by Sadia Khan and Zabia Afzal
More than 30,000 people live in these two square kilometers. A considerable proportion of them are South Asian immigrants, a considerable proportion of them are from Pakistan. Many are unemployed, underemployed, and poor. They are overeducated, overqualified, but insufficiently endowed with “Canadian experience.”
They work multiple jobs, but cannot afford adequate housing, so must share overpriced apartments with others in the same bind. Their landlords, parasitic by nature, invent ever more extortionist fees to increase profits, while their drive to reduce costs threatens the health and safety of tenants.
The children, who make up a third of the community, leave overcrowded homes to go to overcrowded, under-resourced schools, where they are denied the quality public education available to communities of rich, white, “Canadian” children not ten minutes away. They are culturally ghettoized and treated as the “other”.
But they have not been silent.
In June 2011, some of Thorncliffe’s youngest tenants were at the forefront of a rally for housing justice organized by the Thorncliffe Park Tenants’ Association (TPTA). The TPTA, which consists of a group of volunteers representing three of the worst-managed buildings in the area, has served as a critical organizing force in the community, channeling the communities’ anger and frustration into collective action. Overdue maintenance issues, exorbitant “transfer” fees, pest infestations and extra charges for air conditioners were just some of the concerns that led tenants to demonstrate.
After almost two years and no improvements in housing conditions, members of the TPTA again mobilized residents this summer and on June 8 held a rally to send their landlords a strong message. Children from the TPTA’s tutoring program designed posters that set the tone, with slogans such as, “If you don’t give us our AC’s, We’ll make you sweat,” and “Your smart-meter can’t outsmart us,” referring to the illegal monitoring of electricity use per unit to charge tenants extra for hydro.
The vocal young chanters led the adults in the march around the community. With protesters of every age, here was the past, present and future of a community that recognizes exploitation and aspires to end it. There were those, too, who watched from their balconies, afraid to participate in the protest lest they jeopardize their already precarious housing situation. Several marchers also came from outside the community to show their support.
Some of the adults present at the rally have been involved in the housing struggle since the 1970s. One such long-time activist, Pat Moore, delivered an inspirational history lesson to the marchers, sharing the story of how she and a group of tenants—pictured in a photo from 1994 that she held up—successfully converted one local building into a co-op which is now run by tenants. But the fight is not over, the victory is not complete. With the recent trend towards privatization, this building too is at risk of being turned over to the private sector, thus erasing a testament to tenant power in the community.
Finding power in their own languages and challenging the monopoly of the English language, protesters were vocal in airing their grievances, frequently grabbing hold of the loudspeaker from the organizers as the march progressed. By commanding the attention of their fellow marchers, neighbours and landlords, the strong voices of some women in hijabs—like the one pictured here—defied certain gender norms and characterizations of hijabi women offered by racist mainstream narratives.
One uninvited guest at the rally was Councillor John Parker—hailing from the neighbouring rich, largely white community, Leaside Park—who quickly made evident which side of the fight he was on. Following his pattern of patronizing interactions with this racialized, low-income community, he reinforced racist stereotypes of immigrants being filthy and irresponsible.
In a press release from the TPTA, the organization declared that it would not “stand for this kind of racism.” “As far as we are concerned,” said Shakeel Ahmed, a long-time Thorncliffe resident, “we don’t have a City Councillor. Every time he shows up here, he leaves more of a mess than he cleans up.”