Even among Filipinos: Poverty in Toronto is Not an Urban Legend

Community News & Features Apr 16, 2007 at 5:12 pm

By Art Valladolid

During her closing remarks at the induction ceremony for the newly elected members of the Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT) board last March 25, 2007, FCT president Rosalinda Javier said that “asking the FCT to do something with regard to the urban poor was next to impossible.” If the government is unable to stamp out poverty despite the millions of dollars spent on programs to fight poverty, Linda Javier asked, “what does one expect from a miniscule organization like the FCT to do?”

This kind of remark from no less than the leader of a high-profile community organization of Filipinos reflects a scant understanding of how poverty is a serious issue that affects the whole community and does not exclude us, Filipinos, from the growing spectre of poverty in the city. Perhaps Linda Javier and the other members of the FCT board believe they are not affected by the problems of the poor around the FCT neighbourhood because they all live in their comfortable mansions outside the area. Good for them, but how about the community they purport to serve?

It is not like asking the FCT to put money in the donation box for the poor. As a non-profit community organization, right in the heart of one the poorest neighbourhoods in Toronto, FCT must at least show sensitivity to the problems and issues that affect its members and others similarly situated in its community, and in the whole city of Toronto as well, of which we are all members. There are many ways one can fight poverty, and it is not always necessary that money be involved.

Let’s take a glimpse on how poverty exists in our city.

Despite the economic boom in the late 1990s, poverty rates have increased among every household in Toronto. There was a sharp decrease in median incomes. While there was a significant expansion in the economy, the overall poverty rate went up from 22.6% to 23.3%. As Frances Lankin, president and CEO of the Untied Way of Greater Toronto, would say, “the boom was no boom at all for the poorest in Toronto.”

Because income polarization increased in the 1990s, the gap between the rich and poor has also widened. For example, as the median income in Toronto’s 12 poorest neighbourhoods declined by 16%, the median income in the city’s 12 most affluent neighbourhoods increased by 10%.

Poverty is widespread throughout the city of Toronto, not only in the downtown core where most Torontonians would associate urban poverty. There are now large and growing concentrations of poverty in the “inner suburbs.” Poverty in these neighbourhoods is linked to the rapid growth in the number of immigrants who make their first homes in communities in the inner suburbs. This is particularly true in FCT’s neighbourhood, in the St. Jamestown highrises, and in Regent Park.

Canada has shown its capacity to welcome and integrate immigrants, but as an indicator of our standard of living, there seems to be very little evidence that our governments, at all levels, have recognized this as a priority. One way to improve Canada’s capacity to welcome immigrants is to provide them with the tools to enter our economy. We can reduce the level of urban poverty by making full use of the skills and expertise of immigrants in Canada. FCT as a part of the voluntary sector has an important role to play. Linda Javier is mistaken to think that Filipinos in the community are not affected and cannot do anything to help solve this problem and should simply let the governments take care of it.

Community leaders, including Linda Javier and the FCT must provide leadership in the development of more efficient recognition of credentials. Frances Lankin of United Way has suggested that business, labour and community groups must recognize the inextricable link between integration of immigrant skills and prosperity, and to look for opportunities to make tangible progress in the recognition of foreign-trained workers. Very recently, the Ontario government has enacted a law ensuring greater access to trades and professions. Has FCT, as a prominent community organization of Filipinos, made submissions during the public hearings and debates before the law was passed? This is certainly an issue that affects many Filipino immigrant professionals, yet the FCT has never said a word about making the professions more accessible. At least, the Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ), another Filipino group, has made its submissions on behalf of Filipino professionals who cannot practice their professions because of stringent restrictions, and lack of fairness and equitable recognition of their diplomas and their work experience.

Another area where the voluntary sector can provide leadership is in the development of specific strategies for preventing and eliminating homelessness. Many initiatives in the past to combat homelessness or lack of affordable housing have been joint voluntary sector and government ventures. There are good examples of this kind of collaboration. In our community, Silayan has been responsible for two cooperative housing initiatives in the 1990s, the Bayanihan Co-op in Brampton and the Tahanan Co-op Housing in Davenport St. in Toronto.

In her closing remarks, Linda Javier also said that the FCT has its own programs and they are different from those of Silayan and Kababayan. If all that FCT can muster is a singing idol contest or a Pistahan sa Toronto, one wonders what kind of legacy Linda Javier’s leadership of the FCT will leave to our Filipino community. Unable to top what Silayan achieved in the 1990s, FCT is nothing more but another song-and-dance act.

At the Toronto City Summit in June 2002, Marc Morial, former mayor of New Orleans said that “as the cities go, so go the nations.” As citizens and residents of the city of Toronto, Filipinos have a great stake in combating poverty, homelessness, inequality, barriers to access to rights and practice of professions. FCT must join with other civic initiatives and rise from the shallow aspirations of its present leadership.