Playing on the hype of the soon-to-open theatrical production of The Lord Of The Rings, a Gandalf knockoff holding a large gilded cockroach on Thursday, February 2, pronounced Ontario Housing Minister John Gerretsen Lord of the Slums before 40 of us, including media, housing advocates and the curious, were taken on a two-stop bus tour promising to showcase some of Toronto's "world-class" slums.
The bus first ground to a halt in front of a Toronto Community Housing Corporation building on the East Mall just north of Rathburn in Etobicoke. Waiting for us there were 12-year-old William Power and his sister Catherine, who were apparently taking a sick day away from school. They led the swarm of gawkers through a maze of units, giving us a taste of their everyday surroundings. "Those are bullet holes," William said, pointing to a security door, not increasing our sense of safety.
Arriving at his apartment, photographers crowded around in an awkwardly small space. Denise, William's mother, explained that they had little choice but to move here after she was hurt on the job. "I slipped on ice," she says. "I was a crossing guard."
Down the hall, Wendy Rogers knows how that feels. It's not exactly the kind of place she wants to be raising a three-year-old daughter with special needs, but she says she's been left with no alternative. "I complain to management," she says. Clearly, that's not working.
"The city is the landlord here," remarks Bart Poesiat, spokesperson for the Parkdale Tenants Association, who's running the tour. "We as taxpayers are responsible for this."
The other stop is 2777 Kipling, aka Orchard Towers. Aplomb, the company that owns this building, has been cited for needed repairs 35 times since 2002.
Residents have set up barrels in the hall where water leaking from the ceiling creates a stale cloud that makes breathing a chore.
Mandinder Wazir has lived on the 18th floor for 15 months with her husband and baby. She has yet to see any action from the owners. "It's been more than three weeks," she laments.
Poesiat reminds me that people here often don't know where to go for help or fear the consequences of speaking up.
Maybe it was the praying that freaked out T.O. cops who wouldn't let candle-carrying participants in a Christian Peacemakers vigil for peace near the U.S. Consulate on January 29.
It's difficult to know. The rules of engagement when it comes to how close citizen assemblies are allowed to the greystone edifice can be confusing.
The RCMP's mandate extends to the consulate itself. Anything beyond the front steps is the Toronto police's responsibility.
RCMP spokesperson Mary Schweier says, "Anything can happen at any time. That's why we have to keep them away."
A spokesperson for the U.S. Consulate says, "It depends on the numbers." In other words, the bigger the gathering, peaceful or not, the greater the likelihood they'll be kept from getting up close and personal with consul security.
Toronto police have their own rules. Anything closer than 4 metres is verboten - mostly because of the fallout from anti-American protests that took place in the late 90s, says 52 Division inspector Don Campbell.
"Demonstrations can get quite large and out of hand."
But shooing away candle-carrying women and children?
"I don't say the Christian Peacemakers do it, but in this day and age, especially after 2001, packages left behind by demonstrators by accident make a lot of people nervous."
Campbell adds, "If the anarchists found out that we allowed demonstrations there for certain groups, we would have a bigger problem. These are the people who throw sticks and eggs at us."