Does Toronto need its own minimum wage?

The pandemic hit some harder than others, we can’t forget it

john sewellPost City Magazines’ columnist John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto and the author of a number of urban planning books, including The Shape of the Suburbs.

Front line workers were our heroes during the first and second waves of the pandemic. They were the ones who provided the essential services to keep things running — the nurses, paramedics, long-term care workers, the cashiers and grocery store clerks, the TTC drivers, the truck drivers bringing food, the garbage collectors and on and on.

They might have been essential, but they were hardly treated as such.

As the pandemic has worn on, it has become clear that many of these essential workers were from racialized communities, and those communities had the highest number of COVID cases per capita — places like Jane/Finch, St. Jamestown, Flemington Park and northwest Scarborough. As in much of the other functions of society, the pandemic discriminated against them as well.

There was much talk about how things had to change, how society could not continue to function in such unequal ways and that perhaps the pandemic could help provoke that change. But as the pandemic has eased and vaccinations have helped contain the spread of the illness, that impetus seems to be fading.

Remember all those times people said, particularly in the first wave of the pandemic, that we are all in this together? Fine words, but we learned they were not entirely true. Some of us were together more than others.

It seems sad to drop this opportunity to make a better and stronger society we can all be proud to live in. Discrimination on the basis of race or culture should not continue to be a hallmark of our lives, nor should persistent fear of eviction or subsistence on a low income.

The federal government has responded to the challenge with a national child care policy at a fee of $10 a day. This will be of significant benefit to working women and to the children who will receive excellent early care, which is critical to their social and intellectual development. Many provinces have signed on to the plan, but, as of the time of writing, Premier Doug Ford has yet to agree to it for Ontario. One fears that Mr. Ford is more adept at responding to private lobbyists.

Toronto City Council should take a lead role in pushing for the other changes. It could start with gathering the data on exactly what is needed. What would a fair minimum wage be in Toronto and how could it best be implemented? What would fair compensation be for those who are on welfare or disability payments, since we know that for them to live on current payments of less than $1,000 a month is Toronto is next to impossible? How many people in Toronto are caught in these financial and social restrictions? How will these changes make the economy more resilient and society less liable to be knocked out by the next pandemic?

Of course, city council does not have the financial or legal resources to implement those changes, but with good studies it can begin to chart the new directions. After all, it was the city that led the way on effectively responding to the pandemic when it was clear the province was dithering. The national child care program only happened because people pushed hard for it. We often forget that Toronto, as the country’s largest city, often is in the forefront of change in social and cultural matters, and forgetting that is foregoing important opportunities. Perhaps council members can seize the chance to be effective leaders in the post-pandemic world.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO