Guest Post: Kumsa Baker, Rexdale Rising Campaigns Manager with Toronto Community Benefits Network.
In March, The Toronto Community Benefits Network, a community-labour coalition celebrated its five-year anniversary.
The Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN) is a 107 member – and growing – coalition of community organizations, grassroots groups and social enterprises, unions, construction trades training centres and workforce development agencies. Although the TCBN has been in existence for 5 years, the movement for community benefits started long before in the City’s North-West end, Rexdale.
Rexdale is a diverse neighbourhood and home to many newcomers and immigrants. The neighbourhood also faces stigma stemming from lack of economic and social investment in the community. Media continues to portray the neighbourhood as a hotbed for crime, guns and gangs. This stigma has resulted in what local community members term “postal code discrimination” when attempting to access/enter the labour market.
In 2006, Cordish Entertainment held the first public meeting to introduce Woodbine Live, an entertainment/retail/residential development which they claimed would create thousands of jobs. To ensure real outcomes for residents, a community-labour coalition led by UNITE Here Local 75 and Community Organizing for Responsible Development (CORD) put the developers on notice as to their intentions for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).
Over the next two years, the coalition organized and rallied neighbours, local organizations representatives and faith leaders to demand that if this project is approved, that the developer enter into a community benefits agreement.
CORD hosted community meetings, focus groups and large forums to develop a vision for Rexdale. This included:
- an economic vision which prioritizes local hiring, social hiring, investments in training/skills development, living wages and worker rights protections
- a social vision which included access to affordable child care spaces, a commitment for community health services, recreational/social amenities for youth, adults and seniors
- A green vision that adopted high environmental standards, green spaces and air quality monitoring
With clear demands and targets for a CBA, CORD organized elected officials to support a formal agreement between the developer and community.
In 2011, after the project had stalled due to lack of financial resources, Cordish Entertainment (a Baltimore based developer) announced that they would be abandoning the project. From here, Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) set out to find a new development partner for this project. During this down period, CORD decided to become a member of the new community-labour coalition, the TCBN.
In August 2017, the OLG announced the selection Ontario Gaming GTA LP as the Operator/Developer for the Woodbine Casino and Entertainment expansion.
The TCBN announced the launch of a new campaign for community benefits called Rexdale Rising. This coalition brought together residents (many of who were involved with CORD), labour, community organizations, faith leaders and grassroots groups to formalize and present a community benefits agreement to the new developer.
Again, the coalition organized setting up a steering committee, hosted community forums and went door to door to talk to residents about a formal CBA for this project. TCBN member, ACORN was very involved in leading the resident engagement efforts.
The campaign urged both Ontario Gaming GTA LP and the City of Toronto to support a formal CBA for the approximately $1 Billion casino expansion, 2 hotels, 3,500-seat performance theatre, restaurants and retail development.
Organizing efforts led to support of just under 1,000 signatures from local residents and 35 letters of support from community and labour organizations. The pressure from RexdaleRising led the City to host a community consultation on community benefits where they heard community benefits demands from 150 residents.
RexdaleRising attended both Etobicoke York Community Council (local area councillors) and the City of Toronto Executive Committee to depute and request Councillors support for a formal CBA on the project. Petitions and letters were also presented at this time.
In April 2018, after over ten years of advocacy by Rexdale residents, organizations, and allies across the City, Toronto City Council approved a significant agreement spelling out enforceable benefits for the community from the casino and entertainment expansion at Woodbine.
Many City councilors and the Mayor showed incredible leadership in raising the floor so the community can benefit from:
- Investment of $5 million for the development of a child care centre to support the workers and community in accessing the new jobs
- Community and labour involvement in the oversight and monitoring of the success of those projects, along with more frequent and detailed public reporting to ensure that the targets are met
- Hard targets requiring that 20% of new hires come from the local community and 20% social hiring from across the City, that 50% of the new jobs created will be full time, and that 10% of the apprentices and tradespeople working on construction come from local and diverse communities
- Requirements for a minimum 10% of annual operational procurement will be through local suppliers or diverse suppliers, in order to support local businesses
- Access to spaces for community/cultural/arts events and meetings
This is an unprecedented win for the community and has raised the floor for Community Benefits Agreements across Canada.
The TCBN has centred itself at the forefront of the economic justice movement in the GTA by negotiating Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) into public infrastructure and urban development projects. In so doing, TCBN is addressing the challenges of access to good jobs, local economic development and skills shortages by connecting people from historically disadvantaged communities and equity seeking groups in Toronto – women, newcomers, indigenous and racialized individuals, youth and veterans to opportunities in the trades. TCBN employs a comprehensive approach that includes organizing, innovative policy, research, and communications. We work in direct collaboration with government, labour, industry, foundations and other stakeholders. TCBN has secured community benefits on four large infrastructure projects in Toronto; Eglinton Crosstown LRT, Finch West LRT, Woodbine Casino and West Park Healthcare Centre.