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E-BLAST: How can cities work together to rebuild our economy?

I remember sitting through our first ever virtual City Council meeting in April of last year. At the time, I never imagined that many of us would be continuing to work from home (now a hashtag, #WFH) over a year later. While there are many things I miss about heading to work in person each day, virtual work gave me a unique opportunity this week.

I joined many of my colleagues from across the country in attending the Federation of Canadian Municipalities 2021 Annual Conference. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) brings together cities, rural communities, and municipal associations to discuss key issues for cities and towns of every size. I’m not a committee member at FCM this term, but I was able to attend the conference virtually this year without costing the City any expense.

A screenshot of me and my colleagues at the FCM Ontario Caucus. Fellow Toronto City Councillors Brad Bradford, Cynthia Lai, and Paul Ainslie were also in attendance.

I have enjoyed tremendous professional development at FCM over the years. The conference provides a great opportunity to join mayors and councillors in advocating for our city and combatting the “Everybody hates Toronto” mythology. As you would imagine, this year’s workshops focused on how municipalities will rebuild their economies and help repair the lives of those who have suffered the greatest economic challenges during this pandemic. Those two goals couldn’t be more intertwined.

I was struck by a fact shared in a workshop on using community data for an inclusive recovery. A demographer explained that in most regions of Canada outside the urban core, three people need to enter the workforce to replace one retiree exiting the economy.

It makes sense if you think about it. One person replaces that person’s job. Another needs to enter the geriatric care sector to support our growing aging population that the retiree is set to join. Lastly, you need a third person to enter the workforce to generate growth in the economy. For better or for worse, our Canadian economic system is built on growth and some of that growth needs to make its way to medium and small municipalities. So how do get enough people to create the economic growth we need?

We know that right now, there’s no shortage of people looking for jobs. The economic loss caused by the pandemic has put many Canadians into a tough place, or potentially even pushed people out of housing and onto the street or into the shelter system. Helping these individuals enter or re-enter the workforce will be essential, but we also need to grow our population in order to generate this kind of economic growth. Of course, the pandemic hasn’t just affected Canada, and once it ends we’ll likely have an influx of refugee claimants seeking asylum here. As it turns out, supporting those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic, both at home and abroad, is essential to rebuilding and growing our economy.

Canada has always been a place of refuge. In 2015 and 2016, for example, we welcomed nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees. Many were well-sponsored and found their way into employment and affordable homes in towns and cities across the country. This shows that refugees can be a vital part of the “three people for every retiree” equation.

But what happens to those who fall through the cracks in their most crucial first three years here in Canada? They end up in the shelter system in major cities. They get stuck. When refugee arrivals slip into homelessness, they can’t respond to the great economic opportunities across our country.

On the same day we were discussing this problem at FCM, I opened my email to find a fresh edition of Toronto Star contributor Matt Elliot’s “City Hall Watcher”. Using open data collected by the City, Matt shows that the number of refugees entering the shelter system has dropped significantly since the start of the pandemic, as border closures have reduced refugee migration overall. Once the pandemic ends, we’ll need to have adequate supports in place to support these newcomers.

The above chart shows the number of individuals who have newly entered the shelter system, both non-refugees and refugees, from January 2020 to April 2021. (Source: Matt Elliot, City Hall Watcher)

Matt also shows that it’s too soon to pat ourselves on the back for the affordable and supportive housing being created this year. While we talk about finding thousands of permanent homes for shelter residents, Matt shows that the number of people entering and exiting the shelter system each month is nearly equal.

The above excerpt of a chart shows the number of individuals who have both entered and exited the shelter system from January 2021 to April 2021, including the net change. Click on the image to view the full chart, which shows data from January 2020. (Source: Matt Elliot, City Hall Watcher)

A net total of about 1600 people have been able to leave Toronto’s shelter system over the past year. When the borders re-open after the pandemic, the influx of refugee claimants will wipe out the progress being made on the housing front. If you add a wave of tenant evictions set to begin in the coming days, since the Province has not extended protection for tenants facing pandemic economic crisis, then all progress on the housing front is lost.

This brings me to why I bother to attend national events like FCM. It gives me an opportunity to convince members across the country, from rural Saskatchewan to small town Nova Scotia, why they should support many of Toronto’s requests and initiatives. Since 2015, we have been petitioning the Federal Government for proper compensation for the shelter expenses of our influx of refugees. With adequate supports, we really can help new arrivals become valued members of Canada’s workforce who can help any town succeed.

The data I’ve shared above and the conversations I’ve had at FCM make it clear what we need to do to rebuild our economy post-pandemic:

  1. We need support from the Federal Government for refugee shelter costs going forward. Smaller municipalities should support rather than criticize this request.

  2. We need to keep up the pace on development of deeply affordable and supportive housing solutions.

  3. We need the Provincial government to announce proper support and protection from eviction for all tenants in pandemic-related crisis.

Simply put, we need to support those who have been hit the hardest by this pandemic. Municipalities across the country need to work together to help those who need it most, and in turn help our economy.


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