The Tory Toll: From Walkerton to the Streets of Toronto

June 14th, 2000
By Naomi Klein

Just after noon tomorrow, a few hundred protesters, many of them homeless, will arrive on the steps of Queen’s Park with a very simple request. They want to speak to the Ontario Legislature about the effects its policies are having on the poor.

If history has anything to teach us, Mike Harris will make a get-tough speech about how Ontario’s voters have made their voices heard and he won’t be bullied—right before he calls in the cops for a smashup. The question is: How will the rest of us react?

I ask this because, since the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, voters across Ontario have been searching their souls about the effects of Tory deregulation on real people and their daily lives. There has been widespread horror at the possibility that government cuts to the Ministry of the Environment, and downloading to municipalities, may have put the people of Walkerton at great risk.

Public outrage this powerful is a transformative force, even in Mike Harris’s seemingly impenetrable political enclave. This outrage has lead directly to the convening of four inquiries into the causes of the water crisis, to political commitments to fix the problems identified, as well as an offer of millions of dollars in compensation. The tragedy deserves this swift attention and more. But I can’t help wondering: Why did we need the deaths in Walkerton to make us see that abstract policies take their toll on real people’s lives?

Seven people, possibly more, died from drinking E. coli-infected water. Compare that to the reason the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is marching on Queen’s Park tomorrow: 22 homeless people died on the streets of Toronto in the past seven months. The connections between those22 deaths and government cutbacks and deregulation are just as compelling in Toronto as they are in Walkerton. Perhaps even more so because, in Toronto, we don’t need four inquiries to establish these connections—they are virtually taken as a given.

Before the Tories were elected, some winters passed with absolutely no homeless deaths on the streets of Toronto. The death toll began to mount in 1995, the same year the Tories cut welfare by 21.6 per cent and the same year they nixed plans for new social housing. Just after that, the economic recovery that the Tories love to take credit for began to drive rental rates way up, while the Tory Tenant Protection Act has made it much easier for landlords to throw out their renters. Roughly 1,600 renters now face eviction each month.

The result is a staggering number of people on the streets and not enough beds for them. Last year, there were 5,000 emergency hostel beds available in Toronto, but many social workers say there is demand for twice that many. As the hostels and streets become more crowded, street culture becomes more degraded and violent. And it is here where the Tories step in with their "Safe Streets Act," a new measure that allows the police to treat homeless people like criminals, prime content-providers for Ontario’s coming private super jail.

Just as there are clear remedies available to prevent future Walkertons, there are plenty of obvious policy solutions to prevent future street deaths. More housing, better tenant protection, and less harassment are all good places to start. Anti-poverty groups have put forward the "1 per cent solution": a call to double the amount of money available for affordable housing by getting all levels of government to contribute an additional 1 per cent of their total budgets.

In comparing the E. coli deaths in Walkerton to the homeless crisis in Toronto, I am not trying to pit one tragedy against another in some kind of misery sweepstakes. Only to point out that the debate about Walkerton has two ingredients missing from the discussion about homelessness: noisy public outrage and the political will to prevent future tragedies.

This is Mike Harris’s Ontario in action. The first lesson of the Common Sense Revolution was that there are two clear classes of people in the province: those who are inside the system, and those who belong outside of it. Those who are inside have been rewarded with tax cuts; those on the outside have been pushed further out still.

The people of Walkerton were supposed to be on the inside: hard working, tax paying, healthy, Tory voting. The dead on the streets of Toronto were exiled from Day 1 of the Common Sense Revolution: unemployed, poor, mentally ill.

Only now the neat lines of the Tories’ hierarchy of humanity are blurring. "The Harris agenda goes beyond destroying the social structure and has started to erode the very physical structure everyone relies upon," says John Clarke, spokesperson for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the group organizing tomorrow’s demonstration. "In the end, it becomes obvious that everyone is under attack."

The people who were hit first see these connections clearly. It’s time for the ones who only just noticed the human toll of Tory rule to do the same. Tomorrow is a good time to start.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.