There was an empty chair at the end of the table. It was supposed to be occupied by an intellectually disabled resident of a group home so he could share his story with the media at Thursday’s press conference at Queen’s Park.
“But to be honest about it, they’re too frightened,” said Kimberley Gavan, director of community development at Community Living Ontario. “Once they leave here they go back to that very home and those staff that picketed in 2007 and 2009. And people feel far too vulnerable.”
In 2007 and again in 2009, the developmental services sector was beset with labour strikes. “The reasons why are not important because this story is about the people who got caught in the middle of that dispute,” said Gavan.
When seven agencies went out on strike in 2007, nearly 2,000 residents living in more than 50 group homes in southern Ontario were affected. Two years later, staff set up picket lines again when another agency went out on strike. Anywhere from half a dozen to 60 people picketed in front of homes in communities where people who have an intellectual disability live, learn and work.
“Home is a place where you’re supposed to feel safe, where you’re surrounded by people who keep you safe and love you,” said Gavan. “But now the people who are their role models and help them make decisions in their life are now at war on their front lawn.”
For up to seven or eight weeks, 24 hours a day. Gavan said that police were notified but eventually they stopped responding to calls.
Melissa Abrams, Chair of The Council, a self-advocacy advisory body to Community Living Ontario, alleged that picketers stopped people from leaving their homes and deliberately shined a laser light in windows knowing that this could induce seizures in some residents.
“Picketers put people’s lives at risk by delaying medication being delivered to them,” she said.
“I sat with one gentleman who told me that he slept in his laundry room for 10 days to avoid hearing (the yelling over bullhorns) it,” said Gavan. “Other people said that they were frightened because they didn’t understand the security guards coming to accompany people out of the homes. They thought police were taking people away.”
People (living in the homes) lost jobs, she said. Were held back from going to church. Family were questioned and asked to prove that they had a relationship with the person living in the home.
“The stories go on and on,” said Gavan.
“People also lost their day supports in the community,” added Korey Earle, president of People First of Ontario. “So they weren’t able to participate in everything they signed up for or wanted to participate in.”
They were hostages in their own home, at times having to wait up to 20 minutes to be escorted from their residence through the picket lines.
Earle made it clear that he and his colleagues at Thursday’s press conference believe in the right to strike.
“What we don’t believe in is the picketing in front of people’s homes,” he said. “No one should have to live like this. Having port-a-potties on their front lawn or picketers yelling and screaming on their front lawn at any time of the day or night.”
Although the unions removed some of the pickets, Earle said they will continue to picket in front of group homes during future strikes. In 2011, more than 50 agencies could go out on strike, once again putting residents in the middle of another labour dispute.
“So we’re here today to ask MPP’s to please support Bill 83,” he said.
Sylvia Jones, PC Critic for Community and Social Services and MPP for Dufferin-Caledon, introduced the Protecting Vulnerable People Against Picketing Act (Bill 83) in the Legislature on May 31. On Thursday, the bill passed second reading debate, and has been referred to the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly for public comment.
“This proposed legislation is important to the organizations, friends and families who support individuals with intellectual disabilities across Ontario,” said Jones, in a news release on Thursday. "Most importantly, it is imperative to ensure the safety, dignity and respect that individuals with intellectual disabilities have fought so hard to receive.”
As an advocate for people who are afraid or unable to speak out on this issue, Kimberley Gavan said she saw the harm caused to people during the strikes of 2007 and 2009. “And I too believe that picketing must stop in front of people’s homes,” she said.
And the empty chair at the end of the table is evidence that things still haven’t returned to what they were prior to the strikes.
“That seat was to be filled by somebody today who in the end realized his vulnerability,” said Gavan. “People still don’t feel safe.”
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