Opinion: The Federal government failed communities when the Cannabis Act did not include expungements

MP Murray Rankin proposed a Private Members’ Bill demanding to expunge records.

In the Fall 2019, the current Federal Government passed the Cannabis Act which legalized use of marijuana and up to 30 grams of possession. However many critics rightfully pointed out that the Cannabis Act a does little for those who have had their lives, families, and communities targeted by the “war on drugs.” The Cannabis Act did not expunge records and has left many marginalized communities by the wayside.

Which begs the question: what kind of Canada are we building if our laws do not address the social, racial, and economic injustices that our communities face?

Expungement means that records of those who were charged with a crime that no longer exists would be erased. Over 500,000 people in Canada are living with criminal records for the possession of under 30g of marijuana – an amount that is now legal [1].

Across Canada and right here in our neighbourhood of York Centre the Liberal promise to legalize marijuana  held many promises but its implementation was lackluster. The Federal government created and moved forward legislation without acknowledging and addressing the concerns of those people who have been and continue to be negatively impacted by the criminalization of marijuana.

Many were skeptical from the onset when MP Bill Blair was announced as lead of this file. As many remember, MP Blair was the former Chief of the Toronto Police Services (TPS) who was instrumental in the continued over-surveillance and over-criminalization of communities which led to disproportionate possession charging and arrests of racialized folks, particularly Black/African diasporic peoples. 

The Toronto Star article, “Toronto marijuana arrests reveal ‘startling’ racial divide”[2], outlines how the criminalization of marijuana has led to the disproportionate charges and arrests of Black/African diasporic and other racialized community members. The negative effects of marijuana criminalization on Black and racialized communities are widely accepted, however the Federal government did not prioritize this in the process of legalization.

Another issue of this is that the unrolling of the legalization of cannabis illustrates how the legislation did not seek to help those who were most affected by the criminalization of marijuana. Instead of the lives of those affected being at the heart of this legislation, the Federal Liberal government did very little to address the concerns of those who were the casualties of this drug policy. 

Now Toronto magazine wrote an article entitled: “The ex cops, politicians and friends of Bill Blair cashing in on legal weed”[3] – illustrating that the very people who pushed the over-criminalization and policing of drugs like marijuana are now profiting off of its legalization. This further reinforces what we already know; that profit, not justice, seems to be at the heart of the Cannabis Act. 

Legislating expungement would have righted the wrongs of poorly planned legislation and criminalization practices that have greatly impacted Black and other racialized communities.

It is elected officials’ duties to also right the historical and present-day wrongs.We must pass legislation that create the conditions for people to thrive rather than prioritizing profits over justice. Comprehensive policy would have justice at its core and the call for the expungement would be instrumental. Without expungement, individuals are bearing the brunt of being charged with crimes that are no longer crimes.

This is the kind of legislation what our communities deserve.

[1] https://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/cannabis-convictions-1.4876783
[2] https://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2017/07/06/toronto-marijuana-arrests-reveal-startling-racial-divide.html [3]https://nowtoronto.com/news/cops-politicians-cashing-in-on-cannabis/

The redevelopment of Wilson Station’s main parking lot: A brief overview

Aerial view of the Wilson Station parking lot.

Wide streets with right-of-ways, narrow sidewalks, and parking lots. It’s no secret that our sprawling city was designed to accommodate vehicles – often at the expense of pedestrians, cyclists, and surface transit. 

But today, Toronto is at a crossroads. To improve our quality of life and to ensure an equitable city for generations to come, we need to accommodate a quickly growing population in an increasingly unaffordable city. In part, this means adding density to our neighbourhoods by giving up space dedicated for vehicles to build public amenities, retail, and housing at both market and affordable rates. 

Of course, one of the most significant barriers to doing so is the scarcity and high cost of land in Toronto. But to tackle this challenge, the City has established an agency called CreateTO (formally Build Toronto) to assess the development potential of Toronto’s ‘surplus’ real estate, including the three commuter parking lots at the Wilson Subway Station. 

At its peak, there were a total of 2,110 parking spots dedicated to commuter parking at Wilson Station. Today that number has shrunk to nearly 1,000. This has left many commuters often lining-up to access parking or even being turned away in frustration by the “lot full” sign. 

In 2016, CreateTO sold the Wilson West Lot (610 parking spots) to a developer who transformed the land into retail space. And in 2017, the Wilson South Lot (541 spots) was sold and turned into a mid-rise condominium. Commuters were assured that the reduction in parking spots would be offset by additional spots at Yorkdale Station and at new stations along the recently extended Yonge-University subway. 

Now, CreateTO has turned its attention to the final remaining parking lot at Wilson Station, the Wilson Main Lot at 50 Wilson Heights Boulevard. The agency sees the redevelopment as an “…opportunity to create a new pedestrian focused complex…[with] an affordable housing component within the development”. This is supported by the City’s ‘Housing Now’ initiative to redevelop multiple city-owned properties into “affordable housing within mixed-income, mixed-use, transit-oriented communities”. 

But the local community is split on the issue. 

On one hand, people accept that Toronto’s streets are clogged with vehicular traffic and that the future of our transit system can’t be based on parking lots, but instead based on connecting people to our transit system in more efficient ways. These people recognize the necessity of transit-oriented development, especially building affordable housing near our subway stations. Supporters also point to data collected by CreateTO which suggest that the parking lot at Wilson Station is not serving local residents, but rather, 70% of spots are being used by commuters from the Greater Toronto Area, places like Woodbridge and Kleinburg.  

On the other hand, people see the redevelopment of the parking lot as yet another attack in the longstanding “war on the car”. And while some, including York Centre Councillor James Pasternak, acknowledge the need to build more affordable housing in Toronto, they believe the selection of a commuter parking lot is “ill-advised”. “It would be far more prudent to build [affordable housing] on [a] site where you are not disrupting hundreds of commuters and creating anxiety in the community,” he said at a public meeting to discuss the proposed development. Furthermore, some community members have expressed concerns that have nothing to do with parking, but rather a lack of a strategic planning for the infrastructure required to accommodate an increase in population, such as local schools and parks. 

Councillor Pasternak has set up a working group for community members to discuss the proposed development at 50 Wilson Heights Blvd. and to address the concerns raised regarding parking capacity and accessibility. The first working group meeting will be held on August 14th at 6:30pm at the 6:30pm-8:30pm at Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am, Sisterhood Hall. 

This is a developing story which I will continue to cover over the coming months.

Plastic is in our food and water: At five grams a week we are eating a credit card every week

The Downsview community has many proud homeowners, with countless manicured green lawns. The neighbourhood’s emerald gardens are a testament to another time’s concept of an oasis. Green, clean and neat, with rows of driveways in between. But even here you find plastic everywhere. Whether its plastic ties, bags, wrappers, bottles or straws. Plastic debris blow in with the wind but dig into any yard and you will find more of it in the soil. 

Most of us have come to accept plastic materials as part of our daily life without recognizing the impact that it has on our environment. It is flowing into our waterways at such speed, that it is changing life in the oceans.  In 30 years, scientists believe there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Today, there is an island of plastic in the Pacific larger than France. 

In Toronto, the problem is of a different nature. The oceans are far away, and Canada has some of the largest sources of drinking water in the world. Except, small plastic particles called microplastics are getting into everything we consume. Whether we drink water from the tap or from a bottle, we are ingesting tens of thousands of small plastic particles each year. A study estimates an average person is consuming 250 grams of plastic every year. That adds up to eating a credit card-size worth of plastic every week (in case you are wondering, tap water has is far cleaner of microplastics than bottled water).

We have been utilizing the blue bin recycling program for about 30 years here in Downsview. However, a number of recent news reports tell us that much of what we toss into the blue bin does not actually get recycled. Because much of the plastic we produce cannot ever be recycled and because of contamination of the materials, most of our plastic ends up in landfills or worse. Only about 10% of all plastic products ever made have been recycled. 

The long-term effects that micro-plastics will have on our health are still unknown, but we do not need a science degree to know the effects cannot be good. Plastic is poisoning our water, our food and our bodies. The only real solution is to stop using as much plastic in our everyday lives. We need to make the effort to switch to more reusable and biodegradable materials and avoid single-use plastics altogether. We need more reusable bags, reusable cups, reusable straws, less packaging in our products and less single use plastics. The recent push to eliminate single-use straws is a good starting place but we cannot stop there.

We are leaving mountains of garbage for the next generation. Let’s clean up our act and leave our planet in a better state than how we found it.