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Photo: Cathy Crowe

My mother Jean always taught me to fight for what is right. She also respected good journalism and interacted frequently with the media during her life. She once joined the picket line of striking media workers in Toronto, even though she lived in Kingston. She read three newspapers a day and wrote regular letters to the Toronto Star and the Kingston Whig Standard, among others.

In the film Street Nurse by Shelley Saywell, there is a scene where my mother reads a letter to the editor she had submitted to a Toronto community newspaper that had negatively commented on my work as a street nurse. The newspaper had also shamefully included my home address in their article.

She signed it: Jean Crowe, Cathy Crowe's mother. She was a protective mother bear, not just to me but to all her kids.

So when Sue-Ann Levy called me a "poverty pimp" in the Toronto Sun, I remembered my mom's teachings. In a Toronto Sun article titled "Homelessness a Growth Industry in Toronto" published January 27, Levy makes an indirect suggestion that I am a "poverty pimp" and that myself and others use "the homeless as props." The article also includes a statement that I created a second career for myself.

A few days later, on January 30, Levy used the same term "poverty pimps" -- although more directly this time: "The poverty pimps who packed the gallery-led by Queen Bee Cathy Crowe...." The same day, Levy tweeted a picture of myself and three others in city council chambers: "What's a council meeting without the usual cast of poverty pimps?"

While I will always support freedom of the press and have repeatedly given Levy a wide berth in her writing, I wrote to the Toronto Sun asking for a retraction. I received no response. In February I wrote to the National NewsMedia Council to lodge an official complaint.

I wrote, "The term pimp suggests the use of fear, force, coercion and abuse and in Ms. Levy's usage of it she suggests I apply those means to people who are homeless. This is demeaning to my reputation as a Registered Nurse, working as a Street Nurse in this city for over 30 years. The repetition of her use of the word in my mind constitutes harassment."

I further clarified my complaint with respect to accuracy ("A factual error is that I am not correctly identified. I am not described as a nurse, street nurse, advocate, activist, or anti-poverty activist or anything remotely related. I am just described as a poverty pimp. In addition, there is no 'second career' that I have created") and opinion ("The term 'poverty pimp' crosses the line for the reasons I've identified. Note, I am not objecting to the Queen Bee comment because I do not see that as crossing the line. Poverty pimp definitely does").

After the National NewsMedia Council launched an investigation into my complaint, the Toronto Sun responded by supporting their columnist's ability to express her views. They offered me a column in the Sun where I could respond. I refused this offer.

The National NewsMedia Council then held a hearing in May, Crowe vs Toronto Sun. The hearing included several members of the council, plus Adrienne Batra, the Toronto Sun publisher. I attended the meeting by phone.

At the hearing, I quoted from The Canadian Nurses' Association Code of Ethics (2017):

"Nurses are sensitive to the inherent power differentials between care providers and persons receiving care. They do not misuse that power to influence decision-making.

They do not abuse their relationship for personal or financial gain and do not enter into personal relationships (romantic, sexual or other) with persons receiving care.

Nurses do not engage in any form of lying, punishment or torture or any form of unusual treatment or action that is inhumane or degrading. They refuse to be complicit in such behaviours."

I added that "my work has always involved engagement with members of the media and I appreciate their independence and opinion, however in this case the word pimp crosses the line and is prejudicial towards my character and reputation as a nurse."

I argued that the media is a powerful tool that shapes public opinion. "Obviously, I am here to defend my reputation but also to ensure fairness and accuracy in the future. I want other nurses, many street nurses whom I mentor, to not be intimidated or to feel they cannot safely conduct themselves with media such as the Toronto Sun."

I then told the story of nurse Anne Ross:

"In 1971, Winnipeg's Mount Carmel clinic's funding was threatened by a vicious politician's attack. Manitoba Cabinet Minister Joe Borowski (who strangely was Minister for Highways, not Health) essentially accused Anne Ross of "pimping" for American abortionists and called the women "tramps" for getting pregnant. In Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, Borowski was quoted: "…teenage girls wouldn't need abortions if they'd start keeping their hot pants on…or maybe we'll do to them what we do to dogs…and have them spayed." Needless to say, this was a big controversy. Ross herself was under merciless and personal attack. Ross held her own. Borowski was forced to resign.

While this was a reaction to public opinion, as opposed to a body such as yours, I think it speaks to the inappropriateness of declaring someone a pimp for simply enacting their profession, in my case as a Registered Nurse."

Finally, I reminded the council that:

"There are simply words that today should be deemed unacceptable. I'm sure you know many of them, 'crazy' for example to describe someone with mental health issues. Over the years I've spent a lot of time with the media explaining that people who are homeless should not be described as 'vagrants,' 'drifters,' or 'bums.' I would argue that the word pimp in this case should be considered not fair comment."

My complaint against the Toronto Sun was upheld by the National NewsMedia Council and can be read in its entirety here.

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues.

Photo: Cathy Crowe

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