Councillor Wong-Tam discusses equitable budgeting ahead of 2021 budget creation

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By David Jardine

As the city of Toronto begins work on the creation of its 2021 budget, Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam held a five-part webinar series aiming to help residents understand the process better.

Wong-Tam is the city councillor for Ward 13 Toronto-Centre, the district Ryerson is a part of.

Titled “Making Cents,” the series talks about various aspects of Toronto’s budget from housing and homelessness to the COVID-19 recovery. The fourth instalment, focused on the how Toronto uses an equity lens in its budget process, was held on Nov. 9. 

Wong-Tam explained that using an equity lens when constructing the city budget is crucial to answering the following question: “How do we do the very best we can to use the budget process to address structural and social inequities?”

As Toronto faces an upcoming deficit of $1.8 billion, the panel discussed how to ensure the city is meeting residents’ needs with the next budget. The deficit is due to a multitude of issues, including both a decline in revenue from services like the TTC and an increase in public health spending.

An inclusive budget for a diverse population

Liv Mendelsohn, the director of accessibility and inclusion at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, pointed out that many communities are often forgotten in decision making. 

“People with disabilities are often left out of conversations around equity. I think ableism is one of the systems of oppression that is left to the side.” said Mendelsohn, who is also the artistic director of the ReelAbilities Toronto Film Festival. 

She added an equity lens is important when budgeting because “it’s one thing to have diversity…but equity and justice is asking, ‘Are we doing right by all of those people? Does everybody have a chance to reach their full potential?’”

During the panel, Sarah Blackstock, social policy manager for the city of Toronto, explained how and why the city uses an equity lens to inform their budget decisions. 

“We need an equity lens tool because so often policies, programs and budgets are built and evaluated without adequately considering the needs of people who have been historically marginalized and oppressed.”

Blackstock also spoke about how the city-wide shutdown at the start of the pandemic proved to particularly harmful to low-income and BIPOC communities. As data from Toronto Public Health shows, BIPOC folks in Toronto are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Kwame McKenize told the CBC that this is because racialized people experience poverty, housing shortages and food insecurity at greater rates that other communities do. 

Over the summer, Black Lives Matter (BLM) Toronto, along with many other advocacy groups, brought more attention to the Toronto city budget—specifically to the amount allocated to Toronto Police Services (TPS). 

Before the 2020 Toronto budget was approved, BLM Toronto called for a 50 per cent reduction in the TPS budget, while Wong-Tam was a co-sponsor of a motion to reduce funding to TPS by 10 per cent. Neither of these came to fruition—instead the city moved ahead with a plan to provide more funding for all Toronto police to have body cameras by 2021. The cost of the program is estimated to be $50 million over 10 years, per the CBC.  Wong-Tam has included a page on her website dedicated to this issue that gives folks ways to get involved. 

“When you put out a policy or program it makes sense to engage and see how everybody feels about it,” said Ryerson alumni Jessica Ketwaroo-Green. “When we are creating programs we need to make sure we aren’t just engaging communities in these conversations but also meaningfully incorporating their suggestions.” 

Ketwaroo-Green, one of the panelists, graduated from the politics and governance program at Ryerson and has since been active in the non-profit sector working to advance equality for women and gender diverse folks.

Anjum Sultana, the national director of public policy and strategic communications at the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Canada and a panelist at the event, explained why an equity lens needs to be applied to city planning.

“At the heart of equity is a conversation about fairness, about justice. About addressing injustice within society and addressing it in a systemic way,” said Sultana.

Prabha Khosla, a panelist who holds a master’s degree in urban planning and has 20 years of experience working to create more equitable cities, identified the lack of legal requirements to mandate equitable city planning as a major barrier. 

“If there are no legal requirements, by the municipality or provincial or federal government to really make change…in the structures of ruling, there will not be change,” said Khosla. She went on to explain that without these legal requirements individual progressive politicians will try to advance progressive policies, but a change in government can result in all that momentum being lost.

Budget choices to address gender specific issues

Both Khosla and Sultana emphasized the importance of the next city budget. “It is really important that we do not lose sight of [the gender lens].” Sultana said, echoing an earlier point from Khosla. “The data that we do have is very clear. There are significant gendered impacts on economic outcomes as well as social outcomes.”

Wong-Tam brought up some of the cuts that mayor John Tory said city staff are being forced to consider. “[Mayor Tory] did cite some services that he would have to cut, and those services are generally…services that are oftentimes relied upon very heavily by women,” said Wong-Tam. “Services to daycare facilities, services to libraries, facilities, recreation supports, as well as housing supports and shelter support.”

The risk of these service cuts, along with the already existing data from Toronto Public Health suggests BIPOC residents are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, underscores the need for the use of an equity lens in the budget, especially this year. 

Sultana brought up the concern that many of Toronto’s industries may not fully recover from the pandemic, such as hospitality, tourism and entertainment. 

“Many of the folks that occupy those roles are women,” said Sultana. “There isn’t a clear cut plan for if those jobs aren’t coming back—how are we going to transition folks to other jobs? How do we put that gender lens on it?”

Knowledge is power, so is community organizing 

Several panelists spoke to the issue of how politicians may give citizens options to choose from, but that means some options are never even put on the table. Khosla explained the need for the community to set the agenda and the priorities of the government.

“It requires us to be organized,” said Khosla. “If you look at [other countries] there has been an incredible mobilization of communities from different neighbourhoods…everything from housing to public spaces to disability rights. Then we become the challenge to the elected officials. We get rid of them when they are failing us.”

Blackstock highlighted that each year the city staff produce budget charts each year so residents can easily see how much is going to each service area and can use this information to advocate for their priorities. 

In the charts detailing the 2020 city of Toronto budget one can see 23 per cent of the budget is allocated to Toronto Police Services, the largest individual category. This is followed by the TTC in second place with 17 per cent of the budget and capital finance at 13 per cent. The lowest areas of spending are Toronto employment & social services as well as children’s services, both at 2 per cent and finally “other” at less than half a percent. 

Ketwaroo-Green’s closing comment emphasized the need to reconsider what is important in the budget. “When we talk about post-COVID recovery what industries or sectors are we going to see the most investment in?  Likely it will be infrastructure or roadways…some of the more traditional areas of investment.” 

“[Sultana] told me, if a government were to invest more money into childcare or care services, they would actually end up generating more jobs and more income as a result,” she said.

Currently, Ontario’s 2020 budget does not outline how much funding will be allocated to cities. Recordings of Wong-Tam’s series can be found on YouTube.

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