If I have learned anything that’s helped me be a good fighter for social justice, it’s that nursing by itself would not resolve or cure the issues I was seeing. I needed to learn skilled manipulation of circumstances and that meant being grounded in a number of areas ranging from politics to economics.
Today, I remain frustrated at what I did not learn in nursing school. Teachings that would support political and economic literacy were appallingly absent. I graduated ignorant of the various responsibilities of the federal, provincial, or municipal levels of government. I certainly never learned the skills a nurse might need to influence those policy-making bodies: for example how to do a deputation, how to create briefing notes on an issue, or how to get an issue on the political agenda.
I definitely did not learn some of the basics that would make me a good community health nurse; the skills involved in community development and community organizing, including how to truly engage with a community and keep their needs, issues, and skills central to my work and on the agenda of policy makers. I also graduated woefully weak in my analysis — for example, I didn’t know how to critique social policy with a feminist, class or social justice lens. In short, nurses are not equipped to enter their profession prepared for all it will demand of them.
Fortunately, for a good chunk of my career, advocacy and political engagement was such an integral part of my job that I learned how to do both. I mostly learned from friends and co-workers out on the street, around the kitchen table, and sometimes over a couple of beers.
I learned that political action is more than simply a shopping list of activities, which might include lessons on “How to lobby your local politician.” I learned the art of delicate “skilled manipulation.” Sometimes it took the form of research like The Street Health Report in 1992 which put homeless health issues on the national radar and was praised by the World Health Organization.
Sometimes it took the form of five-minute deputations to a city hall committee. Sometimes it involved blunt actions to fight for what was right: confronting a politician while the TV camera happened to be close or using secret video footage of horrific shelter conditions to expose the truth. Sometimes it even involved civil disobedience.
Yellow tape and cardboard boxes
There are times when I’ve been involved in what you might call extreme actions as a response to extreme circumstances. Believe me, they’ve only been done after all other options have been tried.
I personally asked Mayor Mel Lastman’s office for a meeting 20 times over a four-year period in order to brief him on the state of homelessness in the city on behalf of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. I asked the mayor in person, I asked him at his New Year’s Day levee, I made requests in writing, and I even called and spoke with him once on a TV call-in show. On the TV show he promised me a meeting and told me to call his office the next day, which I did. I never got a meeting.
As a result, Mayor Lastman received an unusual delivery. In 2000, a young woman, only in her teens, died in a wooded valley in Toronto. She burned to death in her outdoor encampment. Bob Rose, a friend and outreach worker, was emotional and outraged by her death, and he suggested we go to the location where she died because it had been left in disarray. We planted flowers and cleaned up the site. We packaged the burnt remains of her sleeping bag and belongings and put the ashes in three boxes and tied them up with yellow police tape.
We delivered one of those boxes to Prime Minister [Jean] Chrétien’s House of Commons office to demand that he invest in a national housing program. We delivered a second box to then Ontario Premier Mike Harris with the same request for housing monies. The third box was delivered to Mayor Lastman with the urgent request that the city open more shelters to prevent such violent deaths. This action was meant to underline the worst aspect and end result of homelessness and point to the culpability of each level of government.
Ultimately, media covered that this young woman’s death was not in isolation, and that in the past month alone, a 36-year-old man had been choked to death in one of the city’s shelters, another man had drowned in Lake Ontario, and a man had hanged himself in another city shelter. In the Globe and Mail’s coverage of this action they noted that the Ontario government had cut welfare rates 21.6 per cent and offloaded about $800 million in social housing costs onto the municipality.
Secret Video Footage
By 2001, I was increasingly horrified by what I saw on the disaster tours that [colleague Beric German] and I were leading. One night we toured from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. We went into one of the church shelters on that winter night and saw a hundred bodies just lying on the mats on the floor, 16 inches away from each other in a dark, airless room. Even after taking the general manager of the city’s shelter division and the medical officer of health on this tour, nothing was being done to remediate the conditions. We were mad.
In the spring of 2002, I returned from out of town to find out that filmmaker Shelley Saywell had captured those same sickening conditions on film. I was working with Shelley on the film “Street Nurse,” and when she was unable to obtain permission to get some film footage at a particularly shocking city-funded shelter, she fitted Dri from Tent City with a hidden camera in his ball cap and sent him in.
The footage clearly showed that Toronto was violating the standards in the United Nations High Commission for Refugees Handbook. The UN standard for emergency shelter in cold climates or urban settings is 4.5 by 5.5 metres per person. Our footage showed over a hundred men and women sleeping on the floor, bright lights kept on all night to prevent tripping, no windows in a stagnant and airless basement, and four people in the five-metre space that one person should have, according to the United Nations. All else aside, it was a firetrap.
Morally, Beric and I knew we had to do something with this footage and not wait for the release of “Street Nurse” to show it. If there had been a fire, and we had stayed silent, we would have been responsible. I knew the average person seeing this footage showing body after body after body would not find it acceptable. Dri, who reminded us he could have been sleeping there if not at Tent City, said, “If people saw animals kept in these conditions, they would be so upset.”
We used the footage with several provisos; faces were blurred to protect individual privacy; we did not identify the agency so as to avoid the city shutting it down; we did not identify Dri for as long as he was homeless to prevent retribution by that shelter or another. We added an overlay on the footage demonstrating that four people were within the 4.5-to 5.5-metre space that the UN recommended for a single person.
We also felt a duty to consult with civic leaders so we provided a private and confidential screening to a group in the Bay Street offices of John Andras.
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Their responses included the following.
Dr. Stephen Hwang, population health epidemiologist, St. Michael’s Hospital: “The severe crowding in this shelter is clearly a risk to the health of the individuals forced to live in this situation and creates conditions that pose a public health risk through the spread of TB and other infectious diseases.”
The Most Reverend Terence Finlay, Archbishop of Toronto: “Canada needs a national housing strategy. And, until that is in place, shelters must be more available, safer, cleaner and more respecting of those who need them.”
Judy Rebick, writer and producer: “If cats and dogs were living in the conditions shown in this secret video, people would be up in arms. How can we tolerate homeless people in Toronto sleeping in conditions worse than a UN refugee camp?”
Ann Fitzpatrick, community worker, Children’s Aid Society of Toronto: “I was disturbed to see a city-funded shelter with row upon row of homeless people in sleeping bags, on mats, jammed together with barely inches between each person, under the constant glare of fluorescent lights. There were echoes of coughing everywhere and other noises. How can any person keep their health and dignity in this crowded situation?”
John Andras, vice-president, The Rotary Club of Toronto and vice-president, Research Capital: “I was reminded of pictures showing the lower decks of slave ships.”
We gave an exclusive copy of the footage to the Toronto Star. Their May 21 front-page headline screamed, “Secret video exposes plight of homeless” with accompanying stills and quotes from civic leaders.
At a press conference at city hall that morning, I screened the footage to members of the media and provided them with VHS copies of the footage and still photos. Later that day, photos were posted on the news website rabble.ca.
City council voted the next day to ask the federal government for use of the Fort York Armoury for emergency shelter. In addition, within weeks, the shelter facility Dri had filmed in was given assistance, including cots, to improve its conditions.
Several times since that first venture, in the face of government inaction, Beric and I have rented secret cameras and partnered with filmmakers for the sake of documenting the continuing dire scenes that remain on the streets and in the shelters. Our footage has shown line-ups reminiscent of the Depression-era and ghastly images of emergency shelter conditions that continue to not meet the UN standards.
In 2001, federal Minister of Labour and Minister Responsible for Homelessness Claudette Bradshaw invited me for a national consultation meeting on homelessness in Gatineau. In my line of work, these types of invitations are few and far between, and there is an enormous responsibility to be the voice on behalf of homeless people. So I enlisted filmmaker Michael Connolly to make a short video presentation. I called it “Dear Claudette Bradshaw.” Prior to the meeting, I had let her staff know I expected to show it.
By the end of a long day with us mostly sitting around a boardroom table, with no TV or VCR in sight and staff telling me it couldn’t be done, I told the minister I would not go back to Toronto without showing it to her. So she headed our group off from the meeting site, and we marched to her cabinet office to see it.
Several people are in the film, including Nancy Baker, who is featured in my book “Dying for a Home.” She politely says to the minister: “I’ve been a resident of Tent City for about two years. Minister Bradshaw, please give us housing in this disaster where we are. If we had affordable housing, if we had suitable housing and not shelters, there wouldn’t be as many people dying on the streets as there are today.”
During the winter of 2017-18, we once again used photography and secret camera work to expose conditions in two winter respite sites that continued to allow inhumane conditions. In one case toilets, without doors, opened onto the common sleeping and drop-in space. At the same location there were no showers or cots and the indoor temperature in winter was recorded as 11 to 14 C.
Once these conditions were exposed in the media, the Toronto Ombudsman released a scathing report on the conditions leading to the development of the first-ever standards for these temporary respite centres. During the winter of 2018-19 with respite sites now permanent and yearlong, secret camera work was repeated, this time to show the overcrowding in 24-hour respite sites that packed in 100-200 people, and a warming centre that provided shelter in a hallway.