Let me get the confession out of the way. I voted against the Safe Streets Act 15 years ago, as an Opposition MPP for St. Paul’s, in mid-town Toronto. But when the time came that I was Attorney General, I failed to repeal the bill. It was a sin of omission for which I’m responsible and accountable. I was wrong, so now I seek the bill’s repeal, using what I learned in my time as a Cabinet Minister and MPP.
If I’d done my homework back in the day, I would have learned what organizations like the Homeless Hub and Justice for Children and Youth (JUST) have researched exhaustively: that the Safe Streets Act criminalizes poverty and mental illness, homelessness and addiction.
A ticketing offence that targets only the poor, the mentally ill and the homeless is, if nothing else, an offence that has an incurable systemic discrimination problem. If the only people being ticketed for texting while driving were, say, redheaded women, then the Chief of Police would have some explaining to do.
There is no form of profiling, based upon immutable characteristics, that can be justified under our Constitution, but also politically, in Canada at least. Racial profiling is not only contrary to our Charter of Rights, today it’s just politically indefensible for lawmakers and law enforcement. It follows that the Safe Streets Act, 1999 is indefensible, because the only people getting these tickets are indigent, mentally ill and addicted to drugs and alcohol.
We know this to be the case thanks to the excellent research to be found at the Homeless Hub. We know that the Safe Streets Act tickets handed out over the past 15 years have targeted, almost exclusively, homeless, mentally ill, and addicted persons. Put aside the constitutional and legal issues for the moment, and consider whether it is ever defensible to create an offence that, it turns out, only applied to people in poverty and pain.
Nevertheless, back in 1999, the Ontario Government of the day did exactly that. Fifteen years later, we know the effect of the law. It brings in almost zero revenue, 99% of the tickets are unpaid and unpayable. It puts some indigent people in jail, with the rest carrying fine debts that are literally impossible for them to address, if and when they are able to get better, and begin building a life with reliable housing, meaningful relationships, and eventually employment.
But still, some people continue to argue that the Safe Streets Act is necessary to address aggressive panhandling and unwanted squeegeeing on the streets. Put aside the empirical question of whether the complainants are not themselves complicit in allegedly aggressive behaviour; and whether the tickets change the level of aggression one iota. There is no need to enter into a debate about whether the Safe Streets Act is effective or justified. My point is that no provincial offence is ever justifiable where the rich get no tickets, and only the poor get ticketed. Full stop. To argue otherwise is similar to the debate around whether torture is effective in combatting terrorism.
But all that reasoning is not what woke me up to the wretchedness of this rotten bill. It was when I realized, years after I should have, that this law was targeting my friends, and then it was personal. These weren’t friends from law school, Bay Street or from Queen’s Park, but I’d defend them too if they faced systemic discrimination. (They don’t and never will). These were my friends from Sanctuary Toronto a place where people of all walks of life get together in kinship, to share dignity, friendship and a meal with street involved people.
Where once I’d felt estranged from those who live and panhandle on the streets, afraid of the unknown, now I see only friends and neighbours— often in pain, sometimes full of misplaced anger, but always more generous and noble than I can pull off on the best of days. I don’t know if our kinship means much to them, but it means everything to me. The kinship formed with that community changed my life. My perspective changed completely.
As Sanctuary’s Founder and Pastor Greg Paul explained to me: panhandlers need cash like everyone else, but there are no jobs for addicted, homeless, mentally ill people who are often ex-cons. So they panhandle out of necessity. They can sometimes get to a shelter, line up for food, scrounge for some donated clothing, but there’s one service that no government can offer: dignity, kinship, love. That’s where communities like Sanctuary Toronto come in. There are many such communities across this country, thank goodness.
Recently, a friend of mine from Sanctuary told me that he’d strung together enough sobriety to feel better enough to apply for a job. And he’d got it. But he needed to upgrade his drivers license to operate a forklift, and that meant dealing with thousands of dollars of unpaid Safe Streets Act tickets. As someone literally destitute, he obviously didn’t have any money to pay these fines. What a tragedy. The job he so needed and deserved was being denied him solely because of this rotten, rotten bill. Just imagine what that would feel like, particularly if you were trying to recover from a life in pain.
I dashed off an opinion editorial for the Globe & Mail, and contacted Professor Stephen Gaetz of the Homeless Hub. He could have reamed me out for not repealing the bill when I had the chance, but instead embraced the cause that he’d been fighting for since the bill’s passage in 1999. We agreed to launch a coalition, and the rest is hopefully history in the making.
Thanks to heroic social justice advocates, volunteers and professionals, the Coalition to Repeal the Ontario Safe Streets Act is now gaining momentum, and we urge everyone to join our efforts to convince the Ontario Government, and all Queen’s Park legislators, to repeal the Safe Streets Act, 1999. The law is indefensible, inhumane and unCanadian. Ontario has been ticketing people in pain and poverty for 15 years. It’s never too late to be what you might have been, said George Eliot, and it’s never too late to repeal a rotten bill.