“Don’t look at me like I ordered this weather.”
That’s one of the rally organizers under the arches of the legislative building at Queen’s Park where dozens of people, including injured workers, union members and politicians, have taken refuge from the raging thunderstorm that struck Toronto around noon Thursday. The timing of the storm couldn’t be worse. In less than thirty minutes, the Ontario Federation of Labour’s (OFL) Drive to Work caravan, a 3,000-km province-wide tour to draw attention to the recession’s effects on Ontario people, is due to arrive at Queen’s Park, followed by a meeting with representatives of the Ontario government.
For the past 17 days, the Drive to Work caravan has held more than 100 events in more than 50 communities throughout the province, from Kenora in the northwest and Geraldton in the northeast to Cornwall in the southeast, and Windsor in the southwest. I’m standing under the arches talking to OFL Communications officer Dana Boettger who is explaining to me that the idea of a caravan emerged long before the global financial crisis, in response to the mounting job losses and unemployment figures in the manufacturing and forestry sectors over the past 7 years in the northern part of the province.
People suffering in communities across Ontario are feeling isolated; they have no one to listen to them. Governments at all levels don’t seem to care: politicians fly up to a northern town pre-election and talk about something other than jobs or the economy. So the OFL created this tour to allow ordinary people to have their say. Those of us who live in large cities forget that when a big company shuts down in a resource based community or a sole employer town, the entire area is on a death watch: the tax base is eroded, homes become worthless, and pensions go by the wayside. Some stories are difficult: The younger generations have to leave town to find work. Parents, teens and children lose their friends.
Others will absolutely break your heart. Boettger tells me about a little girl at school who polished off a whole plate of fruit meant for the entire class. As it turned out, the girl hadn’t eaten for a week and her parents were too proud to go to a food bank. Massive job cuts can gut entire communities. Suddenly, local hospital, schools and recreation centres close their doors followed closely by retail, restaurants and other businesses. Then people move away and one by one communities slowly disappear.
On June 8, the tour starts from Marathon and Oshawa. Another caravan begins in Geraldon later that week and on June 13 all three come together in Sudbury. RV’s bannered with the DRV2WRK – Good Jobs + Strong Public Services = Healthy Communities slogans are joined along the way with passenger vehicles. Together they visit towns and cities across the province.
Everywhere the tour stops, ordinary people talk about how the economic downturn affects them personally and what it will take to turn things around. Dozens of personal stories are recorded on video and uploaded to YouTube: workers denied severance, neighbours struggling, families leaving communities, fighting hospital closures, people forced to sell their homes.
After the rainstorm tapers off at Queen’s Park, organizers try to salvage what’s left of their rain soaked signs on the front lawn that say “Thank you Drive to Work Caravan. 3,000 km and thousands of messages. So many voices need to be heard” while union members unfurl their flags, waiting for the caravan to roll in. Drive to Work flags are handed out to supporters to welcome the caravan. At 1 pm, the sound of honking horns can be heard as the caravan makes its way up University Avenue and around Queen’s Park Circle.
A few minutes later, supporters cheer and applaud OFL president Wayne Samuelson and three others carrying a banner that says “Don’t let the Sun go down on the forestry industry.” Behind Samuelson is another group chanting “Jobs Now, Jobs Now” as they walk with a banner containing hundreds of messages for the premier from people they’ve met in over 60 communities during their 17 day tour across Ontario.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath thanks all the caravan workers and volunteers for the fabulous job they’ve done to bring the issues to the forefront about what’s happening to wage earners, their families and their communities across Ontario. “It’s unacceptable that as we wind up this march we don’t see the premier here welcoming you and congratulating you on a job well done,” says Horwath.
She tells the crowd that the job that everyone wants “well done” is their own job in their own workplace, bringing home a decent living and a decent future for their families. That’s the message the OFL and others have been sending for the past 17 days, to raise awareness across the province and to bring the point home to Queen’s Park.
Standing on a temporary stage wearing a DRV2WRK t-shirt, flanked by OFL executive vice-president Terry Downey and secretary-treasurer Irene Harris, Samuelson thanks the thousands of people who met with the caravan – sometimes in a park, other times in a Legion hall, a union hall or a church basement. Along the way, caravan workers and volunteers documented the stories of people impacted by the recession. Besides collecting stories though, the caravan has managed to connect the various communities together.
Samuelson and five of his colleagues have a pre-arranged meeting with finance minister Dwight Duncan to share what they’ve heard during the past two and a half weeks. But security tells them that their t-shirts with a DRV2WRK logo represent a “protest” and won’t allow them into the building.
In the meantime, I manage to meet with Bruce Anderson and Lynne Descary-Parker inside one of the RV’s. Descary-Parker, a laid off Vale Inco worker, left her home town of Sudbury on June 7 and drove to Geraldton to join the caravan. She tells me that she took part in the caravan to be the voice for those who’ve given up, don’t have the gas money or don’t have the energy to voice their despair at Queen’s Park. During the tour, when she complemented a 4-year-old girl on the pretty outfit she was wearing, the little girl started to cry. She showed Descary-Parker the hole in her dress and then explained that mummy couldn’t afford to buy her a new one because daddy is out of work.
Another time, Descary-Park had a 280 pound man literally crying on her shoulder because his best friend committed suicide after he lost his job and his home. In some northern towns, most of the houses are either boarded up or for sale. If you’ve got a $10,000 limit on your credit card, you can go to Longlac and buy a house. Longlac used to be a mill town but all three have shut down in the last few years. “That’s appalling,” she says. “And then we come here to Queen’s Park to deliver a message and they won’t even let us through the gate because we’re a protest group, so they claim.”
Anderson was working for North American Palladium before he was laid off last fall, a casualty of the global recession. Working at an action centre in Thunder Bay, he’s watched grown men come in and cry. They’ve had to throw their keys on the kitchen counter and walk away from their homes.
“These people deserve a life,” says Descary-Park. “They are human beings with families, with homes. And they deserve far better than what this government has allowed to happen to them.”