Op-ed: Why the City of Toronto needs a compassion czar

Where is Toronto’s compassion? 

Every day we see more evidence of how city residents marginalized by racism, poverty, food insecurity, homelessness and mental health issues are falling behind. In some cases, we see them in the streets. The pandemic revealed just how much they have been forgotten. What we don’t see is evidence of solid steps to make sure things change for them in the future.

Every organization, including Canada’s largest municipality, needs a top-level manager to take charge of its compassion infrastructure and to ensure that people get the care and services they need. They should be the kind of person who can make other decision-makers aware of the unintentional harm they might be inflicting with their policies. You could think of them as a compassion czar because they’ll need the power to do the job. I prefer to call them a chief compassion officer.

You won’t find either position, however, at the City of Toronto. Its organizational chart shows a chief operating officer, a chief financial officer, a chief technology officer, a chief communications officer and a chief people and equity officer. There was also a chief resilience officer to guide the city’s climate action agenda for a time. But a chief compassion officer? That’s nowhere to be found – and it sends the wrong signal.

We just cannot have compassion playing a minor role any longer in organizations that most affect the lives of the powerless and the voiceless.

The same kind of bold thinking that was required to fight the virus is needed to combat the gaps in the social safety net that were made worse by the pandemic. Compassion and the life-improving changes it can deliver – from employment supports and child care that frees women from abusive intimate partner relationships to better mental health services – need to become part of the operating model of every major municipal government.

When I use the word compassion, I don’t mean the typical “We’re with you,” and “You’re not alone” platitudes politicians are quick to serve up. The compassion I’m calling for is about seeing policy-making through a compassionate, trauma-informed lens. It’s about recognizing that compassion is as important to the success of a city government as its technology, finance or people resources.

But it’s not only the City of Toronto that needs to retool the machinery that delivers compassion. Our universities, hospitals and governments at all levels are in the same boat.

Mental health experts have been warning for some time about the added emotional strains faced by many of us as a result of the virus.  Suicide risk remains a serious problem that is woefully under-addressed. Recent headline-grabbing scandals at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College and the University of Western Ontario are a reminder that gender violence and sexual harassment leave many students feeling that universities are still not caring and safe places in which they can thrive.

Health-care professionals have been forced to work in what amounts to a theatre of war for the past two years. Many will likely battle some level of PTSD well into the future because of it. Nurses in Ontario, for example, got a very rude slap in the face when Doug Ford’s government decided to limit annual pay increases to just one per cent, regardless of inflation or the ever-present job hazards posed by the virus.

Most large corporations are unprepared for the coming fallout from the post-pandemic tide. Canada may not have been hit by a “great resignation wave” like the U.S., but the pandemic has caused employees to rethink what is important to them.

Many say they prefer to work at least partially from home to be closer to their families and avoid long commutes. Others are signalling that they want to work for companies that are also motivated by social values, like tackling climate change, embracing diversity and combating racism.

The need for compassion is the unmistakable echo of this Earth-shattering pandemic. All organizations should see its resulting pandemic of pain, suffering and emotional dislocation as an inflection point for refocusing on the values our common humanity demands. 

Tackling the coronavirus has taught us that our survival depends on working together and looking out for one another. It’s putting compassion, and our appreciation of how indispensable it is, front and centre like never before.

Canadians don’t want their cities, their public institutions and their corporations to return to normal. They want them to make compassion the new normal. 

Kathleen Finlay is CEO of The Center for Patient Protection and founder of Zero Harm Now.


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