3 min

It’s up to you, Ontario

When the provinces live up to their commitments to cities, gays will be better off

So we’re sitting around the Capital Xtra office, suggesting what parts of an article to cut. It’s my article, I’ve written it way too long, and it doesn’t fit on the page.

Or more precisely, I’ve asked too many questions.

I’ve spent most of a week chasing down and interviewing the Ottawa-Centre provincial election candidates. I put the same dozen questions to them — on trans rights, safe schools, anonymous HIV/AIDS testing, church-based delivery of social services — and transcribed over two hours of their answers.

Questions about housing, policing and schools got left on the cutting-room floor and only part of the total basket of issues are presented in this edition, which is more a function of space than anything else. You can read the results here.

Cut the section about reversing Mike Harris’s download of social services to Ontario’s cities; that was one suggestion.

“Are you in favour of uploading public health, day care, social housing and assistance, and ambulance services from the municipal governments back to the province?” I asked Ottawa Centre’s Liberal, Conservative, NDP and Green Party Candidate.

No, I argued, municipal funding has turned out to be at the very centre of the Gordian Knot of the provincial election. It turns out that cancellation of the crack pipe program is related to the gay village is related to homelessness is related to police budgets.

So, let’s try to bring some of the dropped threads together.

This month, Ottawa police chief Vernon White asked council to consider upping the Ottawa Police Services budget by 21 percent over three years. I doubt White will get what he’s asking for because Ottawa’s cash-strapped municipal budgets being what they are, there’s not room to maintain, let alone increase budget lines. But there’s certainly an appetite for increased patrols.

Why? Homelessness, public drug use, and street hooking have become hassles for Ottawa’s citizens. The knee-jerk reaction — send in the clowns, er, cops — has enjoyed a period of ascendancy in our municipal imagination.

Residents in Sandy Hill, Vanier and Hintonburg complain that they find drug paraphernalia on their lawns and lobby to have the safer inhalation program killed, even though its a life-saving harm reduction program. AIDS Committee Of Ottawa executive director Kathleen Cummings says that opposition to handing out crack kits was really about the use and disposal of the pipes in public places: a problem solved by addressing public and social housing, not by shutting down the program.

However, it would take half a billion dollars to bring Ottawa’s public housing up to code and that would still leave thousands of people waiting for access to social housing.

Meanwhile, the city’s residents have become increasingly grumpy about their property taxes, which have been rising annually and which Larry O’Brien — who they elected to put an end to the increases — appears powerless to stop. A definite funding squeeze.

Ottawa-Centre NDP candidate Will Murray even says the city’s failure to recognize a distinct gay village on Bank St is the result of municipal financial woes. It would be a good thing for the city to put up rainbow flags if that’s what we want, Murray says. But how can we blame city council for not doing so, when even modest amounts of money are simply not available to them?

The overcrowded sexual health clinic, with its four-hour wait times and month-long appointment list? If the province would take responsibility for social housing and transportation, says Greg Laxton of the Green Party, the city would have enough money to fund more services like the sexual health clinic in the market.

The Conservatives under Mike Harris broke the system, says Murray, and the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty haven’t fixed it.

Toronto is on the verge of bankruptcy. Ottawa is unable to maintain its roads and buildings. It would take half a billion dollars to bring just one city asset — its public housing properties — up to code.

Meanwhile, the Liberals have taken pleasure in delivering small cheques one at a time for specific programs — like the new young men’s shelter in Centretown (a pattern which explains their interest in funding or part-funding a badly needed overnight drug treatment centre in Ottawa). No need to take back responsibility, so long as there are stopgap solutions that make great photo ops.

The Liberals say they’ve already begun to take back responsibility.

“Absolutely,” says Ottawa-Centre Liberal Yasir Naqvi. “Premier McGuinty has made that promise. Almost a billion dollars was announced in terms of uploading the disability support program and the drug support program. That is already law. That’s not a campaign commitment.”

Have they moved fast enough? Well, that’s up to you to decide on Oct 10.

All four candidates agree that Ottawa-Centre can be a bit skuzzy-feeling from time to time.

But at the end of my interview with Naqvi, he told me he wants to see a version of Manitoba’s Safer Communities And Neighbourhoods Act brought to Ontario, a Not-In-My-Backyard-friendly law designed to punish landlords for renting to crack users.

Trina Morissette, the Progressive Conservative candidate, told me (without prompting, toward the end of our interview) that she was running on a clean-up-the-streets ticket.

Both of their suggestions are simple-minded law-and-order approaches to deeper social problems and they won’t fix anything.

Until we solve Ottawa’s funding crisis, we’re just chasing our tails.