City apologizes, seeks to rectify job loss after ‘clean-shave’ policy under fire by Sikh advocacy group

Reasonable accommodation in action with “under-mask beard covers”:

First came the Tuesday afternoon phone call and apology from Toronto Mayor John Tory. Now, Birkawal Singh Anand wants his job back.

Anand was one of more than 100 Sikh guards laid off from the security companies contracted to staff City-operated shelters and respite sites after the guards refused to follow a City mandate requiring they be clean-shaven in order for a tight-fitting N95 mask be worn in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

On Tuesday, Toronto issued a press release apologizing and saying that security guards should be rehired and paid for lost wages. “City of Toronto apologizes to the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) for any delay in addressing this issue and ensuring security contractors were offering religious accommodations.”

The city said it was providing the update to “ensure security contractors accommodate all employees following a complaint from the World Sikh Organization of Canada.”

“It shouldn’t have taken a public outcry to make this change but I still appreciate that it is happening,” Anand said Tuesday night.

“The city did their part, now it’s up to the company to do theirs.”

Demanding that a Sikh shave his beard is like asking a non-Sikh to “peel off their skin,” Anand told the Star Monday.

“I told them, I belong to the Sikh community, shaving is not an option for me.”

The job losses began in April, the new release said. City staff had been inspecting work sites and deducting billable hours from contracted security companies for having employees who were not clean shaven.

The WSO complained about the layoffs in June, saying security service providers did not offer appropriate accommodation to their employees who have facial hair for religious reasons. The complaint was sent to city staff to resolve, sources said. Now, Toronto says it will allow the guards to wear “under-mask beard covers” as a “reasonable accommodation.”

That covering uses a “tight-fitting mask over a beard that covers the chin and cheeks, and ties in a knot at the top of the head,” the city’s release said.

“An N95 mask is then worn over the cover. The technique, also known as the Singh Thattha Method, is used by many Sikh people in the medical community and has been found to be highly effective in respirator fit testing.”

Before his 4 p.m. phone call to Anand, the release said Tory called the WSO to say the under-masking practice will go into effect “immediately.”

“This option was proposed by the World Sikh Organization of Canada and the City is grateful for this information. The City is also committed to followup meetings with the organization,” the release said.

Balpreet Singh Boparai, the lawyer for the WSO, said the organization received a call on Tuesday from Tory.

“He confirmed that the security guards could return to their jobs and the City would work with the security contractors to make it possible,” Boparai said.

The job losses may not be so easily resolved, he added.

“We are still waiting for the security contractors to get this message. A number of Sikh security guards had their shifts cancelled and they have not been invited to return to their positions.”

Source: City apologizes, seeks to rectify job loss after ‘clean-shave’ policy under fire by Sikh advocacy group

‘There is systemic discrimination in our policing’: New Toronto police data confirms officers use more force against Black people

Significant. However, most activists remain sceptical, at least the ones I heard on CBC:

The hard data proves what has long been known and felt by members of the city’s Black communities.

Toronto police officers use more force against Black people, more often, with no clear explanation why. Except for race.

That is a key takeaway from a landmark new report containing never-before-seen data on officer use of force and strip searches — statistics that, for the first time, were collected and released by the Toronto Police Service itself.

The race-based statistics are so stark that Chief James Ramer offered an apology to the city’s Black community, coinciding with the release of a 119-slide presentation on the force’s findings.

“I am sorry and I apologize unreservedly,” Ramer said Wednesday morning.

“Our own analysis of our data from 2020 discloses that there is systemic discrimination in our policing,” Ramer said. “That is, there is a disproportionate impact experienced by racialized people, particularly those of Black communities.”

Meanwhile, police this weekend warned officers to brace for a “challenging” public reaction that will “lead some people to question the hard work you do every day.” 

Among the major findings: In 2020, Toronto officers used force on Black people about four times more often than their share of the population — and Black Torontonians were five times more likely to have force used against them than white ones. 

And in those cases when force was used, an officer was more than twice as likely to draw a firearm on a Black person they thought was unarmed than a white person they thought was unarmed. 

The statistics show overrepresentation in other racialized communities, too. If you are Indigenous, you were more likely to be subjected to a strip search, a highly invasive police practice; and members of the Latino, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian communities were also more likely to have force used against them.

The sobering data released Wednesday aligns with past external reports that have found Black people are overrepresented in police use of forcein this city. 

But the new data uses internal police records to go a step further, evaluating racial disparities in police use of force not only against the city’s population but within the pool of people interacting with police — those who were arrested, considered suspects, ticketed for provincial offences and more.

“This allows us to compare outcomes against the population that actually had contact with police,” a Toronto police statement said, adding it allows police to “focus our efforts on the actions that we can control.”

In other words: If officers were simply responding to higher rates of crime in any one group, this method should make the racial disparity disappear.

Even here, Black people were overrepresented, found to be 1.6 times more likely to be subjected to force compared to their percentage of total police interactions in 2020. Latino people were overrepresented by 1.5 times and Middle Eastern people were overrepresented by 1.2 times.

And Black people were already more than twice as likely to be the subject of this baseline police enforcement. Although they represented approximately 10 per cent of the city’s population in 2020, they accounted for 22 per cent of what police called “enforcement actions,” including arrests, tickets and other stops.

The police report has been independently peer-reviewed, Ramer said. 

He added: “This is some of the most important work we have ever done.”

Where the data is coming from

The race-based data released Wednesday details the use of force and strip searches conducted by Toronto police in 2020.

The use of force data is taken from Ontario’s “use of force reports” — documents required to be filled out whenever an officer uses physical force requiring medical attention, deploys a TASER, or draws or points their firearm. In 2019, Ontario’s provincial government required all police services to begin recording the officer’s perception of the race of the person they used force against.

Toronto police then cross-referenced these reports with internal “occurrence” reports — allowing them to conduct a deeper analysis, including of the type of call and the location of the incident.

In total in 2020, Toronto police said there were 949 use of force incidents involving 1,224 members of the public. Of those, 39 per cent were perceived as Black, while 36 per cent were perceived as white. (In 2020, 46 per cent of Toronto’s population was white.)

In 2020, Toronto police also began recording officer perception of race for strip searches — an invasive procedure conducted on people who are arrested. For years, Toronto police and other services were not capturing race-based data on strip searches, something critics said was long overdue.

The data analysis independently reviewed “leading experts” in race data collection with a human rights lens, Toronto police said. Since it began collecting race-based data, Toronto police has been consulting with a community advisory committee that includes members of Black, Indigenous and racialized communities.

Use of force — from low to high

Police use of force reports capture a range of interactions. Lower level force includes the use of aerosol spray, a baton, a police dog or a strike with a hand. Less lethal force is the use of a Taser or bean bag gun, and higher levels of force include when a firearm is pointed or discharged.

Of the 949 use of force incidents in 2020, a firearm was pointed at someone 371 times. The gun was fired four times, twice killing someone.

When officers use force, Toronto police were more likely to point a firearm toward a Black person compared to a white person.

Even in situations where police believed the subject was armed, a Black person was 1.5 times more likely to have a gun pulled on them than a white person in the same scenario.

The difference increased even when police didn’t think the subject had a weapon. In that scenario, a Black person was more than twice as likely as a white person to have a police officer pull out their gun and point it at them.

Black, South Asian and East/Southeast Asian people were more likely to experience higher uses of force compared to white people when it came to “less than lethal force,” such as a bean bag gun.


Toronto police also examined police officer use of force rates in police divisions across the city. The results showed that, overall, incidents involving white people had lower use of force rates while those involving Black people had higher use of force rates. 

The differences appear to be stark in some mid-Toronto police divisions, including downtown’s 51 and 52 Divisions. 

In those areas, officers used force on a white person in .5 to .75 per cent of all enforcement interactions (such as arrests). But when the person was Black, force was used in more than 1.75 per cent of these same interactions — numbers that show these divisions used force against Black people around two to four times more frequently.

The differences, Toronto police said, are “not explained” by the demographic makeup of the local population. 

In other divisions there is a much lower racial disparity, or none at all, according to the data. In Scarborough’s 42 Division and midtown’s 53 Division, for example, the data shows no difference in use of force between white and Black people.

Calls for service and types of offences 

In calls for service that were classified as violent, Black people were 1.2 times more likely and Indigenous people were 1.4 times more likely to be on the receiving end of officer use of force, according to the data.

With calls regarding a person in crisis, Black people were nearly two times more likely to be subjected to force, while Indigenous people were 1.4 times.

Black people were found to be more likely to be subjected to police officer use of force in incidents involving assaults, mental health calls, fraud, mischief and robbery. 

Strip searches

In 2020, more than 22 per cent of all arrests — more than one in five — resulted in a strip search by Toronto police (7,114 strip searches in total, from 31,979 arrests). 

Of those, 31 per cent of those strip searched were perceived as Black, roughly three times their share of the population and higher than their 27-per-cent share of total arrests.

Indigenous people showed the highest overrepresentation in strip searches. They were overrepresented by 1.3 times compared to their presence in all Toronto police arrests. They accounted for just three per cent of the total arrests but represented to 4 per cent of all strip searches. 

The data was collected the same year Toronto police made a significant policy change to strip searches in response to a scathing report by Ontario’s police complaints watchdog that found the force conducted “far too many” strip searches. Before, more than 27 per cent of arrests resulted in a strip search; following the changes, which included having a supervisor sign off on all strip searches, that number dropped to 4.9 per cent of arrests.

Data from 2021 shows a marked decline in the number of strip searches, though arrests involving white and Black people were still more likely to result in a strip search, compared to the average. 

Source: ‘There is systemic discrimination in our policing’: New Toronto police data confirms officers use more force against Black people

And a somewhat contrary view regarding the need to include the context of crime rates in communities:

The problem with the Toronto Police report released Wednesday concluding that Blacks, Indigenous people and other racial minorities are disproportionately targeted by police when it comes to use-of-force incidents and body searches, is that it looks at only half the issue. It concludes the reason for this is systemic racism within the police force, for which Police Chief James Ramer publicly apologized and pledged to do better going forward, noting the study recommends 38 “action items” police will implement along with dozens of recommendations in other studies.

But what the report excludes are the crime rates in the various communities with which the police interact.

Logically that’s part of the equation because if they are higher in some communities than others, that will impact the frequency and type of their interactions with police.

However, it has been illegal for police forces in Ontario to gather or reveal this data for decades.

That was the result of a controversy that erupted in 1989 when then Toronto police superintendent Julian Fantino released statistics suggesting Blacks in one Toronto community were disproportionately involved in crime.

Fantino said he did it to counter allegations police were racist.But politicians, criminologists and civil rights groups responded that releasing the data without the context that the Black community was over-policed, was unscientific and would feed into racism.

As a result, race-based police statistics today are used solely to search for systemic bias within policing.

Scot Wortley of the University of Toronto and Maria Jung of Toronto Metropolitan University in a 2020 report for the Ontario Human Rights Commission which concluded Blacks were disproportionately arrested and charged by Toronto police compared to whites, cited both theories to explain why this happens.

One is the “Bias Thesis” which argues, “Black people are over-represented in police statistics because they are subject to biased or discriminatory treatment by the police and the broader criminal justice system. “Rates of Black offending stem from the negative consequences of centuries of colonialism, slavery and racial oppression … The impact of intergenerational trauma and contemporary social disadvantage, in turn, results in higher rates of Black offending.”

An alternative explanation, the “Higher Rate of Offending Thesis” argues “Black people engage in criminal activity at a higher level than other racial groups and this fact is accurately reflected in official crime statistics … when such factors as the criminal history of individuals and the seriousness of their offences are considered, there’s no evidence disparities in arrest rates are the result of police racism.”

The authors of the OHRC study cited “growing evidence (that) suggests that both explanations have merit … (that) the over-representation of Black people in arrest statistics may be caused both by higher rates of offending and racial bias within the criminal justice system.”

That is, police disproportionately arrest and charge Blacks (for example) because while the vast majority of Blacks are law-abiding, a minority are disproportionately involved in criminal activity and the reason is often due to the adverse social and economic conditions faced by Blacks because of systemic racism, not just in the police force, but in society in general.The problem is that by continuously ignoring the issue of crime rates within the communities with which the police interact, we are no longer looking honestly or completely at all aspects of the issue.

This will inevitably contribute to public skepticism among many about the findings of this latest report by Toronto Police identifying systemic racism in the force.

Source: GOLDSTEIN: Here’s why we no longer talk honestly about police race-based data

Immigrants. The working poor. Essential workers. Third doses lag in Toronto’s most vulnerable areas; Let’s celebrate Toronto’s vaccine success story

Not that surprising as they lagged with earlier doses as well.

Throughout the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Torontonians have watched as neighbourhoods home to those experiencing some of the harshest outcomes of the pandemic have had among the lowest vaccination rates

Now, as public health and community organizations work on the ground to improve third-dose uptake, new data from the Gattuso Centre for Social Medicine at University Health Network lays bare the stark demographic differences between the Toronto neighbourhoods with the highest rates of third-dose vaccination and those with the lowest. 

What it shows in granular detail is that many of our most vulnerable citizens — immigrants, the working poor and essential workers in trades and manufacturing — live in areas where third-dose vaccinations just aren’t happening anywhere near the rates seen in some of Toronto’s richest and least-racialized neighbourhoods. 

For example, 71 per cent of the population is racialized in the bottom 20 per cent of Toronto neighbourhoods ranked by third-dose uptake. That compares to just 24 per cent in the top 20 per cent of neighbourhoods with the highest rates of third-dose vaccination. 

Similarly, the percentage of the population that meets low-income thresholds in the areas with the lowest third-dose vaccination rates is nearly double that in neighbourhoods with the most administered. 

“It doesn’t need to be this way. There was great success in narrowing the access gap for the rollout of Dose 1. It can be done again. We can’t afford not to,” said Dr. Andrew Boozary, executive director of the Gattuso Centre.

“If we don’t address the pathologies of poverty, if we don’t shift more public investment into these neglected neighbourhoods, we will continue to see worse health outcomes and wider health disparities than we’ve ever seen.”

The Gattuso Centre’s analysis also shows that neighbourhoods with the lowest third-dose uptake have higher proportions of essential workers in manufacturing, utilities, trades, transport and equipment operation — sectors that don’t conform to regular nine-to-five workdays and that are not conducive to allowing workers to take time off to get vaccinated during clinic hours.

Indeed, the percentage of the population working in manufacturing and utilities is 10 times higher in areas with the lowest rates of third-dose vaccination than in those with the highest rates. Likewise, the percentage of people employed in the trades, transport and equipment operation is more than four times higher in the bottom 20 per cent of Toronto neighbourhoods by third-dose vaccination than in the highest 20 per cent. 

“If racialized community members are getting their third doses at a third of the rate compared to non-racialized communities, we need to make specific, targeted interventions that are going to provide information in a culturally appropriate and safe way for these communities,” said Michelle Westin, senior analyst for planning, quality and risk at Black Creek Community Health Centre who has been leading mobile vaccination clinics in northwest Toronto.

“We need to be having ambassadors that are representative of these communities to help build that trust. We have to have vaccinators that are representative of these racialized communities. We need to make sure that vaccinations are accessible to people who are low income, so ensuring that they are in spaces that they can get to easily, assist with providing transportation if needed, ensuring that hours of the clinic work with folks that are having to work different hours of the day and multiple jobs,” she added.

The city of Toronto has been waging a three-pillared operation to get shots into arms in the neighbourhoods with the lowest uptakes. This includes hyperlocal clinics in malls, transit stations, workplaces and schools; outreach around these clinics through 155 community agencies and more than 400 neighbourhood vaccine ambassadors; and a get-out-the-vote style campaign, dubbed “VaxTO,” using text messages, phone calls, emails and town halls to get information out.

“We know that when we announced our target to reach 90 per cent of residents for their first dose, people told us it was impossible in a city as large and diverse as ours. We proved that it was possible when you commit to equity and you don’t stop,” said Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Board of Health. “You literally have to go door-to-door, building-by-building in every language with trusted local leaders. It’s not quick because tackling inequity is never quick. But it works.”

To date, 60 per cent of eligible residents in Toronto have received a third dose. 

But there is still a long way to go. The Gattuso Centre found that the gap between the neighbourhoods with the most and least third dose-uptake has widened substantially over the past seven weeks. In Kingsway South, for example, 68 per cent of eligible residents have received a third dose, compared to just 27 per cent in Mount Olive-Silverstone-Jamestown — a gap of 41 percentage points.

“The gap is striking, especially given what we’ve learned throughout the pandemic. We’ve seen real success in earlier stages of the vaccine rollout when community leadership has been supported with the resources and focus to ensure there is true access. It obliterated many notions of vaccine hesitancy early on,” Boozary said.

“But if we stray from that, we will continue to see this widening of a gap and it will not be recoverable if we do not ensure that those same investments and resources and supports are there for everyone.”

Luwam Ogbaselassie, implementation lead with the Gattuso Centre who has been supporting the vaccination effort in the Humber River-Black Creek region, said the involvement of community leadership is key to narrowing the third-dose uptake gap. 

“Wherever there are resources being allocated towards vaccines, it should be guided by community leaders around how best to structure those clinics and how best to reach the people who have been the hardest to reach and continue to be the hardest to reach,” she said, noting that she has seen first-hand the meaningful impact of community ambassadors who live in the same buildings and in the same neighbourhoods as those who may harbour mistrust of the health care system. 

“I’ve always said as a hospital partner, we bring the vaccines, we bring the clinical teams, but we look to our community partners to guide us on how to set up the clinics, how to engage with people who live in the community.

“Community leadership makes all the difference.

Source: Immigrants. The working poor. Essential workers. Third doses lag in Toronto’s most vulnerable areas

On a more positive note:

It’s a snowy Thursday afternoon in Toronto and the vaccination clinic at the Woodbine Mall is getting ready to welcome its first visitors of the day. The news is full of the demonstrations in Ottawa against pandemic restrictions. Similar protests are about to come to Toronto. But at the clinic, the mood is purposeful, unruffled, even buoyant.

Nurses sit at tables filling syringes with vaccine and loading them into trays. Helpers lay out colouring sheets to amuse kids coming in for their jab. One greeter brandishes a little Canadian flag that she waves to show visitors when a booth is free.

As opening time approaches, operations manager Simone Richards gathers everyone for the daily huddle, a combination of pep talk, check-in session and revival meeting. Smiling behind her mask, she warns the group: “We are running low on teddy bears.” The local police station donated a pile of the toys to soothe nervous kids and there are only a few left.

After singing a rousing Happy Birthday for their clinical manager Arturo Villasan, staffers put their hands in, like athletes before a game, for a go-team cheer – except that, pandemic style, their hands don’t actually touch. Then they open the doors to let people through. They get hundreds a day, most of them happy to get the protection offered by the vaccines against COVID-19.

The scene at the Woodbine clinic tells a different story than you see in the headlines. In a week in which all the oxygen was consumed by noisy and sometimes obnoxious protesters, it is worthwhile to remember that most Canadians don’t feel their rights are being trampled by a despotic government. Most believe in vaccines and are eager to get jabbed. Most wear their masks and obey the rules on gathering and distancing. Though it will disappoint the Russell Brands of the world, Canada is not in revolt. Quietly, capably mustering all the available tools of technology, science and human collaboration, the country is getting on with the task of combating a deadly and insidious virus.

Toronto’s vaccination campaign, the biggest in its history, is an impressive success story. More than 6.5 million doses have been administered. Ninety per cent of residents 12 and older have one dose and 87 per cent two. Sixty percent of eligible residents have a booster, the result of a stepped-up Team Toronto drive to meet the threat from the Omicron variant. More than half of kids have one dose and a quarter have two.

To inoculate all those people in a city of 180 languages, dozens of cultural groups and scores of neighbourhoods has been a staggering task. To reach the hesitant, the disadvantaged and the disengaged, the city has hired hundreds of community ambassadors and translators to get the word out. It has dispatched mobile clinics from one end of the city to the other. It has bombarded residents with text messages, robocalls and flyers.

On the same afternoon that Ms. Richards and her team were greeting visitors to their big clinic in a Hudson’s Bay store at Woodbine, workers were going door to door in a Parkdale seniors’ building and soothing nervous kids at a Mount Olive school. At a small clinic in a mall at Jane and Finch streets, they don’t just wait for people to walk in. They recently persuaded the busy lady at the local roti joint to sit for a vaccination right in her shop. Every vaccination counts.

Leading me on a clinic tour, Joe Cressy, a city councillor who is chair of the city’s board of health, called it a brilliant example of breaking down silos and bringing everyone together in a common cause: pharmacies, hospitals, public-health workers; community and neighbourhood associations; cops and firefighters; care homes and schools.

Though we hear a lot these days about conflict and anger, what really stands out is the way all these groups are working arm in arm. As Mayor John Tory puts it, “the city has been united.”

Of course, it’s taking a while. It’s only natural that people are frustrated with the persistence of this virus and the annoying, limiting measures put in place to control it. If some believe that governments are to blame for much of the misery, they have a perfect right to say so, as long as they do it peacefully and lawfully. But while thousands are taking to the streets, hundreds of thousands of others are still lining up to get their shots and do their bit to quell the virus.

Ms. Richards and her Woodbine crew are standing ready to help them, with kindness, efficiency and good cheer. More teddy bears are coming.

Source: Let’s celebrate Toronto’s vaccine success story

They’ve been called hot spots. It’s actually ‘code’ for social inequity

More analysis confirming COVID-related racial and other disparities:

People who live in Toronto and Peel COVID-19 hot spots are on average nearly twice as likely to be racialized and about four times more likely to be employed in manufacturing and utilities compared to those in the regions’ other neighbourhoods, a new analysis shows. 

New research from the Gattuso Centre for Social Medicine at University Health Network also highlights how residents of these hot-spot areas are, on average, more than twice as likely to work in trades, transportation and equipment operation and also more likely to meet low-income thresholds.

While the public has heard over the past year that racialized people, those with lower-income status and essential workers are bearing a disproportionate burden of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, the analysis from the Gattuso Centre highlights at a granular level who actually lives in the neighbourhoods hardest hit by the virus, how much money they make, and what they do for a living. 

“When we talk about ‘hot spot’ postal codes, what we’re really talking about is the structural determinants of health. Social inequities and the pathologies of poverty have been driving this pandemic,” said Dr. Andrew Boozary, executive director of the Gattuso Centre. “This is further evidence that life-saving measures need to get to neighbourhoods with the highest structural risks –– this at the very least means community leadership driving vaccine rollouts and better safety measures at workplaces.”

Using Census data, the social medicine team looked at demographics in Toronto’s 13 “sprint” strategy communities deemed most at-risk and compared it with the rest of Toronto’s forward sortation areas (the first three characters in postal codes). They also compared hot spots in Toronto and Peel with the remainder of neighbourhoods in those regions, and did a similar comparison of all of Ontario’s 114 hot spots with postal codes in the rest of the province.

In virtually every case, the most at-risk neighbourhoods had, on average, higher proportions of racialized individuals, those who meet low-income measures, people who work in manufacturing and utilities, and those employed in trades, transportation and equipment operation. 

For example, M3N, which includes Jane and Finch and Black Creek, has the most manufacturing and utilities employment, the sixth-highest proportion of people who meet low-income thresholds, the eighth highest employment in trades, transportation and equipment operation, and is the 10th most racialized community out of all postal codes in Toronto and Peel.

Similarly, L6R, in northern Brampton, has the most trades, transportation and equipment-operation employment, the fourth-most manufacturing and utilities employment and is the third-most racialized postal code out of all Toronto and Peel neighbourhoods. 

The only exception the researchers found was in the Ontario-wide hot-spot comparison, in which the percentage of people who work in trades, transportation and equipment operation in hot spots was slightly lower than non-hot-spot neighbourhoods.

“That’s the thing with this data, it also really shows the disparity. It really shows that no, we haven’t all been through the same experience with COVID,” said Sané Dube, Manager, Community and Policy with Social Medicine at UHN, using the example of someone who makes over $100,000 annually, lives in downtown Toronto and can pay for their groceries to be delivered.

“That is very different from the experience from the person who is making $30,000 in a grocery store, has continued to work the whole pandemic and lives in a certain part of the neighbourhood. There’s this idea that we’ve all had the same experience in this pandemic. We haven’t. This really brings that home.”

Laura Rosella, scientific director of the Population Health Analytics Lab at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and a collaborator on the analysis, notes that hot spots are vulnerable for different reasons, which is why connections between policy-makers and the communities are so important.

“The data kind of gives you that first layer, saying we need to pay attention here. Then it’s the conversations with the community that will tell you what the solutions are,” Rosella said. “The data alone won’t tell you what the solutions are. The community will.”

Michelle Dagnino, executive director of the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre, says that while she is not surprised by the data, many people, including many who work in social services, did not realize just how many people in vulnerable areas have continued to go to work throughout the pandemic. 

“I think there was a sense that there were going to be more workplace shutdowns than there ever actually ended up being. The definition of ‘essential’ just ended up being so broad in terms of these workplaces,” she said. 

“Effectively, all of our factory workers, whether they’re manufacturing glass panes or producing clothing or whether they’re delivering factory-made goods through Amazon distribution centres, they have been open the whole time. And the consequences of that in this third wave have led us to a situation where we have seen racialized, low-income workers dying because they’ve had to continue to go to work.”



Before COVID-19, inequity in healthcare was, in effect, a pandemic for Black communities. Here are five issues that need to be addressed

Of note. Good list of issues:

Toronto has a new, $6.8-million plan to fight the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community. But the roots of health inequity were taking hold long before the pandemic started.

“These are conversations we have been having. We’ve been advocating, we’ve been speaking about it,” said Lydia-Joi Marshall, president of the Black Health Alliance. “This is not a new crisis for the Black community …. This is just highlighting the inequities that have been happening all along.”

Marshall, who has worked in healthcare research for more than 15 years and was a speaker at this month’s TEDxToronto: Uncharted, spoke with the Star to explain five long-standing issues that have made the healthcare system unequal for the Black community. Many of these still need to be addressed.

It’s not biology, it’s racism: As a geneticist, Marshall said she does not believe in race as a biological construct. “Race is not the determinant of health. Racism is,” she said.

“We often hear all these higher rates of illness in Black people — Black people have higher hypertension and diabetes,” and we can see that and think there must be a “very specific biological reason,” Marshall said. But, really, it’s more to do with systemic barriers that make these illnesses more likely, such as disproportionate stress and lack of access to nutritious food. “What are the other social determinants?” she said.

For instance, a 2019 study by FoodShare and the University of Toronto showed that Black Canadians are twice as likely as white Canadians to be food insecure. Without access to affordable, healthy food, health problems can fester.

“This idea that it is biological, we have to come away from that, because it allows people to dismiss the systemic and institutionalized racism of why we’re seeing such different rates.”

Microaggressions take a toll on physical health: Dealing with small, daily instances of racism can overtime lead to poorer health outcomes. “It takes a toll on our health,” Marshall said.

A study conducted by Harvard University and NPR in 2017 found that people who reported high numbers of daily indignities, such as receiving poor service in a restaurant or being treated with less courtesy than others, also ranked high in developing heart disease, or, in the case of pregnant women, ranked high in giving birth to babies of a lower weight.

“This stress, whether it is daily stress or overt … can result in illness,” Marshall said.

Mental health and wellness has a ripple effect: Marshall notes that mental health can affect other branches of health, and yet have so far not received as much attention.

Much of Marshall’s research relates to other clinical and chronic illnesses, but rates of under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed mental illness in the Black community, have “shocked” her, when she has looked at them.

Black respondents ranked the lowest in a December 2020 mental health surveyconducted by Morneau Shepell.

Barriers to mental healthcare for the Black community must be reduced, and a better understanding at the point of diagnosis developed, so the rates of under- and misdiagnosis are addressed.

Bias affects quality of care: Marshall recalls a time when her aunt called Telehealth to assess her symptoms when she was feeling ill. The questions went: “Are you healthy? Does your skin look pink?” Marshall said.

“I had to explain to her that this is just the ingrained bias — that here in Canada, the normal is not us.”

Apart from small instances such as this, the phenomenon also manifests in textbooks that are used in medical schools, hospital visits and is a hardship shared by Indigenous communities.

Mistrust of the system lingers: As concerns about hesitancy around taking the vaccine get more attention in public policy, it’s worth really considering the questions Black communities have and the source of their concerns, Marshall says.

Mistreatment has been both on a large scale historically — as with the Tuskegee study in the U.S. and nutrition experiments in the Indigenous community in Canada — but also on a smaller scale in the form of personal trips to the hospital.

Many are “asking valid questions, because of a historical pattern of the system not catering to our needs,” she said.

“Why would we trust a system that has not been built for us?”

This approach can inform the way Canada addresses vaccine concerns in the Black community.

Source: Before COVID-19, inequity in healthcare was, in effect, a pandemic for Black communities. Here are five issues that need to be addressed

‘Nothing we’ve done has helped’: In Toronto’s poor, racialized neighbourhoods, second-wave lockdowns are again failing to slow COVID cases

Good detailed analysis:

The data is clear, and has been for months: Ontarians who are poor, under-housed and racialized are disproportionately attacked by COVID-19.

And yet, deep into the second wave, this central feature of the pandemichas not been central to our pandemic response, health experts say. The current “one size fits all” restrictions have so far failed to protect the vast majority of people getting infected by COVID-19. As a result, lockdowns in hot spots like Toronto and Peel are on track to be longer, harder and more devastating for everyone. 

“If we don’t tackle this problem, we will continue to struggle through the winter. I can guarantee you that right now,” says Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, which provides evidence to inform the province’s pandemic response.

In the first wave, lockdowns worked instantly in richer, whiter Toronto neighbourhoods but failed to flatten the curve in the poorest, most racialized ones, Star analyses showed. 

Experts fear the same thing is happening again. Over a recent four-week period, the 20 Toronto neighbourhoods with the highest proportions of visible minorities recorded more than 3,300 cases. The 20 whitest neighbourhoods reported just 360. This racialized tilt is not a function of race itself, research shows, rather of who performs essential but low-paying work and is more likely to live in sub-standard housing.

“This is really about the people who do all the work for us and who allow you and me to stay home,” says Juni.

“The restrictions work very nicely in my neighbourhood, Moore Park,” an affluent area in North Toronto, Juni adds. “In some other neighbourhoods, they don’t. Why? Because we do not support people to actually be able to decrease the amount of contact they have.”

Summer offered a reprieve from the virus — a chance to reflect on the first wave of the pandemic and prepare for the second. And perhaps the harshest lesson from the spring was that COVID-19 predominantly impacted poor and racialized Torontonians, especially from Black and South Asian communities.

According to Toronto Public Health data released in July, racialized residents accounted for 83 per cent of cases despite making up 52 per cent of the population. People in the poorest households accounted for the largest share of cases of any income group.

Many of the worst-hit neighbourhoods were in the city’s northwest and northeast. And while the rest of Toronto — particularly whiter, more affluent downtown neighbourhoods — enjoyed a relatively pandemic-free summer, residents in these areas continued to see transmission simmer along at low levels.

As the second wave took off, the same first-wave patterns quickly took hold: the downtown Waterfront neighbourhood initially emerged as a hot spot, then infections began to spike in neighbourhoods more densely populated by poor and racialized residents. 

The province and the city began a series of interventions over the fall that escalated in severity — all of which have been too lax, many epidemiologists have argued. In late September, capacity limits were imposed for indoor dining and bars. In early October, indoor dining was nixed entirely along with fitness classes, and gathering sizes reduced. 

These measures did have an impact — but most dramatically in downtown neighbourhoods like Little Portugal and the Waterfront. In the northwest and northeast corners especially, cases continued to climb.

“Rates in some of those downtown communities have dramatically decreased. You can see the direct effects of the intervention on those neighbourhoods, and you can hypothesize that (restaurants and indoor dining) were a very big driver for the cases in those neighbourhoods,” says Dr. Vinita Dubey, an associate medical officer of health with Toronto Public Health. 

Dubey acknowledges that the inequalities of the first wave are repeating. “We are still seeing some of the same patterns that have actually persisted,” she says. “We’re doing more, we’ve learned more, we’re working with the communities more. But some of those systemic inequalities or disparities haven’t (been) fixed between the first and second wave.”

In an emailed statement, a health ministry spokesperson said the provincial government has had “an explicit focus on equity issues” with respect to the pandemic’s impact and cited several steps it’s taken to address these, including: public-health marketing efforts in more than 18 languages; a relief fund of $510 million for food banks, shelters and other organizations; and working with community groups to improve testing access in hard-hit areas.

If the lockdown that began Nov. 23 has had any effect on the hardest-hit neighbourhoods, it is not yet apparent. But while the inequities underlying differences in COVID risk may be deep-rooted, they can still be tackled, health experts say.

“We’ve set up a response, I think, at the extreme … it’s been only for the rich, or at least with the rich in mind first,” says Dr. Stefan Baral, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, who provides clinical care in homeless shelters in Toronto.

“There were very specific and tangible things that I think could have been done to prepare for what was going to be a very difficult winter.”

In early October, the Star obtained provincial data showing that some Toronto neighbourhoods had alarmingly high positivity rates, suggesting that pockets of the city were in worse shape than previously known.

Provincial health officials admitted they first saw this data in the newspaper, and Premier Doug Ford cited mobile testing as part of what the province was doing to support marginalized communities.

But just days earlier, community health organizations in some of Toronto’s hardest-hit neighbourhoods were pressured by the province to stop offering pop-up testing, those involved say. 

The province was transitioning to an appointment-only testing system as the backlog of unprocessed specimens ballooned. But community groups knew that easier-to-access pop-up testing sites were critical for reaching residents at highest risk of COVID-19.

The community groups pushed back, and “highlighted that without their pop-ups, there would be nothing available for (their) communities,” says Sané Dube, with the University of Health Network’s social medicine program, who was working in the community at the time. 

It was “disturbing and concerning,” she adds. Though the province “backtracked” and the pop-up sites happened as planned, she says, “it raised serious questions about how decisions were being made.”

The health ministry says “there was absolutely no plan or proposal to ever cancel testing” in the neighbourhoods in question. 

“Ontario Health Regions are working with high priority communities to offer additional testing sites.”

Many advocates describe a chronic inability to reach people in marginalized communities, where the need for COVID-19 testing is most dire.

In September — when testing volumes peaked in Toronto and the second wave started taking off — there was no pop-up testing in Scarborough and just three sites in the city’s northwest corner, two regions with high densities of poor, racialized communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. 

But people in the richest and whitest neighbourhoods were likely being overtested. In late September, testing rates in Toronto’s whitest neighbourhoods were double that of the most racialized communities, according to a Star analysis of public health data.

After the province overhauled its strategy in late September, including restricting access for those with no symptoms, testing rates fell dramatically in the richest, whitest neighbourhoods. Today, they are more or less in line with rates in the city’s poorest, most racialized neighbourhoods — even though testing rates in the latter neighbourhoods “should be through the roof” given the soaring infection rates in those areas, says Dr. Sharmistha Mishra, a scientist with the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute and a member of the province’s modelling consensus table.

In response to the Star’s questions about testing access in northwest Toronto, the health ministry spokesperson cited the dozens of testing sites across the larger region that encompasses these neighbourhoods — but also acknowledged that uptake was still too low, and that the “expansion planning is underway.”

“Next efforts focus on mobilizing increased uptake of testing within targeted communities and providing culturally relevant and community tailored messaging addressing the social determinants of health, such as income, food security, and housing, that make it difficult for some people to seek or access care.” 

Coun. Joe Cressy said that though COVID-19 testing is the province’s purview, the city recently ramped up supports for testing in targeted neighbourhoods. All city facilities — from fire stations to libraries — are now available for pop-up testing, he said. The city also recently kicked off a $5 million program in partnership with 11 communities agencies that have played a crucial role in supporting marginalized neighbourhoods.

Cressy said community involvement is key to increasing testing rates in the hardest-hit areas. Dube agrees, noting that many people are understandably mistrustful of a health system that has long excluded their needs.

“The failures we have with testing are actually linked to the failures of our pandemic strategy in general,” she says.

The province’s science table has begun referring to something called the “prevention gap” — the observation that “light touch” restrictions will flatten the curve in mildly affected areas, but allow large amounts of transmission to carry on in the hardest-hit regions. 

Different tools are needed to meaningfully protect people at highest risk of COVID-19, experts say — for example, paid sick leave or a moratorium on evictions. Both measures would allow people to self-isolate without worrying about losing their job or home, and are now being formally requested by the City of Toronto in forthcoming letters to the provincial and federal governments.

Low-wage earners, who are the most likely to contract COVID-19, are also the least likely to have paid sick leave, according to data from the Labour Force Survey. Among Torontonians who make $17 an hour or less, only 17 per cent of workers who took a week-long sick leave between March and September were paid to take that time off. 

This statistic almost certainly underestimates the problem, since it only captures workers who took an entire week off; low-wage workers are much more likely to only take a few days off at most, according to Dr. Kate Hayman with the Decent Work and Health Network.

Hayman, an emergency room physician in downtown Toronto, says paid sick leave is “a concrete tool for behavioural change that the government is underutilizing.” She frequently sees patients with COVID-19 who would benefit from paid sick leave; the food services worker whose employer wouldn’t allow her to self-isolate without a doctor’s note, for example, or the construction worker who continued working to pay the bills, even though he lives with his mother who had the virus.

“This is actually an intervention that has the (biggest) potential to benefit people who need it the most,” Hayman said. “Which is completely different from a lockdown, which might benefit people who can work from home the most.”

The ministry spokesperson said the Ontario was the first province to sign onto the federal Liberals’ Safe Restart Agreement, which provided $1.1 billion for paid sick leave. The province had earlier changed labour laws to provide unpaid, job-protected emergency leave, a requirement to receive the federal funding. 

“No one should have to choose between their job and their health, which is why our legislation ensures those who stay home to self-isolate or care for loved ones will not be fired.”

Hayman says the federal program — $500 a week, for two weeks maximum — is both onerous and insufficient, with too many barriers, exclusions and delays to meet many workers’ needs. 

Hayman notes there is good evidence paid sick leave can be a powerful tool for outbreak control. American researchers recently found that states with paid sick leave had a statistically significant reduction in COVID-19, according to a paper that will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Health Affairs.

A COVID-19 research survey from Israel also suggests that when pay was available, workers’ compliance with public health measures was 94 per cent. When pay was removed, compliance dropped to less than 57 per cent.

And following the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, a U.S. study estimated that up to eight million workers did not take time off despite being infected — leading to an estimated seven million additional infections.

Without paid sick leave, precarious workers are both less likely to get tested — because being forced to self-isolate can have devastating financial consequences — or make use of the city’s voluntary isolation centre, experts say. Toronto Public Health did not respond to questions about how many admissions there have been at the city’s 140-person isolation centre, which opened in September.

Failing to take targeted, meaningful steps to stop the spread in hardest-hit communities — those primarily populated by Black and other racialized people — is just another example of “how systemic racism actually moves,” says Dube.

“Because the truth is we value some lives over others.”


Three times more racialized renters live in overcrowded housing in Toronto than non-racialized renters — and the starkest gap is among those born in Canada, study says

Significant study on inequality and minority groups:

If you look at Toronto renters who spend at least 30 per cent of their income on housing — a traditional marker of unaffordability — you might miss the deep racial divides of the city’s housing crisis.

There’s barely a gulf between racialized and non-racialized renter households that spend that much: 41 per cent versus 43, respectively, census data says. Similarities prevail as fortunes get worse: 19 per cent of racialized renter households spend at least half their income on rent, versus 20 per cent of non-racialized households.

But a new study of census micro data, shared exclusively with the Star, reveals stark inequalities in the housing conditions of Toronto renters — especially in unsuitable housing, an indicator of overcrowding that was found to be nearly three times higher for visible minority renters.

For housing to be reported as unsuitable, it has to lack an adequate number of bedrooms for the size and composition of the household that lives there, according to the national occupancy standard.

University of Calgary researcher Naomi Lightman said looking at overcrowding allowed for a broader understanding of the housing crisis — noting that some renters may choose to squeeze more people into a smaller unit, instead of overspending on enough space.

“People are making choices within constrained conditions,” said Lightman, who co-authored the study with York University associate professor Luann Good Gingrich and Social Planning Toronto analyst Beth Wilson.

The data took on new weight during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lightman noted — neighbourhoods in Toronto with high levels of overcrowding have shown infection rates almost four times higher than in other areas, as stated by Toronto’s public health agency in July.

In York Centre in the city’s hard-hit northwest corner, 22 per cent of non-racialized renter households are considered unsuitable. Among racialized renters, that jumps to 51 per cent. In nearby York South-Weston, the unsuitability rate is 25 per cent and 49 per cent, respectively. Racialized renters in every city ward had higher rates of unsuitable, overcrowded conditions.

And though those gaps persisted among both the newcomer and long-term immigrant populations, the starkest racial divide the study found was among those born in Canada. While 14 per cent of non-racialized Toronto renters born in Canada reported unsuitable housing conditions, that number more than tripled for racialized non-immigrants — to 48 per cent.

Toronto councillor Joe Cressy, chair of the city’s board of health, said that finding illustrates how racism can be systemic — noting longstanding inequalities in access to employment and income.

“People often talk about opportunity like, you know, ‘Everybody gets a fighting chance,’” he said. “The fact of the matter is, in our city, non-racialized people are starting at the 50-yard line. And that’s due to decades of disproportional access and intergenerational wealth.”

Lightman said their data overall highlighted that the housing crisis played out in “different ways than we might have expected,” and had geographic implications within Toronto. “The divides between people translate into divides between places — and an increasingly segregated city.”

The findings are part of a multi-year research project on social exclusion in Canada. It examines micro data from the last census — specifically, data on affordability, unsuitability, housing in need of major repair, and what’s known as “core housing need.” The latter refers to housing that falls below any of those standards, where the household would have to spend 30 per cent or more of its pre-tax income to afford the median rent of alternative, adequate housing nearby.

Core housing need, like overcrowding, saw higher rates among racialized tenants — with 39 per cent of them reporting core housing need versus 27 per cent of non-racialized renters.

But Lightman said their work also underscored a need for more granular data, as it showed that certain groups — like Black, Latin American and Southeast Asian tenants — were reporting especially high rates of core housing need. While racialized and non-racialized renters had similar rates of unaffordable housing, the study found more than half of Korean, West Asian, Arab and Chinese renters reported spending at least 30 per cent of their income on shelter.

Avvy Go, director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, said the findings about specific racialized communities underscored a need for more disaggregated, race-based data in the housing sphere, to understand which communities are facing the worst outcomes, followed by more targeted efforts from governments to address the housing crisis within those groups.

While Go said she’d expect racialized communities to struggle more in the rental housing market — noting that racialized people were more likely to live in low-income households in general — the difference in the study between racialized and non-racialized renters, born in Canada and living in unsuitable housing, was more significant than she would have expected.

“Even if you take away immigration status as a factor, there is still a racialized gap. You cannot blame it on the fact they are born outside of Canada, to explain away the racial inequality that exists in Canada,” she said.

Cressy backed calls for more disaggregated data, noting the city’s executive committee will consider a strategy on Wednesday that would collect voluntary data on race from those who use city services or participate in public consultations.

“In the face of data, decision makers have one of two choices,” he said. “They can address it, or they can remain complacent.”

Source: Three times more racialized renters live in overcrowded housing in Toronto than non-racialized renters — and the starkest gap is among those born in Canada, study says

‘A fight for the soul of the city’: Report shows how COVID-19 has deepened Toronto’s racial and economic divide

No real surprise as it confirms other reports and analysis, both in Toronto and elsewhere. Nevertheless, extremely disturbing:

Higher COVID-19 infection rates. Higher unemployment. Deepening poverty.

Racialized and lower-income Torontonians are bearing a heavier burden during the coronavirus pandemic, which is widening the gap between rich and poor in this city.

That’s the grim conclusion delivered by the Toronto Fallout Report, which provides a snapshot of where Torontonians stand in the midst of the pandemic.

Released Thursday by the Toronto Foundation — which also produces the annual Vital Signs report — this latest report offers an interim look at how the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequality in the city.

Among the report’s findings:

  • People earning less than $30,000 a year are 5.3 times as likely to catch COVID-19 than those making $150,000 or more.
  • Black, Latin American and Arab, Middle Eastern or West Asian Torontonians have COVID-19 infection rates at least seven times as high as white residents.
  • About 30 per cent of Torontonians are struggling to pay rent, mortgage, food, utilities and other essentials.
  • Across the country, Canadians who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) have unemployment rates almost twice as high as white Canadians. Nearly one-third of BIPOC youth are unemployed, compared to 18 per cent of white youth.

The report shows just how much of a “crisis moment” this is for Toronto, said Mohini Datta-Ray, the executive director of the North York Women’s Shelter and one of the dozens of non-profit leaders who were consulted for the report.

“The consensus is really, really loud and clear that this is a fight for the soul of the city, for who we are as a city.”

The pandemic didn’t create this inequality, she said, but it has magnified it and exploded it into view.

“We’ve all been ringing the alarm bells for years, decades really,” Datta-Ray said. “There’s been a worsening over time and any of us that are working with vulnerable, marginalized, low-income families know how desperate these times have already been.”

The report looks at a broad range of issues, from income and employment, to food security and housing, and what comes up again and again is the widening gulf between rich and poor, and how that divide is increasingly occurring along racialized lines.

“When I looked through the report, for me it really highlighted how deeply embedded racism and white supremacy are in just about all of our systems and institutions,” said Paul Taylor, executive director of FoodShare Toronto, which has dramatically increased its services in response to rising food insecurity during the pandemic.

“It seems like communities that are made up predominantly of white folks have had a very different experience of the pandemic.”

In Toronto, racialized people make up 52 per cent of the population, but currently account for 79 per cent of the COVID-19 infections. The highest infection rates in the city are concentrated in the neighbourhoods with the most racialized people.

It’s in those neighbourhoods where people are often living in crowded housing, Taylor said, and where people are more likely to have to take public transit to low-wage jobs without adequate sick days, PPE or the opportunity to physically distance.

“We really have to ask ourselves what allows us to chronically underinvest in the communities where there are higher incidences of COVID infections,” Taylor said.

Datta-Ray, who lives in a relatively affluent downtown neighbourhood and works in the hard-hit northwest corner of the city, has seen first hand the city’s divergent pandemic experiences.

Where she lives, the pandemic has been novel, almost festive, she said. “You wouldn’t even know that the virus is around.”

But in the city’s northwest, where infection rates are 10 times as high, most people aren’t able to work from home and public transit is crowded. “Those neighbourhoods feel the city in crisis.”

Neethan Shan, executive director of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, said governments need to put racial equity at the heart of any pandemic recovery plan.

“Universal programs aren’t going to be enough,” he said. “If you’re serious about racial equity you have to start looking at it.”

If you target the most vulnerable and most affected communities, he said, everyone will benefit.

“But if you just keep continuing with universal programs that are in some ways colour-blind, we’re not going to see the solutions that we need.”

Liben Gebremikael, executive director of the TAIBU Community Health Centre in Scarborough, said attention on Black communities is often driven by high-profile news events — such as the so-called “Summer of the Gun” in 2005 — which leads to cyclical but unsustained investment.

“We can’t really do systemic change with cyclical investment,” he said. “We have to have a long-term strategy, from the city, the province and the federal government, on how to address these injustices and inequities that are mostly impacting Indigenous and Black communities.”

Gebremikael said he’s hopeful the inequities laid bare by COVID-19 will garner enough attention for more substantial, long-term investment. He cited the provincial government agreeing to collect race-based data during the pandemic — after their initial reluctance — as an example of a step in the right direction.

“If we have evidence then we can really advocate for the resources and the policies and the strategies we need.”

Source: ‘A fight for the soul of the city’: Report shows how COVID-19 has deepened Toronto’s racial and economic divide

High anxiety: In Toronto’s immigrant-rich apartment towers, elevators and density keep many students at home

Yet another example of inequalities at work:

When the final bell rings at Thorncliffe Park Public School, Canada’s largest elementary school, dozens of children burst through the doors onto the schoolyard, immediately pulling their colourful masks below their mouths with the same relief that comes from undoing one’s top button after a big meal. In the apartments housed inside a cluster of highrises, the rest of the school population marks the end of the day more quietly, logging out of their online classrooms.

Most of those students live within a five-minute walk of the school, but their families, many of whom were deterred by the vertical commute, opted for remote learning this school year. In a survey conducted by community organizers in September, 75 per cent of parents in Thorncliffe and neighbouring highrise community Flemingdon Park – both COVID-19 hot spots – expressed worries about waiting for elevators and physical distancing on them.

Even before COVID-19 this was a struggle, and families, community leaders and teachers feared the crowding and wait might worsen without the ability to pack a dozen or more people in an elevator like they had in the past.

The school eliminated its late policy and parents were encouraged to pack lunches the night before for their children, but that still wasn’t enough to assuage fears. “I worried so much about the elevator. I couldn’t imagine them being at school on time,” said Saara Khota, who shares her two-bedroom 16th-floor apartment with her husband and four children.

She had big plans for the fall: For the first time in 13 years, she was going to go back to school to continue her education in computer science with hopes of finding work. Instead, over concerns about the elevators and her children’s abilities to wear masks properly, she signed three of her kids up for remote learning.Zoom/Pan

When school started, just 62 per cent of students returned to class at Thorncliffe Park Public School, which has a student body of 1,350. Later, even more made the switch and, this week, only about 56 per cent are registered to be in class, according to the Toronto District School Board.

It’s part of a larger trend of approximately 7,500 students across the board moving online in the weeks since school started as COVID-19 case counts have exponentially risen.

For decades, this neighbourhood has been a magnet for newcomers. Eight out of 10 residents are racialized (the majority are immigrants from South Asian countries) and the median household income is $46,595, about 30 per cent less than the city as a whole.

Toronto Public Health data show the coronavirus has disproportionately infected racialized and low-income people, who have also felt the virus’s secondary effects more acutely, logging higher rates of job losses, poverty and food-bank reliance.

School board data show families in areas with the highest COVID-19 case rates were more likely to select remote learning.

Keeping her children at home didn’t feel like a viable option for Sana Khan, a mother of two and a Pakistani immigrant.

Her children are in junior kindergarten and Grade 5 and she doesn’t feel equipped to parent and assist with their learning at home, so, with reservations, she sent them back to school.

“I’m always worried for the kids,” she said in the lobby of her building on a recent morning after school drop-off. “You don’t know who they’re coming across, who might make them sick.”

That afternoon after the pickup, she detoured to the nearby plaza after school – she needed to get groceries, but this is a common tactic neighbourhood parents use to avoid afternoon rush hour at the highrises.

A queue snaked out the door of Ms. Khan’s building until about 4:15 p.m. as one staffer played usher, managing the crowd and ensuring not too many crowded onto the elevators, while another deposited a squirt of hand sanitizer in every resident’s palm before they entered the lobby.

All the parents The Globe and Mail spoke to said they were pleasantly surprised by how smoothly things have gone with the elevators – they’ve made adjustments, as have the schools, but most importantly, far fewer students are actually leaving their buildings each day to get to school. The crowds have been so light that Ms. Khota decided to send her second eldest, who is in Grade 5, back to class this week.

Mehreen Ubaid, one of Ms. Khan’s neighbours, lives on the second floor of the building, but the elevator is still a part of her daily routine because she has a one-year-old who is usually transported by stroller. The risk of one of her three school-going children becoming infected with the coronavirus already felt high before school started: Her husband is a taxi driver.

Having arrived here from Pakistan in July, 2019, she is still learning English (she spoke to The Globe in Urdu through an interpreter), so assisting her children with anything they struggled with this school year would’ve been an impossibility.

Since the first day of school, a WhatsApp group for Thorncliffe parents who chose remote learning for their young children has lit up several times with inquiries about whether any neighbourhood teens might be available to tutor since the language barrier has left parents unable to assist their children with even simple assignments – 57.8 per cent of residents have a home language that isn’t English.

Shakhlo Sharipova, a member of that group, said the remote learners experienced a host of other problems as well. On the morning she assumed would be her daughter Khadija’s much-postponed first day of kindergarten at Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy, which is beside Thorncliffe Park Public School, she couldn’t log into the online learning platform and learned she wasn’t the only one. Each morning for weeks she was greeted with a flurry of messages in the WhatsApp group: “Were you able to get into Brightspace?” “Has class started?” “Does your child have a teacher yet?”

Certain her daughter would not be able to wear a mask on the elevator ride for the journey from her apartment down to the lobby (let alone in class all day), Ms. Sharipova thought remote learning was the best option. But once classes finally began, Khadija was distracted and disengaged, especially as her teacher navigated WiFi issues, at one point clumsily reading a book to her virtual class while holding her cellphone out so they could see the pictures.

Ms. Sharipova found herself responsible for multiple hours of teaching each day, which she knew she couldn’t keep up after accepting a job at a local pop-up COVID-19 testing site. So she decided after a few days to send her daughter back to class – risks and all (about 3,000 other students have registered to do the same within the board). She says it’s a shame so many in her community don’t feel they have a true choice when it comes to how their children will be educated. “It’s disappointing and kind of unfair, you know?” she said.


Data shows an increase in anti-Asian hate incidents in Canada since onset of pandemic

Although collected through online portals with anonymity, of concern and buttressed by official police stats:

More than 600 incidents of hate targeting Asians within Canada have been reported to Chinese Canadian groups since the pandemic began, and one in three of those attacks have been assaults, say the groups.

The data, collected through online portals that have allowed victims to report hate incidents anonymously, are consistent with reports from Canadian police forces that they are also investigating an increase in anti-Asian attacks.

The data, released last week, were compiled by the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, Project 1907, the Vancouver Asian Film Festival and the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice. All of the incidents were reported through two online platforms based in Toronto or Vancouver. The reports were received from seven provinces.

Justin Kong, executive director for the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, said the data again indicate Asian Canadians have been targeted through the pandemic and racism will continue to taint Canada until there are policies in place to tackle it.

“Those attacks stemmed from historical anti-Asian racism, but also because of the ways in which COVID-19 has been racialized,” he said, adding COVID-19 is seen as a Chinese disease, similar to SARS.

“We saw what happened during SARS, and I guess it became obvious that this was going to go the same way. … That’s why we started collecting the data on the racist attacks.”

Mr. Kong acknowledged they weren’t able to verify the reports, and the groups instead have been relying on “a trust system.”

The data, which have been collected since February, show that 83 per cent of the incidents were reported by East Asians, followed by 7 per cent by Southeast Asians. It says 44 per cent of the attacks were reported from B.C. – the highest in Canada – while 38 per cent of the occurrences were reported in Ontario and 7 per cent in Quebec.

Women reported 60 per cent of all incidents. In B.C., women were even more disproportionately affected, accounting for nearly 70 per cent of all reported incidents there.

The data found nearly 30 per cent of reported incidents are assault, including targeted coughing, physical attacks and violence, and that verbal harassment is the most common type of discrimination.

These groups’ findings echo those of the Vancouver Police Department, which has reported a dramatic rise in hate incidents against East Asians.

In July, Vancouver police said they have had 66 hate-motivated incidents against East Asian people reported to them so far in 2020, a huge spike from the seven during the same period last year. A VPD spokesperson said the most targeted community continues to be East Asian.

Toronto Police Service spokeswoman Connie Osborne said, in comparison to 2019, her force has seen an increase in the number of hate-motivated occurrences, including where race has been a factor.

She said many of the 2020 cases are active investigations and the motivation of the offence may change or more offences may be uncovered, so the force can’t provide specific numbers for the year so far. But she added such incidents often go unreported and the number of reports received by police are not an accurate reflection of what people have experienced.

Earlier this year, Korean Montrealer Kyungseo Min compiled testimonies from Asian Québécois of racist incidents since January. In the span of about a month and a half, Ms. Min collected more than 20.

She said some of her findings match those from the advocacy groups. For example, female Asians reported more harassment or violence than men, and the majority of the racism was verbal.

In Alberta, the Alberta Hate Crimes Committee has been running the portal since 2017 to encourage people to report incidents and talk about what happened to them. The portal’s reports include four incidents reported this year of an East Asian Canadian being verbally assaulted in a public space in a tirade related to COVID-19.

Since it began collecting data, the portal has logged 74 incidents of hate in Edmonton, 69 in Calgary and 31 in Lethbridge. There are a handful of reports from other areas of the province. The data were last updated in July.

The groups are calling on the federal government to include an anti-racism strategy in its postpandemic recovery plan.

Mr. Kong said as the pandemic has posed more challenges to racialized communities, he hopes that the government could also come up with policies aimed at helping migrant workers and low-income immigrant workers.

The House of Commons’ standing committee on justice and human rights issued a report just more than a year ago with recommendations for battling online hate. They include recommendations for more funding for police, judges and Crown prosecutors to enable them to better respond to hate complaints as well as better data collection on hate incidents.

The report, submitted in June, 2019, noted a 50-per-cent jump in hate crimes targeting Black people in 2017 relative to the year earlier. However, the report does not refer to hate crimes against those of East Asian descent.

In a response this month, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Toronto-based foundation, provided several recommendations to the Justice Minister’s office, including placing online hate crimes under federal jurisdiction and developing a more clear and comprehensive definition of illegal hate activities.

Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, the foundation’s director of policy, said it is the responsibility of the justice system to recognize hatred as the poison that it is and confront hate crimes.

“We want to see all hate crimes aggressively investigated by police, regardless of what community is being targeted and what form these crimes take, so that perpetrators are brought to justice.”