Update on SOS Vanier. Where are we after the municipal elections?

(Cliquer ici pour la version originale en français).

The municipal elections are over. A new city council is about to take office. It seems like a good time to take stock of SOS Vanier.  

Indeed, the impact of these elections is major at the strategic level. Let’s not hide it, our campaign will no longer be the same, should not be the same, with this new political mandate.

Here, then, in my opinion, is where we are with regard to all aspects of our popular struggle. Because this fight, whatever one says, is not limited to the issue of homelessness …  

I was able to identify at least ten different angles that deserve to be examined strategically or tactically: 1) the chosen site and the zoning issue; 2) the revitalization of the Montreal Road; 3) the model; 4) the financing of the facility; 5) project implementation; 6) the quality of services; 7) Human rights; 8) Aboriginal rights; 9) La Francophonie; 10) governance and ethics.

For obvious reasons, as the first phase of our struggle is now over, we need to understand and analyze these aspects of our battle.

Here is my analysis of these 10 aspects and, at the end, my general conclusions.

1. The chosen site

This is the heart of the fight led by SOS Vanier. The choice of 333 Montreal Road, this large lot currently occupied by a motel in the middle of a residential area, gave birth to the opposition movement in July 2017 (in addition to the feeling of indignation, of course, which was the ferment of our cause).

The location is at the heart of our campaign since, to settle on Montreal Road, a traditional main street where shelters are not allowed, a zoning exemption was necessary. With the site specific exemption granted by City Council, we  now have to appeal to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT, formerly the OMB).

As we all know, indeed, City Council voted in favor of moving the shelter on Montreal road. The dynamics of the final vote, 16 councillors in favor and 7 against, did not really change with the last elections. At best, on the issue of location, SOS Vanier made a net gain of 2 or 3 votes, far from the number necessary to change the decision.  

With the reelection of the main protagonists in favor and against the project, the dice were definitely cast with respect to the location. Moreover, during the election campaign, Councillor Fleury insisted that he was making a promise to lead the battle at the TAAL and not at the municipal council.  

At the political level, therefore, the Council decision to authorize the move to Vanier on Montreal road was sealed for good. We will not come back to that point, the ball is now in the camp of lawyers.  

With the community having already raised $ 165,000, we must now find another $ 85,000 to reach the goal of $ 250,000, which could even go up. It will be mainly the task of Councillor Fleury and the federal MP and provincial MPP who have supported him to find the missing money. Residents have already given a lot!

2. Montreal Road

The revitalization project is certainly an important angle to explore in our fight against the establishment of the Salvation Army Shelter on Montreal road. After all, it’s the designation of this road as “traditional main street” that we are trying to defend.  

It is also possible, in my opinion, that the shelter’s construction project was born precisely because of the underdevelopment that is affecting Montreal road today. This was easy prey for a developer who did not meet the zoning criteria. Notably, it was Mayor Watson’s initial argument – and of some others like Ginette Gratton – that the shelter would be much better anyway than the motel that is there now.  

In the November 2017 vote, the council wanted to sugarcoat the bitter pill by promising to devote more efforts to the re-development of Montreal road. A banner for all the initiatives has  been created for this purpose: Vision Vanier.  

The revitalization project, which was included in Vision Vanier, and whose goal was very ambitious at the beginning, quickly became what it was always intended to be, an infrastructure project aimed at renewing underground conduits, rationalizing transport routes (as complete street concept) and make some cosmetic changes.  

The re-election of Councillor Fleury ensures the continuity of the revitalization project as it has taken shape so far, particularly with the BIA and VCA contributions, in favor of public transit and cycling. We will see if the councillor is strong enough to make this project and other initiatives of Vision Vanier an opportunity to transform Montreal road into what it should be, a vibrant commercial street offering goods, services and cultural activities to its population.

But let me doubt it …  

You cannot develop a shopping street when you plan at the same time to build a facility whose impact and objectives differ completely. Neither can a neighborhood be developed around a shelter if the revitalization plan does not take into account the impacts of this shelter and the appropriate design, notably for security of pedestrians. This ambiguous or paradoxical “vision” is doomed to failure in the event that the facility is built.  

To develop Montreal road, it will be necessary to wait for a favorable decision by the LPAT with respect to Vanier.   Meanwhile, authorities will redesign the infrastructure of the street without taking into account the possibility that vulnerable citizens could walk there in the future. And they will continue to create the illusion of a transformation that risks being a rather superficial change.

This is an angle that has certainly lost its edge with the result of the elections.

3. The model

From the first weeks of the opposition movement, experts and specialists in social and government policy have highlighted the retrograde and deficient nature of the model proposed by the Salvation Army. The ensuing public debate, including a major Housing First conference in Vanier in September 2017, shed light on this important issue. It also gave legitimacy to the opposition movement, which was then called “nimby” mainly because of the media emphasis on residents’ opposition to the chosen location.

After the municipal elections, the debate on the model remains unresolved. In fact, this is now the most important political issue since the issue related to location has been relegated to a tribunal.  

Discussions at the Community and Protective Services Committee in April 2018 highlighted the failures of the City’s Ten-Year Housing and Homelessness Plan. They allowed municipal officials to report to council members through the tabling of three reports and the adoption of some motions. Councilor Mark Taylor, who was named champion of the cause by Mayor Watson, also presented his report and recommendations. However, nothing specific about the Salvation Army shelter proposal specifically emerged from these hearings.  

At best, the elections put the issue of affordable housing at the forefront, with candidacy from McConville and Doucet and a commitment by the Mayor to provide increased funding for this budget envelope as a result of new federal contributions.  

It is therefore an essential strategic axis that the movement must continue to exploit, in particular through lobbying, both with regard to elected officials in terms of policy direction and administrative officials in terms of implementation.

Whether the City will choose to adopt a rigorous Housing First approach, however, is in my opinion a far cry from lip service. Despite the scientific evidence of its effectiveness and cost-benefit advantages, the Salvation Army’s proposal is firmly rooted in beliefs and practices. We are facing a system that is highly inclined to focus on supply rather than demand.

The influence (almost clandestine) of hospital bonzes who support and intend to benefit from the Salvation Army’s “treatment first” approach, should not be underestimated, as much as support to this approach given by CouncillorTaylor in his report.  

It should not be underestimated either that, in a context of budgetary austerity at the provincial level, the health services will be more and more devolved or relegated to the municipal authorities whose presence in the health sector is justified mainly by their jurisdictions in housing or social services.

We are therefore far from the decoupling of health services from social services in this context …

4. Financing the installation

A subsidiary aspect of the precedent, probably more important if the objective is to stop the proposed facility on Montreal road, is the financing of services offered by the Salvation Army in their new multi-functional facility. We know that the Army plans to invest $ 35 to $ 50 million in capital for the construction of the facility. It is not clear, however, how much public money will be needed to operate this facility. Figures vary between $ 8 and $ 15 million annually depending on the person who speaks.  

Unfortunately, the debate at the municipal council as part of the planning application did not discuss this very specific question of how much the Salvation Army will request governments to operate its new facility. Discussions at the Community and Protective Services Committee in April 2018 did not address this very specific issue regarding a single service provider. (It is quite difficult to know how many a particular service provider receives each year from the City in grants or financial contributions for their shelter or homelessness activities).  

Still, it is strategically a question to dig. Is the city getting enough for its money now? Is it reasonable to consider an annual contribution of up to $ 15 million for a single facility? What is the financial plan of the proposed facility and how does it fit into the overall budget for this field? These are crucial questions that will have to be asked relentlessly.  

Unfortunately, as explained by staff to municipal councillors last April, the authority to implement social service programs and the housing plan has been delegated to public servants. City councilors are primarily responsible for setting policy and guidelines more generally.

In the context of a new municipal council, will this delegation be withdrawn? Probably not.

5. Implementation

Since the implementation of the new project is entrusted to City staff, it is also important to look at the advisory and decision-making mechanisms at City Hall.

It will certainly be difficult to influence officials outside the already established networks at City Hall (advisory committees, working groups, etc.). These networks are very often occupied, not to say controlled, by the service providers themselves, whose vested interests are enormous.  

For example, according to statements by Councillor Fleury, an agreement would have been reached between the City and providers to entrust the Salvation Army with the future mandate to offer all housing services to homeless men. Such a monopoly agreement has never been made public.  

It is therefore important to ask for greater transparency in the decision-making process. To this end, it is imperative that the “Site Plan and Programming Advisory Committee” related to the Salvation Army project, created by City Council motion in November 2017 and implemented in April 2018 during a first site plan meeting becomes more effective, representative and transparent. All the more so if the project were to proceed.

I personally made such a request to the City, through a series of questions aimed at better understanding but also at pointing out the shortcomings of the mandate and the terms of reference of the Advisory Committee. As a result of my inquiries, I forwarded my comments and questions to the Ontario Ombudsman who agreed to receive them and to get in touch with the City on this matter.

We must therefore hope that the intervention of the Ombudsman will provide a more effective, representative and transparent leverage within the mandate of this Committee, and this for the good of the community but also for social services organizations operating in Vanier (Wabano Center, Vanier Community Services Center, etc.).

6. Quality of services

This angle has been neglected since the beginning of the SOS Vanier campaign but somehow remained in the background. It is sometimes surprising to see how service recipients have generally been absent from the debate.  

We know in a rather intuitive and impressionistic way that homeless people generally do not like to reside in the Salvation Army’s current shelter, the Booth Center, for reasons of safety or security. The Salvation Army’s ability to provide appropriate services should be investigated to the extent that its operating costs are funded by the City through formal contracts and that the Salvation Army plans to request increased funding for its new facility.

A recent initiative by a homeless activist, Jane Sharf, seems very interesting to me (“Homeless but not Voiceless”). This is the first time, to my knowledge, that a person opposed to the shelter project is bothering to meet the customers of the current shelter around a coffee, to ask their opinion about the conditions that prevail and the project moving to Vanier, and documenting these meetings.  

Since we have obtained all the Salvation Army contracts, which provide the standards for shelters, the next step would be to report to the City or the Auditor about possible breaches or contraventions of these standards. This is difficult but important work to establish whether The Salvation Army is a partner of choice for the future.   

It will also be necessary to engage the new municipal council in this sensitive debate on the use of public funds effectively, based on results and on compliance. Especially since their current financing will be renewed in 2019!

7. Human rights

The delivery of social services to the homeless is a situation that raises a number of human rights issues. Suffice to think of “right to housing” and the new human rights-based approach recently recognized by the federal government.  

This approach has already been debated with respect to the model, which I mentioned earlier. A protest march was organized last spring as well as a conference at Ottawa University. At the April 2018 hearings on the ten-year plan, a few presentations were made to the Community and Protective Services Committee, including my own on legal aspects of this approach.  

But the fact remains that the human rights approach is generally very poorly understood and difficult to implement. While it remains important and crucial in terms of the legitimacy of our cause, it appears to me to have very uncertain immediate practical repercussions regarding the Salvation Army project.

An angle certainly more interesting, in my opinion, would be the one aimed at clarifying the role of religious charities in the delivery of social services. The secularism of public institutions is the subject of an interesting debate in several Western societies today. Considering the principle of separation between State and religion, one may therefore wonder to what extent it is desirable to entrust to religious organizations the burden of responding to a situation or social crisis that is essentially of state origin. (We fall back on the question of human rights here…).  

On the other hand, is it acceptable for a Christian organization like the Salvation Army to provide emergency shelter services to people of other faiths? It is known, for example, that anchorage services require participation in religious or spiritual services in a chapel built within the facility. Is it acceptable, then, that non-Christian clienteles – sometimes survivors of Christian residential schools – be forced to participate in Salvation Army spiritual anchorage sessions?  

More generally, is it acceptable that the delivery of health services or social services be entrusted to private actors belonging to religious groups? Will it now be necessary to subsidize shelters for Muslims, Jews, Buddhists or atheists in addition to Christian homeless? To ask the question is, it seems to me, to answer it.

This is a sensitive question that must be asked in the context of the Salvation Army project. The starting point would be to review the report on this topic tabled by city officials last April at the Community and Protective Services Committee.

8. / 9. Aboriginal rights and La Francophonie

I address these two issues jointly because they deal with collective rights, as opposed to human rights, which are individual in nature. In addition, these issues were both raised as part of the appeal to the LPAT, mainly because City Council did not consider them in its decision.

Aboriginal rights

The issue of Aboriginal rights involves the fiduciary duty of the state to consult aboriginal nations.  

The Vanier population is known to have a large proportion of people of Aboriginal origin.   We also know that the Wabano Center disagreed with the move of the Salvation Army shelter to Vanier, just steps from their facility.  

The Wabano Center testified at the Planning Committee’s hearings in 2017. But the fact remains that the Planning Committee did not want to consider social impacts during these hearings. In addition, the Wabano Center was not invited to participate in the Site Plan and Programming Advisory Committee implemented by the City of Ottawa last April.  

We now know that aboriginal parties have hired a lawyer to represent them in the legal cause and have contributed funds to that end. It is absolutely necessary to support them in the defense of their rights and wish that the LPAT will hear them.

Francophonie

With respect to La Francophonie and the protection of Vanier’s linguistic minority, there are many reasons to be concerned about this project in our battle. These reasons are the following:

1) The shelter will be located in the heart of the Vanier neighborhood, in a predominantly French-speaking census area and in one of Ottawa’s last Francophone urban enclaves;

2) Vanier neighborhood demographics indicate a decline in the French population since the 2001 municipal merger;

3) The Montreal Road District Secondary Plan refers to Montreal Road as a “focal point of the cultural identity of the former City of Vanier”;

4) The City of Ottawa has made the decision to authorize a hospital-sized facility (larger than Montfort Hospital) in the heart of this French residential neighborhood;

5) The City did not take into account the impacts on the French minority in its decision;

6) The Salvation Army is a unilingual Anglophone institution that welcomes a clientele almost entirely English-speaking;

7) Councillor Bédard’s 2008 report highlighted the negative aspects of shelters on the social fabric of a neighborhood;

8) In the decision made by the City, important French institutions in the sector – Hôpital Montfort, CEPEO, etc. – expressed in writing their opposition to the shelter, in particular on the grounds of preserving the power of attraction of their institution or the French character of Vanier;

9) In response to the decision, the Vanier minority mobilized within the Vanier Community Association by creating a Francophonie Committee;

10) The Lalonde decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in  2001 seems to support the contention that the City of Ottawa’s legislative or administrative acts in this case may have contravened the unwritten constitutional principle of respect and protection of minorities.

With respect to our campaign plan, now, we know that this argument was raised as part of the LPAT appeal. We also have the commitment of one of the parties to the case, Drew Dobson, leader of SOS Vanier, to defend this argument in the legal process.  

With a francophone citizen from Vanier, I took some steps to obtain a legal opinion on this aspect of the appeal case. As legal costs were estimated to be too high for our personal means, we decided to rely on the parties before the LPAT and the SOS Vanier legal defense fund.

At the same time, with the support of my neighbour, I presented a motion to ACFO’s Annual General Meeting to obtain concrete support from Francophone organizations in Ottawa in our efforts to fund the legal case under the SOS Vanier banner. We are still waiting for news from ACFO, but we must already note that La Francophonie in Ottawa is reluctant when it comes to funding SOS Vanier.

In the context of the elections, and despite the support of some of the French organizations mentioned above, it was obvious that the Franco-Ontarian elite in Ottawa did not want to associate their historical cause with SOS Vanier. Councillor Fleury, captive of this elite, refused to be the standard bearer of La Francophonie as part of the SOS Vanier campaign – or, by the way, the Montreal Road revitalization project.  

How to explain this? This is a complex issue, but I suspect the fear of being associated with a local community-based advocacy movement opposed to a project offering services to the poor (in a word: the fear of the “nimby” syndrome). There is also the strategic emphasis on government services in French and Ottawa Bilingue. Even more insidiously, we can suspect the influence of the French suburbs, to the detriment of the urban enclave, in this abstention.  

Unfortunately, this is regrettable and, in my opinion, a historical mistake, but we can certainly consider the French argument, at least on the political (non-legal) level, as being well and truly buried after the elections. That will have been the choice – the betrayal? – of the minority elite itself.

10. Governance and ethics

Finally, one of the strategic angles of SOS Vanier is the one that I personally favored, namely the ethical angle.

This is based, on one hand, on the general feeling of indignation that the surprise submission of the planning application caused in June 2017. On the other hand, it is based on the necessary ethical legitimacy of any decision taken by the public administration and its representatives, elected and not elected. This is a crucial issue at the institutional level, although its “ins and outs” are certainly less precise and striking than those of a legal case.

My framework for action at this level currently includes several separate but convergent initiatives. One concerns an ethics complaint against the Mayor and City staff regarding essentially the impartiality of decision-making. Central to this complaint are premature declarations of support in favor of the applicant, political interventions, lobbying and questions of administrative and procedural fairness.  

In this regard, although the Ombudsman has already provided written reasons for not investigating the conduct of Mayor Watson, I am awaiting a definitive answer to my requests for clarification. The Ombudsman’s office promised follow-up in the coming weeks.

However, in the meantime, the Ombudsman has agreed to intervene with the City to respond to my concerns regarding the shortcomings of the Advisory Committee set up by the officials at the request of City Council. I am also waiting for the result of two requests for access to information on the lobbying activities of the Salvation Army, either with the Mayor or with Councillor Harder.

Another, more recent, initiative is related to a complaint in ethics and improper lobbying aimed at Councillor Fleury. This complaint was filed after the election following the revelations that occurred during the elections. These revelations showed that Councilor Fleury was aware of the purchase of the Concorde Motel by the Salvation Army long before the date he had publicly declared. They also revealed that unregistered lobbying activities had been taking place regarding the shelter since at least 2015, with increased activity in the summer of 2016.

Where will it take us? Well, maybe not very far politically. But all the same, an illegitimate ethical decision can certainly, especially in the context of a new municipal council, lead to a reconsideration of the decision, or recommendations for better governance in the future.  

Our approach also helps to keep the decision-making “corset” in place, making sure to send the message to elected representatives and public servants that the public is concerned about the legitimacy of their actions, monitors their behavior and will not tolerate ethical deviations. It is a powerful message for public figures whose power and influence is based on their institutional decorum.

Conclusion

In summary, with the exception of three, the aspects presented above continue to provide interesting angles of attack for the defense of the Vanier Neighbourhood and the opposition movement to the new Salvation Army facility.  

The three angles that can now be considered moribund, especially following the re-election of mayor and councillors Fleury and Harder, are: 1) the political struggle (not the legal one) for a new decision regarding the chosen location; 2) the fight for the defense of  Montreal Road as a traditional main street and focal point of Vanier’s French cultural and economic identity within the revitalization project, as a counterweight to the shelter; and 3) the political struggle (perhaps even legal in the absence of additional and specific funding) for the protection of Vanier’s linguistic minority in the City of Ottawa’s decision-making process.

At the political level, therefore, the ball will be played on another field and it will now be up to Councillor Fleury, the federal MP and provincial MPP who supported him, to deliver a better outcome, notably by supporting initiatives considered by SOS Vanier as priorities – an organization that will now be organized as a corporate entity.

In my opinion, except of course the case at the LPAT and its underlying aspects (aboriginal and linguistic rights), the most interesting and potentially most compelling angles for the coming struggle are: (III) model of proposed intervention; (IV) financing of the proposed facility; and (VII) human rights.

With regard to implementation (V), quality of services (VI) and governance and ethics (IX), these angles of intervention , in my opinion, are more interesting tactically speaking for the future of this file or governance in general.

I believe the SOS Vanier group, which is currently in the process of being incorporated, will have to focus on strategic discussions as soon as possible. The group will have to conduct them taking into account the reduced interest among citizens after the election period, some disaffection with respect to the cause in Vanier (40% voted for the Mayor’s re-election in Vanier only), and the renewed political mandate entrusted to Councillor Fleury to lead this fight with the support of the federal MP and provincial MPP.

One thing is certain: I think Vanier residents – whose incomes are sometimes modest – have now given enough money for this cause. It’s time for the Ottawa-Vanier affluent people, who chose to support the status quo, to stand up!