Meet four activists leading the calls for change in Toronto this summer

From anti-Black racism to policing, poverty and Indigenous rights, the pandemic is inspiring direct action like never before

Shar, member, Afro-Indigenous Rising

“I like to call myself an accidental abolitionist. Getting involved in this work was really a process of unlearning and re-educating myself to understand the effects of colonization and policing on communities.

Our steering committee is mostly Black and Indigenous. A lot of our activism really comes out of a need to seek safety and justice for our communities. We’re looking at how we can educate people of different backgrounds so that the information we’re sharing is accessible. Lately, we’ve been spending a lot of time on Six Nations reserve in Caledonia helping people there with their Land Back campaign

I’d like to say that those in positions of power and those with privilege have a role to play in making change. Unfortunately, the reality is those people need to be replaced. There’s  no reconciling with the groups that they’ve wronged. We need different systems and we need different people making the decisions.

“As a new group coming into the Toronto activism scene choosing city hall for our first occupation was a very political statement for us.”

The group was started out of the June protest for Regis Korchinski-Paquet. A group of us felt there was more that needed to be done. A lot of Toronto actions around policing were based around specific occurrences. But what we really weren’t seeing was more of a long-term plan around achieving the goal of the abolition of police. 

Within a few weeks, we planned the occupation of Nathan Phillips Square. As a new group coming into the Toronto activism scene choosing city hall was a very political statement for us. It was an uncomfortable place to live for three weeks. We were dealing with a lot of street-involved people. We had to de-escalate situations many times. But we had a no-cop policy.  Our end goal as an organization is to show the city how we can exist without the police. 

When people hear about abolishing the police they think, ‘That’s just not possible. How can you live in a world that doesn’t have police?’ 

A lot of those funds can be better put toward social services and community endeavours that will prevent the issues that police end up being called for. 

We’re thinking of things like safe and affordable housing, decriminalizing sex work and proper mental health and wellness support for people. 

We’ve done a lot of workshops around the etymology of Blackness. It’s part of a series of workshops we’re starting up called The Ghetto Scholar. 

When we talk about abolishing the police, we talk about things like: Can an entire neighbourhood be trained in de-escalation? Can an entire community have mental health support structures with registered professionals in their neighbourhoods? 

There are a lot of ways that can happen. The best analogy is climate change. Each person has to do their part. That’s a big thing for us when it comes to mobilizing and making change – that each individual member of the community understands the problem and is also an active participant in defining the solution. I can’t as an individual say what the solution should be to policing. That needs to be a collaborative process. It’s a conversation that needs to involve everyone who’s impacted.

There are a lot of hard working people who have donated their time and money. Specifically for AIR, there are a number of us that have given out of pocket thousands of dollars because there are just things that needed to be done. 

The court that matters most is the court of public opinion. What it really comes down to is not necessarily changing the mayor’s mind, but changing the minds of constituents. We’ve hit a pivotal moment – unfortunately, it has taken the loss of so many Black and Indigenous lives.”

As told to Enzo DiMatteo.

Aris Brianna Berkeley, organizer, We Stand

Aris Brianna Berkeley has a message for people who think Canada is not as racist as the United States.

“At least in America they lay it all out,” says the 19-year-old George Brown student and We Stand organizer. “Canada is the fake girl. Canada puts on this perception like, ‘I’m your friend. I’m so nice to you,’ but then talks shit about you behind your back.”

Berkeley is from Bermuda. She attended a mostly white private school on that predominantly Black island, and even there, she felt discriminated against. She says teachers and principals would single out Black students for extra punishment. The trend followed her to boarding schools in New York City and Belleville, Ontario.

“I felt like I didn’t belong,” says Berkeley, describing her initial experience in Belleville, after more homes in the area of her school started inexplicably displaying Confederate flags. “The more Black people, the more they showed their hate.”

Berkeley likens the situation to the silencing of voices in the U.S. after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Donald Trump’s reaction to protests in the streets was to call for a curfew “and limiting voices that have been limited for so long. 

“That just proved white privilege at its finest. At the moment when a situation is uncomfortable and when something needs to be talked about, you literally used your power to silence us.”

In response, Berkeley and her We Stand colleagues organized a couple of hundred people to march through Toronto on June 9. The march began at 6 pm, to coincide with the curfews in the U.S.

“You can’t live a life of being Black and not feel anxiety walking into a room. It’s automatically put upon you before you realize what it is. Already from a young age, you don’t feel like you’re beautiful.”

Since then, We Stand has rallied a Black Students Matter march together with another Vaughan-based organization, Parents of Black Children.

Berkeley sees We Stand as complementary to Black Lives Matter-Toronto and other groups pushing policing issues. But as a student who is particularly alert to the school-to-prison pipeline, she says We Stand is homing in on education.

She says the group is also pushing for more conversations around Black mental health. She’s open about her own experiences with anxiety and depression. And she wants people to pay attention to how racism, whether overt or subtle, affects mental health and how Black people see themselves.

“You can’t live a life of being Black and not feel any anxiety walking into a room. It’s automatically put upon you before you realize what it is.

“Already from a young age, you don’t feel like you’re beautiful. And then you don’t feel like you’re smart enough. And then everybody thinks you’re mean. From a young age you’re going to think something’s wrong with you. Everything that I’ve been through, I want other people to know that they are not alone,” she says.

Radheyan Simonpillai

Chiara Padovani, tenant organizer, York South-Weston Tenant Union

Chiara Padovani worked for a women’s rights organization in Ecuador and human rights organizations in Argentina.

But she recognized what she was fighting for on a global front still needed to be addressed in the neighbourhood she grew up in and still calls home.

Padovani ran for city council in 2018. It was during the campaign that the York South-Weston Tenant Union was born. The group ended up organizing tenants’ associations in two buildings facing above-guideline rent increases.

“Our whole electoral system is set up to exclude renters,” says Padovani. 

Voters’ lists for municipal elections are compiled from municipal property assessment rolls. If you’re a renter, you have to take it upon yourself to have your name added to the list. “You’re not invited to the party, although you can still show up.”

The York South-Weston Tenant Union has since formed tenants associations in 13 high-rise buildings and a dozen low-rises and other accommodations in the Mount Dennis area. “It’s really easy to take advantage of a community that doesn’t know what they’re entitled to.”  

For Padovani, the organization is all about empowering tenants. 

“It’s scary to look at the current situation.” The effects of COVID-19 and people losing their jobs are everywhere in a tough economy. Then there’s the Ford government’s Bill 184, which many fear will make it easier for landlords to evict tenants. 

“When you organize and come together, you can achieve so much – the issues and challenges, you’re not facing them alone.” 

Padovani makes a connection between housing and the city’s growing food insecurity issues. As a coordinator for the North York Harvest Food Bank, she says she sees “People don’t have enough money for food because they’re paying their rent.”

Those continue to go up, despite the pandemic. Padovani’s group is currently petitioning the landlord at 1442 Lawrence West, who has applied for an above-guideline rent increase, to fix the mounting issues at the building. The elevator is unsafe, so Canada Post has stopped delivering the mail. Bed bugs are another issue. 

The group has successfully fought rent increases before – as high as 25 per cent at one building on John Street after the Ford government exempted that landlord from rent control. Padovani describes that as a moderate win. But because of the group’s efforts, the City of Toronto put a cap on what landlords can charge on Housing Now projects. 

“It’s tough times right now. But when you organize and when you come together, you can achieve so much. The issues and challenges, you’re not facing them alone.” 

Radheyan Simonpillai

Listen to Rad’s interview with Chiara Padovani on the latest episode of the NOW WHAT podcast, below:


Simone Schmidt, volunteer, Encampment Support Network Toronto

“I was just on the phone with some of our legal people dealing with an eviction at one of the encampments around Harbourfront Centre. It’s very difficult for them. 

We have five neighbourhood committees. ESN volunteers visit encampments at Moss Park, Trinity-Bellwoods, Scadding Court, Parkdale and the area around Little Norway Park every morning. They work together with a driver to deliver supplies that our donations committee collects. We like to listen to the expertise of residents and coordinate donations around their needs – like water, Gatorade, tents, snacks and first aid kits. Sometimes we do barbecues, get ice cream trucks, and sometimes just have nice events so people can chill out together.

We raise funds through Instagram and a dedicated donations team. We have no official  funding. We’re doing this because the city won’t provide basic humanitarian aid to people in encampments.

The city’s line is that providing food and sanitation for people will “entrench” encampments. City councillors are not seeing the effects of their policies because they don’t visit encampments. 

No one is staying in an encampment because they’re being given water. They’re living in tents because there’s no actual affordable housing, and there are few shelter options in the neighbourhoods that people need to live in to access the services they use, their doctors, their friends, their families, jobs and communities. 

The affordable housing that is being built is not actuallt affordable. Under the current system, only people with generational wealth will get to remain in Toronto.

The city shouldn’t be evicting people in encampments. It’s against the CDC (Center for Disease Control) recommendations, and it’s traumatic for people. There’s a case before the courts dealing with this. Ontario’s Chief Coroner has recommended that people living outside should be outfitted with fire safety and survival gear.

We’re just trying to be good neighbours in the absence of good governance otherwise people will die from the heat.”

Chasing the evictions is really hard. People are being targeted every which way.

Whether it’s stuff being thrown at their tents or harassment from homeowners, or by police and private security guards who show up as a result of 311 calls. People make their homes in these encampments because it’s the best option they have right now. Where are they supposed to go?

The city says they have social workers on the ground who are in regular contact with encampment residents and are trying to figure out housing for people. But that’s not what we are seeing. Mostly what the city’s housing staff Streets To Homes is offering homeless people is not housing; it’s spots in shelter hotels. These work for some people for sure, but in our daily visits we see people coming back from those shelter hotels. They don’t feel safe. There are rules and social constraints that they can’t abide by, it feels like institutionalization. They become estranged from their communities and support networks. 

People are being offered spots at shelter hotels, but mostly on the outskirts of the city – at Kennedy & 401 and other places in Scarborough.

Residents at the Lamport Stadium encampment were given an hour to decide whether they wanted to move into a shelter hotel. That’s an hour to decide if they can make a one-year commitment to live with someone they may or may not know.  Think about that for a minute.

I’m a musician. I’ve lived in Toronto my whole life, and it’s quite clear that it has become a worse place to live for everyone as a result of the priority given to developers over people and the absolute lack of affordable housing. 

People sometimes mistake us for an agency. Responsibility to be in community with each other has been relegated to paid professionals. We’re just trying to be good neighbours. In the absence of good governance, that’s all we have. Otherwise, people will die in this heat.

At the beginning of the COVID crisis, many were saying that this is a moment where the city can act with urgency on a decades-long housing crisis. People were hopeful that the virus would allow us to recognize ourselves in others – and that housing would be prioritized. But we haven’t seen that.”

As told to Enzo DiMatteo.


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