively tackling interrelated issues (e.g. food security, lack of access to transit and medical supports) is something the Peel Poverty Reduction Committee (PPRC) strives for.

The committee primarily consists of representation from community groups and organizations, regional and municipal governments, the education and health care systems and local residents. Co-chaired by United Way of Greater Toronto and the Region of Peel, PPRC was created in 2008 to ensure that Peel Region is a livable community for all individuals and families.

Adaoma Patterson, Manager of Poverty Reduction Initiatives with PPRC, describes how the partnership is an example of “systemic change in action.” She references the Affordable Transit Pilot as an example of collectively addressing systemic barriers that lead to poverty. During consultations, residents expressed concern about the increasing cost of bus fare and the difficulty in getting to and from doctor’s appointments and job interviews. The Pilot, sponsored by Region of Peel and MiWay (Mississauga) Transit, initially ran from September 2014 to December 2015 and supported 250 people receiving social assistance.

As a result of the pilot, participants had improved access to employment, education, food, recreational and medical services. The program became permanent in Brampton and Mississauga in 2018. Eligible applicants now receive a 50 per cent discount on their local monthly transit pass.

Whether it’s in Peel, Toronto or York Region, system change is possible when multiple community organizations come together to meet the needs of vulnerable individuals. 

Ways you can help:

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

A love letter…

the word love in white on an unignorable background

Dear Community,

There are a lot of reasons we love you. Maybe even too many to count? But if there was ever a day to try and list them, today is it.

We love your diversity. We celebrate all the many different languages, ways of thinking, abilities, ideas, and yes, the food, that makes us proud to call you home.

We love the agencies working across Peel, Toronto and York Region, caring for us all in the selfless ways they do. And the art galleries, museums, community festivals, stores and local restaurants that make you a vibrant and exciting place to be.

We love the streets, alleys, parks, buildings and houses that combine to make you. You feel like a place we want to be, to raise our kids and go to work and visit with friends.

We love that everyone that is part of you cares about one another. There is a sense of belonging in you and enough abundance that everyone can have a good life.

We love the people who walk your streets, who take a stand for what they believe is right, who fight for the things we value as Canadians, and who don’t stand as individuals but as a connected whole.

We love you despite the problems, the challenges, the #UNIGNORABLE issues, those things that can seem hard and unsolvable. In fact, it makes us love you more.

So, to you on Valentine’s Day, we send our love. We think you’re amazing, Community. And that’s not just today. It’s every day, and, in the years ahead we’ll show our local love in everything we do.


United Way Greater Toronto

Three ways to ensure the safety of Black youth in schools

What does educational success and inclusion look like for Black youth? This question shaped a recent panel discussion convened by United Way’s Black Community Advisory Council (BCAC), which mobilizes community members around pressing issues affecting Peel’s Black community. The council invited thought leaders from across the Black community to weigh in on the best ways to help young people feel supported and safe at school—and beyond.

1. Engage youth

There is strong evidence that points to the urgency of engaging community leaders—including Black youth—in a dialogue as well as systemic change. According to Wayne Brunton, superintendent of education at the Dufferin Peel District Catholic School Board, many school administrators don’t always understand what Black students are going through. “There is a lack of understanding around the specific experiences of Black students, they are being treated like they are troublemakers,” he notes. A United Way-supported research report—The Black Community in Peel—echoes similar findings. It notes that Black youth felt unwanted, devalued and socially isolated in Peel Region. It mentioned factors such as teachers’ low expectations of Black students, relatively few Black teachers in schools and the relative absence of Blacks and Black culture in the curriculum as contributors to Black youth’s feelings of exclusion. “We need young students to continuously give feedback,” says Melissa Wilson, Vice President of Mayfield Secondary School. She adds, “parents and youth are our strongest stakeholders. If you feel like your assignments are too Eurocentric, voice that. Speak up about anti-Black racism. Advocate for yourself. This is not a privilege. It’s your human right.”

2. Examine what safety looks like

Wilson urges that we re-examine what we mean by safety. “When we think about safety, we need to ensure the psychological safety of Black students. We need to understand why Black students feel like they need to code switch (the modifying of one’s speech, behavior, appearance, etc. to adapt to different sociocultural norms) for the risk of being labeled as having behavioural problems.” Brunton stressed the need to listen to Black youth in order to understand what safety looks like to them in order to implement system level changes. “Safety is our priority but if we are not listening to Black youth, how will we understand the barriers to education?”

3. Reinforce education as a right, not a privilege

The school boards in Peel Region aren’t alone. It’s an issue across the GTA. In fact, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) reports that there was variation in high school graduation rates among racialized groups in 2016. For example, students in the Grade 9 cohort who identified themselves as Black had lower high school graduation rates (77%) than students who identified as East Asian, South Asian and Southeast Asian (96%, 92% and 90 respectively). The numbers point to a trend of Black youth being left behind in the education system.

Marc Andrews, honorary chair of BCAC, is deputy chief of the Peel Regional Police and the first Black senior officer in the history of the force. “Education is a right, not a privilege. We need to build a community where if you make an honest effort, you would not be denied opportunity.” The panel demonstrated the need for multiple stakeholders to work together to have a wraparound effect and a desire for policies, initiatives and practices that give hope for a better community. To help Black youth succeed, United Way currently allocates $352,029 towards programs that provide leadership development activities, counselling and support to enhance the academic success of high school students. We Rise Together—initiated by United Way—is the Peel District School Board’s Action Plan to identify, understand, minimize and eliminate the marginalization experienced by Black male students in schools. Members of the Black Community Advisory Council continue to advance the work of the initiative in partnership with Peel District School Board.

“We need to all work together to build a bias free and inclusive community,” said chief Andrews. “The development of safety and security of our youth should always be our community’s top priority.”

Find out what four Black changemakers in the GTA want to tell youth this Black History Month.

Can literacy lift children out of poverty?

Illiteracy is associated with developing countries, but it’s an issue right here in Canada—often linked to the intergenerational cycle of poverty that affects children long before they enter the school system.

Four out of 10 Canadian adults have literacy skills “too low to be fully competent in most jobs in our modern economy,” according to The Conference Board of Canada. And the reports that only 47 per cent of students from the lowest income bracket (families earning less than $30,000 per year) met the provincial standard for reading.

Red copy on a back background saying: The low-income rate among people with low literacy skills is 29%—more than three times that of those with high literacy skills

“At a national level, in comparison to other countries, Canada is doing very well, but when you boil that down to a community level, there are communities in Ontario that are really struggling,” said Camesha Cox, managing director of The Reading Partnership. “At the top of the list are Black and Indigenous children and youth.”

Cox founded The Reading Partnership eight years ago, after returning from a teaching job in the U.K., where she developed a program to help high-school students who were reading at a primary-school level (or not at all).

“I thought, first of all, how does a person get to Grade 7 without literacy skills?” said Cox. So, when she returned to Toronto, she further developed the program to work with both children and parents, starting when the children were still young (ages four to six). For those who don’t read at the provincial level by the age of eight, she said, the likelihood they’ll continue to struggle through school and later in life increases.

Tax dollars are poured into the educational system, says Cox, yet it’s still failing many children. It’s not because these children have learning disabilities, adds Cox, but rather that they may have gaps in their education.

In a low-income home, for example, children might not have access to reading materials, or they may attend under-resourced daycares or schools. Single parents or those with precarious employment may be working multiple jobs and have less time to spend with their children at home.

“There is no system or protocol in place to ensure that those learning gaps are addressed and you’re caught up,” said Cox. That’s where community-based literacy interventions come in.

A key component to making this work, however, is involving parents, which is why The Reading Partnership also teaches parents how to teach their children to read. The program has worked with hundreds of families in the Toronto neighbourhood of Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). In 12 weeks, children progress from not knowing their letter sounds to the ability to read and respond to comprehensive questions.

Cox specifically chose KGO as a starting point for the program. “When you see the food bank lines, even in the dead of winter, the line is long and it extends outside and people will wait in the cold and the snow and the rain,” she said. “Poverty is real and it’s dense in this community. The link between poverty and literacy is real, too. How does somebody who doesn’t have the literacy skills fill out forms, how do they become gainfully employed?”

While there are community programs, “there are still marginalized families in the community that don’t know about or don’t feel comfortable engaging and interacting with these services,” said Cox. “It’s our responsibility to bridge that gap—we’re trying to create a program and services that are meeting marginalized families where they are.”

This fall, for example, the program was piloted for the first time in one of the neediest schools in the community, where about 50 per cent of every Grade 3 class is struggling to meet the provincial standard for reading. “The teachers in the school have jumped at the opportunity to support this program,” said Cox. So far, they’ve seen an improvement in attitudes toward reading; kids are more excited and focused in class.

EarlyON Child and Family Centres also provide free family programs to parents and their children (up to six years of age) in communities and in some schools, supporting parent education and fostering healthy child development. This includes a library program, where families can take home (and keep) free books.


“I think the only way you can break intergenerational poverty is giving children opportunities to read,” said Cynthia Pommells, family resource program manager for EarlyON programs with the Delta Family Resource Centre. “When you improve their reading ability, it’s a way of giving them an education and an opportunity to build better lives as they get older.”

The program engages children—and parents. “The changes can happen when parents become interested … where you’re engaging the parents and then letting them know why we need to do this,” said Pommells.

In some cases, parents may lack literacy skills themselves, so they’re not able to help their child at home (or, even if there are books at home, the parents might not put an emphasis on reading). According to Statistics Canada, 17 per cent of Canadian adults aged 16 to 65 had a literacy score of Level 1 or below (meaning they can only find single pieces of information in short texts). Among those with the lowest levels of literacy, 29 per cent were in low-income households.

If children grow up with poor reading skills, they’re more likely to end up working unskilled jobs—and continue living in poverty “because of the intergenerational piece they inherited from their parents,” said Pommells. “So, we try to give parents that educational piece also.”

Literacy allows children to successfully move onto post-secondary education and become gainfully employed, said Cox, but it’s not the only benefit. When she was young, books allowed her to ‘travel,’ despite her inability to physically travel. “I was able to imagine and experience a world outside of my everyday lived experiences through the books I was reading,” she said.

“A child in poverty can experience a world outside of their own through books,” said Cox. “They need to be able to hope and dream and aspire to something better … Books provide another opportunity to see and experience a positive world and positive people.”

Ways you can help:

How to get mental health help for your child

We reached out to several mental health experts to put together a tip sheet for parents. It can help you recognize some of the signs of mental illness in children and youth and learn more about resources in your community where you can access services and supports.


One of the first signs that your child or teen may be struggling with mental illness? They may start to behave in a way that is unusual or out of character for them. For example, if they used to be quite social and outgoing and they suddenly become more isolated, even refusing to go to school or interact with their peers, this could be a red flag.  “You may also notice changes in a child’s appetite or sleeping patterns,” says Myra Levy, Clinical Director at East Metro Youth Services, a United Way-supported agency. “Sometimes mental health concerns, for example depression and anxiety, can also be triggered by a stressful or traumatic event including a divorce, a serious breakup or a death in the family. Your child or teen may tell you that they’re not feeling happy or that they’re having thoughts about suicide.” It’s also important to remember that you are not alone: 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder and only one in five children who need mental health services receives them.



If you suspect your child or teen is at risk of harming themselves or others, and you feel that you’re not able to keep them safe, take them to a hospital emergency department right away, advises Dr. Joanna Henderson, a psychologist and Director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH. In less urgent situations, Dr. Henderson also suggests that parents can call United Way-supported Distress Centres for support and advice on other appropriate community or professional resources to help your child. Young people can also call the Kids Help Phone to speak to a counsellor and to learn more about other mental health supports in the community.

Malika Favre Unignorable art of


Many parents often turn to their family doctor or pediatrician for mental health support. The Toronto Star notes that, according to the Ontario Medical Association, family physicians deliver about half of all mental health services in Ontario. This includes supports such as assessments, therapy and prescribing medication. If your family doctor or pediatrician works as part of a multidisciplinary team, he or she can also refer children and their parents to other healthcare professionals on the team including psychologists, nurse practitioners or social workers. All of these services are typically covered by OHIP when delivered in this setting.


There are also a number of accredited community-based mental health centres, including United Way-supported East Metro Youth Services, where parents and their children can access a range of mental health services. The best way to find a centre near you is to visit Connex Ontario or call United Way-supported 211 for resources in Peel, Toronto and York Region. Some community mental health centres offer walk-in clinics where parents and their children can access help with no doctor’s referral/diagnosis or appointment required. The services provided by these centres are also paid for by the government, private donors and, in some cases, supported by organizations, including United Way. Additional services range from one-on-one/group counselling sessions to more intensive options including alternative classrooms and residential treatment programs. United Way also invests in a variety of community-based mental health programs that support vulnerable and marginalized groups including LGBTQ+ and homeless youth. Counselling services at community mental health centres are typically provided by professionals with Masters-level designations in social work, psychology or counselling. “Although traditionally there have been wait lists to access psychiatry or community counselling services, walk-in clinics are supporting early access and reduced wait times,” says Alanna Burke, former Clinical Manager at East Metro, which is the lead agency for infant, child and adolescent mental health in Toronto. The agency, in partnership with the Hospital for Sick Children, piloted a telepsychiatry project and plans to scale up the initiative across the city to connect young people with psychiatrists to provide faster diagnosis.


Many family doctors will also refer parents and their children/teens to specialists including psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can assess and diagnose mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or ADHD, among others. They are also licensed to provide therapy and prescribe medication. Although services provided by psychiatrists and other specialists in the publicly-funded system (including hospitals) are covered by OHIP, wait times for doctors can be significant and variable, depending on circumstances, says Henderson. Psychologists, who do not typically require a doctor’s referral, can diagnose mental illness and provide therapy, but can’t prescribe medication. When they work in the publicly-funded system their services are covered by OHIP. While wait lists to see psychologists in private practice can be shorter, the hourly cost to see this type of specialist ranges from approximately $150- $250-per-hour. Henderson says some specialists offer a “sliding scale” of hourly fees for lower-income clients. Specialists such as psychologists and psychiatrists offer a range of therapies for children and teens including cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy and mindfulness—in both an individual and group settings. There are also a small number of school board social workers in school boards in Peel, Toronto and York Region that offer supports to students in a school setting. “As a parent of a child or teen struggling with mental illness, it’s also important to take care of yourself,” adds Henderson. “We know that when families are getting support together, that can really lead to positive outcomes.”

Want to learn more?

Breaking the cycle: A Q&A on the stigma of domestic violence

When a woman flees domestic violence, she will often return to her abuser multiple times before she leaves for good. But that’s rarely because she’s “in love,” but rather because of such factors as economic insecurity, deep-rooted shame or fear of what her abuser will do if she leaves.

Of police-reported violent crime, 28 per cent of victims aged 15 and older had been victimized by an intimate partner, according to Statistics Canada’s 2016 report on family violence in Canada. But, the report points out, most often victims of spousal violence don’t report the violence to police “because they saw the abuse as a private matter.”

It’s a difficult cycle to break — and while programs exist to support women fleeing abuse, current policies can further victimize women. To access some services, for example, a woman must provide ID and documentation, which she may not have if she was forced to flee in the middle of the night.

To get help, she must navigate through layers of bureaucracy — rules, regulations and policies drafted by municipal, provincial and federal governments — all while trying to escape a violent home. Imagine a City talks to Lieran Docherty, program manager at WomanACT (Woman Abuse Council of Toronto), a policy development and planning body that coordinates an efficient and effective approach to providing services for women experiencing violence.

How does economic security play a role in domestic violence?

One of the things we look at very closely is the economic impacts of women fleeing violence. Poverty in one sense can marginalize women, but poverty is a key barrier for women fleeing violence. It can put them at risk of violence or keep them in violence. In all cases, in the aftermath of violence, women’s economic security is always impacted.

How do existing policies further reinforce economic insecurity and victimization?

Policies often require women to prove their abuse in order to obtain support or services. They might have to show a police report; for some services, abuse has to be recent in order to receive legal aid and support. So, in cases where a woman may not have proof, or the proof they need is at home with the spouse they just fled from, that proof can be a big barrier for women accessing services. It reinforces this idea that women might be lying about their abuse to access certain services — this is a really dangerous notion.

Are shelters helping or hindering women fleeing violence?

Shelters are full, and women are staying in shelters in Toronto for an average of 10 to 14 months because of the cost of housing. But even to access the majority of shelters in Ontario women may have to apply for social assistance.

How so?

Social assistance programs in Ontario have an asset section, which means you can only have a certain amount of savings or assets. To be eligible for social assistance, you may be required to give up assets, such as your savings or a car. And we know the rates of social assistance are extremely inadequate; they don’t meet a woman’s basic needs — never mind that of her children — and she may have to give up whatever assets she does have.

Can social assistance programs help women gain financial independence?

There’s a lot of stigma around being on social assistance and not a lot of flexibility; it’s really about finding the shortest route out of social assistance. So, a lot of women end up in underpaid, precarious employment. It’s not providing the support they need to get into good, decent, meaningful work. It’s a difficult system to navigate, and it’s difficult at a time when a woman is trying to re-establish herself.

Why is there so much stigma associated with getting support and services?

The incidence of women lying about violence or lying to get into social assistance or immigration programs is very low, but there’s still a focus on rooting it out — which creates a stigma around accessing certain supports and services. Often, we hear from women that when accessing services there are more rules and regulations than support and entitlement. Our policies are not giving women the leg up they need to leave an abusive situation.

What about immigrant and newcomer women?

Immigrant women may face additional barriers such as language or limited knowledge of provisions and services. Women gaining residency in Canada are also more likely to gain permanent resident status as a sponsored spouse. There are larger implications that if a woman doesn’t have permanent status and she reports [abuse] to police, she runs the risk of having her status reported. Women being sponsored and fleeing abuse are eligible for social assistance, but it will impact their own permanent status application down the road because it shows they’ve had to rely on the state for income. All cultures and societies can also have practices that create stigma and shame around domestic violence. In the South Asian community, for example, many women won’t leave an abusive situation for fear of being ostracized or cut off from other community members.

If the rates of domestic violence are so high, why isn’t it more of a national priority?

We really are at a crisis point — however, from more of a public interest or public policy perspective, it’s not always seen as a crisis. Policies make it very difficult for women to flee violence, to navigate a complex system, and then to establish themselves again and stay safe. Because of economic security reasons, many women return to an abuser. Policies can re-victimize women — having to tell your story over and over again or having to prove that you’ve been abused — or even criminalize the behaviours of women who seek support. As a result, many women choose not to access services. The full impact of the numbers isn’t as noticeable because of all these factors that stigmatize women and prevent them from reporting the abuse.

What policy changes are you advocating for?

I would say that violence against women is probably the largest human rights violation globally, yet we know it’s underfunded. It reflects a history and manifestation of gender inequality. What we want to see is policies that tackle that root cause. Not one single policy can solve violence against women per se … but we want to see policies that promote women’s economic security, employment protections, equal pay. And we have seen some positive changes — Ontario introduced workplace leave legislation, which provides five days of paid leave for a victim fleeing abuse to find support and ensure their income is not impacted by violence.

Can policies really make a difference?

Policies can help shift social norms and practices; they can increase political will. Really, policy impacts people’s lives every day and they can have a large impact on women experiencing violence and how they navigate a system in which they try to find safety. A lot of this work is really about how can policy better support women, and advocate for those changes in policy we want to see, but also ensuring policies address the root causes of gender inequality.

If you’re experiencing violence or abuse, there is help out there. The Assaulted Women’s Helpline offers a free, anonymous and confidential 24-hour telephone and TTY crisis telephone line to all women in Ontario who have experienced any form of abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline and Ending Violence Association of Canada also provide support and contact information for services across the country. You can also call 211, which offers a variety of support services across Canada, from emergency assistance to counselling and daycare—help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in 100 different languages.

A myth-busting Q&A on homelessness

It’s their own fault they’re homeless. They don’t want to get a job. They’re not willing to break the cycle.

These are some of the commonly held misconceptions about homelessness — an issue that is often misunderstood by the public. According to the State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 report by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, 35,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night, and at least 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness in a year. While this #UNIGNORABLE issue is often associated with adult males, we’re seeing an uptick in women, families and youth experiencing homelessness, as well as older adults and seniors. Imagine a City talks to front-line workers and experts to bust some of these common myths.

Malika Favre art of white bench with black silhouette of homeless person on UNIGNORABLE colour

Myth #1: People experiencing homelessness choose to be homeless

Most people become homeless because of economic circumstances, such as unemployment or the inability to afford rising living costs, according to a Homeless in Canada report. “It’s degrading and stigmatizing to be homeless,” says Dr. Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. “There’s an incredible lack of safety, you’re more likely to be malnourished, you’re more likely to be a victim of crime, you’re more likely to be sexually assaulted, your health worsens, your mental health worsens. If you take a chronically homeless person [and] offer them housing with support, they’ll generally stay in housing.”

Myth #2: It’s their own fault they’re homeless

While it’s hard to pinpoint a “cause” of homelessness, most people end up experiencing homelessness because of poverty, according to the Homeless in Canada report. And poverty is affected by complex issues such as lifelong trauma, family breakdown or mental health issues, according to Alex Cheng, client services director with Blue Door Shelters, a United Way-supported agency in York Region that provides emergency housing for youth, families and adult men. “We see a lot of folks that have a mental health diagnosis or use substances to self-medicate, and those are all barriers for individuals who are homeless to move forward.”

Myth #3: They aren’t interested in being productive members of society

“We have seen in our setting, when we are able to provide supports to individuals and lower those barriers and connect them to community, they do want to get out of homelessness,” says Cheng. “But the reality is it’s a slow process. When you’re put in a position where you’ve been labelled for so long and your experience for the last few years or for the majority of [your life] has been trying to survive — and you don’t know anything but to survive — it becomes even harder to adjust to being integrated into the general community.”

Myth #4: They should just get a job

We sometimes hear that people experiencing homelessness should just “get a job.” They’re accused of being lazy or wanting to live off government assistance. “It’s hard to obtain and maintain a job when you don’t have stable housing,” says Gaetz. Employers look for applicants with a permanent address, high level of education and professional wardrobe. They tend to avoid applicants who have gaps in their work history, don’t have a permanent address or are living in a shelter.

Myth #5: Homeless youth are “delinquents” or addicts

When it comes to youth — particularly males — there’s often an assumption that they’ve ended up on the streets because they’re lazy, rebellious or on drugs. “The No. 1 reason is family conflict — and two-thirds of young people have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse. They leave for very good reasons,” says Gaetz.

“A large percentage are affected by family breakdowns and they’ve suffered a lot of trauma,” says Cheng. And at that age, finding independent housing is near impossible. “You’ve never had permanent employment; you probably haven’t finished high school. I don’t think people understand how vulnerable youth are. Youth need a different approach, they do need different supports, including some ways of rebuilding themselves.”

Myth #6: They’re taking advantage of the system

Not only is there a lack of low-income housing in the Greater Toronto Area, there are low vacancy rates, and anyone on disability or social assistance can’t afford market rent, says Cheng. If they’re not staying in a shelter, they’re renting a room (likely a shared room) and, even then, social assistance barely covers the cost. “Social assistance rates are such now … they would be spending upwards of almost 90 per cent of their income on rent,” says Cheng. “That’s just a recipe for disaster because they are being housed but they don’t have enough resources to even take care of themselves. You’re almost on a clock — you’re one small step away from losing your housing again.”

Myth #7: This would never happen to me

“Homelessness can happen to anyone,” says Cheng. “A lot of people are one paycheque away from being homeless. … We see that a lot with families — because of finances or job loss or extenuating circumstances, the entire family becomes homeless.”

The first step in tackling #UNIGNORABLE issues like homelessness, is understanding them. Acknowledging that these myths are, in fact, myths, can help to reduce stigma, increase empathy and move people out of homelessness.

Learn more about this #UNIGNORABLE issue:

Why loneliness in seniors is a health hazard

Seniors are living longer than ever, but that doesn’t mean they’re living life to the fullest. As society ages and families become more dispersed, loneliness and isolation are on the radar of healthcare professionals. While ‘isolation’ isn’t an illness, it’s a condition that can impact a senior’s physical, mental and psychological wellbeing. Imagine a City spoke to industry leaders about the impact of isolation and innovative, community-based solutions that can help seniors, their caregivers and, ultimately, the healthcare system.

illustration depicting seniors social isolation as a small house lost in a large maze

Why is seniors’ isolation on the radar of healthcare professionals?

“Seniors are living longer, and some of them with more complex care needs,” says Christina Bisanz, CEO of CHATS (Community & Home Assistance to Seniors), a United Way-supported agency that serves 8,300 seniors and their caregivers in York and Simcoe. Adult children move away; families are more dispersed. In some communities, grandparents are brought to Canada to raise their grandchildren, but are left without a purpose once the grandchildren grow up, especially if they don’t speak English or have social connections.

Isolation can also come about because of mobility or health issues. Perhaps they’ve lost their driver’s licence, don’t live close to public transit or require a cane or wheelchair to get around. If they have an initial diagnosis of dementia, they may isolate themselves socially, which also has an impact on their partner or caregiver, says Allison Sekuler, vice-president of research at Baycrest Health Sciences and managing director for the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation.

Who is most at risk?

Those most at risk, according to a report  by the Government of Canada, are seniors 80 or older who live alone, have multiple health problems, have no children or contact with family, lack access to transportation and survive on a low income. Life transitions such as retirement or death of a spouse can further the risk of becoming socially isolated.

What is the impact of isolation on seniors?

“There’s growing concern about the health impacts of social isolation,” says Bisanz. “In the U.K., for example, they appointed a Minister for Loneliness, because they’ve recognized and acknowledged that loneliness is related to acute and chronic health challenges.” The Government of Canada report found that one in four seniors lives with a mental health problem ranging from depression to dementia, while 44 per cent of seniors living in residential care have been diagnosed with depression or show undiagnosed symptoms of depression.

“If you’re isolated and don’t have opportunities to interact with people, it can speed cognitive decline and lead to depression,” says Sekuler. “[Statistics Canada] estimated 1.4 million older Canadians suffer from loneliness right now—80 per cent of the time people 80 years and older feel lonely. The statistics are really crushing.”

What community-based supports are available?

From a mobility standpoint, transportation programs can help an isolated senior get out of the house for grocery shopping or medical appointments, as well as social outings. Adult day programs at healthcare facilities and community centres offer social and wellness activities for seniors—from crafts to field trips—along with companionship. Home-care services also play a role, from friendly visits to home upkeep and healthcare.

Along with adult day programs, CHATS also offers outreach programs for the region’s diverse communities, such as Iranian, Russian, Cantonese and Tamil. “We have a number of programs that we run for culturally and linguistically specific communities—some of those are funded through United Way,” says Bisanz. “They’re designed to bring people together in a situation where they feel cultural familiarity.”

Is the issue exacerbated for LGBTQ2+ seniors?

While all seniors are at risk of social isolation, LGBTQ2+ seniors face barriers to affirming support services and a great deal of social isolation and loneliness as they age, says Kate Hazell, coordinator of the LGBTQ2+ seniors programs at The 519. As part of its programming, the agency seeks to address social isolation in older adults, through programs like a weekly drop-in program. It also launched a pilot program called Pals Connect for LGBTQ2+ seniors experiencing high levels of social isolation, providing friendly visits to seniors who are unable to access group programming. “As it is a drop-in space, people aren’t required to disclose their name in order to get access to it, and that’s an important feature,” says Hazell.

How does this affect caregivers?

Adult day programs can promote independence and encourage social interaction; at Baycrest, programs include door-to-door transportation, therapeutic recreation, creative arts, counselling and support, as well as respite for caregivers. “At the same time, the caregivers can have a little bit of a break, and they have opportunities to interact with each other, which reduces their social isolation,” says Sekuler. “In fact, caregivers are more likely to develop dementia themselves than non-caregivers.”

Indeed, a report from Health Quality Ontario  found that one-third of caregivers looking after loved ones at home suffer from anger, distress or depression. Many caregivers ignore their own health while looking after a loved one, and experience emotional and physical distress such as low energy, headaches and chest pain. That’s why many programs that address senior isolation also provide respite for caregivers, including online support and peer meet-ups.

Can social robots really help?

While programs and services can help, so can new technologies. Baycrest’s Innovation, Technology and Design lab is working with the University of Toronto to develop a ‘social robot’ with emotion-sensing software to assist seniors with mild to moderate cognitive impairment. “The whole point is to address this issue of social isolation — it’s smart, it learns what you like,” says Sekuler.

Other projects include virtual reality applications that provide recreational and social support for homebound seniors with limited mobility — so they can go dancing or take a walk in the park via an avatar—and sensors that use artificial intelligence to detect falls and alert a caregiver. It’s early days, but it’s hoped new technologies can provide another option for isolated seniors.

Is there a GTA-wide strategy to address seniors’ isolation?

There are 14 local health integration networks (LHINs) around the province, which fund programs such as congregate dining, transportation services and adult day programs — along with cutting-edge research into new technologies that can reduce isolation and loneliness. “It’s about improving quality of life and quality of health so that hopefully we’re avoiding unnecessary hospitalization or more costly health care,” says Bisanz. “If social engagement supports that healthy well-being, physically, mentally and even spiritually, then seniors are able to remain as active members of their community.”

Ways you can help:

  • Donate to United Way today to help seniors experiencing social isolation
  • Learn more about this unignorable issue by visiting ShowYourLocalLove.ca
  • Subscribe to Imagine a City to learn more about the issues affecting our community

Three ways to empower girls

Growing up is tough, especially for girls in a hyper-connected world where social media and FOMO (fear of missing out) make those teenage years even more challenging. During those years, their self-confidence plummets, as does their mental health, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and self-destructive behaviour.

Statistic in 2016 more than half of Canadian women without a high school diploma were not in the labour force

In Grade 6, 36 per cent of girls say they are self-confident; by Grade 10, that number plummets to only 14 per cent, according to a report by Healthy Settings for Young People in Canada. And approximately 12 per cent of female youth, aged 12 to 19, have experienced a major depressive episode, according to the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association). Supporting girls at this critical point in time can help to build confidence and provide them with tools to face life’s challenges. Imagine a City talks to front-line workers and experts about how to empower girls and young women — and why it’s so critically important.

  1. Build self-esteem

Growing up comes with its share of growing pains, but it’s even more challenging for girls who are already at a disadvantage, whether that’s living in poverty, experiencing violence in the home or suffering from the trauma of sexual abuse. “Low self-esteem reduces one’s ability to cope, increases self-destructive behaviour and their ability to plan for the future, which puts them at greater risk,” said Jody Miller, managing director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Peel-Halton, a United Way-supported agency.

That’s why it’s critical to provide supports that build self-esteem in girls — supports that are holistic, non-judgemental and trauma-informed. “We have a classroom for at-risk girls in collaboration with the school board,” says Miller. “We’re able to decrease the barriers they would normally experience in attending traditional school, making things more individualized, as well as offering mental health support that helps keep girls involved.”

But it’s not just getting girls to do their homework; it’s about providing activities that build self-esteem and develop leadership skills, “countering those trends toward self-doubt,” Miller says, “having girls be able to build those supportive relationships, recognizing their own inherent capabilities, including them in decisions, honouring their self-worth, and building upon that.”

  1. Build resilience

Building self-esteem goes hand in hand with building resilience and empowering girls to stand up for themselves and avoid exploitation — whether that’s peer pressure, being taken advantage of by a boyfriend or getting lured into sexually exploitive situations. This can happen to any girl, but particularly those who are experiencing low self-worth.

Once a girl is being trafficked, for example, it takes her on average seven times before she’s able to successfully exit that life, says Miller. “It requires a lot of resources coming together to support that girl.”

That’s why the society’s Empowering Against Exploitation program, funded by the United Way, was created — and is now held as a national model for effective sexual exploitation preventative education, starting with girls in Grades 7 and 8.

Embracing an empowerment approach, this program blends a variety of activities that foster self-reflection, understanding about the issue, and knowledge to help young women identify predators and potentially exploitive situations. It also teaches them how issues like substance abuse can tie into exploitation. “The average age of recruitment is so young, you want to be able to give them the tools [at an early age],” says Miller.

  1. Create opportunities

For girls at risk, completing high school is challenging enough; the idea of pursuing post-secondary education may seem like a pipe dream. That’s why Girls Inc. of York Region, a United Way-supported agency, provides lunch-time and afterschool programs specifically for girls aged 12 to 18 identified as ‘at risk’ by school guidance counsellors. These programs are aimed at building life skills and confidence, from violence prevention to youth leadership, career counselling and opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

As well as providing academic support and teaching life skills — such as how to open a bank account and what to wear to a job interview — it’s also important to open up opportunities they may have never considered or even thought possible, such as those in STEM. Teaching girls to code and create websites, for example, builds confidence, but also gives them skills that can lead them out of poverty or other limiting situations.

“As women we have fewer opportunities or have to work harder to get treated as equals,” says Barb Wallace, executive director of Girls Inc. of York Region. “Especially with STEM programs, girls are often overlooked, or if it’s hard they tend to give up, so we’re trying to make it really fun and cool … doing it in a large group builds momentum, gets them excited about it, but in a different way than [a traditional classroom].” Providing these opportunities levels the playing field, she says, and “lets them know there are other options out there — hopefully we’re breaking the cycle of poverty in some scenarios.”

So why is it so important to build self-esteem, build resilience and create opportunities?

“These young girls are going to be our future and we need to provide them with opportunities to learn outside of school, to open up their horizons so they become strong, independent members of society,” says Wallace. “[Otherwise] they might fall through the cracks [in the school system]. If they can’t stand up for themselves, they can’t advocate on their own behalf. We give them an opportunity to develop their self-esteem to stand up for themselves.”

Ways you can help:

Taking an active role in reconciliation

Steve Teekens photoThis article was originally published on June 6, 2018.

Steve Teekens, a member of the Nipissing First Nation, currently serves as Executive Director at Na-Me-Res (Native Men’s Residence), where he has worked since 2008. He has worked with the marginalized and homeless in Toronto since 1995 and now shares his professional experience volunteering with Aboriginal Legal Services Community Council Program, Toronto Police Services Aboriginal Consultative Committee and as Vice President of TASSC (Toronto Aboriginal Social Services Council). In all his work, Steve is driven to help people overcome barriers and succeed by finding resilience within themselves.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released their calls to action document in 2015 after touring the country to hear the first-hand experiences of Indigenous residential school survivors. Many of the truths shared by survivors were stories that some Ontarians had never heard before. As you might imagine, they were horrific, with various forms of abuse — physical, emotional, and sexual — committed against Indigenous children. In a move sanctioned by the federal government and various Christian religious denominations, these children had been forcefully removed from their parental homes and forced into the residential school system, where the abuse took place. The main mission of residential schools was to “kill the Indian in the child” — assimilating Indigenous children into Canadian society by indoctrinating them into the values of Christianity in an environment void of love and affection.

To this day, many Indigenous people still suffer from the legacy of residential schools. Statistics measuring the social determinants of health — things like income, status, education, social support networks and child development — demonstrate the detrimental effect on Indigenous people. They are evidence of the effects of intergenerational trauma.

Pull quote on a read background reading: The more understanding of Indigenous history and culture we all have; the fewer obstacles and less discrimination the Indigenous peoples of Ontario will face.

Na-Me-Res (Native Men’s Residence), established in 1985, has been on the front lines in dealing with the fallout. Here, we have found renewed strength by reclaiming our culture and implementing culture-based programming at the Men’s Shelter, the Transitional Shelter (Sagatay), and in our outreach to Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous men in Toronto. As a result, we’ve had a number of success stories at Na-Me-Res, with many clients thriving, living a good life.

The Ontario government needs to take an active role in reconciliation. Just as I encourage you to read the TRC calls to action to see which you can bring to life in your own way, I urge you to ask political candidates and parties how they are going to realize the TRC calls to action.

What’s in it for Ontarians you ask? Well in order to move forward, we must reconcile these grievances. Ontarians need to be educated on the true history of Canada and why so many Indigenous people struggle today. The more understanding of Indigenous history and culture we all have; the fewer obstacles and less discrimination the Indigenous peoples of Ontario will face.

The residential schools experience is a part of our shared history — one that not many Ontarians understand. By working towards a better understanding of that history, we can lay the groundwork for Indigenous people to more fully participate in the prosperity of this province. And in turn, we will strengthen Indigenous and Non-Indigenous relations and the fabric of Ontario, as we build a better common future for all of us on this land we share.

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

This article originally appeared on LocalLove.ca—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.”

6 things you make possible in community

Did you know that Greater Toronto is the child poverty, housing unaffordability and income inequality capital of Canada? Far too many people across our region are falling behind because of postal code or circumstance—but we’re working to change that. With the support of our donors—people just like you—we’re investing $94 million in communities across Peel, Toronto and York Region in 2019 to tackle local poverty and related #UNIGNORABLE issues including homelessness, hunger and social isolation.  

Here are six things our donors and supporters made possible in 2018-19 thanks to their local love. 


After our merger with United Way of Peel Region, we’ve now completed our first year as United Way Greater Toronto, working with communities across Peel, Toronto and York Region. With knowledge and experience from our work across communities, we’re bringing the greatest of our successes and adapting them to respond to issues in a local way. From homelessness prevention, to workplace development for the next generation, to new economic opportunities in neighbourhoods often left behind, we’re putting your support— your local love—into action.


We launched the largest United Way fundraising campaign in the world. Throughout the campaign, more than 400,000 supported United Way by engaging and raising funds in their own unique ways, and stepped up by joining United Way’s signature annual events: the UP CN Tower Climb and Scotiabank Rat Race. The result? A record $110.3 million raised to improve the lives of many across our region.


Solutions to the challenges that face our community won’t come from one source; it’s an all-in effort requiring the collective talent and commitment of many, including supporters like you. That’s why we bring our thought leadership and expertise to a host of tables, boosting and leveraging the bench strength of numerous networks, committees and partnerships to map out the path to real and lasting change. The CivicAction Board, the provincial Council for Youth Prosperity, Toronto’s Newcomer Leadership Table, Healthy City Stewardship Committee in Peel, Toronto Community Benefits Network and the Community Data Consortium in York Region—these are just a few.


Thanks to our corporate partners, we’re tackling poverty and the complex, interrelated issues—including unemployment and social isolation—that make it extremely difficult to break the cycle. An example? Scotiabank’s record-setting, five-year, $15-million commitment will help ensure that the future for some of the GTA’s most vulnerable children and youth looks brighter. The historic investment will help a network of community agencies across Peel, Toronto and York Region fuel real progress in young people’s lives. Each year, this gift will connect 245,000 young people and their families to the services and programs they need to thrive—opportunities like after-school programs, summer camps, sports and recreation, and parenting supports.


Civic engagement is an essential ingredient in creating strong public policy that truly meets people’s needs. That’s the simple premise of Ontario for All, a 100-strong collective of community organizations. Convened by United Way in advance of last spring’s provincial election, the alliance issued a call to action, putting poverty on the agenda and advocating for progress on #UNIGNORABLE issues like homelessness and unemployment.


Local issues can be easy to ignore. Thanks to your support, we created something #UNIGNORABLE to help draw attention to issues, including poverty, hunger, homelessness and domestic violence. Issues that rob so many of opportunities. Designed with leading industry experts, a world-renowned artist and other talented collaborators, our national #UNIGNORABLE campaign—our boldest awareness campaign to date—turned heads and got people talking. In fact, our installation at Nuit Blanche—an all-night, city-wide celebration of contemporary art—was the most-visited in the event’s history. It helped us draw attention to issues we need to tackle together as a community. And it struck a chord: it won several prestigious awards and racked up 153 million impressions in the GTA alone, demonstrating the incredible power of art for social change.

Ask the Expert: What should I say when my child comes out?

How parents react when their children come out makes a huge difference to kids’ feelings of self-worth, says Afi Browne, provincial LGBTQ+ youth outreach worker for Skylark Children, Youth & Families in Toronto. There are plenty of positive things you can say to your kid, but there are definitely things you shouldn’t say, including “Are you crazy?” or “Don’t worry, it’s just a phase”—two common responses on the less-supportive side of the parental-reaction spectrum.

Instead, validate your child’s experiences and express your support. “The best thing to say is, ‘Thank you for telling me. Thank you for trusting me. I love you unconditionally,’” says Browne.

Many parents aren’t sure how to respond simply because they don’t really understand what their children are going through. “They may need to start by untangling ideas around gender and sexuality,” says Browne. “Gender is a social construct—it lives in our heads, not in our bodies—while sexuality is about who you’re attracted to and has nothing to do with gender. It helps to understand all these concepts and to confront any preconceived ideas of what ‘normal’ means.”

It’s also OK to admit that you need some time to breathe. “A lot of parents go through a range of emotions, and there’s often some disavowed grief because they aren’t able to get support from their own communities,” says Browne.

Browne suggests that parents read blog posts by LGBTQ+ youth to gain some insight into what their own children might be going through. Another great resource is Central Toronto Youth Services, which offers a variety of programs to support families with LGBTQ+ children. It offers an online resource booklet called Families in Transition that Browne says is a must-read for families of youth who are transitioning.

Supporting your child may also mean standing up for them in the community. “People will talk, and often parents don’t do a good enough job of defending their kids,” says Browne. The best approach is to take the time to educate yourself so you can help educate others.

LGBTQ+ youth often experience depression and other mental health issues, which are a result of the trauma they often face. That’s why it’s especially important to make certain your child doesn’t feel isolated or alone. Ensure that they still feel engaged and accepted within the family and provide them with counselling resources if they need them. For example, Skylark offers walk-in and ongoing counselling options. You can also encourage your child to join an LGTBQ+ support group with their peers, such as those offered by The 519 and YouthLink. Skylark offers two great options: First Fridays for LGBTQ+ youth at The Studio and a newly opened group for LGBTQ+ tweens. “Just let kids determine what they want to be doing and support them in doing it,” says Browne.

For more information on supporting your child when they come out—and to find places where you can access LGBTQ+ youth resources—visit Supporting Our Youth, a community development program at Sherbourne Health Centre for queer and trans youth. Or visit Central Toronto Youth Services for their Pride & Prejudice and Families in TRANSition programs.

6 tips for teaching your kids about diversity

This article originally appeared on LocalLove.ca—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.”

Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation

This blog post has been written by Michelynn Laflèche, United Way Greater Toronto’s Vice President of Strategy, Research & Policy. She is one of the co-authors of Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation report.

The GTA is more divided than ever. How did this happen? Our beacon to the world is that we’re a place that is fair, safe, and comfortable in our diversity. Indeed, Toronto’s motto is “Diversity is our Strength”.

But, the findings in Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation reveal that we are telling ourselves a 35-year old story about fairness and opportunity. One that is simply not accurate in today’s GTA. I believe that evidence-based research is the first step towards meaningful action. And this data — the most robust source we have to date on income inequality — tells a troubling story. It should spur us all to action with a new level of urgency.

So, how did we get here? It’s about a lot of things, but mostly it comes down to the economy and the labour market, and the decisions we have made as a society that have shaped them. At a personal level, it’s about access to the opportunities to build a good life. And this data shows that in today’s GTA, access to opportunity is not shared equally.

First, we need to understand today’s economy and how it’s different from 35 years ago. The economy has certainly seen some ups and downs over the last three decades, but overall it has grown and prosperity is up.

But that prosperity is not shared by everyone. The kinds of jobs in our labour market have changed. More jobs are precarious. Young people today are entering a labour market that is radically different from the one their parents and grandparents enjoyed. There aren’t as many secure jobs with benefits and opportunities to advance. The cost of living has increased. There’s a lack of affordable housing. Put simply, it costs more to get by, but incomes haven’t kept pace, especially for young people, immigrants, and racialized people.

Decades of research have told us that in societies where income is more unequal, access to opportunity — the things you need to build a good life — is also unequal. Rising inequality is making the circumstances you can’t control — like your age, race, where you come from, and even where you live — matter more than individual effort. That means that those who are doing well continue to do well, while those who are not, continue to struggle.

Why? Partly because as people earn less and some fall behind, people get grouped together. We saw how this plays out spatially in our previous report, The Opportunity Equation in the GTA. The GTA, once made up of a majority of evenly-spread middle-income neighbourhoods, is now made up of high- and low-income neighbourhoods geographically separated from each other.

Those low-income neighbourhoods are also disproportionally populated by immigrants and racialized groups. The end result is that racialized and immigrant groups don’t have as much access to the opportunities that provide a higher income.

This trend was confirmed in our Getting Left Behind findings: those who were at the top in 2011 were doing better by 2017, and those who were at the bottom stayed just where they are. And yes, it was immigrants and racialized people who were left behind.

Behind this sits another problem we don’t much like to talk about in the GTA, because we like to believe that diversity is our strength. The massive scale of the 35-year growth of income inequality, whereby immigrants and racialized groups are so clearly being left behind compared to white and Canadian-born groups, demonstrates that contrary to our claims, we have made diversity a barrier. Even to me as a researcher who has been watching this closely for decades, this is shocking.

We must come to terms with the reality that this can’t be happening by chance, this can’t be happening because of different skills, education, cultural practices. This can’t be happening without discrimination of some form — direct or indirect, intentional or unintentional, individual or systemic. It is all at play in different ways, and it is time for us to face that truth.

The extremity of the findings in this report make the issue of inequality in our community #UNIGNORABLE. It is time to face it head on. It is time to fix it. Our report outlines a few recommendations. If we start there, together and immediately, we can not only channel our 35-year old story, we can write an even better one for the twenty-first century and beyond.

While these findings are bleak, I am still hopeful that we can make meaningful change. The reason we tell ourselves the stories about the promise of the GTA as a place that is fair, safe, and diverse is because we want them to be true. It’s an ideal that we, in all our glorious diversity, share. That gives me hope. But let’s face the truth bravely together, so that we can take the right actions.

4 ways self-reflection can combat racism

This article by Hannah Sung originally appeared on LocalLove.ca—a digital magazine powered by United Way—on June 26, 2018. Sung is a journalist and the 2020 Asper Fellow at Western University’s Faculty of Information & Media Studies.

I recently got an email from a friend asking for my advice. She’s in a hockey league and at the end of their season they celebrate by doing musical performances at a local bar. They picked a set list of feminist anthems that spanned decades. My friend chose an ’80s Salt-N-Pepa song, and planned to wear a big gold chain while she rapped. All the members are white, including my friend. They got into an awkward and unsatisfying discussion over her song and outfit choice, arguing whether this was cultural appropriation. So, my friend wrote to me. Was it?

First, I thanked my friend for giving me a Dear Ann Landers moment, an unrealized lifelong dream for me. I just want to give people advice, lots of advice. (“Good luck to those who take it, ha ha!” I wrote.)

Then I got serious, quick, because I recognize that these kinds of conversations are painful. They cut right to our most tender core, that part of us that screams, “I’m not racist, I swear!” But here’s the thing: We all have good intentions, and we also all have biases and blind spots. That’s why taking a hard look at our own thoughts and emotions is key. In Shakil Choudhury’s book Deep Diversity, Overcoming Us vs. Them, the author outlines how unlearning our implicit biases means understanding how humans think, interact and emotionally regulate. Our neurology plays a role, too.

“In brain science terms, we have to disrupt and alter the neural pathways that result in biases that do not serve us collectively. In plain language, [that means] we have to break some bad habits regarding issues of racial difference,” Choudhury writes. What he’s saying is, overcoming racism isn’t about policing others. It’s about questioning ourselves.

Looking inward is difficult for a few reasons. None of us thinks of ourselves as racist, right? And yet, how do we square that with the unalterable fact that we live in a Western society that was built upon racial hierarchies? Valuing, or devaluing, people based on race is how slavery, colonialism and racist immigration policy was justified. (And yes, we did have all of those here in Canada. Some would say we still do.) Systemic or structural discrimination, the kind of racism that props up entire systems, is a layer in the engineering of our society. What can one person do in the face of this?

I like to flip that question. Think about what you can control and where you can make a difference. Then look at the vast terrain that is your inner world. And here’s the good news: this is where you’re totally in charge.

Here’s a short, by no means comprehensive, list of ways self-reflection can combat racism.


We tend to see racist behavior as something loud and scary: the Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, N.C., for example, or a viral video of a racist rant. But racism can be much quieter, manifesting as passing thoughts and assumptions we make about other people. This “everyday” racism can have a cumulative, sometimes crushing effect for those who experience it over a lifetime. Learn to listen to your inner monologue and unpack your own thoughts by asking yourself why you think or feel a certain way. And after you’ve answered that “why,” ask another “why.”


It might seem like a good idea to ask your Anishinaabe friend questions about Indigenous cultural appropriation, but don’t. Answering questions about race might be traumatizing for some people. Thank the Google gods that you can learn by reading academic research, news stories and opinion pieces. Check out cultural organizations to see what work they’re doing in community education. Just remember: go for vetted, reputable sources. Don’t rely on the conversations you see among your friends on Facebook, unless they have expertise—I follow advocates and academics for that exact purpose.


If you want to have face-to-face discussions about race, do it with consideration. As author Ijeoma Oluo writes in her book So You Want To Talk About Race, it can be especially difficult for racialized people to have these conversations with people they’re close to. Oluo is biracial, and in her case, she’s talking about her own mother, who is white. “She asked if she at least got black credit for doing my hair for all of those years. I said no. We talked about when to not discuss race (say, in the middle of the workday when your black coworker is just trying to get through a day surrounded by white people). We ended the conversation exhausted and emotional, but with a greater understanding of each other.”

Of course, it doesn’t always end in a conciliatory way, something Oluo acknowledges. “These conversations, when done wrong, can do real damage. Friendships can be lost, holidays ruined, jobs placed in jeopardy,” she writes. But there’s no ignoring the topic of race. To do so is what Oluo says leads to, “real detrimental effects on the lives of others—say, in school boards, community programs and local government.”

Go into conversations about race with the awareness that the topic is a delicate one. When in doubt, connect with organizations, community groups and activists who are accustomed to answering questions and have expertise in education. Some suggestions: Toronto for All, Urban Alliance on Race Relations and activists like Desmond Cole or Roopa Cheema.


Unlearning racism means deprogramming yourself from the kinds of misinformation and implicit biases you’ve been trained your whole life to have. (Thanks, Hollywood, advertising, fairy tales, gender binary codes, our educational system, news media that treats itself as entertainment more than public service… the list goes on.) Recognize what opportunities you’ve had in your own life and listen to stories and experiences from people whose lives have been constrained in ways you might not even be aware of. This is the definition of “checking your privilege.” And if you like social media, use it to listen. Cultivate feeds that open up your bubble. Prioritize voices you may not have in your real life.

As for my friend with the hockey league rock band, I didn’t give her a definitive answer (I did, however, write, like, a one-thousand-word email). I simply asked her, “Would your band feel better if you were a Black woman rapping this Salt and Pepa song? Are there Black women in your band? Are there any Black women in your entire league? Why not? Is your social world white? Is your work world white? Why? Why? Why?”

I don’t think it annoyed her that I answered her question with more questions (and I won’t be anyone’s next Dear Ann Landers, I guess) but that’s the only way to go about these discussions. We need to question ourselves to the point where we are ready to unlearn threads of racism we’ve woven into our worldviews. That’s when we can get to a place where we start learning how to be so much better.

Ways you can help:

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

4 Women making local issues #UNIGNORABLE

It’s International Women’s Day—the perfect time to celebrate some of the amazing women who are working hard to improve the lives of individuals and families across Greater Toronto. Whether they’re tackling #UNIGNORABLE issues like homelessness and human trafficking, or raising awareness about poverty and bullying, each of these women is strengthening our region. Their dedication, determination and love for community will inspire you to get out there and show your local love, too.

1. Aiko Ito, Client intervention worker at Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services

As a client intervention worker at United Way-supported agency Dixon Hall, Aiko Ito advocates for Toronto seniors who face housing instability. She primarily helps seniors living on a low income who have physical or cognitive disabilities or mental health and addiction issues—and leads them out of a crisis in their current housing situation. Whether the issue is accessibility, rent hikes, conflict with neighbours or threat of eviction, Ito’s goal remains the same: “To help people live safely, both emotionally and physically.”

2. Edna Toth, founder and Editor-in-chief of Tough Times

Six years ago, Edna Toth launched Tough Times , a social justice tabloid newspaper currently circulating 10,000 copies six times a year to people in Peel Region. Since it’s launch, the paper has been praised for bringing attention to the affordable housing crisis in the region—and for giving a platform to people who rarely have the chance to speak about their lived experience with poverty and homelessness. “We’re representing people who don’t have any opportunity to say anything,” says Toth. “They often have nothing. They don’t have a place to speak in except Tough Times.”

3. Constable Joy Brown, Peel Regional Police

Photo courtesy of Bryon Johnson & The Brampton Guardian.

Const. Joy Brown, a 28-year veteran officer, 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. Two years on, the protocol—and the cooperation it brings—has been transformational.

4. Hannah Alper, social issues speaker

While Hannah, 15, writes about a range of topics from green living to bullying on her popular blog, Call Me Hannah , she’s perhaps best known for her moving speeches on social issues, including a TED talk. She’s also a bit of hero in her own community, where she received a student success award from the York Region District School Board for rallying her school to get involved in an international clean water campaign and local recycling program. While her accomplishments are huge, Hannah is a proponent of making small, everyday changes. “Know that it’s the little things that add up to make a big difference,” she asserts.

Want to meet more inspiring, change-making women? Head over to Local Love —your guide to living well and doing good.

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 wellbeing 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, 1 in 6 Children live in households that struggle to put food on the table. 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 wellbeing. 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.

Ways you can help:

5 ways poverty affects youth unemployment

Being unemployed as a young person can have ramifications that last a lifetime — without work experience, formal training or a professional network, it’s hard to reach even the first rung on the corporate ladder. Youth across the Greater Toronto Area face barriers to employment that range from precarious work to mental health issues, all of which are exacerbated for low-income youth. Despite these barriers, taking a more holistic approach is helping to institute much-needed change.

Malika Favre unignorable unemployment art of one figure trying to walk against flow of a crowd

1. Precarious work

A major employment barrier for youth is the rise of precarious employment, from contract jobs to part-time gigs and temp work. While this makes it harder to find full-time employment with benefits — and can limit income growth — it’s even more challenging for vulnerable youth who face systemic racism, income disparity or lack of social capital (often, many of these factors are inter-related).

And while jobs are out there, “there’s often a disconnect between formal education and what employers need,” says Andrew Reddin, director of partnerships with NPower Canada, an organization that provides youth with training, job placement and ongoing support in the information technology sector in partnership with United Way. A sector-based, employer-driven workforce development model takes a different approach, where employers are consulted about the specific skillsets they’re looking for and the curriculum is reverse-engineered to facilitate direct job placement. Paid internships and apprenticeships are also part of the solution.

2. Lack of work experience

Many vulnerable youth haven’t completed post-secondary education, says Reddin, but even in cases where they earn accreditation there’s no guarantee of a job; employers want to see co-op experience or applied knowledge. If they’ve completed post-secondary education outside of Canada, those credentials aren’t always recognized by Canadian employers. Racialized women with university degrees, for example, are still experiencing gaps in securing employment, despite an improving labour market.

A survey by RBC found three critical gaps in youth employment: getting work experience, growing their network and growing new skills. The survey found that while 83 per cent of educators feel youth are prepared for work, only 34 per cent of employers and 44 per cent of youth agree. That’s where community programming and public-private partnerships are helping to bridge the gap: RBC’s Future Launch, for example, is a partnership with governments, educators, the private sector and youth-serving organizations to foster change.

3. Lack of access

While free job training programs are available to vulnerable youth, these programs can still be inaccessible to youth who don’t have social supports or social assistance. “In many cases it’s an access issue,” says Mandie Abrams, executive director of the Hospitality Workers Training Centre (HWTC), which trains youth ages 18 to 29 to work in the hospitality industry, in partnership with United Way.

They still have to pay the bills; in some cases, they may be supporting a child but can’t afford childcare. Even the cost of transit can be a barrier during training — and affect future employability. “Our partners [in the hospitality industry] tend to be clustered downtown and by the airport,” says Abrams. So, if you live in Scarborough but can’t afford transit, then you can’t take a job at the airport. That’s why many job training programs work with other agencies and charities to direct low-income and vulnerable youth toward social supports that can help them stay gainfully employed.

4. Hidden homelessness

Housing in Toronto has become a major issue, with rental and ownership prices among the highest in Canada (and above the rate of inflation); almost 100,000 Toronto households are on a wait list for subsidized housing, according to Toronto’s Child and Family Poverty Report Card. In Toronto, 34 per cent of families with children aged 17 and under are paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent; in the meantime, some of those families live in unsafe situations, such as housing that’s overcrowded or in disrepair.

“Many youth aren’t ‘street’ homeless, but there’s ‘invisible’ homeless,” says Reddin. They might be couch surfing with extended family, or they might be on social assistance and sharing a room, but if their roommates can’t make rent they’re all at risk of being evicted. “Housing precarity really impacts somebody’s ability to complete training,” says Abrams. “They’ll often have to stop training because it takes all of their time and energy [to find housing]. … We’re assessing them on their work performance but their lives often impact that performance.” That’s why many of these programs have a non-judgmental, open-door policy, so if someone is unable to complete training because of life circumstances, they can come back and pick up where they left off.

5. Lack of support for mental health issues

A perhaps lesser-known barrier to youth employment in the GTA is the lack of culturally sensitive mental health counselling, according to Reddin. Vulnerable youth might live with anxiety or depression; refugees coming from a war zone might suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If triggered, their mental health can spiral, but sitting on a wait list for 10 months to get help impacts their employability and financial security.

These days, there’s a greater focus on holistic solutions, recognizing that many barriers to employment are related. NPower, for example, provides a soup-to-nuts spectrum of service, with 15 weeks of free training to job placement and ongoing support for two years after employment. But it also has social workers on staff who provide mental health counselling throughout the process. HWTC, for its part, works with case workers and other community agencies to help trainees get the supports they need; there’s also a social worker on staff focused on identifying and overcoming barriers to a successful transition into the workforce.

Ways you can help:

5 must-read stories from 2018

You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know it exists. That’s why, in 2018, we launched a bold new national awareness campaign designed to bring attention to #UNIGNORABLE local issues like poverty, homelessness, food insecurity and domestic violence—issues that are often overlooked.

Thank you for helping us be part of the solution to tackling these issues in the places we live and love. As the year draws to a close, we’ve rounded up five of our top blog posts that shine a light on complex issues facing our community—and what we can do about them, together.

Malika Favre art of white bench with black silhouette of homeless person on UNIGNORABLE colour

1. A myth-busting Q&A on homelessness
We asked frontline workers and experts about what it’s really like for the estimated 35,000 Canadians who experience homelessness on any given night. Their responses will completely change the way you think about homelessness.R

Malika Favre art of white fork with black silhouette of children on UNIGNORABLE colour

2. Can we end the cycle of child hunger?
In Toronto, about 1 in 4 children live beneath the poverty line—and since 2008, the city’s inner suburbs have seen a 48 per cent increase in food bank use, including kids. We asked the experts about the root causes of this unignorable issue—and how we can all help ensure no child goes hungry in our community.

3. Why loneliness in seniors is a health hazard
We may not think of loneliness as a serious mental health issue, but social isolation can have devastating effects on seniors. We talked to industry experts about the innovative, community-based solutions that can help seniors, their caregivers and, ultimately, the healthcare system.

4. Breaking the cycle: A Q&A on the stigma of domestic violence
Domestic violence is rampant across Canada. Lieran Docherty, program manager at WomanACT (Woman Abuse Council of Toronto), explains how social assistance programs, the justice system and public policy can more effectively support women experiencing violence.

Malika Favre art of piggy banks seen from above with one broken on UNIGNORABLE colour

5. Is poverty a human rights violation?
We spoke to Maytree’s President Elizabeth McIsaac on why we need to reframe how we think about poverty. Like many other advocates, she thinks we should start treating poverty as a human rights violation—an approach that could help empower those experiencing it.

Is poverty a human rights violation?

Society has long taken a charitable approach to poverty — but many of today’s poverty advocates are moving beyond this, approaching it as a human rights violation. While Canada has signed various international decrees and covenants, poverty is still not widely viewed this way. Nor are there institutions in place to support such an approach. But change is afoot.

Malika Favre art of piggy banks seen from above with one broken on UNIGNORABLE colour

One in seven Canadians lives in poverty; of all cities, Toronto has the highest poverty rate at 17 per cent, according to a 2017 report by the Citizens for Public Justice. Thanks to the growing, persistent reality of precarious employment, 51 per cent of Canadians living in poverty are part of the “working poor.”

A human rights approach, however, offers a broader definition of poverty. “In the simplest terms, it’s a matter of not living life with dignity. And that — living life with dignity — really requires the full spectrum of human rights — not just income security,” says Elizabeth McIsaac, President of Maytree, an organization dedicated to advancing systemic solutions to poverty through a human rights approach. “It’s about claiming your civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.”

A charitable approach positions those living in poverty as supplicants, which goes back to the days of begging for alms, and “there’s no dignity in that,” says McIsaac. The end goal is to protect that dignity — by law.

Malika Favre art of white fork with black silhouette of children on UNIGNORABLE colour

“It’s recognizing that if you can’t put food on the table, if you can’t access clean water, if you’re not able to get a decent education, if you can’t get health care — including mental health [supports] and pharmaceuticals — and if you can’t access affordable housing, each one of those is a violation of human rights.”

Human rights are typically linked to civil and political rights, such as the right to assemble and vote; these rights are much better articulated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and much better understood by the general public. But advocates such as McIsaac argue that all rights are interdependent; to realize civil and political rights, one must also have social and economic rights (you can’t vote, for example, if you can’t read and write).

Malika Favre unignorable art of white graduation cap on red background with black figure holding on to the edge of the cap

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, states that: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

And while Canada has signed various international decrees and covenants about the eradication of poverty, McIsaac says we haven’t done the work of strengthening our legal and policy frameworks. “If we’re not recognizing it in law or in statements of policy as a human right, then people don’t see it that way.”

Part of the problem is that international covenants are drawn up at UN headquarters in Geneva; they feel distant and abstract to Canadians. So the first challenge is building our recognition of poverty as a human rights violation, then “walking the talk” by strengthening institutions — through, for example, a housing advocate or council of welfare — that monitors, reports and holds government to account on how well society is progressing toward these goals.

Malika Favre art of white bench with black silhouette of homeless person on UNIGNORABLE colour

A core part of this is housing: Is it secure, affordable and culturally appropriate? “That doesn’t mean tomorrow everybody has a house — it’s a commitment on the part of government and the community that we will move toward realizing that right,” says McIsaac.

It’s something poverty advocates refer to as “progressive realization,” which means there’s a commitment on the part of society to progressively realize that right for all human beings by building systems to support it.

And there is progress being made. McIsaac is optimistic about seeing legislation from the federal government on the right to housing. “We’re very close to seeing legislation being tabled at the federal level for a national housing strategy,” she says. “We hope it will put in place housing as a human right [with a housing advocate and advisory council].”

Both Amnesty International Canada and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, supported by the UN, have been working with the federal government to take a rights-based approach to the legislation. This approach, aimed at reducing homelessness and creating more affordable, stable housing, is one that has also been endorsed by United Ways in Canada.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, is also spearheading a global movement called The Shift in partnership with United Cities Local Government and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. As part of the movement, cities are signing on to a declaration of housing as a human right — a “shift” from seeing housing as a commodity to housing as a human right. Seoul in South Korea, for example, has mechanisms at a city level to recognize housing as a human right.

Malika Favre Unignorable art of

A human rights approach to poverty positions all people as rights holders — acknowledging that they hold these rights, that they’re able to claim them, and that they can do so with dignity. “It’s very empowering to say: ‘I’m entitled to affordable housing’ as opposed to ‘Can you please let me have that?’,” says McIsaac.

In McIsaac’s view, reframing poverty requires that we expand our understanding of human rights to encompass social and economic rights. “We need to build out a culture of human rights that understands social and economic rights are part of the package. It’s not just about belonging to a union or being able to vote, it’s also about having access to housing that’s affordable,” she says. “This is not a political issue, and it’s not a partisan thing — this is about the human project of respect and dignity.”

Ways you can help:

Building on a foundation for affordable housing change

Pedro Barata is Senior Vice President of Community Impact & Strategy at United Way Greater Toronto. He has experience working within, and across community-based organizations, strategic philanthropy, and various levels of government.

Just a year ago, we were celebrating the launch of the National Housing Strategy, a tangible and visionary demonstration of the federal government’s leadership on an issue of deep concern to Canadians. United Ways across the country joined the effort to contribute to the development of the federal strategy by helping to convene the National Housing Collaborative.

White statistic on red background

This novel experiment brought together non-profits, foundations, private housing providers, policy makers and government— as well as tapping into the expertise and perspectives of people with lived experience, communities and local governments—to take advantage of a unique opportunity in time. Together, we entered into a pan-Canadian conversation focused on reimagining affordable housing for communities from coast to coast to coast, devising a roadmap to follow, and hammering out the serious policies and practices to get us there.

The hard work of the partners involved in the National Housing Collaborative paid off. The National Housing Strategy reflected the core recommendations from the housing sector and community through its goals, policy and funding.

The National Housing Strategy is a $40 billion decade-long comprehensive strategy. Importantly, it prioritizes those in greatest need. Significantly, It lays out a range of policy priorities to increase the supply of affordable housing and to support the renewal and maintenance of existing housing. It sets in motion the creation of a new Canada Housing Benefit,  and doubles investments aimed at ultimately cutting chronic homelessness in half. It also takes significant action to build the capacity of the housing sector to deliver on the 10-year vision, as well as to re-build our research and expertise in this area.

A year in, we can take stock of significant progress and find reasons to be optimistic — we really are at the beginning of something new and promising:

  • We have alignment across all levels of government in both principle and practice, something that is very powerful. As the federal government has come forward with funding, policy and leadership, municipalities across our region, including leadership in York, Peel and Toronto have stepped up to the challenge, making this issue a priority. Indeed, through the federal-provincial agreement between Canada and Ontario, the province has committed to taking on a senior role in partnership with those municipalities and in partnering on a new portable housing benefit.
  • An emphasis on new collaboration has exercised our creative muscle and extended our understanding of how every sector can contribute to solutions. CMHC’s new National Housing Co-investment Fund creates a new source of funds that will add to the mix of tools to encourage innovative partnerships and leverage investment to build and repair much-needed new affordable housing — social, non-profit and private. United Way’s own experience with our partners on Tower Neighbourhood Renewal models valuable lessons in what can be realized by updating what we have, transforming it to better deliver on the social, environmental and economic outcomes of a new generation of housing.
  • The commitment to a portable housing benefit, the Canada Housing Benefit, is a game-changer when it comes to addressing core housing need and poverty reduction. With implementation expected in 2020, senior levels of government working with community, experts and people with lived experience have a real opportunity to build a historic new pillar for social and economic inclusion. Our task should be to dream big. With the right first steps, we can establish a new policy infrastructure that, over time, should be as ambitious in terms of reach, responsiveness and impact as the Canada Child Benefit.
  • The federal government’s new strategy on homelessness, Reaching Home, doubles resources for the Homelessness Partnership Strategy, to support communities in working towards an ambitious goal of reducing homelessness by 50% over the next 10 years. It also builds on learnings over the last decade, embracing a Housing First model that incorporates wrap-around supports. Better data integration and a central application system round out this comprehensive approach.
  • And an emerging new focus on housing as a human right raises the bar on our discussion about core social needs as essential to the kind of Canada we want to build, and our values of fairness, inclusion and mutual care.

As we continue this important work, striving together to address this most basic and urgent of human needs, there is a newfound sense of hope and opportunity. No strategy of this scale and complexity will be straightforward, simple, or without lessons learned. But the promise that it holds should keep us focused, determined, and open to learning through collaboration.

With the leadership of the federal government and the support of provinces and municipalities working directly with communities, we have finally put the issue of housing and homelessness where it deserves to be: at the top of the agenda, with clear policy direction and dollars to back it up.

The foundation is laid; let’s get on with it.

Ways you can help:

Is Kindness Contagious?

We’ve all heard the concept of paying it forward – where one person performs a random act of kindness, which inspires the recipient to do the same. But is kindness truly contagious?

Illustration of statistic Canadians volunteered total of 1.96 billion hours in one year

A growing body of scientific evidence seems to suggest this is the case. When we are the recipient of, or a witness to, a kind act, we feel warm and fuzzy inside. Essentially, this pleasant feeling makes us want to then do something kind for others.

Results of a ground-breaking study by researchers at the University of California San Diego and Harvard University published in the British Medical Journal in 2008 found that people can ‘catch’ emotional states they observe in others by ‘emotional contagion.’ The benefits of paying it forward, according to the researchers, spreads to at least three degrees of separation.

Another study published in Biological Psychiatry in 2015 gives this warm and fuzzy feeling a name: moral elevation. During the study, 104 college students were shown videos of acts of compassion and kindness, which triggered an increase in heart rate and brain activity associated with empathy. Hence, the term “moral elevation”.

Kindness elevates oxytocin levels, a hormone involved in empathy, compassion and kind behaviour, according to author and speaker Dr. David Hamilton. Genetically speaking, he writes that: “We are not wired to be selfish. We are wired to be kind.”

In other words, by building a person’s empathy and perspective, it can inspire them to do the same for others. And while there’s research to support this, there’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence.

When Dareen Fatimah first came to Canada with her husband and son – with no family connections or job prospects – she was overwhelmed. She didn’t know how to find housing, employment or even warm clothing in a country that was completely unfamiliar to her. The family had just spent 10 days walking around Toronto in the frigid cold, trying to find a place to live.

One day, in an effort to warm up, the family ducked into a school. It was then that a grey-haired woman approached with a smile and asked if they needed help. It turned out she was a settlement worker with United Way-supported CultureLink, an agency that helps newcomers settle into their new life in Canada.

“She recommended so many free services [for new Canadians] that we didn’t know existed – it was like winning the lottery,” says Fatimah. Growing up in Lebanon and moving to Dubai as a young adult, she had never met anyone who was willing to help her for nothing in return. “I spent so many nights trying to understand if this is fraud or if this is real,” she says.

Fatimah arrived in Canada in March; by June she was volunteering with CultureLink, eventually finding employment as a settlement worker and program co-ordinator. “I still feel I owe this to every single newcomer that comes across my way, whether I’m at the subway or at the supermarket or at work. This is like a gift that I was given, and I have to pass it on to someone else.”

Dionne Quintyn moved to the Regent Park community in Toronto when she was five years old. Her mom – a hard-working Guyanese woman who moved to Canada in 1995 – worked in Richmond Hill, which meant her children would come home from school to an empty house. So, she enrolled Quintyn and her brother in the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Clubs.

The afterschool club came with a bonus: the United Way-funded Safewalk Home Program. “That program was my mom’s life and saviour. By the time we got home at seven, she was home and dinner was ready,” says Quintyn.

Now, as a young adult, Quintyn is a representative on the provincial youth council for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada and past president of the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Clubs youth council. Aside from continuing to volunteer, she earned an advanced diploma in child and youth work and is now in the degree program at Humber College so she can provide counselling services for youth transitioning out of the justice system.

“I feel like it’s molded me into somebody who wants to help others because I was helped throughout my whole life through the Boys and Girls Clubs. Sometimes I feel like it’s my calling,” she says. “I like the fact I can help somebody else.”

Perhaps Quintyn sums up the concept of moral elevation best: “I do it because it’s fun, and I enjoy giving people the help they need so they can go out and help someone else.”

How you can help:


Will you step UP for Community?

On November 24 and November 25, 2018, thousands of people from across the GTA will show their local love by participating in UP 2018, the CN Tower Climb for United Way.

Man holding hands in shape of heart with CN Tower in them

If you’re one of those intrepid climbers, or if you’d like to register to join them, we wanted to put this monumental community challenge into context with some fun facts from the climb over the years.

A tall challenge

The CN Tower stands a whopping 553 metres tall (which is 1,815 ft, or almost 11 times taller than Niagara Falls!). Though climb participants won’t have to scale all 553 meters of the tower, they will have to make it up 1,776 steps to the top.

The time to beat

Though the average climber takes about 30 minutes to reach the top, the teams who take the challenge can get pretty competitive. However, if you’re looking to beat the record for fastest climb, you’ll need to be ready to tackle the tower at a speed of roughly four steps a second! That’s about 222 steps a minute, and it’s the pace that was set by Brendan Keenoy, a police officer. He completed the climb in a swift seven minutes and 52 seconds back in 1989, and his record has stood unchallenged ever since.

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41 years of local love

Participants have been stepping #UPforCommunity for 41 years, having started just one year after the tower opened in 1976. Over those four decades of CN tower climbs, more than 251,665 people have taken on the challenge, and they’ve been supported by thousands of volunteers. Their combined charitable efforts have raised more than $31 million to build brighter futures for individuals and families in Peel, Toronto and York Region.

To be a part of this lofty legacy, step up for community and register today for the UP 2018 CN Tower Climb for United way.

5 ways to raise good humans

An earlier version of this story appeared on imagineacity.ca in April 2017 and has been updated and edited here.

This time of year is all about giving back—to friends, family and community. And it’s never too early to get your kids—mini philanthropists-in-the-making—thinking about the importance of doing good. So we’ve put together this “cheat sheet” on simple and quick ways to start a conversation around empathy, generosity and being a good human.

1. Show them the way

“Our children are like little sponges who suck up a lot of what we say and do,” says Mary Bean, Senior Director, Culture and Leadership at Learn2. “So one great way to get them involved in helping others is to do so ourselves.” You can start doing this when your kids are young—Bean started volunteering with her little ones when they were six—by bringing them along and talking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. “Tie some purpose to your activities, and explain, ‘I do this because it’s important for…,’” Bean says. She recommends picking volunteer opportunities that are connected to your child’s world, like their soccer team, school or local playground. “That helps to bring it to a frame of reference that they can understand,” she explains. With her kids, Bean chose activities that they could be actively involved in. “I wouldn’t have brought them to a meeting where I was sitting on a board as a volunteer, or that kind of thing. It was more things like setting up for a bake sale, or getting ready for their school fun fair, so they could see the results of their efforts—and enjoy them.”

2. Get them inspired

“Volunteer experiences need to be tied to something that gives you a sense of connection and belonging as an individual. So, what is your child interested in?” says Bean. It could be volunteering at the Humane Society and giving some furry friends a little love on a Saturday morning, she says. Or, finding a way to help kids their age. “Think about the questions your child is asking about the world, or things you’re bringing up at the table over a meal that they’re asking more than one question about,” she recommends.

When they get a bit older, you can also sign kids up for programs that have a volunteer component like Girl Guides or Scouts. Or, she says, if they want to try a new activity, use that as an opening to get them to think about giving back. If, for example, they ask to be on a hockey team, make it part of the deal for them to help you do something community-minded that’s connected to the activity, such as making the weekly team snack. That way, you’ll connect good-human behaviour to something they love.

You can also encourage them to come up with their own ideas for community initiatives or ways to give back. Who knows, you might have a social innovator on your hands.

3. Make them feel appreciated

One way to help kids blossom into good humans is to make sure they feel appreciated for what they offer, notes Bean. “Kids aren’t thanked very much,” she says, so it’s a powerful thing to let them know they contributed in a meaningful way and helped others. “A sense of belonging and a sense of happiness are connected,” explains Bean, “which is why I think volunteerism is so powerful, because you’re really contributing and belonging to something bigger than yourself.” Thanking your kids, or having an organizer thank them, will make them feel that they’re now part of a wider community, encouraging them to keep giving back.

4. Broaden their minds

Part of the process of raising kids who give back is helping them learn about the world beyond their lives, says Sara Marlowe, a clinical social worker who teaches mindfulness to children and families. One great way to start these conversations is by reading books together about people with different experiences. “For younger kids, books can be a gentle way to introduce concepts,” Marlowe says. Another way to offer the idea that there are things your family may have that others may not is by guiding them to set aside some of their allowance money to donate, she explains. This can help them understand not only that people in their community are in need, but also that there is something they can do to help.

5. Foster empathy

Cultivating self-compassion and empathy is a way to build on your child’s desire to want to help, explains Marlowe. “Research shows when we’re kinder to ourselves, and more compassionate toward ourselves, we’re kinder to and more compassionate with other people,” she says. “It strengthens our ability to be empathetic.”

One way to help our kids be more empathetic is to explicitly talk about how others may be feeling. “From very early on, we can start to encourage children to be aware of others,” says Marlowe. So, point out facial expressions in a picture book and ask your child how that person feels, or if you see an incident at the playground, ask your little one to consider what that experience was like for each of the kids present.

This is also another area where you can model the behaviour you want to see. Remember, kids are like sponges, so when you show kindness and empathy to others, your children will pick up on it.

Want to learn more about how we can help kids become good humans?

Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?

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

Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy 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 four 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?

Poverty 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.

Malika Favre art of piggy banks seen from above with one broken on UNIGNORABLE colour

2. 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.

3. 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 make it 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.

Statistic that 1 in 5 people in Toronto live in poverty and 1 in 8 in Peel and York Region

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.”

Ways you can help:

Can we end the cycle of child hunger?

In Toronto, 26.8 per cent of children—about one in four—live beneath the poverty line. That’s the highest percentage of poverty among urban centres in Canada. Along with poverty comes food insecurity; since 2008, the city’s inner suburbs have seen a 48 per cent increase in food bank use, including by children.

Malika Favre art of white fork with black silhouette of children on UNIGNORABLE colour

Having a job is no longer enough to ensure food security. Factors such as precarious work and lack of affordable housing can impact a household’s ability to put food on the table. Imagine a City spoke to frontline community workers and poverty experts on the long-lasting side effects of hunger, as well as innovative programs that are helping to tackle this issue right here at home.

What are some of the root causes of child hunger in the GTA?

“We’re looking at a city where there are so many people who are struggling, but food insecurity becomes a by-product of that—it’s one of the symptoms of people who are income-insecure,” says Shoba Adore, executive director of United Way-supported Braeburn Neighbourhood Place. “It’s about affordable housing, decent wages, employment that’s not precarious.” Income insecurity leads to food insecurity, and it’s much more pervasive than many realize; even those with a job (or multiple jobs) don’t always have enough to eat on a regular basis.

“By the time they pay for their rent and transit there isn’t money for food,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lee Ford-Jones, project investigator at The Hospital for Sick Children and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto. For many parents, she says not having enough money to feed their children is a terrible shame. They may “slink along to food banks” or deny the problem exists; in some cases, they keep their kids home from school if they don’t have lunch money.

What are the long-term effects of child hunger?

Research conducted by Ford-Jones and McMaster University’s Janice Ke found that food insecurity and hunger lead to a number of health-related issues. In children, it’s associated with delays in socioemotional, cognitive and motor development; higher levels of hyperactivity, inattention and poor memory; higher frequency of chronic illness; and increased risk of childhood obesity. For youth, there’s increased risk for depression and suicidal ideation, as well as mood, behaviour and substance abuse disorders.

“There are long-term impacts on children but also on the family—how parents basically sacrifice their own food and nutrition to provide food for their kids,” says Michael Polanyi, a former community worker for the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. That takes both a physical and psychological toll on parents and the family as a unit; in some cases, parents are under so much stress and deprivation themselves that they’re not able to provide for the family.

Image with this stat: More than 4 million Canadians—1 in 8 households—experience food insecurity.

What about school programs?

There are 180,000 children in Toronto accessing either snack or lunch programs in schools, “but certainly it’s a fraction of all children going to school,” says Polanyi. “Many countries have universal hot lunch programs, like France, where they provide nutritious meals for all the kids at lunchtime.” In Canada, there is no national strategy to provide students with snacks or hot lunches; programs are typically provided by charitable organizations.

Braeburn, for example, provides enriched snack programs during after-school activities. And while many families visit the agency to access its food programs, Braeburn is also able to offer other ‘wraparound supports’ such as lunch-and-learns for students as well as tutoring and homework assistance. It also allows students to maintain their dignity and avoid embarrassment or shame. “We try to offer programs in a universal way — it’s open and you choose to come,” says Adore. “All of our programs are free, there’s no means testing, you’re not reporting on what your income is … so you’re getting lunch but you’re also doing your homework.”

What about community-based approaches?

Food banks can help with immediate needs, but community-based initiatives like The Stop Community Food Centre can empower vulnerable populations with longer-term solutions. “The Stop is a whole food program … where the community grows the food, harvests the food, prepares the food and serves the food,” says Ford-Jones.

Community gardens allow vulnerable populations to grow some of their own food, “but also gain some income through selling food locally through farmers’ markets,” says Polanyi. Community kitchens or food hubs can also provide access to healthy, low-cost food; some also teach basic nutrition and cooking skills. United Way-supported FoodShare, for example, works with schools and communities to deliver healthy food along with food education; its FoodLink program connects community members with local low-cost food programs, such as food banks or community gardens.

What are the next steps in eradicating child hunger?

While there’s a need to expand school nutrition programs and provide better access to affordable food, fighting child hunger and fighting poverty go hand in hand. Though the federal government is developing a poverty reduction strategy, experts agree there’s a need for more funding and more action. “It’s such a wise investment for us to make that will change the long-term costs to the healthcare system,” says Adore. “We feel like we’re in the Ministry of Prevention.”

Ways you can help:

10 ways poverty affects kids

Child poverty is a widespread issue, with an alarming 17 per cent of Canadian children living on a low income, according to the 2016 census. In Toronto, the rate is even higher, and our region has the dubious distinction of being the child poverty capital of Canada. According to Unequal City: The Hidden Divide Among Toronto’s Children and Youth, a 2017 report from Social Planning Toronto, more than one in four children under the age of 18 live in poverty, making Toronto’s child and youth poverty rate the highest among major cities in Canada. Indigenous, newcomer and racialized children are more likely to be growing up in low-income households, creating an even wider gap in quality of life.

Child in pink hoodie and brown pants hugging knees

Across the board, kids who experience poverty are at a great disadvantage in life, with effects lasting well into adulthood. Here are 10 ways poverty holds kids back:

1. Food insecurity

When children don’t have enough to eat, they are more likely to have difficulty focusing at school. But it gets worse: hunger can actually impair cognitive functioning and brain development. Sugary and refined foods that are low in nutritional value can also have a negative effect on a kid’s ability to learn. That’s one reason children who have access to nutritious (and often, more expensive) food typically do better academically. “Food insecurity can play into certain mental health disorders and developmental disorders,” says Dr. Sloane Freeman, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital and founder of the Model Schools Pediatric Health Initiative, an in-school healthcare program that works in low-income communities. “If you’re not nourished a certain way, you’re at risk for developmental problems in childhood.”

Food insecurity also puts kids at a higher risk for developing other health issues—like diabetes and cardiovascular disease—later in life. According to a 2017 report from the University of Toronto, people with lower incomes typically consume less produce than those in food-secure households. “It’s not a question of not knowing you should be eating fruits and vegetables; it’s not being able to afford the fruits and vegetables,” says Raphael. “With poverty, you live under conditions of material deprivation.”

2. Affordable housing

As housing costs increase, lower-income families are forced into enclaves where there are usually fewer recreational resources—or lower-quality resources—for kids. “Inadequate housing may be located in high-risk neighbourhoods which have less access to quality services, infrastructure and vibrant communities, compared to housing in more secure locations,” says a report by Best Start Resource Centre. “Welfare rates and Ontario Disability Support Program are not enough to meet basic needs, making it impossible for families to save for a house or to increase their standard of living.”

Plus, when families are underhoused, they are often subject to overcrowding, says professor Raphael. This means it’s not uncommon for two or three families to live in a single apartment. “From a health perspective, this can cause infections and stress.” And it’s not a short-term problem: “the waiting list is 18 years [for subsidized housing],” he says.

3. Childcare

There’s a link between childcare and school success. Quality childcare helps early childhood development and boosts success later in life: it provides a safe, educational environment that fosters cognitive development and prepares kids for school. While affordable childcare is important to families from all economic backgrounds, access to this service is not equal across income brackets: a 2018 report from People for Education found that elementary schools with a higher percentage of university-educated parents are more likely to offer childcare, whereas at schools with fewer university-educated parents and higher rates of poverty, subsidized or affordable childcare services are lacking.

When low-income children don’t have access to this vital service, they’re put at risk, says Khanna. “Unfortunately, affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare is still a matter of chance, as children linger on the subsidy waitlist when they could be gaining foundational skills through play-based learning,” she says.

4. Extracurricular activities

According to the Unequal City report, access to recreational opportunities is key for children’s development and well-being, and prepares them for success in school. But when kids can’t join in for financial reasons, they lose out. Data from the Toronto District School Board shows that 48 per cent of children in families with incomes below $30,000 do not regularly take part in extracurricular activities. This is a huge contrast with children in households with incomes of $100,000 or more, where only 7 per cent do not attend out-of-school sports or lessons.

“Typically, children in low-income [households] have fewer opportunities for enrichment,” says Anita Khanna, the director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto. “Experiences like going to an arts-based day camp or on trips to the zoo or science centre help bring in-class learning to life. This is why programs that promote access to summer programs for children in all income groups are so vital.”

5. Dental care

A 2014 Toronto Public Health outreach initiative found that kids from lower-income households are less likely to receive quality dental care, and are more likely to have cavities and need root canals than kids from higher-income families.

Those findings are backed up by a 2013 report from the Canadian Paediatric Society, which found that dental disease disproportionately affects low-income families, Indigenous children, new immigrants and kids with special health needs. On top of having poorer oral health, the report states that these populations are also less likely to have dental insurance, and tend to have limited or no access to oral health care.

This is all despite Healthy Smiles Ontario, an initiative aimed to provide government-covered dental care to low-income kids. According to the Ontario Dental Association, there’s still a critical funding gap that leaves many behind. A June 2018 press release calling for “meaningful action” on funding public dental health programs from Ontario’s new premier noted that dentists in Ontario treat about 200,000 kids under Healthy Smiles Ontario—but there are 500,000 eligible children. This means that even with current government support, many low-income kids still aren’t receiving quality care.

6. Educational opportunities

Findings from a 2013 Globe and Mail investigation showed that schools in affluent Toronto neighbourhoods had higher student literacy test scores and better educational resources than schools in lower-income areas. Not only do low-income kids tend to do worse on literacy tests, but research shows they’re less likely to succeed in the long term, too. One study published in the journal Paediatrics & Child Health revealed that kids from low-income households were less likely to graduate from high school and to attend university or college.

“In Canada, only 31 per cent of youth from the bottom income quartile attended
post-secondary education compared with 50.2 per cent in the top income quartile,” the report found. “Once again, the evidence indicates that students from low-income families are disadvantaged right through the education system to postsecondary training.”

7. Reading

There’s a strong correlation between socio-economic status and academic performance. That’s particularly evident when we’re looking at language development. A 2013 study by psychologists at Stanford University, for instance, showed that toddlers from low-income households knew fewer words and had weaker language processing skills than their more-affluent peers. They were also less likely to start school with early reading skills.

Another gap is in the simple—yet, for many, less achievable—act of reading aloud to and with kids. According to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, kids who are regularly read to at home and have more positive parental interaction have higher levels of school readiness. But for a number of reasons, this tends to happen less often in lower-income households.

“Despite parents’ best efforts, the hunger, anxiety and social exclusion associated with poverty can have negative effects on children’s school readiness,” Khanna says. “Parents who have to juggle multiple low-wage or contract jobs may have less time to read to their children and build early literacy skills.” This barrier is even greater for new Canadian families if English is not their first language. Even if they’re able to spend time developing other skills with their children, English literacy is key to school success.

Kids from low-income households are also more likely to experience summer reading loss, a decline in literacy skills that can happen when children take a break from reading over summer vacation—and one that can have cumulative effects. “We all know that it is much harder to play catch-up when you start off on an unequal footing,” she says.

8. Swimming lessons

Knowing how to swim can save your life. Unfortunately, many low-income children aren’t enrolled in swimming lessons due to cost, much like other extra-curricular activities. When kids don’t learn to swim, they are literally more likely to die than those who can.

There are also cultural barriers that may prevent many low-income kids from learning how to swim—the need for gender-segregated lessons, for example. New Canadians are four times less likely to know how to swim than those born in Canada, and are therefore at a higher risk for drowning.

9. Healthcare

Children from lower-income households typically receive worse, and less frequent, medical attention than more-affluent kids do, which means they’re at a greater risk for physical and mental health problems. Plus, kids experiencing poverty are more likely to be hospitalized for acute conditions and are less likely to receive preventive care. According to Social Determinants of Health, a report co-authored by York University’s Raphael, the bottom 33 per cent of Canadian income earners are less likely to see a specialist when needed compared to the country’s top 33 per cent of earners.

“Poverty affects a number of the social determinants of health,” says Freeman. “There’s transportation barriers, financial barriers, parents have to take time off work to go see the doctor and there’s significant language barriers. There’s difficulty navigating our healthcare system in general. It’s more difficult than we may realize for families to access the care they need.”

10. Financial literacy

“Financial services are generally designed to cater to the needs of middle- and high-income individuals,” says a report by Prosper Canada. “This can result in financial information and advice that is unintentionally ill-suited or even harmful to people with low incomes.”

If a child comes from a family where there are financial barriers, like low levels of education or low-wage employment, they’re less likely to develop financial literacy as they grow up. Certain segments of the population that are more prone to poverty, including Indigenous people and new Canadians, are also less likely to learn how to make more informed financial choices. Things like applying for student loans and government grants, for example, are more challenging for kids whose parents don’t have the knowledge base.

It’s clear that poverty impacts the trajectory of a child’s entire life and accentuates the income gap across generations—which is why it’s important for society to do everything it can to counteract its effects. Advocating for change, getting involved in local politics, and volunteering in your community can help.

“All children should have the opportunity to reach their full potential and contribute to our communities,” says Khanna. “We all benefit from lower poverty and inequality, so we need to be fully invested in making positive change to improve the lives of children and families.”

Ways you can help:

Who cares for the caregivers?

More attention is being paid to mental health, but what about the impact on those caring for a family member or loved one who struggles with mental illness or has attempted suicide? Research shows that caregiving takes a toll — physically, mentally and emotionally, even financially. Imagine a City looks at the impact on families and how vital community-based supports and respite can provide much-needed care for caregivers.

By age 40, about 50% of Canadians will have or have had a mental illness

Informal caregivers provide critical support and care at home. And it’s becoming increasingly commonplace: As of 2012, 8 million Canadians — that’s 28 per cent of the population aged 15 and over — provided care to family members or friends, according to Statistics Canada.

But among regular caregivers, StatsCan found that 38 per cent of those who helped their child, 34 per cent who helped their spouse and 21 per cent who helped their parents reported feeling depressed. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) also found that caregivers have higher rates of emotional and anxiety disorders, and are twice as likely as non-caregivers to use mental health services for their own problems.

Caregivers are not a homogenous group; caregiving runs the gamut from navigating the healthcare system and administering medication to providing personal assistance in the home, such as housework, feeding, bathing and toileting. In some cases, caregivers have to take time off work or quit their job — for example, to supervise a family member with dementia — which adds financial stress to the situation.

“Families can really be at risk for developing their own physical health issues or mental health issues as a result of chronic stress,” says Leanne Needham, family work lead at the Canadian Mental Health Association, Peel Dufferin, a United Way supported agency. “Some families can be exposed to this chronic level of stress for years and years.” Through her work, Needham has seen caregivers develop chronic pain, illness and depression as a result of ongoing worry and fear.

Add to this the fact there may be conflict in the home that can lead to trauma — having interventions with police or having their loved one disappear for days at a time, and “the grief around that and not knowing where to turn or when things are going to change,” says Needham.

Caregivers often have multiple responsibilities; the ‘sandwich-generation’ may be taking care of children and elderly parents at the same time. StatsCan found that 60 per cent of caregivers were working at a paid job or business, and 28 per cent had children under the age of 18.

“Sometimes [caregivers] just need a break,” says Wanda Morris, chief advocacy and engagement officer for the Canadian Association for Retired Persons. CARP’s Caring for Caregivers campaign is advocating for increased financial benefits for family caregivers in Canada, many of whom are on the verge of burnout. “People are being dropped off in emergency on a Friday night, and that sounds really heinous, but sometimes families are just at their wit’s end.”

Even in cases where government-funded care is provided, Morris says informal caregivers are frustrated with lack of continuity and flexibility. There’s a “revolving door” of government-funded caregivers, which impacts continuity of care. This is stressful for the person being supported, particularly when that care is intimate, such as bathing. “Imagine having that happen with different random strangers all of the time,” says Morris.

Caregivers are often so busy looking for supports for their loved ones, they forget to take care of themselves, says Needham. Or, they don’t know supports even exist. But it’s similar to the safety warning on airplanes: Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping the person next to you. “If you wear yourself out, then you’re not going to be able to be there for your loved ones,” she says.

CAMH has come up with a list of recommendations for caregivers, including income support to cover expenses and lost income; peer support where family members can share their fears and frustrations, and learn coping skills; and respite services to give caregivers a break from their responsibilities.

While much needs to be done on the legislative front to provide better income support and job protection to caregivers, there are a broad range of other supports, from skills-building workshops to adult daycare. Local CMHAs across Ontario, for example, offer family support, from educational workshops to counselling; there are also options through hospitals.

In the GTA, a number of non-profit family support organizations provide education, counselling and peer support groups, such as the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere (FAME), and the Family Outreach and Response Program (now affiliated with CMHA Toronto). The Sashbear Foundation runs a 12-week program called Family Connections, which provides skills training and support for people in a relationship with someone who has emotion dysregulation.

“[Caregiving] can be very draining — reaching out and getting support can help you understand better how to support somebody,” says Needham. “It can reduce conflict in the home and it can keep you going longer and stronger.”

Head to LocalLove.ca to learn more about preventing caregiver burnout and watch this inspiring video to hear a personal account of how community supports can help caregivers.

Going global to embrace local

Game-changers. They’re often necessary and certainly, transformative. They can make what may appear big —small, what’s complicated—easy and what’s global —local.

Closeup on a group of five young children leaning into the camera

That’s why at United Way, we’ve decided to get more deeply local with a global, mission-driven, digital platform: Salesforce Philanthropy Cloud (SPC), a change that will enhance what we do best, and that’s bringing people together to solve local issues.

Because like you, we believe community matters.

This is why we’ve partnered with Salesforce.org.

We’ve heard first-hand that you love your neighbourhoods—from Malvern to Mississauga, from Gerrard to Georgina—and you care about local issues. You’re passionate about unignorable problems like growing income inequality, poverty, and a labour market that isn’t providing a clear path to opportunity and good-paying jobs. We understand too that you want to be part of the change that makes the neighbourhood you live and work in a thriving, happy place.

SPC places you and what you care about most front-and-centre, provides more options at your fingertips, and allows you to personalize how and where you choose to give your support.

Now, you’ll be able to take action with just one click. SPC will help everyone—from donors to volunteers to community partners—to easily connect with each other, share inspiring content, and create a powerful network of change-makers, all working together to tackle local poverty.

Sometimes you have to go really big to get really small.

Find out more about SPC and and if it’s right for your workplace here.

5 reasons why mentorship matters

From childhood to early adulthood, mentorship matters — not just in the near-term, but for future success and prosperity. For vulnerable or at-risk children, in particular, mentorship can help to prevent possible challenges down the road, while building self-esteem and improving peer relationships, academic success and future employability. Imagine a City spoke to the experts on the lasting effects of mentorship and how it can change lives—and communities. Here are five reasons why mentorship matters:

sep3_mentorstat_718x350.jpg1. It improves educational outcomes

Vulnerable or at-risk youth can face challenges at school, as do children being raised by a single parent. In fact, kids from single-parent homes are at higher risk of growing up in poverty and facing emotional and behavioural problems, including strained parental and peer relationships, poor academic achievement and disengagement from school, according to the Canadian Institute of Child Health.

It’s one of the reasons Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada (BBBSC) offers an in-school mentoring program, where an at-risk child meets with a mentor for an hour a week to talk, play games or hang out. Children are selected by school administrators based on need — perhaps they have fewer peer connections or they’re at risk of becoming disengaged with school, says Katie Lowes, program manager at Big Brothers Big Sisters of York, a United Way-supported agency. Kids with mentors, she adds, are less likely to skip school and display behavioural problems, and they are more confident in their academic abilities.

2. It helps develop self-esteem

Any child can benefit from having a ‘champion’ in their corner, but it’s particularly important for those who are at-risk or experiencing trauma. “This is more of a preventative program, as opposed to something that’s a nice to have,” says Lowes. “Our kids have experienced things most kids wouldn’t need to even think about. [Having a mentor allows them] to have an advocate in their corner, to show them that they’re worthy, that their opinion matters.”

A mentor isn’t a guardian or peer; a mentor is an adult role model. Through regular outings, a relationship is developed built on trust and common interests, where the child gets to be the priority — and have fun. “It’s not about resume building, it’s about building confidence,” says Lowes. “Giving them that confidence at a young age, there’s really nothing more powerful.”

3. It improves mental health

Seventy per cent of mental health problems show up during childhood or adolescence, according to a five-year study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) commissioned by BBBSC. It found that boys and girls with mentors were two times less likely to exhibit conduct problems; girls with a mentor were four times less likely to bully, fight, lie or express anger than those without a mentor.

The study also revealed that girls with a mentor were two times less likely to be depressed, and boys with a mentor were two times less likely to have social anxiety. This is particularly noteworthy, since nearly one in four youth in the study reported depressive symptoms before being matched with a mentor.

4. It helps create professional networks

Mentorship teaches skills that extend beyond resume writing. Many jobs aren’t posted online; in fact a LinkedIn survey found that 85 per cent of jobs are filled via networking: “Before jobs are posted online they’re filled either internally or through a referral from a trusted source.” That means job-ready youth who don’t have a professional network are already at a disadvantage.

United Way’s netWORKS program was created to bridge that gap. “For [certain] groups of youth, they were not making the jump from education to employability,” says Annique Farrell, manager of youth initiatives at United Way. The missing piece? Access to professional networks. By collaborating with agencies and employers, the program connects young people with career-oriented mentoring connections. Research shows this approach is working: A Boston Consulting Group study found that adults who had a mentor in their youth earn $315,000 more income in their lifetime and are more likely to hold senior leadership positions (47 per cent versus 32 per cent) than non-mentored youth.

5. It inspires

For job-ready youth, a professional mentor can be a source of inspiration. The mentor can share their own journey, as well as what they’ve learned along the way. “The idea is really to inspire them to see beyond what they know, to open up their minds and demystify some of the misperceptions,” says Farrell.

This is particularly important for youth who haven’t had strong role models and don’t believe a VP at a major firm would want to meet with them for a coffee and a chat. That’s why netWORKS creates opportunities for both group networking sessions and structured one-on-one mentoring relationships. “If you’re willing to ask for advice, people are willing to give you advice,” says Farrell. “If you learn how to build relationships, that could potentially turn into an opportunity you didn’t even know existed.”

Responding to youth violence in the GTA

In recent weeks, youth violence has taken an alarming turn across the GTA. We must get at the root of the issue. Working with community has never been more important. United Way Greater Toronto President and CEO Daniele Zanotti offers his comments.

Youth Violence TO-Photo (Blog)

There has been a flurry of headlines, soundbites, tweets and blogs all trying to define, diagnose and dissect youth violence across the GTA. This is not a flashpoint in the heat of the summer. Behind the recent increase in youth violence is rising poverty and inequality, decades in the making, cementing and connecting itself in GTA neighbourhoods. And it requires decades of sustained investments and community collaboration to correct.

In the urgency of so many lives lost and hurt, it is too easy to be moved to reactive solutions. In the continuing tragedy being faced by communities, it is too easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges.

This is not an “either-or” issue. It is immediate action AND long-term solutions. It is prevention AND policy. It requires residents and agencies; faith and business; police and government. And it requires continuous and strategic acts of intervention and care.

That’s why United Way works every day, so often invisibly, on the ground, with community.

Partnership is at the heart of everything we do.

Over a decade ago, anchored in Poverty by Postal Code, we partnered in neighbourhoods across the city to build hubs, support resident action and solutions, mobilize policy and investment, and pioneer youth leadership initiatives through our Youth Challenge Fund. The work that we are doing together with donors, the City and so many other partners on a strong neighbourhood strategy remains one of the most comprehensive efforts to curb violence and youth poverty in the city.

And we continue to build on this foundation in Peel, Toronto and York Region.

Communities are at the centre of solutions.

It always starts with putting communities and people at the heart of driving solutions. That’s why we are continuing to invest in the people, places and priorities where the need is the greatest.

We are helping young people access good jobs.

We must get to the root causes of hopelessness by connecting young people to good jobs. That’s why we are working with young people facing multiple barriers and employers to create pathways to meaningful employment through our Career Navigator and netWORKS programs.

We are continuously improving how we work together to change outcomes for those most vulnerable to violence.

It requires taking a comprehensive approach to systemic solutions through partnerships like FOCUS (Furthering Our Community by Uniting Services), a table with the City of Toronto, Toronto Police Services, United Way and 90 community agencies—collaboratively managing some of our city’s most complex individual cases before they become community crises. That’s why we are committed to working as part of a joint effort to scale this innovative model and grow its preventative impact. And we continue to strengthen partnerships with young people, police forces, school boards and youth-serving agencies across Peel and York Region.

More news on this and other investments to come in the weeks ahead, as we work together with our partners.

But you have to know that we are here. In it. With community. Immediate and impactful. Long-term and intentional. Still one of the most comprehensive efforts in curbing violence and youth poverty in the GTA.

We’re in this together

Peel. Toronto. York Region. No matter where you live within the region, you know that poverty remains a real and ongoing threat. But, if the past year was any indication, there’s lots of proof of how we, as a community, are fighting back.

Today, we are pleased to share United Way Greater Toronto’s 2017–18 annual report. It highlights all the change that your generous donations, on-the-ground volunteer efforts and tireless work on the front lines helped to create—in the places, populations and priorities most impacted by poverty.

Watch this video for President & CEO Daniele Zanotti’s summary of an eventful 2017:

Then, for all the ways that your support fuelled our region-wide uprising of care, read the full report here.

Getting left behind

Professor Wayne Lewchuk, McMaster University and  Stephanie Procyk, Manager of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation, United Way Greater Toronto, are co-authors of Getting Left Behind: Who gained and who didn’t in an improving labour market, a newly-released report on precarious employment in the GTHA.

From people rocking their side hustle to talk of the gig economy – we know the working world has changed. But don’t let the cute terms fool you – this work is precarious and that’s a problem.

graphic of white stickpeople on red background with statistic about precarious employment

Precarious employment has imprinted itself on the GTHA job market: 37.2% of workers are still in some degree of precarious employment. That likely means they don’t have health benefits, don’t have pension plans and may not even know next week’s work schedule. They can’t plan for their future, let alone coordinate childcare for the start of the school year.

red stickperson holding stopwatch with statistic about employment anxiety

It’s more than stressful. One third of all workers still report poor mental health. 40% of workers report that, despite the improved economy, anxiety interferes with their personal and family lives.

While we’ve seen significant gains in the labour market in the past six years, we aren’t seeing the changes we would expect. While GTHA unemployment fell from 8.2% to 6.3% and Canadian real GDP per hour worked increased by 7.2%, wages didn’t keep pace. Real average weekly wages only grew by 1%. Temporary jobs grew almost double the rate of permanent jobs.

The labour market is becoming more polarized, not less. Those who had access to stable, secure jobs in 2011 gained even more access in 2017. And those who didn’t, were left behind.

dejected looking red stickwoman in graduation cap with diploma

When it comes to landing a secure job in a growing economy, a combination of gender, race and having a university degree determine whether or not someone gets left behind. Only white men and white women with university degrees and racialized men with university degrees gained job security between 2011 and 2017. Racialized women with university degrees and all workers without university degrees stagnated in terms of job security.

It’s clear that economic growth alone cannot solve the issues of precarious employment and labour market polarization. We need to take action to ensure that no one gets left behind. How? By expanding decent work through employment standards and ladders to opportunity. By creating a floor of basic income and social supports available to precarious workers. We need to ensure that background and circumstances are not barriers to the labour market.

If you’re running a business, running a household or even running your day, you know you need all hands on deck. In a growing economy we can’t afford for people to be left behind and we need everyone to play a role in addressing these challenges. Read our latest report, get informed and get engaged with the issues.

Working to open doors for newcomers

Portrait of Newcomer Centre of Peel Executive Director Effat GhassemiEffat Ghassemi, Executive Director at Newcomer Centre of Peel, has served thousands of newcomer families upon their arrival in Canada by providing guidance and support with employment, continuing education, network building and other settlement issues. As a tireless advocate for gender equality and racial harmony, she has worked to increase social inclusion and innovation. She is firmly committed to compassion and social justice for the most disadvantaged in our community.


Newcomer Centre of Peel is proud to be part of Ontario for All – a collaborative convened by United Way with close to 90 organizations across the GTA and beyond. During the provincial election the collaborative is highlighting five priorities we know to be fundamental to a fair and inclusive Ontario. One of these priorities, Building an economy with fair and equitable opportunities and decent work for all, and the newcomer experience in general, are issues of keen interest for the Newcomer Centre of Peel and of personal interest to me.

My Story is Our Story. Ontario needs immigrants to mitigate its aging population and low birth rate as well as accommodating the labour shortage in Urban and Rural Areas. Peel, Toronto and York enjoy significantly higher rates of immigration relative to the rest of Canada. In all three regions, immigrants make up approximately half of the respective populations whereas immigrants represent just over a fifth (21.9 %) of the Canadian population.

To support and offset the negative economic and fiscal impacts of a labour force shortage, Ontario needs to make a great effort promoting and welcoming newcomers to its province. I came to Mississauga 3 decades ago with my family including 3 boys – worked very hard to settle and obtain my first job not even related to my education and experiences as a high school teacher. I was thrilled and happy to do it – I knew that if I did my best on my first job other doors would have opened to me. It happened – one door after another.  But I suffered so much – low pay jobs and not relevant to my education and facing discrimination as an immigrant woman.  Despite being highly educated and experienced, newcomers and immigrants are more likely to work in precarious employment and live in poverty. My goals at Newcomer Centre of Peel (NCP) are exactly related to my immigration trajectory – providing meaningful services to newcomer families for their economic and social integration with less discrimination and less distress. We are providing employment opportunities in an urban GTA area and recently focusing on rural employment.

Through the Rural Employment Initiative, which connects immigrants located in the GTA to employers in rural communities that have sustainable job opportunities, thereby facilitating their relocation from the metropolitan GTA to rural communities throughout Ontario.  This is being done while providing diversity training to employers, economic development officers, workforce planning boards and other community partners.

Building an economy with fair and equitable opportunities for newcomers is a systemic issue. To address it and make meaningful change – we need programs like the one above coupled with tangible policy solutions. Therefore, I am calling on all four parties to develop policy to support employment equity and access to quality jobs for recent immigrants, and clearer credential recognition for Internationally Educated Professionals.

Until then, my story continues to be the stories of newcomers who dreamt of being in a country where there are equitable opportunities for all.

4 ways to make office giving fun

man with whistle and pompom running through crowded banquet hall party

This week, as we feature a few of our generous corporate partners with the 5th annual Keeping Good Company, we thought it a perfect time to share these original ways to breathe new life into your office fundraising efforts. Raising funds for important causes is serious business. So you might as well make it fun, right?

Promote your pets

Social media has taught us that adorable animals have huge marketing potential, so why not capitalize on their cuteness? Try hosting a cutest pet contest, where employees pay an entry fee to share a best-in-class picture of their pet. Participants then vote on which furry companion is most adorable, and all proceeds go to the winner’s charity of choice. A variation on this event (despite throwing fairness straight out the window) might be allowing multiple photos and votes for a larger donation. Of course, that’s in lieu of bringing pets right into work for a meet and greet.

Captive for a cause

For a new take on supporting the arctic conservation mission of the World Wildlife Federation, advertising agency FCB stranded their employees on a virtual iceberg. They were instructed that the iceberg was shrinking due to global warming, and in order to save themselves, they needed to use their phones as lifelines: they had to convince family and friends—anyone—to donate $50 to the charity. Not only did the activity succeed in generating donations, but it informed both employees and their donors about the cause. With a few small changes, this “cool” activity could be applied to virtually anything!

Donate a day’s wages

It’s common for donors to share a slice of their earnings from every paycheque to support a cause they care about. However, in 2004 Dr. Jane Philpott (who is now Canada’s federal Minister of Indigenous Services, but was then a doctor at Markham Stouffville Hospital) conceived of a new idea: Give a Day to World AIDS. Through this fundraiser, she encouraged her colleagues to donate a day’s pay to the Stephen Lewis Foundation or Dignitas International. (Something that inspired Michael Fekete and his Toronto law firm, Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt, to follow suit. It’s a clear winner on the easy scale. All you have to do is pick a day.

Give gourmet

If the time-honoured tradition of the workplace bake sale has gotten, well, stale, why not step up your culinary efforts by hosting your own Iron Chef competition? Ask budding chefs to bring in their dishes, and charge everyone a flat fee to sample the deliciousness and vote for their favourite. A variation is an office potluck where everyone arrives with a non-perishable good for a local food bank. Whatever you do, it’s sure to take goodness to a whole to new level: in terms of lunch and charitable giving!

Food for thought on tackling food insecurity

Portrait of Joan Stonehocker executive director of York Region Food Network wearing glasses and black shirtJoan Stonehocker’s life-long passion for growing and eating healthy food aligns perfectly with her role as the Executive Director of York Region Food Network. Under her leadership, the committed team at YRFN advocates for sustainable solutions to food insecurity, demonstrates waste-free practices throughout the organization and continuously develops and promotes healthy food projects that are a catalyst for building strong and vibrant communities.


Like other members of Ontario for All the broad alliance of community partners convened by United Way, York Region Food Network is committed to addressing the debilitating problems that face people living in poverty. Together, we’re focusing debate and discussion this election on the five community priorities we consider essential to a fair and inclusive Ontario, including how to create pathways out of poverty that ensure everyone has the supports they need to live with dignity.

Our organization was started by the food banks in York Region in the late 1980s to raise awareness of hunger and poverty in our seemingly prosperous area. Although awareness is increasing, the problem of food insecurity continues. Modern-day food banks were created as a temporary solution for people struggling to purchase enough to eat. Now, the PROOF research project (proof.utoronto.ca) has shown that only 20 – 25% of people who are food insecure access food banks.

After more than 35 years of operating, food banks are more prevalent than ever, and the need continues to grow. At our agency, we get calls regularly from people looking for help to get food. Regional food bank hours are limited, and the vast geography of York Region can make access a challenge for many. While we try to bridge the gap by having grocery cards available for people who come directly to us seeking food, that’s not always possible. We know the desperation and distress of people in our community — neighbours — who have come face to face with hunger: bare cupboards and no simple solutions.

A diverse group of men and women volunteering as Community Cooks

We need to address these immediate needs effectively, but we cannot continue to do so without also taking on the systemic issues that keep people in poverty. The research around the social determinants of health is clear about the devastating effects of poverty and the by-products of poverty, like food insecurity and social isolation. And while community food programs bring people together to grow, share and cook healthy food, with great benefit, they alone are not enough.

To provide lasting change, we need to address the causes of food insecurity and to change the mindset that food programs or charity will solve the problem. We must acknowledge the true cost of poverty and invest in eliminating it. The provincial government’s Basic Income Pilot is one such encouraging attempt — an initiative that provides people with the essentials they need to build their own path out of poverty. Already, early reports from participants talk about the dramatic positive impacts on their health, well-being and self-esteem.

This provincial election is our chance to come together and let our elected representatives know what matters most to us: an Ontario that is fair, equitable and inclusive — for everyone.

Supportive Housing: One solution to homelessness

Portrait of Anne Babcock wearing black sweater and seated at brown benchAs President and CEO of WoodGreen Community Services, Anne Babcock has helped build WoodGreen from a single location with 40 staff members to a $50 million organization with 36 locations, 750 staff and 1,000 volunteers serving 37,000 people each year. With a deep understanding of community needs and services, she is also widely acknowledged as a leader in the development of innovative programming, including Homeward Bound, a best-in-class model of supportive housing that is now being successfully replicated in other communities across Ontario.


WoodGreen Community Services is proud to be part of Ontario for All. This new alliance convened by United Way is bringing old and new community partners together to make the most of this provincial election campaign by highlighting five priorities we know to be fundamental to a fair and inclusive Ontario. Ensuring that affordable, appropriate and safe housing is available to all is one of our Calls to Action — and an issue that WoodGreen can speak to from a place of experience and success.

We know supportive housing works to break the cycle of poverty and gives people the tools they need to move forward on a new path to opportunity. We’ve seen it, and we have the evidence to prove it.

An excellent example of supportive housing at WoodGreen is Homeward Bound. Piloted by WoodGreen and unique in Canada, Homeward Bound is an innovative program to help inadequately housed or homeless mother-led families earn college diplomas, start careers, and achieve economic self-sufficiency.

Made possible by funding from the Local Poverty Reduction Fund, WoodGreen engaged external evaluation experts at Constellation Consulting Group to objectively assess the impact of Homeward Bound on single mothers who have graduated since 2012.

The objective has been to better understand the outcomes, successes and challenges of Homeward Bound so that the program can be continuously improved and effectively scaled going forward.

We examined changes in housing status, employment, and income source from when survey respondents began Homeward Bound to where they reported they are today. The evaluation revealed important learning about the impact of Homeward Bound — and remarkable outcomes:

Infographic by woodgreen about percentage of people housed in homeless shelters

The wraparound supports the women at Homeward Bound receive are key to its success and, as the evidence shows, what really breaks the cycle of poverty for women and their children.

Woodgreen Homeward Bound infographic about wrap around supports

If we truly want to build an Ontario where everyone belongs, we must commit to affordable, appropriate and safe housing as a priority.

And, if we want to achieve lasting, meaningful change for all members of our society, no matter the barriers they face, we must invest in supportive housing.

Putting mental health on the agenda

Photo of Steve Lurie Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health AssociationSteve Lurie is the Executive Director of the CMHA Toronto, a post he has held since 1979. Steve is a strong voice for improved services for individuals living with mental health challenges. In 2016, he was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada, recognizing his contributions as a leading advocate and administrator in the field of mental health care.

On May 4 the Canadian Mental Health Association joined community organizations across the GTA for the launch of Ontario for All, a new alliance convened by United Way that’s working together this provincial election campaign to highlight five priorities that we believe are critical to a fair, equitable and prosperous Ontario.


Investing in inclusive, healthy communities with affordable and quality childcare and public education pharmacare and dental programs, transit and transportation, and community programs and services is an essential goal in our 5-point Call to Action.

Mental health is just one component of health in our communities. But as Canadian Mental Health Association branches across the country participate in Mental Health Week— an opportunity to promote awareness about mental illness, mental health and the supports we all need access to — it’s very much top of mind.

What should also be in the spotlight is the direct connection between poor health — mental and physical — and poverty.

In 2013 the CMA (Canadian Medical Association) published a report that showed that only 25% of a person’s health status is attributable to their access to health care. 50% is determined by the social determinants of health such as:  income, early child development, food security, employment, housing, race, aboriginal status and community belonging. The Hamilton Spectator/ McMaster collaboration Code Red which examined poverty in Hamilton showed a 21-year life expectancy gap between low and high income neighborhoods.

The CMA called for government action on: a poverty reduction action plan, a guaranteed annual income, affordable and supportive housing, development of a food security program, more investments in early childhood education, including parental support, collaboration between government and industry on a pharmacare program, and a comprehensive strategy for First Nations Health.

Around the world, cities are starting to work together to promote mental health and well-being. Strategies include: early intervention, closing treatment gaps, partnering with local citizens, neighborhoods, the corporate sector and fostering innovation.

Taken together, action on these fronts will result in healthier communities, reduced pressures on hospitals and improved quality of life for all of Ontario’s citizens — regardless of means. That’s the kind of province that the organizations behind Ontario for All envision, and that’s why we’re working together for a healthier Ontario.

Join us. Put healthy communities on the agenda in your own neighbourhood this election: ask candidates how they’re investing in healthy communities when you attend a local debate or they come knocking at your door.

In times of distress, make employees’ MindsMatter

headshot of Sevaun Palvetzian CEO of CivicAction

Sevaun Palvetzian is the former CEO of CivicAction and as an expert on civic engagement, she focuses on inclusive cities. An authority on urban issues, Sevaun frequently speaks to media and is a member of groups like the Premier’s Community Hubs Advisory and Waterfront Toronto. Through her work with CivicAction, and her roles at the Ontario Public Service, she has worked to advance human resources practices such as diversifying leadership positions and supporting mental health in the workplace. In this guest post for Imagine a City, Sevaun talks about why workplace mental health matters and how employers can best support their employees to be mentally well.

Man sitting at desk before windows silhouetted by bright lens flare from sun

It’s important to remember how employers can make an ongoing effort to support their employees’ mental health. Workplaces have a huge impact on employees’ state of mind and can play a powerful role in contributing to good mental health and supporting employees who may be struggling.

Fifty per cent of all people in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) workforce have experienced a mental health issue, and 82% of those experiencing a mental health issue say that it impacts their work. This is an issue we simply can’t afford to ignore.

But there is good news—employers want to take action. According to CMHA, 42% of senior leaders are interested in taking action to support mental health but haven’t yet due to a lack of time, resources, or knowledge.

To help that 42% turn intention into action, CivicAction launched MindsMatter—a free, first of its kind online assessment tool for organizations of any size or sector that provides three tailored actions to make that first or next step towards a mental health supportive workplace easier.


Many employers have already started, such as Dundee 360 President and CEO Brad Henderson. Henderson decided to make mental health a priority at the real estate management firm by strengthening mental wellness supports and highlighting what resources were available, leading to an impressive 57% increase in staff awareness of mental health supports.

President of CGI’s Canadian operations, Mark Boyajian, also realized the power of raising mental-health awareness through the overwhelming success of CGI’s Mental Health Month. More than 5,000 employees participate in the month’s activities and fundraising initiatives that have helped destigmatize mental health and create a supportive environment.

Ryerson University gave their employees tools to respond to colleagues in distress through a workshop series known as Notice, Engage, Refer. After taking the workshop, 84% of participants felt they had increased their ability to respond to mental-health distress.

These are just three organizations taking action, but close to 1,200 organizations representing as many as 2.5 million employees across Canada are on their own workplace mental health journey thanks to MindsMatter.

Take time to check in with your employees, and join this growing movement towards mental wellness by taking MindsMatter at http://mindsmatter.civicaction.ca.

Making progress on poverty


daniele-zanotti-2017Our guest blogger this week is Daniele Zanotti, President & CEO of United Way Greater Toronto. With more than 20 years of experience in the public and non-profit sectors, he has earned a reputation as an accomplished, strategic, and energetic leader. During his tenure, the organization has applied an increasingly regional lens to its work, collaborating with organizations and community partners in Peel, Toronto and York to fight local poverty in all its forms.

In 2008, something transformative happened in Ontario.  The provincial government introduced the Ontario Child Benefit, direct financial assistance to low-income families with children.  It was a cornerstone of the Poverty Reduction Strategy that was unanimously adopted by all three parties at Queens Park and supported by a wide network of community organizations across Ontario, including United Way. The OCB helped lift tens of thousands of children out of poverty at a time when the province was hit hard by one of the worst economic recessions in recent memory.  The OCB proved that when implemented right, bold policy and investments that put community at the heart of decision making can help build a stronger future.

Ten years later, the fight against poverty is still very much on.  Despite progress that has been made in reducing child poverty, much work remains to be accomplished.  Day after day, many community organizations are once again stepping up to raise their voices on the issues that matter to the residents they serve.  The movement is called Ontario for All – it has gained momentum across Toronto, Peel and York Region, and become a new front in the newly-merged United Way Greater Toronto’s fight against local poverty.  United Way has brought together many of its funded agencies and other community partners to work together on highlighting five priorities that are critical in creating an inclusive, connected and prosperous province where everyone belongs.  They are:

• Fully implement the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
• Build an economy with fair and equitable opportunities and decent work for all
• Create pathways out of poverty by ensuring that everyone has income security and the supports they need to live with dignity
• Ensure affordable, appropriate and safe housing is available to all
• Invest in inclusive, healthy communities with affordable and quality childcare and public education, pharmacare and dental programs, transit and transportation, and community programs and services

These five priorities have been shared with all four parties in Ontario, with the invitation for them to work with Ontario for All partners in including these in their election platforms.  But beyond helping to put a focus on poverty reduction during the campaign, this process has done something more powerful. It has built an uprising of care in neighbourhoods across the region, where at least 150 conversations have happened and more are underway. At least 80 organizations have endorsed the five priorities, and all political parties and their candidates are being encouraged to make poverty reduction a focus of their work.

United Way and many community organizations have co-created a plan to engage each other, their boards and staff, residents, volunteers, local election candidates and the media on why these five priorities are important for our communities.  So poverty reduction is making its way into agendas of board meetings, local resident circles, media interviews and online social media activity.

Because, our hope remains, any or all of these priorities could become the bold, transformative investments that the OCB was in 2008.  And that is one way to secure a brighter, more secure future for our communities.