Ottawa
3 min

Don’t get sucked into intolerance

Being mean is a nasty contagion

Have you noticed the developing sense of meanness in the air? That growing intolerance for anyone or anything a little outside of the so-called norm?

I’m talking about the kind of reactionary intolerance that was recently shown at a community safety meeting organized by Coun Diane Holmes, held in the Rainbow Village.

There we were treated to the likes of one gentleman (I’m being uncharacteristically nice in using that moniker) calling for a reversion to vagrancy laws to kick the homeless off the streets. I’m talking about the several people asking for the removal of panhandlers and prostitutes from the streets. I’m talking about the Neighbourhood Watch lady who wants to set up cameras all over the streets to spy on us. Another citizen said she didn’t “like the idea” of the soon-to-be-opened Youth Services Bureau residence to be built across from the Centretown Community Health Centre “being in our neighbourhood.”

Mean. Mean. Mean.

And, by turns, illegal, shortsighted, an invasion of privacy, and vicious.

Vagrancy laws allowed police to simply pick up, and often jail or run out of town, people who had no permanent address or cash in their pockets or were hanging around in public spaces like parks. It was often used against homosexuals. It was long ago ruled unconstitutional because it clearly discriminated.

Similarly, the solution to panhandlers and prostitutes is not to remove them from my neighbourhood and push them to your neighbourhood — the basis of policy and enforcement today. (If only we could hang them or send them to debtor’s prison, eh?) The real solution, as Holmes told the meeting (though nobody seemed to want to hear it) is social housing and welfare that people can actually live off. I’d add that it is also about youth job training, fully legalizing prostitution and allowing bordellos: a harm-reduction approach rather than a law-enforcement approach, in other words.

Cameras on the streets do not eliminate crime. But they do infringe on the privacy rights of all citizens — and that’s something we should fight against in this era of anti-terrorism paranoia. And judging by history, cameras will be used — er, abused — to target gays and lesbians.

And, to address the issue of a youth facility at Bank & Cooper: we need safe spaces for our youth to live, and that is as good a place as any. And better than most.

You may notice that these sorts of issues resonate in particular with our community. Vagrancy laws were used to target us in the past. US studies show that some 35 percent of street kids are queer, often kicked out of their homes by homophobic parents or running away from homophobia and gaybashing at home, at school and at church. Some queers, along with others, turn to prostitution as a career or for survival and we need to find a way to support them in their choices while offering transitioning job training when they’re ready to leave.

You’d swear from the lynch-mob tone of people at the public meeting that the streets and parks of Ottawa were dangerous places. In fact, serious crime has been on the decrease in Canada for two decades now. Longtime residents can tell you that the downtown is safer now than it was in 1980 — and better looking, on the whole. Let’s not confuse inconvenience with a lack of safety. And let’s remember that city centres everywhere are a bit messy, a bit chaotic — in fact it’s that downtown feel that makes them attractive in comparison to boring and bland suburbs.

So, why the paranoia? Why the meanness?

I think part of the answer lies in the disaffection that people have for the political process, where the mechanisms of power appear remote. With luck, we’ll have a referendum this fall and the majority of Ontarions will choose a political system that is more responsive than the colonial relic of first-past-the-post that we’ve been stuck with.

Another part of the answer lies in the economic flux we’re living through. Ever since free trade was implemented, we’ve seen high-wage jobs in the Ontario economy shrink along with our manufacturing sector, with most new jobs created in lower paying service sectors. That makes for troubling arithmetic for middle-aged baby boomers as they zero in on a low-income retirement. The result: fear and mean-spiritedness as people understandably try to protect what they already have and lose tolerance for anyone or anything that they feel gets in the way.

In Ottawa, it’s made all the worse by fear that big layoffs are around the corner for the public service, if Harper gets his Conservative majority after the next election.

But we can’t live in fear; it leads nowhere. We need to live in hope, and through involving ourselves in our community to make it a better place for all of us. Including the troubled youth, the street beggars, the homeless, the prostitutes and the drug-addicted.

See you at LGX on Apr 28. Come say hi.